Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 31


What Jay David Bolter has to say ...

by Nancy Kaplan

On this page, you will find an extensive passages from Jay David Bolter's recent book, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. I have chosen this excerpt because it provides the context for ideas and quotations to which my essay, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print," refers. Thus, I attempt to allow Professor Bolter to speak for himself, to represent his own views in his own way. Some of the links in the text will take you to the bibliography while others will take you to some portion of my essay.

Bolter, J. D. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 233-37.

One consequence of the networking of culture is the abandonment of the ideal of high culture (literature, music, the fine arts) as a unifying force. If there is no single culture, but only a network of interest groups, then there is no single favored literature or music. Nor is there a single standard of grammar or diction in writing. Elizabeth Eisenstein has argued convincingly that the printing was a force for cultural unification during the centuries when the modern nation states were being formed. "Typography arrested linguistic drift, enriched as well as standardized vernaculars, and paved the way for the more deliberate purification and codification of all major European languages." (Eisenstein, 1979, vol. 1, p. 117) As we have seen, electronic writing has just the opposite effect. It opposes standardization and unification as well as hierarchy. It offers as a paradigm the text that changes to suit the reader rather than expecting the reader to to conform to its standards.

This attitude is already widespread among readers in the late age of print. As our written culture becomes a vast hypertext, the reader is free to choose to explore one subnetwork or many as he wishes. It is no longer convincing to say that one subject is more important than another. Today even highly educated readers, especially but not exclusively scientists, may know only one or a few areas well. Such ignorance of the shared textual tradition is in part the result of the specialization of the sciences that has been proceeding since the seventeenth century. But even the humanities are now utterly fragmented, so that a student of Latin literature may know nothing about Renaissance poetry or the twentieth century novel. Throughout the late age of print, however, there has been a lingering feeling of guilt about this situation -- a call somehow to reestablish a core of textual knowledge that everyone must possess. The last vestige of this guilt can be heard in pleas for a canon of great authors, which we discussed in an earlier chapter. But the specialization has gone far too far to be recalled. In the sciences it is indispensable. In the humanities and social sciences it is institutionalized. The intellectual world is now defined by numerous "special interest groups" pulling this way and that -- Marxists, neo-Freudians, deconstructionists, cognitive scientists, phenomenologists. All the groups are interconnected: some grew out of others, and each sends outrunners (links) into other camps. Thus, there are Christian Marxists, Marxist deconstructionists, phenomenological anthropologists, Lacanian psychoanalysts who write on literature, and so on. But an over-arching unification is no longer even the goal....

[E]ach [field] is an incomplete and disorganized hypertext that no one knows how to read in its entirety. But to call this fragmentation a disaster is to assume that unity is an achievable goal. What Macintire does not admit is that there is now no way out of this fragmented impasse. (It is certainly not possible to forget the lessons of the Enlightenment.) In fact, the fragmentation of our textual world is only a problem when judged by the standards of print technology, which expects the humanities, including metaphysics and ethics, to be relatively stable and hierarchically organized. What we have instead in the sciences is fruitful specialization and in the humanities a noisy collision of conflicting groups who in the end must agree to disagree. Anyone can enter or leave any group at any time or maintain a combination of interests and positions that characterize two or more camps.

In the late age of print, this situation must appear as chaos, because print holds up stability and order as its ideals. Even though printed materials are still the medium of expression for all these conflicting views, the unwritten assumption is that the disorder can eventually be set right. But in the context of electronic writing, nothing is more natural than the centrifugal disorder of our present cultural life. There is no conceptual problem (though many technical ones) in feeding all these conflicting texts into the computer and generating one vastly reticulated, self-contradictory hypertext. The computer provides the only kind of unity now possible in our culture: unity at the operational level. Hypertextual publication can accommodate all the mutually incomprehensible languages that the intellectual world now speaks, and this unification of technique must serve as the consolation for the lost unity of purpose.

