Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB

SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 4 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Hypertext And California: The Unconscious of Technology

by Edward Parkinson

George P. Landow's Hypertext: the Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology and Laurence A. Rickels' The Case of California are part of the "Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society" series from the Johns Hopkins University Press. Landow discusses the practical and theoretical roles of computer software in criticism, and Rickels analyzes "California" as an "empirical site and a symbolic configuration." Landow's Hypertext is designed to be user-friendly, while Rickel's California is a dizzying theoretical roller-coaster ride, yet both works are concerned with technology and media and how information is conveyed. These writers' styles are radically different, each appealing to those scholars who share his specific critical -- and technological -- interest, but a comparison of the two will help clarify their respective positions.

Hypertext is a useful book for understanding the effect technology is having on scholarship.

As Lauren Seiler (1990) documents in "The Future of the Scholarly Journal," the world in which academics research and teach is rapidly changing because of the increased demand for publications and the spiralling costs of printing, as well as the increased flexibility of computer hardware and software. Landow defines "hypertext" as "a term coined by Theodore H. Nelson in the 1960s" to refer to:

a form of electronic text, a radically new information technology, and a mode of publication... Hypertext, as the term will be used in the following pages, denotes text composed of blocks of text -- what Barthes terms a lexia -- and the electronic links that join them. (4)

Hypertext is a generic name for software developed to link text in a variety of formats. One of the most straightforward examples of how this "mode of publication" works is Landow's description of the "In Memoriam Web." One can read Tennyson's poem (which can be reduced to a portion of the computer screen), from beginning to end in a linear fashion, or the reader can juxtapose various sections beside one another to analyze their relationships. Hypertext also allows the reader to reference quickly a variety of related critical texts which are organized according to pre-defined criteria. The "overview" is a

graphic document that serves as a directory; it organizes linked materials under generalized headings, such as 'Cultural Context: Victorianism' or 'Images and Motifs.' The In Memory and imagery overview, a second visual index document, overflies the right border of the overview for the entire poem... (and)the Web View shows titled icons representing all documents connected electronically to the active document" (39).

The malleability of the electronic medium and the enormous possibilities for information gathering, linking, and appending lead Landow to make a number of optimistic assertions about the scholarly possibilities of hypertext. The book's six chapter titles clearly demonstrate its main areas of concern: "Hypertext and Critical Theory," "Reconfiguring the Text," "Reconfiguring the Author," "Reconfiguring Narrative," "Reconfiguring Literary Narrative," and "The Politics of Hypertext: Who Controls the Text?"

One of the most important aspects of this book is Landow's extended discussion of how hypertext "reconfigures" the manner in which we read, write, and criticize.

Hypertext linking, reader control, and variation not only militate against the modes of argumentation to which we have become accustomed but have other, far more general effects, one of which is to add what may be seen as a kind of randomness to the reader's text. Another is that the writer, as we shall see, loses certain basic controls over his text, particularly over its edges and borders. Yet a third is that the text appears to fragment, to atomize, into constituent elements (into lexias or blocks of text), and these reading units take on a life of their own as they become more self-contained, because they become less dependent on what comes before and after in a linear succession. (52)

Landow argues that print is fixed, while hypertext is "dynamic" and "always permits correction, updating, and similar modification." Traditionally, scholarly editions of works have been concerned with unifying the text through editorial selection and emendation. Because hypertext is capable of linking all variations, "we must abandon the notion of a unitary text and replace it with conceptions of a dispersed text" so that any work will appear as "a dispersed field of variants and not as a falsely unitary entity" (56).

