Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hypertext II: How Electronic Texts Will Change Us

It’s been about a month now since Jeffery Hodges of Gypsy Scholar asked me about hypertext and medieval studies at a conference, and, since it was drawing close to lunch, I dodged the question and promised to answer it later. In order to get closer to answering the question, I posted an historical model to use in thinking about the development of textual technologies.

Though much has been made of the ways in with electronic literacy more closely unites visual images with text, I think the more important element of electronic literacy is hypertext.

Let’s begin with manuscript culture (my personal favorite). Because all texts had to be copied by hand, it placed a great emphasis on lack of error. The importance of error-free copying was even greater, perhaps, when copying important religious texts – after all, if you are copying the Bible and get sloppy with what HE said, you don’t want Him getting mad at you.*

No matter how accurately the words were copied, however, there would be no way that the pages would look the same. To see how this works, try transcribing the first paragraph of this blog post to paper. Then, write it again on another piece of paper. Even without error, you’ll see that the two look very different. On one, maybe the first line ends with “Hodges,” while on another, it might end in “of” or “Gypsy.” In manuscript culture, then, sameness was not a virtue; it was not even really an option. Instead, it was more important to be free of error.

Besides its low error rate, good manuscripts are marked by the way they look. Today we equate lined paper with unimportant writing such as high school essays, but in medieval manuscript culture, better manuscripts were ruled (often by creasing the lines across the page with a dry stylus or pricking them with an awl). Today, books with pictures are considered children’s books, but illuminated manuscripts, with ornate initial letters, written in beautiful hand along carefully-lined, high-quality parchment – Þæt wæs god boc. For this reason, each codex is its own unique work of art. Even codices on mundane topics would each have been unique.

Print culture, then, eliminates the emphasis on being error free, but it also eliminates the emphasis on original art. It was important for print texts to avoid error (just ask the printer of the “Wicked Bible”), but once an error was introduced, it would be replicated in each of the copies. Uniformity became the primary virtue of print culture; every copy of a book had to look as similar as possible to every other copy of that book. In fact, print culture gave rise to “editions,” that is, the same book organized in a slightly different way. As a student, my professors would often insist that we all have the same edition of a book so that they could refer to page numbers. The very idea of an edition seems silly in manuscript culture. Now the seriousness of a book was marked, in part, by its lack of illustration, in sharp contrast to medieval texts.

Hypertext emphasizes neither. On the one hand, hypertext provides the same uniformity as print text (until I update the Wordhoard, every time you hit the reload button, it will look the same), but it also allows for a close connection between image and text. With hypertext, though, the important element is intertextuality – the connections between one hypertext and other texts. In manuscript culture this could be achieved through interlinear glosses, and in print culture this could be achieved through footnoted references, but neither matches electronic culture for emphasis on non-linear reading. I would argue, in fact, that readers’ intolerance for long texts (such as long blog posts) is not, as is so often suggested, a function of short attention spans, but rather that it is the result of expectations that the hypertext should be referring away from itself more often. Someone who refuses to read more than, say 500 words on a particular page might read 5000 words in a sitting by clicking through various hypertext links.

The word “hypertext” isn’t a particularly good description of what it is. I would think something like “intertext” would be more descriptive, because of the way that hypertext promotes and redefines intertextuality. Think of all the other possible things we could ask of our computer texts – we could ask that when we click on them, the definition of the word pops up, or it is pronounced, or it is translated, or statistics on the word are provided (such as how many times it is used in a document, etc.). Though there are sites and applications that do these things, those are considered above-and-beyond the usual role of hypertext. The dominant feature of the hypertext is that intertextual link.

We had ways to provide intertextuality in manuscript and print culture, too. The dominant way in manuscript culture was the gloss or marginalia, in which someone would comment on or translate the main text. In print culture, we had the footnote or the parenthetical comment. Still, neither offered the same potential toward intertextuality because of the practical limits of the technologies.

Not surprisingly, then, as readers have become more attuned to intertextuality through hypertext, they have begun to demand more intertextuality out of print culture. Perhaps this is anecdotal, but over my career I’ve seen an increase in the number of discursive footnotes in student papers – and I find myself more likely to use them too. Textbooks are more often accompanied by CDs or websites with images or sound clips, in order that the print text not stand alone. I’m convinced that the success of the “For Dummies” series of books isn’t the presentation of basic material, but rather the non-linear presentation of the subject matter.

So, in answer to the question “how with hypertext affect medieval studies,” all we can do is speculate. It may be that future scholars are more interested in interlinear glosses and their presentation. We may also see a revival of source-text studies, particularly when the source is extant and can be linked to the primary text. We may see the death of footnotes; but then again, we may see an explosion of discursive footnotes. We may find that the new “trot” or “pony” students consult is a hypertext version that links to a translation of the text.

The difficulty of speculating is that it often relies on straight-line thinking that tends to obscure that new technologies change us. Sometimes I wonder if projects that aim at being definitive electronic editions of texts (I’m thinking of such big projects as the Electronic Beowulf Project) might not make all the wrong assumptions about what scholars in the near future will be like. As I pointed out earlier, the idea of the “edition” didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the manuscript context (with the exception of different translations), so perhaps the idea of the “definitive edition” might disappear as well. Who will need, or even want, a definitive edition, when a scholar can call up a dozen different editions with ease? Perhaps instead we should be working on definitive annotated bibliographies of electronic texts. A Google search on the phrase “definitive bibliography” today yields only about 16,900 hits, whereas a search on “definitive edition” yields 628,000. In twenty years, that ratio may be reversed.

I invite commentators to speculate on this issue of how electronic texts will change medievalists as well as medieval studies.

*By the way, a lot of scorn has been thrown at “lazy and indolent” scribes by medievalists. Have you ever tried to transcribe a manuscript? It’s HARD. Whenever I transcribe a long manuscript, my hand is curled up like a claw and I have an error rate that would no doubt get me driven out of any self-respecting scriptorium. So let’s just give those scribes a little credit, OK?


  1. Scott, I've blogged on your views.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. I'm with you on the scribes; a bit like the "Gregory the Great was a superstitious moron (unlike that dishy angst ridden Saint Augustine)" school - thankyou Peter Brown!

    As for the rest of the post:

    Is hypertext/intertext being an "exteriorisation" of a process that used to take place mostly in the mind of the individual reader? (Professor Hodges discusses mentions a similar theme...I think)

    As such is it a democratic force?

    Does it "grey" a culture rather than making it diverse as we seem to have expected it to do?

    Does it reduce the advantage certain types of intellects have enjoyed in the written culture age?

    Did the switch from oral to written culture bring about a shift in the composition of the intellectual class?

    Will the "hypertextualisation"* of society" have a similar effect; and threaten the university as we know it!

    By which I mean; the university may be headed toward redundancy, because it's premier source of power (the library?) has been greatly diminished.

    As such one of its functions; the production of elites, is also threatened, because it is based on cultural capital rather than "actual" knowledge; i.e. knowledge protected from other groups.

    The university obviously retains a tremendous residual power, "cultural capital", but is this also diminishing?

    Are these the kind of questions I want to be asking just three years after I got my degree!?

    Is this comment too long!?

    * What? This is a wordhoard!

  3. Not that Peter Brown would hold such views on Gregory, as the me of five minutes ago seems to suggest.

    He just made Augustine sexy.