The Resistance of Reading: Romantic Hypertexts and Pedagogy [Record]

  • David S. Miall

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  • David S. Miall
    University of Alberta

Although the question of what it might mean to read literature is a long way from being settled, we are now confronted with a further problem: how we are to understand literary reading that occurs in a hypertext environment. The problem will, of course, be of growing importance as more literary materials become available in this form and as education turns increasingly to electronic tools. What difference does it make to deliver literary texts electronically instead of in print? If we wish to facilitate a particular kind of reading amongst our students, are there specific design principles to which we should be alert in hypertext? What role can or should hypertext play in the literature classroom? These questions have hardly been examined yet, despite some extensive and influential studies of hypertext, from George Landow's notable experiment with Intermedia to Stuart Moulthrop's radical claims for the hypertext medium. These accounts, which now constitute a certain speculative genre of theoretical writing about hypertext, have been criticized for proposing ill-informed views of the mind or a misleading liberationist ethic. My principal concern, however, is that the nature of literary reading is misrepresented in this writing. As a result, the learning processes appropriate to the literature classroom are left obscure. In this essay I argue for an alternative view of literary hypertext that will facilitate student learning. I take as my main example Romanticism: The CD-ROM, a hypertext for Romantic writing which I designed, and a project by three students based in part on texts and graphics from this hypertext. Before describing the hypertext, however, I will briefly offer my own critical assessment of current hypertext theory, then put forward a view of the reading process through examination of a text by Wordsworth. The arrival of hypertext is said to realize in practical terms the claim of postmodern theories of literature. This argument is encapsulated in the subtitle of George Landow's well-known book, Hypertext, which announces the convergence of critical theory with hypertext. In the emergent cultural order thus produced, the older world of the printed book has become subject to a number of questionable interpretations. For example, according to Jay David Bolter "there is a solemnity at the center of printed literature . . . because of the immutability of the printed page". Similarly, Moulthrop and Kaplan insist that the printed book "creates a bias toward hegemony and monologue". Since hypertext is said to oppose this "strategy of containment," it threatens "the orderly and autonomously meaningful text" with its "unvoiced assumptions". Hypertext thus promises to set us free both from the hierarchical and confining textuality of the book and a publishing and teaching apparatus invested in promoting a narrow literary canon. This claim rests on several premises: an associationist model of the mind, the proposal that all text is intertextual and hence permeable, and an emphasis on the topographical properties of hypertext. That each of these claims is contestable suggests that despite the work of influential commentators such as Bolter or Landow, hypertext is still at a pre-paradigmatic stage: that is, we have no agreed theoretical framework in which to locate it, and no settled body of knowledge on either the nature of hypertext or its appropriate applications. Perhaps one of the strongest claims made for hypertext has been that it models the mind in ways that are impossible for print technology. In fact, the image of the mind put forward by some writers is reminiscent of the now largely discredited information processing model of early cognitive science: the possibility that "haunts" us, says Hillis Miller in a recent paper on …