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in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet


Marcel Cornis-Pope


The process of reading thus entails a progressive growth of insight of the reader into the text as something other than himself, and into himself as one who is transformed by his encounter with the text.
SAMUEL WEBER, “Caught in the Act of Reading” (185)


The particular importance of network textuality-that is, textuality written, stored, and read on a computer network appears when technology transforms readers into reader-authors or “wreaders,” because any contribution, any change in the web created by one reader, quickly becomes available to other readers. The ability to write within a particular web in turn transforms comments from private notes, such as one takes in margins of one’s own copy of a text, into public statements that, especially within educational settings, have powerfully democratizing effects.
GEORGE P. LANDOW, Hyper/Text/Theory (14)

1. A Change of Paradigms: From Text Hermeneutics to Critical Reformulation

Contemporary critical theories have challenged the traditional plot of interpretation whose “worry” and “torment,” as Henry James would say, has been to unveil an “interesting and remunerative [authorial} secret, imperfect as it is” (The Complete Notebooks 138). Loosely allied under a common critique of the “quest-for-meaning paradigm,” these theories encourage readers to intervene actively in the process of meaning-making, through complex operations of intersubjective negotiation (reader response), rhetorical questioning (deconstruction), thematic reformulation (feminism, new historicism), and cross-cultural translation (postcolonial/multicultural criticism). Critical reading in this perspective is no longer an ancillary activity, passively receiving the “imprint” of the text, but-in Wolfgang Iser’ well-known formulation-”a dynamic process of recreation” (The Reading Process” 279) which allows the reader to formulate “alien” thoughts and perspectives but also to question existing perspectives and norms (The Act of Reading 147).

In conjunction with these theoretical insights, the new hypertext and networked communication technologies developed over the past ten to fifteen years have allowed us to interact with the text more closely, highlighting its associative and dissociative impulses and enriching its structures with layers of annotations, linked intertexts, and “winding paths” of circulatimg signifiers. Electronically-assisted textual analysis can result in “perceptual and conceptual breakthroughs” (Travis 9), replacing the linear logic of reading and writing with the creative “logic of patterning”: “The writer and the reader do not discover or recognize a preexisting pattern; rather, they make patterns possible” (Travis 9). Hypertextual criticism stimulates interactive authorship, transforming “readers into reader-authors or ‘wreaders,’ because any contribution, any change in the web created by one reader, quickly becomes available to other readers” (Landow 14). On a more general level, electronic and global networking technologies have mediated a quiet revolution in the humanities, introducing new forms of scholarly production and consumption and challenging the traditional epistemological and methodological standards of literary studies. A “new paradigm for textual analysis” (Kaufman 1) has been made available, with powerful text-based search engines, multiple layers of indexing, and multi-media contextualizations. While quantitative methods of analysis continue to prevail in most computer-assisted analyses of texts, there are significant opportunities for developing content-analytic techniques that enhance rather than reduce the differential play of a text, re-structuring text and reader.

The two competing paradigms of criticismCone hermeneutic, text-centered, the other transactive, reformulativeCseem at first glance separated by a profound disagreement. One position holds that “there is a meaning in a text, ‘put in’ by a writer, which has to be ‘fished out’ by the reader/hearer /critic/analyst in order for the interpretive process to take place” (Birch 21). The opposite position proposes two radically revised focuses, on how texts articulate, rather than what they mean; and on interpretation as a construction of meaning, a socially-grounded practice of cultural exchange. And yet, each perspective has its significance in the broader critical dynamic, acting as a facilitator and corrector for the other. Recent critical pedagogy has managed to integrate aspects of both, allowing us to move beyond the traditional opposition between an “objectivist,” text-based, and a “subjectivist,” interactive concept of signification. Readers are invited to explore the relationship between text, culture, author and reader, making their interpretations more responsive to the conflicting cultural experiences brought into contact. They are also urged to intervene actively in the process of meaning making, “reconfiguring” the world of the text from alternative points of view. Textual interpretation becomes an act of “rewriting” whose task it is to foreground the text’s own “rewriting or structuration of a prior historical or ideological subtext” (Jameson 35).

In my own theoretical work (see especially Hermeneutic Desire and Critical Rewriting, chs. 1, 6-8), I have recommended a re-creative model of literary interpretation based on strategies of rereading/rewriting. This approach, I have argued, can benefit students in several ways: a) freeing them from the “quest-for-meaning” paradigm (or mere text consumption) and channeling their interpretive abilities into more active modes of critical analysis and construction; b) enabling students to examine and correct their own reading habits and assumptions; c) making readers more aware of the naturalized conventions that participate in their construction of meaning, and of their potential for renewal. Reading and writing become inseparable in this perspective, part of a critical dialectic that both interprets and reperforms the text.

