McGann and “The Rationale of Hypertext”

In his essay, “The Rationale of Hypertext”, Jerome McGann makes the case for de-centered, hypertext editions of literary works. According to McGann, who is a textual scholar, current critical editions (editions that offer authoritative versions of texts and include critical commentary or variants) are limited by the book form: “The logical structures of the ‘critical edition’ function at the same level as the material being analyzed. As a result, the full power of the logical structures is checked and constrained by being compelled to operate in bookish format” (Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web 56). Basically, books establish formal limits to the study of literature. Because the book determines how the scholar engages with the text, it constrains his analysis. Throughout the essay, McGann offers several examples of nontraditional texts that cannot be adequately represented in book form—poems set to music, based off pictures/paintings, or relying on the specifics of inscription/medium. In the example of Emily Dickinson, who often created her poems to fit the scraps of paper available, McGann explains that it would be difficult to combine the “facsimiles” (exact copies, or images of text) with appropriate scaffolding and criticism in a book form. The result would be too vast and unwieldy. McGann concludes that hypertext editions offer an opportunity for presenting texts in a more flexible way. He makes the comparison between hypertext editions and libraries (which are collections of texts, rather than a single text) and the internet (where information is connected through a network). He argues for presenting texts and all their variants, components, and critical materials in non-centralized form, so “when one goes to read a poetical work, no documentary state of the work is privileged over the others. All options are presented for the reader’s choice” (Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web  73). This dramatically breaks open the traditional text to new ways of reading, and therefore, of analysis.

I have one major question about McGann’s proposal. It’s obvious from his essay that his main audience consists of other textual scholars or literary scholars in general. I’m wondering how he might present such a proposal to students of literature, or people in other disciplines? Re-reading this text (I first read it several years ago, when I was much more idealistic and less familiar with teaching), I was struck by the pedagogical implications, or lack thereof. I’m not sure how students would interact with these “non-centered” texts. How would undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience handling the book, or experience with literature in the first place, have the confidence to confront and navigate through the hypertext edition? How could we scaffold the experience in a way that doesn’t constrain them? To spur your thinking, I’m going to link to the Rossetti Archive which is McGann’s project. I’m also going to link to one of my favorite online editions, on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Both of these resources are non-centralized, and it’s up to the user to determine her engagement with them. How might today’s students (who are largely familiar with hypertext, but less so with literature) interact with these resources?

The Cyborg Today

In her essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, Donna Haraway embraces the dissolution of boundaries between human and machine in the technological age as grounds for creating a new politics. Haraway offers the image of the cyborg as an “ironic myth” that inspires new ways of approaching and reformulating social relations. Like other emerging third-wave feminists of the time, Haraway rejects identity politics that actually reify the oppressive dualities of race, class, and gender by imposing identities. According to Haraway, every attempt at definition by necessity fixes and delimits the object. She says, for example, “Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute… There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women” (155). The cyborg, by contrast, embodies the increasing interconnections between human and machines and does away with the old dualisms, especially of natural/artificial and mind/body. In this imaginary, according to Haraway, the confusion of such categories and dissolution of identity creates an opportunity for new coalitions. Haraway therefore proposes that we base a politics on affinity, where people can construct their own groups by choice. At the time, this argument critiqued common feminist articulations of technology as a destructive force. Here (and this is where the irony comes in), Haraway presents the cyborg as a figure that, in its monstrosity, creates a potential for new politics that searches for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (150).

After finishing this essay, my first reaction was to marvel at Haraway’s vision and hope for technology’s potential to unite human beings, especially since this vision was articulated well before the popularization of the internet as a means of connectivity and communication. Of course, Haraway is careful to point out and explain at length the “intensification of insecurity and cultural impoverishment, with common failure of subsistence networks for the most vulnerable” that results from the socio-economic situation created by the digital revolution (172). Here, she emphasizes the the exploitation of women of color in supplying the labor. But she remains optimistic, asserting that “there are grounds for hope in the emerging bases for new kinds of unity across race, gender, and class” (173).

Taking up Haraway’s call, I’m going to draw attention to a digital project at the GC that engages the dissolution of binaries. I this this is a particularly useful provocation for our class, since we are now beginning to conceptualize our own projects, and we could benefit from taking Haraway’s ideas as inspiration for examining other student projects. How might we look at projects as engaging or enacting a politics related to the cyborg myth? After searching the various projects on the New Media Lab website, I was particularly interested in Nora Goldman’s work on gender expression in social media. Goldman, a Linguistics PhD student and New Media Fellow, scrapes twitter for language patterns in her project, “Language and Gender in the Online Feminist Movement”. In her introduction, Goldman points out that “When the Internet first became publicly available, some theorized that it would serve as an equalizing medium of communication. If we have no visual or audio cues when communicating, the thinking went, all of our prejudices and insecurities related to our social identity become irrelevant, allowing for a truly egalitarian linguistic exchange.” However, her project questions evaluates whether twitter exhibits the “same stereotypical gender patterns as any other mode of communication.” Here, Goldman might call to mind Haraway’s assertion that “cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication” (176). We don’t have access to Goldman’s results, but we might still comment on the potential for technology (such as social media) to create the space for unity through coalition. Given your own social media experience and Goldman’s hypothesis, where can we recognize this unity or harness the potential for coalition? Perhaps in the hashtag? (I’m only half-joking)