The text is open to varieties of manipulation and its "beginning" is no longer announced by the page number (there are no pages), or other traditional markers like a preface or introduction since the reader may have approached it through any number of related lexia. In the sub-section, "Argumentation, Organization, and Rhetoric," we are told that hypertext's plethora of openings and access points has implications for the way in which one conducts critical arguments which have traditionally unfolded linearly. Whereas in printed articles quotations are used to bolster an argument and are always within the context of the larger work, hypertext allows each quote to be opened as a text itself and to lead off in a number of directions. Landow asks the question: "what happens when a work offers many 'main' entrances -- in fact, offers as many entrances as there are linked passages by means of which one can arrive at the lexia...?"(58) and answers it with a quotation from Edward Said's Beginnings: Intention and Method: "We see that the beginning is the first point (in time, space, or action) of an accomplishment or process that has duration and meaning. The beginning, then, is the first step in the intentional production of meaning"(Beginnings: 5, Hypertext:58). The questions Landow asks are important, yet it is one of the book's chief failures that it never reveals how criticism will be "new and improved" in this radically different environment. Landow concludes this section evasively by writing that hypertext's "essential novelty makes difficult defining and describing it in older terms, since they derive from another educational and informational technology and have hidden assumptions inappropriate to hypertext"(59). Although the word "hypertext" is repeated countless times throughout the book, the closest Landow comes to defining its critical force is through the puzzling phrase "essential novelty." Furthermore, even though Landow eschews "defining and describing ... (hypertext) in older terms," he repeatedly calls on Derrida, Said, Barthes, Ong and many other theorists -- all presumably "trapped" using older terms -- to describe what it does.

In chapter three, "Reconfiguring the Author," Landow explains that the collaborative nature of much work in hypertext makes the concept of authorship "much more problematic than in the world of print." While the collaborative aspect is partially analogous to the world of film, where many individuals work on various aspects of production, hypertext collaboration is primarily intellectual and distinctions are harder to make. Drawing from his experience working on The Dickens Web at Brown University, Landow explains that this project

exemplifies the kinds of collaborative authorship characteristic of hypertext. The web, which contains 245 documents and almost 680 links, takes the form of "a collection of materials about Charles Dickens, his novel Great Expectations, and many related subjects, such as Victorian history, public health issues, and religion." Creating The Dickens Web involved dozens of "authors" and almost that many kinds of collaboration. (96)

Landow returns to the problem collaboration and the hypertext environment create for author's legal rights in chapter six, in the section "Access to the Text and the Author's Right (Copyright)." A difficulty with hypertext is that everyone has access to the text on the system, and anyone can potentially copy it and/or modify it. "Traditional conceptions of literary property derive importantly from ideas of original creation, and these derive in turn from the existence of multiple copies of a printed text that is both fixed and unique" (197). Obviously, there needs to be much work done on balancing access to the systems with the rights of authors (whatever this notion will come to mean). One "author" will contribute an essay on the Industrial Revolution, another will provide a paragraph on some minor image, and a third will link these together with software; all three individuals provide intellectual labour, but of quite different sorts.

Chapter five, "Reconfiguring Literary Education," offers some practical examples of how hypertext can improve teaching: "Since the essence of hypertext lies in its making connections, it provides an efficient means of accustoming students to make connections among materials they encounter"(128). Landow provides examples of how work at Brown University encouraged collaborative learning among students and teachers, and the multimedia aspects of Hypertext allow the teacher to include photographs and maps, as well as historical and interdisciplinary articles on the subject being studied. Students can also learn from articles, paragraphs, footnotes and other addendum written by their peers in previous courses.

Hypertext is best where it discusses the increasing use of technology and how it will affect the way we teach and work with texts. The book's weakness is its discussions of the "convergence of contemporary critical theory." One of its main fallacies is that it places issues of power and textuality into a simple opposition where hypertext represents plurality of discourses and freedom, while old-fashioned "print" sources represent a dominant monotextuality which creates marginalization. The notion that access to more texts automatically gives us more freedom is problematic. For example, when Landow writes that an exercise he created for his students encouraged them "to take a more active, collaborative approach to learning" and created "more materials ... to read," one is reminded of the complaints of students -- and professors -- that there is already too much to read. Similarly, Landow repeatedly treats power and ideology as products of the medium's form. In comparing footnotes in printed texts with hypertext annotation, Landow claims that in the latter the "centre is always a transient, decenterable virtual centre-one created... only by one's act of reading that particular text -- it never tyrannizes other aspects of the network in the way a printed text does"(66). To claim that the main text tyrannizes its footnotes because they are smaller and subsidiary is a grossly simplified reading of the relationship between form and content. Yet Landow relies on language like this to create an image of textuality where hypertext is seen as emancipating.