2. An Open-Ended Critical Pedagogy: Reading, Rereading, Rewriting

The act of reading, as defined by Wolfgang Iser, is a process of “becoming conscious”: “The constitution of meaning not only implies the creation of a totality emerging from interacting textual perspectives [. . .] but also, through formulating this totality, it enables us to formulate ourselves and thus discover an inner world of which we had hitherto not been conscious” (The Act of Reading 58). Likewise for Paul Ricoeur self-reflexive reading determines a successful “appropriation” of the text by an audience. In reading reflexively, the reader both actualizes the text, giving it significance, and constitutes herself as a reading subject. The interpretation of a particular text is thus “completed in the self-interpretation of a subject who henceforth understands himself better, who understands himself differently, or who even begins to understand himself” (194-5).

In most theoretical models of critical reading, the transition from a naturalized, early response, to a self-conscious critical interpretation requires a stage of rereading. First reading, in Michael Riffaterre’s account, is sequential, superficial, and mimetic. Only a retroactive, reflexive reading can produce “significance” by identifying and reconfiguring the various matrices of the text (81 et passim). A second reading will contribute to a significant restructuring and deepening of vision: both in a hermeneutic sense (as Iser explains in Prospecting [10], any “additional information will affect and condition the meaning projection, so that now the gaps between the different segments as well as the spectrum of their possible connections can be applied in a different, or perhaps more intense, way@); and in a rhetorical sense, each critical rereading involving complex strategies of interpretation/ articulation and a higher degree of self-consciousness. If properly performed, rereading can enrich and pluralize interpretation, establishing a more responsible, collaborative relation with the text. As Roland Barthes (15-16) put it succinctly, rereading “alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere).”

The activities of rereading described by Barthes, Iser, Riffaterre, Ricoeur, or more recently by Thomas Leitch and Matei Calinescu, refocus the reader’s attention on the text’s discursive ideology usually missed in first reading. In re-reading we are “thrown into language, into its flow and surprises,” compelled “to recognize that [they] are part of that flow, of that ‘writing’” (Kaufer and Waller 83). Ideally, the act of critical reading should unfold along an uninterrupted “double dialectic,” with an active, transformative rereading already implicated in first reading. This, as Barthes has suggested (16), would mean reading a text as if it had already been read, its rhetorical strategies foregrounded, its hermeneutic code converted into more complex cultural codes that engage the reader in a new production of meaning. Rereading, in this perspective, must necessarily lead to (re)writing, that is to a self-conscious critical performance that will negotiate the text=s experiential and cultural propositions in relation to those of the reader.

A literary pedagogy grounded in activities of rereading/rewriting can convert a naturalized first reading into a creative critical production. But while striving to achieve awareness of the authorial and readerly perspectives brought into contact, and of their broader sociocultural significance, this type of pedagogy should also maintain a certain tension/cooperation between a primarily experiential, linear first reading, and a recursive-analytic rereading. The practice of criticism I am about to describe takes advantage of these diverging interests, making readers more aware of their choices in each phase of their critical process.

3. Hypertextual Rereading and Rewriting Strategies in Undergraduate Literature Classes

My exemplifications come from a recently introduced “gateway” English Studies course developed at my home university by a group of English faculty led by Marcel Cornis-Pope, Ann Woodlief, and William Claude Griffin (for further information, see Woodlief and Cornis-Pope). The purpose of this upper level undergraduate course, taught relatively early in the major curriculum, is to train students to move from a linear uncritical reading of a text to a multilevel rereading which takes into account the text’s complexities and relationships with author, culture and reader. This course lends itself not only to new critical approaches, but also to advanced computer technologies such as networked communication and hypertextual writing. Reading literature critically is a complex activity that requires noticing, relating, and interrogating, all of which entail careful rereadings of various levels of the text. Hypertext technology encourages students to perform these interrelated operations in a nonlinear field, bridging reading with writing, and response with interpretation. Their interpretation can thus share the advantages of multilinear organization, open-endedness, greater inclusion of nontextual information, and interactive authorship.

