“Heresy” after a decade
Ten years ago I wrote a paper for a small graduate school conference that in retrospect marked a real turning point in my life. The Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print was a bit of a personal manifesto, an attempt to bring my literary critical skills (my day job) to bear on the new media of hypertext (what I obsessed about most of the rest of the time). But, in truth, it was actually an extended rant to my English grad school professors about the importance of hypertext and digital text. Great scholarship “Heresy” wasn’t — and oh my how saturated it is in gradschool-speak neologisms! — but it is still the most linked-to part of any site I have ever had. It has even been anthologized and translated.
But ten years is a long time when you’re writing about new media. Let’s see how it holds up.
Just as bibliographers regard 1501 as the year that printed books emerged from the “cradle” of their post-Gutenberg nativity, the first year of the coming millennium will likely serve as a convenient demarcation point for the end of the beginning of electronic textuality.
True enough. By 2001 blogging was in full swing, putting to rest any notion that the written word and electronic media were somehow incompatible. Though literary hyperext was not a mainstream phenomenon in 2001 (and is not now) I think it is fair to say that by 2001 most would agree that electronic textuality had matured to the point where the distinction between it and the printed word was largely academic — a sure sign of cultural assimilation.
Though this new textuality promises to level hierarchical distribution of and access to even the most esoteric data, we should not make the mistake of equating the leveling with a reduction in the standards of professional scholarship. In fact, in such an intraloquial and interactive scenario, shoddy work quickly draws attention to itself, succumbing to the necessarily higher standard of excellence in a web of virtual collaborators and competitors.
Mostly true. Wikipedia is a great example of this kind of collaborative weeding-out of shoddiness. A web of casual editors does expose deficiencies in rigor and quality faster than in other media. But the very anonymity, publishing reach, and fungibility of electronic text also makes fraud a hell of a lot easier.
To the mind weaned on the indelibility of the printed word, electronic text seems unstable, less epistemologically graspable. I submit that this mostly unconscious perception of instability generates anxiety in the reader, anxiety of the type usually written off to the “it just feels different” category.
I think I missed on this one. Perhaps it was true in 1995, but I’m now of the opinion (largely because of Matt’s work) that the immateriality/instability was an illusion. The “just feels different” aspect, I suspect, was mostly a function of screen resolution.
Not a bad little paper, after all. Overwrought to be sure, but a personal milestone and one that I will always look to as the springboard that launched me into the arc that I am still on.