Essay 2

1. Roland Barthes describes the ideal text as one that makes the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of text. Texts that allow the reader to become produce (or writer) are what Barthes describes as writerly texts. In what ways are hypertextual documents a realization of the writerly text?

 

            Critical Theory in the twentieth century posed numerous challenges to the notions of “author,” “text” and “reader” and called into the question the “location of meaning,” that is, it raised questions like, are texts inherently meaning-full, are their meanings decided by the author’s intentions, or is it the reader that ultimately gives meaning to the texts? (Partridge). Post-structuralists such as Barthes, Fish and Iser have proposed that the reader ultimately gives meaning to the text and not the author and we shall see how hypertext actually realizes this.

 

Barthes makes a distinction between the “readerly” classic text, which makes its readers passive consumers and the “writerly” modern text, which invites its readers to an active participation of the production of meanings. Being a producer of the text does not mean that the reader physically writes the text but it means that the reader is collaborating with the writer, in its production of meaning, that is infinite and inexhaustible (Lodge: 167). Barthes writes:

 

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text; to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing. ...when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic.

 

The Author is thought to exist before and after the book but a modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, that is, writing makes the author and not vice versa. When a person says something, the intended meaning can be obtained straight from the horse’s mouth. But once something is written down it is distanced from the speaker and the words begin to “move”, take on unintended connotations, to be received in unexpected ways (Keep et al, 1995).

 

...writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the body of writing.

(Lodge: 168)

 

In other words, an author which gives a single meaning to the text does not exists anymore and in its place is the birth of a new reader. By interpreting the text differently than the author, the reader ultimately becomes the producer of the text. The explanation of a work is no more sought in the man or woman who produced it.

 

Apart from Barthes, other post-structuralists such as Fish, Iser and Ricoeur also locate the reader as a site of the production of meaning. Fish argues in his essay, “Interpreting the Variorum,” the fact that readers both agree and disagree on the meaning of texts is evidence for the existence of interpretive communities. These communities are based solely on the fact that some readers share with other readers the same “strategies” for understanding texts. These strategies exist prior to the act of reading and determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way round. In Fish’s estimation, reading is interpretation, therefore, a particular interpretation cannot arise organically from the text. Reading for Ricoeur is engagement with “the proposed world of the text”. The text is cut off from the author’s intent by its very nature as written discourse and is opened to a variety of interpretations. Meaning is not in the author’s intentions, nor is it in the reader’s perception, nor is beneath the layers of a text, rather, meaning is a “world” produced “in front of the text” by the convergence the textual world and the reader’s world. These theorists attempt to show that there is plurality of meaning found in texts and the author’s meaning is only one of those meaning. The rest are through the reader’s interpretation.

 

Hypertext realizes Barthes writerly text in several ways. In a hypertext system, readers can choose his or her way through the metatext. Hypertext is a series of text chunks (lexia) connected by links, which offer the reader different pathways (Keep et al). The reader integrates the multiple and scattered parts into a whole. This process resembles what Claude Levi-Strauss calls bricolage and the reader is the bricoleur. The reader need not start or finish at any particular point and the text can be read in a nonlinear fashion. In contrast, a book (or any other printed medium) has to be read from the beginning to the end with a definite central theme decided by the author. By defining the way the book is read, the author is giving meaning to the text. One cannot read a book subversively or it will become incoherent. Hypertext can be read in a non-linear fashion because it is de-centered. In a hypertext, the reader makes his or her interest the de facto organizing principle (or center) for investigation at the moment (Keep et al). In this way, the reader is making meaning and not the writer of the hypertext.

 

There have been books written that subverts the linearity mode of reading such as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. They allow the reader to produce a number of divergent story versions, each mutually exclusive. But even when the page sequencing is manipulated with great sophistication, the reader is free to choose from only a small range of variations on a discernibly central theme. Hypertext on the other hand promises fiction writers a mean to resurrect and to entertain multiplicity that print-bound creation models have taught them to suppress (Snyder: 85).

 

George Landow demonstrates in a few ways how hypertext can realize Barthes’ writerly text other than choosing one’s reading path. He says:

 

“A full hypertext system offers the same environment to both reader and writer. Therefore by opening the text-processing program, or editor, as it is known, one can take notes or write against my interpretations, against my text. Although you cannot change my text, you can write a response and then link it to my document.”

(Landow: 6)

 

Unlike a printed text, nothing can be done to it after it is published and because of this the author exercises absolute control over the text. The ability to annotate and create links between documents written by others removes some of the power of the author and grants it to the reader. Consequently, the reader becomes an active, independent and autonomous constructor of meaning, which also realizes the writerly text.

 

Doubts arise, however, about whether hypertext really gives a full choice as to how a reader wants to read the hypertext. Joyce’s hyperfiction, “Afternoon”, is a case in point.

Afternoon is not an aleatory, random fiction because its author exercises control over the choices his reader can make. Afternoon can be a linear story (and sometimes is), because occasionally only one path leads from one episode. At other times, it gives its reader dozens of choices, although they are far from random.                                                                                   (Snyder 1996, p90)    

 

By choosing what to and what not to hyperlink, the author can still retain a certain amount of control on how he or she wants the hyperfiction to be read. And when the author controls how the hyperfiction is to be read, does this not also produce the meaning that the author intended it to mean? This phenomenon becomes like reading The Book where it demands that the reader read the way it has to be read. Secondly, the links are still written by the author him/herself and in a way the author is still producing the meaning of the text.

 

Even though there are doubts of such kind, hypertext still realizes Barthes writerly text to a certain extent because links between elements in a network releases us from that single ordering of material which the first reading of printed text require (Snyder: 91). A text is still writerly when it encourages active participation of the reader such as annotating or adding links to a text.

 

 

Bibliography:

Freund Elizabeth. The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism. London: Menthuen, 1987.

Fish, Stanley. Is there a Text in this Class? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Keep et al. “The Electronic Labyrinth”.1995. (http://web.uvic.ca/~ckeep/elab.html)

Lodge, David (ed.). Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London: Longman, 1988.  

Landow, George P. (ed) Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 

Snyder, Ilana. Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1996.

Valdes, Mario J. (ed). Reflection & Imagination: A Ricoeur Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

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