Another difficulty the book has is its casual and unproblematic reading of how theory "converges" with technology. Landow never provides a thorough interpretation of the critics he quotes; instead, he summons them to demonstrate a specific point and then dismisses them to move onto another paragraph. He claims, for instance, that

By giving an additional means of expression to (students) shy or hesitant about speaking up in a group, hypertext, electronic conferencing, and other similar media shift the balance of exchange from speaking to writing, thus addressing Derrida's calls to avoid phonocentrism in that eccentric, unexpected, very literal manner that, as we have seen before characterizes such hypertext instantiations of theory. (129)

No reference is given for Derrida's statement because it doesn't exist. ln fact, a close reading of Derrida will show that "phono" or "logo" centrisms are always already unavoidable, and are not overcome by having people write to each other over electronic mail. The problem with Landow's arguments is that they do take theory extremely literally and even though he recognizes it, he keeps (literally) repeating the same misreadings (for instance, on page 53 he states that "hypertext creates an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment of a principle that had seemed particularly abstract and difficult when read from the vantage point of print").

Despite the allusion to critical theory in its subtitle, Hypertext is most successful on a practical level in demonstrating how technology can work within the academy; there are often too many overly optimistic claims made without enough attention to their theoretical implications. In contrast, Laurence A. Rickels' The Case of California never leaves the theoretical stratosphere, presenting a fast moving montage of intellectual sound bites. Within the first few pages we are bounced back and forth across the Atlantic, from Freud and the Frankfurt School, to California and Kodak, and then back to Kafka. Rickels' forays into popular culture are both invigorating and obscure, and their success depends on the reader's background and the extent to which one may wish to track down the many references Rickels leaves scattered in his wake. The first chapter ("Fast Forward") gives us an indication of the direction and the speed of the book's trajectory:

The case of California excavates the places "California" occupies as concept or placeholder within Freudian psychoanalysis and within such extensions of the Freudian system as Frankfurt School thought. East Coast psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. While California is, in fact, named within the psychoanalytic corpus, much of its force goes without saying. To excavate the full range of California one must apply pressure to a series of adjacent (and often equally marginally or missing) concepts covering group or adolescent psychology, female sexuality, the haunting of music (in particular) and of the mass media at large, the charge of child abuse, and a certain convergence of religious and hysterical conversion. (2)

Rickels' language is often both literal and metaphoric, so that an apparently straightforward comment like "one must apply pressure to a series of adjacent ... concepts" will later turn into a full-fledged discussion of earthquakes and their relation to the Californian unconscious, ultimately linking the 1989 San Francisco earthquake with the fall of the Berlin wall. It is an understatement when Rickels admits -- continuing his quake imagery -- "Such acupressure cannot but follow and release roller-coaster-like shifts of register"(2).

As the previous quotation indicates, California excavates many theoretical sites, and it does so in a quick-cutting, parallel-montage fashion, frequently referring back to 1912 as a touchstone to our Freudian (post) modernity. The book's sixty-five chapters are all short with punningly cryptic titles such as, "The Disappearance of Childhood in a Rerun," "They got up on the Wrong Side of the Dead," "Eating Bambi," and "Good Mourning America." Sometimes several chapters will be used to examine a subject, such as "religious and hysterical conversion," from different historical and theoretical angles. One of the main themes in California is the effect of Freud's theories in defining modernity and Rickels repeatedly refers to the importance of Freud's "second system," quoting published papers, correspondence to Fliess, and letters from Sabina Spielrein to Jung. Rickels states that Spielrein's Destruction as the Cause of Becoming (1912) introduced "to psychoanalysis ... the concept of a death and destruction drive which was, it turned out -- when Freud turned it in almost a decade later -- the ticket to the second system"(125). Rickels' extended discussion of Spielrein, including his take on the Freud/Jung relationship demonstrates one of the book's strengths ("The poltergeist session Jung put on for Freud to demonstrate his maternally charged "psychic-battery" power put Freud out, who fainted twice dead away. Freud identified (with) this occult power surge as proof of Jung's death wish against him"(127). Rickels' depth of scholarship enables him to assemble a diverse collection of references and private discussions, many of them as yet untranslated from the German. California presents an intriguing "back door" history of psychoanalysis and the twentieth century.

Another important theme is the connection between psychic phenomena and the newly emerging forms of media. Freud and his contemporaries were defining the psychic apparatus at the same time film and radio were achieving a mass audience, a conjunction that has important theoretical implications. Rickels calls the resulting technologizing of the body the "endopsychic sensurround" and explains it in his typically overdetermined prose:

Media technology, which gives currency to the tubular experiences of the delusional psychotic, supplies analogue connections with the psychic apparatus which it, at the same time, puts through. From The Psychopathology of Everyday Life to the Schreber and Ratman case studies, this point of convergence goes by the name "endopsychic perception," which Freud first gave within the context of "psychomythology."