Within the hypertextual libraries that are now being assembled, individual intellectual communities can retreat into their subnetworks and operate with as much or as little connection to each other as they desire. These communities may be large or small. Contemporary art, music and literature have divided into several tiny elites and several huge popular movements, while most of the liberal arts are now pursued by relatively small groups of professionals. We have come to accept the fact that a new painting, a novel, or an essay will appeal only to one group of viewers or readers -- that each person is free not only to dislike a new work, but simply to ignore it as irrelevant to his or her needs. Individuals today wander through an aesthetic supermarket picking out what interests them -- atonal music, concrete poetry, science fiction films, situation comedies on television, or paperback romances. We are hard put to criticize any of these choices: they are simply questions of taste.

In the United States, the most thoroughly networked society, the distinction between high culture and popular culture has all but vanished. In place of the hierarchical organization in which high culture (poetry, "serious" novels, scholarly monographs) is valued above popular culture (doggerel, genre literature, how-to books), we have simply different subnetworks that appeal to different readers. None of the familiar indications of quality apply.... The refusal to distinguish between high art and popular entertainment has long been a feature of American culture, but the computer as hypertextual network both ratifies and accelerates this trend. We can now see that American culture has been working for decades against the assumptions of the printed book and towards the freedom from top-down control provided by electronic writing. The computer is the ideal technology for the networking of America, in which hierarchical structures of control and interpretation break down into their component parts and begin to oscillate in a continuously shifting web of relations.

Because of this shift from hierarchy to network, the debate over cultural unity takes its strangest turns here in the United States.... E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy ... is a particularly instructive case. Many readers took it as a call to return to the classics, to a fixed curriculum of works and authors that would make one culturally literate. But this was a misreading, as anyone can see from the first sentences of the Preface:

"To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world. The breadth of that information is great, extending over the major domains of human activity from sports to science. It is by no means confined to "culture" narrowly understood as an acquaintance with the arts. Nor is it confined to one social class" ( p. xiii).

Hirsch is no champion of culture in the traditional sense. For him cultural literacy is the ability to function effectively in our current world of reading and writing. His is an operational definition of literacy -- what one needs to get by. Hirsch never demands deep knowledge of any subject: a literate person simply needs to touch the surface of a broad range of topics....

From this perspective, cultural literary does not require a knowledge of traditional texts; instead, it means access to the vocabulary needed to read and write effectively. And in fact this operational definition is now making cultural literacy almost synonymous with computer literacy. Both cultural and computer literacy simply mean access to information and the ability to add to the store of information. Increasingly, cultural literacy will require working with the computer, as the computer becomes the most important writing space in our culture. The cultural literates will be those who can use this new medium either for their work and for personal communication and expression. By this measure a traditional scholar, who is at home in the world of printed books and conventional libraries, is relatively illiterate: he may not know how to work his way through an electronic network of information, certainly not how to write electronically for a contemporary audience.

This new definition of cultural literacy brings us back to the question of the canon of important works and authors. The idea of a relatively stable canon made sense in a culture dominated by printed books. The canon was also appropriate to a centralized educational system, in which everyone studied the same subjects and the same texts in order to be introduced into the standards of cultural life. But the notion of a standard has now collapsed, and the collapse is mirrored in the shift from the printed to the electronic writing space, in which a stable canon of works and authors is meaningless. No wringing of hands and no proposals for a renewed emphasis on the great authors of the past can do much to counter the trend toward a network culture, which is fostered not only by social preference, but also by the very medium of reading and writing that is coming to dominate the literacy of our society.

This prediction must seem bleak to those who still feel allegiance to the traditional culture of printed books. The loss is real; the hope for a cultural center based upon traditional texts must now be abandoned. But much of the loss has already occurred in the late age of print. The computer is only reinforcing the effects of centrifugal forces in the twentieth century. More important, as we have seen from the outset, the end of traditional print literacy is not the end of literacy. .

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

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