Hypertext Criticism: introduction to a special issue

Susana P. Tosca
Oxford Brookes University, UK
Email: sptosca@brookes.ac.uk
A version of this editorial is available in Spanish

The Journal of Digital Information is proud to present its first issue on Hypertext Criticism, an important interdisciplinary theme that brings together researchers from the humanities and computing fields in what has long been one of the liveliest communities within the digital world. But what is Hypertext Criticism?

The term is quite open and covers various approaches to hypertext from what could generally be called the humanities. From a computer scientist's point of view, hypertext could be considered a way of organizing information through programs that support different kinds of structure (it is possible to go beyond the linearity of a book) and are able to integrate different languages (written word, images, audio, video). Computer scientists working in the hypertext field usually worry about implementing different kinds of links, creating software that lets authors work efficiently with relationships, etc. Hypertext critics work with the software and/or computer languages that support hypertextual structures and think about how using it can affect the ways we present or recover information as authors and readers, and even the way we think about information. An important number of hypertext critics have concentrated on how hypertext challenges our classical assumptions about the text as object of study, and how this is connected to the literary discussions about the philosophical status of discourse and language. Of course, here "text" means more than just publishing or even literature, and hypertext criticism also deals with other aspects such as the educational, social or even psychological implications of the new form.

The field seems to be mature enough ten years after such seminal works as Landow's Hypertext and Bolter's Writing Space were published, making quite a great academic stir and inspiring a legion of imitators in all languages. Their work served both to convince humanities academics that the computer was a serious object of study and not an enemy, as well as to place hypertext at the top of the evolutionary textual chain in the constant human struggle to improve our ways of communication. At the same time, hypertext criticism has established itself as the permanent "other half" of the ACM Hypertext conferences, attracting humanities scholars to what would otherwise be a mainly "technical" gathering. The two sides of the hypertextual community remain quite distinctly separate despite a few attempts at getting people to mix and some remarkable personal exceptions.

Yet there haven"t been many new things under the hypertext criticism sun in the last few years, and we can still read the same arguments agreeing with or discussing Landow, Bolter, Moulthrop or Bernstein in papers dated some months ago. Indeed as Bernstein asked in his Hypertext'99 keynote: "Where are the hypertexts?". Whether we attribute this stagnation to the impossibly heavy weight placed upon the new form by the expectations of those who saw it as the embodiment of all post-structuralist theories or to the fact that the general public doesn't read or care about hypertext, the truth is that there is an ever-growing feeling that hypertext is not so interesting anymore, that the digital action is somewhere else, for example in multimedia for the Web or computer games, and hypertext critics are slowly drifting towards these and other related fields.

I think that hypertext is not dead. Many things haven't yet been thoroughly researched and examined, and I am certain that there are new, exciting possibilities to be discovered, both from the computing and the criticism sides. This is what this special issue is about: bringing some fresh air and a new perspective to Hypertext Criticism.

We are fortunate to have four brilliant young authors contribute to this issue that we really believe is special due to its innovative content and form. Two papers look at hypertext from two unusual points of view: linguistics and cinematic semiotics, discovering new insights on how we understand hypertext and how links really work. Two papers are studies of specific hypertexts that haven't been examined before, offering fresh, sharp readings in a field dominated by repeated assumptions about a few isolated works. Two of the papers are hypertexts themselves, and their navigation is bound to test the limits of the form as well as to challenge our readers' assumptions.

Martin Engebretsen's paper applies a cognitive approach to linguistics (pragmatics) to study the way that we make sense of hypertextual structures. The emphasis on the possibilities of hypertext to innovate Web journalism is well illustrated through clear examples that bring the hybrid genre of "hypernews" into new light. A thought-provoking essay about a somewhat neglected question, it will be useful for those interested in knowing more about interpretation and coherence.

The paper by Adrian Miles is also related to the difficult question of coherence in hypertext. Miles has built an impressive hypertext that takes its own theoretical statements into practise. Following on from his previous work on cinematic semiotics, this paper uses the work of Christian Metz and other classic cinema theorists to outline a new approach to hypertextual narrative that goes beyond the classic "print-literature-only" paradigm. Issues of time and space are tackled more thoroughly than has been done before, and the result is exceptional.

Anja Rau's compelling essay discovers the hidden charms of some interesting hyperfictions, using them as examples of why any reader could find the form interesting. She refuses to enter the postmodern theoretical discussion about hypertext and instead concentrates on how hyperfiction provides a mirror for our contemporary worries and how this could appeal to a wider readership than the happy few that constitute the hypereading community now. The article is witty and very enjoyable to read.

Finally, Jill Walker's innovatively written hypertext pays homage to the text it studies by taking on a poetic, evocative style. Visual poetry and the materiality of the medium are important questions in this fine review that shows us a whole new way to engage with literary texts as critics. An absolute must-read.

I am grateful to all four authors, who complied to our format requirements and did all necessary re-workings without complaining, as well as to the necessarily anonymous peer reviewers who evaluated the submitted articles. This issue is a team effort.

I hope I have awakened enough curiosity so that you plunge into this issue and appreciate the remarkable four works that we've had the pleasure of editing for you. Enjoy your trip!