Rickels then quotes Freud from a "Letter to Fliess dated December 12, 1897":

The dim inner perception of one's own psychic apparatus stimulates thought illusions, which of course are projected onto the outside and, characteristically, into the future and the beyond. Immortality, retribution, the entire beyond are all reflections of our psychic inside.

California builds on this theory of projection in many far-ranging discussions of "mediatechnologized culture." Walt Disney is the archetypal "father" of postmodern California, with Mickey Mouse as his premier icon:

According to Benjamin, spectator identification with the camera or projector -- apparatus to apparatus -- has subsituted the exhibition values of distracted testing for the cult values of distracted testing. The popularity of Mickey Mouse refers to an inside-out alliance with the machine; the stereo-eared caricature was, after all, modeled after the projector framed by two reels of film. But the cult and occult values of melancholic absorption nevertheless return (Benjamin refers to the "retrenchment" of aura) even within the Disney projection booth: according to Disney, Mickey Mouse reanimated his own childhood. ("Mickey Mouse Club"66).

This quotation demonstrates Rickels' characteristic multiple "shifts of register." Mickey Mouse is examined within the context of a debate between Adorno and Benjamin begun two chapters earlier in "The Uncanned" -- a play on Freud's essay "The Uncanny," background or "canned"music, and possibly a reference to containers of film which are sometimes called "film cans." But in addition to being a subject of a Frankfurt School argument over aesthetics, Rickels analyses Walt, showing how Mickey Mouse re-projects Disney's own childhood; the technology, therefore, projects itself into culture and then plays us back to ourselves. Mickey Mouse is the apparatus, and the apparatus is us. Throughout California, constant references to the reversibility of psychic and technological processes trace a dizzying complex of relationships between psychoanalysis, theory, popular culture and media.

Although The Case of California addresses a myriad of issues and institutions, its overall direction is from Germany to California, and its strongest sections re-write aspects of America in new and intriguing ways. Rickels writes a great deal about death, haunting and mourning (his earlier book was titled, Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts) Freud himself associates mourning with projection and illusion when he describes how the "work of mourning" involves a withdrawing of all libidinal attachments to the "loved object" which no longer exists:

This ... arouses understandable opposition ... (which) can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. (1984:253)

Of course this "hallucinatory wishful psychosis" is a prerequisite for mediums and spiritualists, the subject of California's second chapter ("Let the Children Kodak"). Rickels exploits the notion of the prolongation of mourning and the metaphor of the psychic apparatus as projection system (or of all projection systems merely reprojecting our own psyches), but always with America in mind. An example of the fascinating analysis this sometimes engenders is his discussion of the American Civil War, which, due to its "military and media-technical innovation" served as a "preview of the twentieth century." During the Civil War the corpses "piling up at the front" were embalmed

to keep them from decomposing during the train trip back home for proper burial. The trip (and the telecommunications which always parallel even while, beginning with the telegraph, they also exceed transport) extended the reach of mummification. Thus to this day in Forest Lawn every corpse is embalmed -- "made friendly" -- within the context of an entire scene in suspended animation which delivers the hardened survivors a parting shot or "memory picture."(78)

As Philippe Aries explains, the process of embalming was "abandoned in nineteenth-century Europe" but in 1900 "appeared in California" and "has today become a very widespread method of preparing the dead, a practice almost unknown in Europe and characteristic of the American way of death." According to Rickels, the Civil War thus provided "new modes of disposal of the dead (and thus new modes of haunting)." The physical distances present in North America have always presented problems with communication. In his book Communication as Culture, James Carey builds on some of Harold Innis' ideas as he discusses how the European colonizers had to relay on elaborate systems of communication in order to control the space; the first major innovation was the telegraph and, as Rickels points out, it paralleled the railway. These were followed by the wide dissemination of newspapers and other print media, and then radio and television. In this sense, the history of North America can be seen as an elaborate communications project, and The Case of California supplements this history with the Freudian unconscious.