Students meet twice a week in a LAN-networked computer lab to read, write, and converse mostly electronically, achieving a level of interaction that cannot be reproduced in a traditional classroom. Our tool for navigating the world of “hypertrails” is a Window-based hypertexting program called GUIDE, distributed by InfoAccess Inc. This program supports both reading and writing in hypertext, giving students a sense of the open-ended, configurational nature of textuality. Our tool for electronic interaction is W. W. Norton’s CONNECT program (in Window version or on line) that allows the literature class to function as an interpretive community, exchanging interpretations that are individually persuasive and collectively aware of the larger conventions at work.

The electronic technologies enable students read in a multisequential and exploratory fashion, produce “hypertextual” criticism (annotating, cross-referencing, and linking texts), and communicate among themselves throughout the reading and writing process. The teacher interacts with his students not as an “authoritative interpreter” but rather as a facilitator who can deliver useful information and respond as one member of this community of readers. The thematic structure of this course follows two “natural” progressions that are gradually “denaturalized”: a progression of texts, from those we “naturalize” more easily such as narrative and visual images, to those which elicit more complex processing, such as poetry and drama; and one of criticism, moving from naturalized first readings, to reflexive rereading, critical analysis and self-analysis. By segmenting the critical process into discrete steps, students are made aware of their choices and helped, through carefully designed reading and writing protocols, to readjust their interpretive approaches after each stage.

A. First Reading Responses

As part of an ongoing process of socialization that affects texts and readers alike, we are trained to react in more or less similar ways to literary texts during first reading. In spite of our individual or group differences, we read in ways that have acquired a certain regularity and public sanction. The reading process relies heavily on sequential and holistic procedures, on “naturalization” (Jonathan Culler), “consistency-building” (Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading 122-30), “selective attention” (Louis Rosenblatt). We read for closure and coherence, singling out helpful clues and eliminating problematic ones, and we are disappointed when a text resists synthesis. My procedure during this early stage of interpretation is to enhance the students’ self-consciousness about reading by assigning texts that challenge their interests; also to slow down and disrupt the linear progress of first reading through analytic questionnaires and interpretive tasks. Students are asked to take notes during their first reading on an electronic “Notepad” launched as a half writing window from within the literary text or the syllabus. The types of questions students are invited to consider are designed to foreground points of tension both within the text, and between the text and the interpretation we impose on it. The first reading questionnaires tune students to details, gaps, rhetorical strategies, and language “clues,” moving them beyond a naturalized first reading.

In the latter part of the course, when students have mastered the authoring mode of GUIDE, they are required to annotate the text directly, embedding definitions, comments and questions in Anote buttons.@ This hypertexting technique provides ample opportunity for commenting (practically every word can be associated with an annotation, becoming a becoming a “yielding word”), but GUIDE also allows the clustering of annotations around particular key words, or a reading of all class annotations together to assess the density of comment that a particular passage has received. I urge students to annotate in a way that invites audience participation, asking thought-provoking questions and suggesting explorative tasks rather than providing answers. The electronic annotation of the text is followed by an electronic discussion in CONNECT, in which students fine-tune and discuss their first reading responses. The first phase of our critical work also involves shorter writing tasks, exploring the interplay between the text’s and the reader’s cultural “repertoires” (which, as described by McCormick, Waller, and Flower [16-27] in the auxiliary textbook used in this class, include views, themes, ideological positions); as well as the “fit” between the text’s and the reader=s “literary repertoires” (which include awareness of genre features, rhetorical strategies, conventions and innovations). One of the best discussions in CONNECT concerned the revionistic use of traditional genre features in Angela Carter=s “The Werewolf” and Robert Coover=s “The Gingerbread House.”

B. Hypertextual Rereadings

A more systematic exploration of these cultural and rhetorical issues can only be achieved in rereading. One way to make rereading more effective is to organize it around specific questions that call for a comparison between first and second reading. Through short questionnaires, students are directed to articulate their new discoveries and responses in rereading, and to ponder some of the oversights/misreadings they have perpetrated during first reading. They are also asked to evaluate how successfully they have attended to details, how closely they have identified with a particular character or narrative perspective, and whether their position changed subsequently.

Hypertextual technology is very helpful in this regard, enabling students to move from a linear first reading to a multisequential exploration of a text. It literally slows down reading, allowing students to take advantage of the feedback that results from associations and cross-references. Students are presented with a hypertext version of the literary work prepared by previous classes, which includes thematic and lexical annotations, reference links to other literary and historical texts, and internal “trails” that connect images, phrases or themes, offering alternative reading trajectories through the work. For example, the hypertext of T. S. Eliot=s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” contains interrogative annotations, external links to Eliot’s cultural references, and a number of internal “trails” that map the motifs of erotic longing, sickness, drowning, and (self-)questioning. By using the mouse, students control the order of reading, creating their own interpretive pathways through the hypertext’s annotations and associated materials. I encourage students to do several rereadings, tracing certain strands separately and returning to the “home text” repeatedly, with a growing sense of discovery.

