Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 22



by Nancy Kaplan

Politexts: multiple iterations of the "same text." Perhaps paradoxically, this is the very feat at which the printing press has been said to excel -- multiplying a text by producing a prodigious number of exact copies. But with electronic technologies, some have argued, the tools of reproduction will devolve to the multitudes, restructuring the conditions under which texts are created and circulated. Hence, anyone can, theoretically at least, access, replicate, and retransmit a text.

This capacity for multiplicity clearly threatens the stability of intellectual property, copyright law, and the rights, privileges and remunerations devolving from that law. Only if the property's material embodiment can be fixed, only if people can easily determine that a piece of intellectual property has been copied exactly, only then can that property be said to exist. Hence, copyright covers only the expression of an idea and not the idea itself (whatever that might be): the expression takes place in words or symbols whose forms can be reliably compared and whose replication -- at least until the Xerox machine, the computer, and digital-audio tape came along -- could be controlled.

But not only can anyone copy and distribute an electronic text, with or without permission and payment of royalties, anyone can also, theoretically, multiply the number of texts in circulation exponentially. Such multiplicity undermines Foucault's definition of the author-function, namely a principle of thrift able to restrain what would otherwise be a perilous proliferation of writing, a deluge of discourse. Here is the source of Neil Postman's nightmares: in the politextual world, there could indeed be words (or rather significations) without end.

The term "Politexts" also refers to multiple variants of a text, the evolutions of texts as they circulate or even as I accumulate them on my hard drive as I revise. In this second sense of the word, other dangers lurk, as the designers of tools for collaborative work have discovered. Here too, the danger is a kind of proliferation, a multiplication through bifurcation. As many people contribute to a shared text base, there is always the chance that no one version contains a "one, true version." The fear here is pollution or debasement: how will we know good words from bad, authorized versions from corrupted ones?

I am using the term politexts, then, to indicate the radical (root) instability and promiscuity of inscriptions digitally encoded, stored, retrieved. That such profusion and plenty offers a threat to the discursive world we have known needs little argument or exposition: the very terms -- instability, promiscuity, corruption -- reveal our fears.

But there is a third meaning here, too, since all textual systems involve politics or power relations determining who can become literates and high literates and who will remain illiterates, semi-literates, or functional literates. These power relations, arising from social arrangements rather than technological ones, constitute at least part of the pre-existing conditions under which new technologies and the regimens for their use can develop. The radical instability of electronic writing may well threaten those power relations heretofore underwritten (insured, guaranteed) by the culture of print, but the culture of print is not without its forces of resistance.

Here are some other key terms I use in this argument:

E-Literacies and Elite-racies
Other Cultural Formations

And in case you're wondering what you've stumbled into, here's a brief statement of the argument.

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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