Week 4 Monday Study-Group Presentation


Does digital writing need a new kind of theory? (James and Erin)

Right, we’re about to cover a lot of academic history/politics in a short space of time , so prepare yourselves…

Broadly speaking, the major debates within English departments in the last three decades can be subsumed under two ‘wars’:


The ‘culture wars’ were fought between theory and criticism. The theory side was responsible for many of the ideas we studied on Approaches to Criticism – Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, queer theory etc. – inspired by successive waves of post-war continental philosophy. The point of this was to politicise the study of literature, revealing the ideological nature of texts and deconstructing the class/racial/gender/sexual bias within them. The criticism side were unconvinced that this politicisation had anything to add to literary studies and could confuse proper analysis – worse, theory was seen as the latent delusions of 1968, a group of middle-aged men and women re-living their hippy days.


The ‘science wars’ were the other front the theorists were fighting. A major part of theory, since the inter-war Frankfurt School, has been a critique of the Enlightenment and the positivist practices central to it. (Very briefly, positivism has been attacked for failing to appreciate the way in which empirical study is filtered through ideology and discourse, and even blamed for 20th Century totalitarianism.) The scientists here were generally condescending of ill-informed literary scholars invading their territory with unfounded critiques.

The digital humanities complicate these binaries. Given that the field is so new, is writing on electronic texts counted as criticism or theory? Depending on the way you look at it, DH represents either a humanisation of the sciences or the implanting of scientific methodologies into humanities departments. Academic science still generally operates under the positivist paradigm that has been torn to shreds in humanities departments in the last few decades. So what happens to theory now? Is there room for cooperation between opposing sides?

George Landow – application of post-modernism

Landow adopts a Derridean approach to reading digital texts, arguing that the hypertext has existed for hundreds of years. He sees both scholarly texts and ‘high literature’ as emphasizing “intertextuality in a way that page bound text in books cannot” (55); for example, scholarly texts directly reference and allude to each other, their meaning largely comes from their specific place within the critical conversation.

It’s important to tackle exactly what constitutes a ‘hypertext.’ Various definitions place importance on a computer/screen being used to display links that allow the consumer to immediately access the referenced material. It is certainly possible that Landow sees the printed page as a digital screen in some cases; as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, digitisation began long before the birth of the computer. If we trace the etymology of the word, Landow’s stance makes more sense in a Derridean perspective. ‘Hyper’ means over or above, suggesting that the content within a hypertext is part of an overarching text. By definition then, a hypertext is intertextual, and the Derridean idea that literature is open to an infinite play of relationships is a natural next step when it comes to analysing a hypertext. In a way, analysing texts from an intertextual perspective releases the text from the limits of genre and form.

Landow notes a shift in the way an intertextual text is read; the initial triad of author/work/tradition is replaced by text/discourse/culture. A hypertext is in some ways removed from its author; the fluidity of a hypertext can only exist if it is taken out of its assigned place in the traditional canon and opened up to more culturally free discourses. The hierarchical relationship of writer/reader is removed, the reader becomes paramount.

The internet places the reader as the creator of their narrative. There is no set reading path online; various authors of various (potentially) unrelated texts all operate within the same text. Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia (a text being constituted of multiple voices) in the novel is certainly applicable in this instance. However, the internet narrative differs in at least one specific way. Landow asserts that “non-participatory third parties are not represented in any way” (18) differs from heterogloassia in the novel. To be involved in the internet narrative, one must be an author, a vocal creator. In the novel, absence is an equal form of presence.

Landow pretty successfully explains the importance of post-modernist though to the analysing of digital hypertexts. If anything, Derrida’s work seemed to predict the more direct move to intertextuality.

Landow- Another perspective

Landow’s adoption and exploration of Derrida, Bahktin and Foucault focuses mainly on the move away from centralised narrative and towards intertextuality. The post-modernist shift from the text in isolation to an over-arching web of meaning and significance certainly lends itself to the reading of hypertexts. While I am persuaded by this approach, I feel that it limits this intertextuality to the first layer of digital texts; to the words on the screen and those it echoes. In his discussion of Deleuze and Guattari’s work 1000 Plateaus and the short section on multi-vocality, I feel that Landow more adequately describes the relationship between critical theory and the hypertext, particularly the modern, digital hypertext.

First of all, I disagree that Landow argues that to be involved in the internet narrative, one must be an author, a vocal creator. He states that a digital hypertext “…does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice”[56]; in his discussion of Bakhtin he goes further than that. In contrast to Derrida who “illuminates hypertextuality from the vantage point of the ‘bite'”[56], Bakhtin visualises hypertextuality as a living multivocal text. He writes about a multivocal text that “is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness[…] but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other'[18]”[56].

This, I feel, more adequately describes the nature of a hypertext as we know it. Beyond the voice of the author and their contextual background, the readers voice and the voice of the continually forming narrative, the combined voices of code and engineer are added, more influentially than the printer of an analogue text or the man who made the paper. Here, Landow really connects pre-existing critical theory to the new issues of analysis in the Digital Humanities. I just wish that he could have explored this further.

Another aspect of Landow’s argument that I feel is more applicable to hypertextuality is his exploration of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s 1,000 Plateaus and their discussion of Rhizomes, Plateaus and nomadic thought. They criticise the positivist western tendency for relating “expressions and actions to exterior or transcendent ends (22)”[59] and highlight the need to evaluate texts on the basis of their intrinsic value. They define a ‘plateau’ as a “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end (21-22)”[59] within a network structure that they compare to a brain.  Deleuze and Guattari visualise a map that is constantly changing, decentering and modifiable. Landow argues that this image of a Rhizome mirrors the structure of the World Wide Web. He even criticises this idea for going beyond the current limits of the hypertext, stating that it can only “serve as an ideal for hypertext”[62].

While Landow then goes on to discuss the multi-faceted use of the word “Network” in concerns to critical theory and certainly discusses this aspect of a hypertext, I feel that Deleuze and Guattari’s perhaps over-ambitious imagining of a text as existing in and part of a network is a more applicable and useful framework for reading digital texts. It more fully explains the decentralised unit of a text that is both isolated and significant independently and yet is connected not only laterally with other texts but between levels of computing as well, like in a brain.

Overall, I am persuaded by George Landow’s argument and feel that he connects post-modernist critical theory to the new application of digital and print hyper-texts well. However, I think his heavy focus on Derridian theory prevents him from fully realising the differences between reading an analogue and a digital text, particularly the potential for the depth of reading that reaches beyond the screen to a wider network of coding and creators.




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