The hypertexts challenge conventional first readings, forcing students to consider the text under a new angle. For example, in reading the hypertext of Emily Dickinson=s “The Souls Selects,” built around intertextual association with passages from Dickinson=s contemporaries (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Barrett Browning), students become aware of the deeper cultural implications of Dickinson=s key words (“soul,” “selects,” “one,” “society,” “door,” “divine majority,” “valves,” “stone”), but also of the extent to which Emily Dickinson rewrote her cultural and literary tradition. In similar ways, the hypertexts of Hawthorne=s “Young Goodman Brown” and Zora Neale Hurston=s one-act play, “The First One,” invite students to read these texts against a range of intertexts (the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter on utopia and oppression, descriptions of religious persecutions in the eighteenth century, or Yvor Winters=s reflections on the Puritan mind [In Defense of Reason], in the Hawthorne hypertext; and a section from Genesis 9, passages from Hurston=s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” or Henry Louis Gates=s comments on the Harlem Renaissance in the Hurston hypertext), in order to foreground the cultural-revisionist work in both texts.

After students become acquainted with the GUIDE authoring techniques, they are asked to create their own hypertextual trails during rereading, stringing together theme words and patterns of images, and prefacing them with an annotation that calls attention to the significance of that particular strand, usually in question form. I also invite students to bring their own “intertexts” (brief sections of relevant works written by the same or related authors), and link them to the text they are rereading. These intertexts expand the reading frame, throwing an oblique, thought-provoking light on the story or poem under examination; they also impress upon students the idea of the interconnectedness of the texts of a particular author, period, or culture. To take one example, in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” students traced (by linking key words into “trails”) animal references used to define characters, fire references, allusions to changing ethnic attitudes in African-American culture, or references to heritage and the useful work of hands. Students also provided insightful intertextual links to the art of quilting, the conflict between tradition and innovation, the importance of matrilineal tradition, or Walker’s own anxieties on leaving a traditional home to go to college.

C. Writing Hypertextual Criticism

The interactive critical pedagogy I have been describing should give students ample opportunity to move from reading to writing, and from understanding to reformulation, so as to experience a stronger mode of cultural construction. As Wayne Booth urges, “What is essential is to see that writing well is not a matter of cleaning up something like ‘style’ or ‘mere rhetoric’ but deals with changing what is real” (64). Students receive with trepidation their new interpretive empowerment, only to concede later that this transformative pedagogy has for the most part allowed them to better negotiate their questions and responses to a text. They particularly welcome the opportunity to move from reading hypertext, which constrains their freedom of movement among already established narrative paths, to constructing hypertext, which “permits the reader to structurally alter the text,” engaging “in creative cybernetic interactivity” (Travis 101, 103).

Writing is already involved through first reading and rereading, from (hypertextual) annotations and short explorations of repertoires to an elaborate response analysis which reflects on the reader’s questions, reactions, and interpretations of a text. Moving from reflexive response to more formal interpretation, students are encouraged to engage the text through a “multisequential” approach which enables them to explore the rich internal linkages that a literary text develops, and to further connect this text to other relevant “intertexts” (biographical, historical, narrative). In the fiction section, the main interpretive project involved a hypertextual critique of a designated short story: students created this hypertext in stages, beginning with thematic and lexical annotations on first reading, continuing with the creation of internal links on rereading, and finishing with more complex “expansions” that contained linked “intertexts” and the students’ own critiques. In the poetry section, the first interpretive paper applied a “new historical" mode of analysis to Dickinson’s poems, juxtaposing several of her poems and other nineteenth-century literary and nonliterary texts in order to highlight the dialogue of issues. The semester ended with a hypertext project on the first two sections of Eliot’s Waste Land which annotated key concepts and allusions, mapped patterns of images, and established intertextual links, foregrounding the essentially hypertextual nature of Eliot’s own poem. At the end of their project, students embedded their own critique, cross-referenced with the literary text. During the writing of their papers and construction of their critical hypertexts, students had access to interactive discussion (in CONNECT) which helped them exchange ideas and workshop their posted projects.

From the feedback received in these classes, students seemed to like best the electronic discussions in CONNECT, and the final hypertexting projects. Each student became quite skillful in one or several areas (annotating, creating external links, responding and commenting electronically, etc.). I was surprised by the level of participation shown even by students known for their passivity, and by the display of critical and technological imagination in the final projects. Beyond obvious differences in the sophistication of the commentary, all final projects took what Nancy Comley (“A Release from Weak Specification” 131) calls a “reader-as-producer” approach to literary texts, converting passive readings into self-conscious critical writings. The hypertextual technology allowed them to experience the three modes of textualization described by Robert Scholes (Textual Power 24), blending “text-within-text,” “text-upon-text,” and “text-again-text” in complex critical products that would satisfy visually as well as intellectually. In spite of the difficulties involved in mastering two complex programs (GUIDE and CONNECT/MICROSOFT WORD), students were often willing to move rapidly from reading to writing in hypertext. They preferred the opportunity of creating their own annotations, links and trails, over reading those produced by former classes. They did, however, appreciate the fact that their various projects became part of a corpus of critical hypertexts to be shared with future classes.

I have integrated computer technologies in other undergraduate classes, such as “Critical Approaches to Literature,” which introduces students to recent methods of criticism, from reader- oriented and formalist, to psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, feminist, new historicist, and postcolonial. This class has alternated between a traditional classroom environment, where critical strategies are debated and observed in their work on particular texts, and a computer lab environment, where students perform their own critiques using a particular critical frame in stages, sharing each step in the reading and interpretation of the text with the entire class through the Norton CONNECT program. I have not found these technologies as useful in more advanced graduate seminars on “Critical Theory,” “Narratology,” or “Postmodern Rewritings,” though hypertext reading and writing has been one of the discursive modes explored in these classes. These graduate courses, however, have benefited more profoundly from my interest in nonlinear and mutimediatic modes of communication, seeking ways to reconnect literature to the rapidly expanding informational environment. What I have been taking into these courses is a belief not only in the value of computer-aided instruction, but also in the important place that literature and literate practices can still hold in our rapidly expanding informational environment. That place has to be carefully renegotiated, so as to take advantage of the critical interplay of electronic and more traditional modes of reading and writing.

By themselves, hypertextual and networking technologies do not guarantee satisfactory critical results. Even the most experimental cybertext runs-according to one of its chief supporters -“the risk of being so distended and slackly driven as to lose its centripetal form, to give way to a static low-charged lyricism-that dreamy, gravityless, lost-in-space feeling of the early sci-fi films” (Coover, “The End of Books” 25). In her discussion of hypertext fiction by Michael Joyce, Carolyn Guyer, and Stuart Moulthrop, Molly Abel Travis emphasizes the formal inventiveness of the mode but also the ways in which it can fail to yield the expected richness of readerly and writerly experience. Though more authentically dialogic than printed narratives, hypertext fiction puts inevitably limitations on interactive creativity and explorativeness. We could argue, in fact, that a printed text can provide a well-trained reader with the experience of a “nearly endless narrative” more easily than an electronic hypertext where the complicated logistic of navigating multipaths and the pressure of “randomness and expansiveness might come to feel as oppressive to [readers] as linearity and closure did for modern and postmodern writers” (Travis 108). However, a hypertext can clearly teach a less adept reader to read in a multiplex, associationist way, navigating alternative paths through a text. Hypertextual and virtual reality technologies also enhance the sociality of reading and writing, enabling more people to interact than ever before. But there is a catch here too. The “virtual space of [an] electronic multicultural classroom” encourages intercultural conversation but also disembodies cultural agents, removing (especially in anonymous electronic conversation) “accents,” “skin color” and gender (127).

Before we can derive the intended benefits from these new technologies, we need to interrogate their limitations. As long as these technologies are used to reinforce old habits of reading/ writing or to ask “fairly traditional questions of traditional texts” (Olsen 312), they will deliver modest results. What we need to do is not temper “the friction-producing differences of multiculturalism” with the “friction-reducing technology of informatics,” as Travis (118) proposes, but rather to enhance the dialogic/heterologic aspect of our critical transactions. The electronic technologies can provide us with the “interstitial space” where links to others and to alterity can occur. Literature and literacy, however, remain an important component in this equation, encouraging “differentiated subjects” to “careful [intercultural] reading and listening” (Travis 132). Our most urgent task is to integrate literature in the global informational environment, where it can function as a full-fledged, imaginative partner teaching its interpretive competencies to other components of the cultural landscape. The global informational environment is inconceivable without the exigencies of creative authorship, critical rereading and rewriting, and cultural imagination.


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