The Case of California's greatest strength is the diversity of its references, and its offbeat "take" on aspects of culture. But its rapid montage strategy, cutting from one scene to another, also creates weaknesses. Rickels' theoretical discourse is heavily ironic, as indicated in the chapter titles, and it is frequently difficult to find his own position among the many sources he quotes. He also seldom explains or pursues his arguments in any detail, so the reader is often left to search for the implications. For instance, there is the important issue of how Marxist critical theory fits into California's agenda, and Rickels partially addresses this in his "TV Fuhrer" chapter where he writes, "The question of television is the rerun of the debates between a Freudian focus on ideologies of the superego and a Marxian adherence to socioeconomic developments"(101).Rickels paraphrases Raymond Williams who condemns "the Freudian consumerist perspective ... as ideological (indeed, idealist)" because,

(Freud) schedules the broadcasts of the psychic apparatus prior to the time zone of capitalism's social effects. But when Williams reminds us that it "is especially a characteristic of the communications systems that all were foreseen -- not in utopian but in technical ways -- before the crucial components of the developed systems had been discovered and refined," he unwittingly slides psychoanalytic re-reading (which alone can theorize this constitutive delay in the invention of techno-media) into the first place he had reserved for social context in the contest with the psychic apparatus. (102)

Rickels claims that Williams's historical "foresight" must have a psychoanalytic basis But the question of whether the "constitutive delay" between the technical "foreseeing" and its material manifestation can only be explained by Freudian "ideologies of the superego" is not adequately theorized; certainly material production also contains its own delays and sets of constrictions And even if psychoanalysis is inextricably bound to the television apparatus, this would not relieve any theory of the responsibility to account for a Marxist analysis, nor does it refute the accusation of Freudian essentialism But Rickels does not pursue the argument; instead, he dismisses Williams (and Marx) and returns to Freud, claiming that "the media technical apparatus is, irreducibly, the psychic inside" (103).

The discussion of the basis of television's "technical apparatus" is not the only place where California glosses over the implications of its own arguments. Rickels also claims television occupies a privileged place within the Freudian system. Because of how television

recycles its contents ... (and) the way one sees oneself being seen or finds oneself in situation that might as well have been programmed ... TV's constant pull into a self-reflexive interior that is at once its topological surface realizes as "liveness" or "timelessness" the self-conscious paradox which the novel endlessly talked about from its origin on and which film would get around only to document. (111-112)

But the examples given, "The Jack Benny Program" and "The Burns and Allen Show," are both comedies, a particularly self-reflexive genre, and were performed live. Rickels does not discuss the historical and sociological evolution of the sitcom (for example, Marc 1989), or other genres which are far less self-reflexive.

Finally, the discursive mapping of California's topography is not always clear and consistent. Many of its statements about "reproductive" media, mourning, and haunting could apply to many other places in America besides California. Rickels tends to stamp theoretical events as "Californian" even if they have only a remote connection with that state. The Night of the Living Dead is discussed in connection with mass murder: "Zombies do not completely devour their objects but always only in part, leaving the rest to reanimate along the lines they model of undeath and unmourning" (242). But this movie is set 200 miles away from Pittsburgh and the Midwest is surely as theoretically distant from California as is topographically possible.

Despite its tendency to over-generalize geography and shift its theoretical registers too quickly, The Case of California provides a provocative reading of modernity, postmodernity, and mass culture. And while Hypertext lacks theoretical rigor, it is a useful primer on the implications of technologies with which many of us will soon be working.

References

Aries, P. (1974). "Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present" (P.M. Ranum, Trans.). The Johns Hopkins Symposia in Comparative History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, S. (1984). "Mourning and melancholia" (1917)(1915)) A. Richards (Ed.) in J. Strachey (Gen.Ed.) On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis (pp.245-268). The Pelican Freud Library, 2. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Landow, G.P. (1992). Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marc, D. (1989). Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Media and Popular Culture: A Series of Critical Books. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Rickels, L.A. (1991). The Case of California. Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Romero, G.A.(Director). (1968). Night of the Living Dead (Film) (J.Russo & G.A. Romero, Screenplay). Image 10 Productions.

Said, E.W. (1975). Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic.

Seiler, L.H. (1990, Spring). "The future of the scholarly journal." The Modern Language Journal, 74(1), 1-8.

Edward Parkinson is a Doctoral candidate in English at McMaster University. His dissertation is on the rhetoric and ecriture of the earliest "Canadian" exploration literature and fiction. He has published "Coming Through the Spider's Web: Ondaatje's Murderous Metaphors" in Signature: A Journal of Theory and Canadian Literature, No.5.


Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives