Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 14



by Nancy Kaplan

Like Jay David Bolter, Richard Lanham eagerly anticipates the day when electronic texts will come into their own, seeing the logic of electronic technology as a liberating and democratizing one. Electronic textuality, and especially its graphic and ludic qualities, enables us to see clearly what print had obscured, namely what Lanham calls a bipolar decorum, an oscillation between a text's surface (its style) and its content (or form). Electronic texts, he writes, break with the Havelock Compact, the paradoxically unwritten code printed texts embody.

"Havelock ... stressed that an alphabet that could support a high literate culture had to be simple enough to be learned easily in childhood. Thoroughly internalized at that time, it would become a transparent window into conceptual thought. The shape of the letters, the written surface, was not to be read aesthetically; that would only interfere with purely literate transparency.... It took a long while for this ideal to be realized in a page of modern print, a page which should, in the famous words of one book designer, stand to its thought as a fine crystal goblet stands to the wine it contains.... [Once this ideal was attained], unintermediated thought, or at least what seemed like unintermediated thought, was both possible and democratizable. And this unselfconscious transparency has become a stylistic, one might almost say a cultural, ideal for Western civilization. The best style is the style not noticed" (4) Context.

Electronic texts, Lanham insists, can free us from the illusion that language, or at least written language, is transparent, referential, real. The iconographic makes a return, in the varied fonts and faces available in some word processing systems, for example, and in the rich mix of word and picture and animation and sound the world of digital texts will afford. All these changes, Lanham believes, will enable literacy to enfranchise more people, those who have traditionally benefited, and those who have been left out.

Tuman demurs.
Postman decries.

OK, so these guys just generally don't see things the same way. What's at stake in this dispute, anyway?

This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

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