Virtual Textuality

Virtual Textuality


Scott Bukatman

This essay was originally published in Artforum.

While the term hypertext has yet to acquire the mass cultural (and instantly cliched) cachet of virtual reality, a growing corps has treated it with a similar utopianism. VR and hypertext are interface technologies, and the discourses that surround and delimit them hinge upon the transformation of, but ultimate reliance on, some fundamental cultural ideas. The consideration that follows doesn't argue for the primacy of either, but the comparison highlights some interesting aspects of each. Where virtual reality eliminates language, hypertext is entirely based on "the sign"; where VR emphasizes a dizzying phenomenology of direct experience (or the elaborate illusion thereof), hypertext emphasizes the centrality of representation; where VR is sexy and mainstream (Wild Palms, Lawnmower Man), hypertext remains the province of Brown University's English Department (just kidding).

"Virtual reality," as anyone not *living* in it knows by now, refers to a real time, computer-generated environment. Single or multiple users interface with the aid of a Dataglove, full body suit, 3D Eyephones and a simulation of 360 degree sound. Experiments with touch-feedback systems are underway. The user is immersed in an environment comprised of data, which might one day represent anything from a cockpit or surgical theater to spreadsheet figures or a Westworld-style vacation paradise. "Hypertext" designates texts that utilize non-linear (or multi-linear) structures through their composition and display on computer terminals. On screen, the text is separated from its physical existence on a hard disk, and becomes a malleable, "virtual" text. A unit of text might be "linked," through a click of the mouse or touch of a key, to another unit or text: a glossary or annotation, or another work by that author, or from that period, or one influenced by the first. Further, these additional texts, or units, can incorporate illustration, video, sound, as well as music or movie samples.

A 1945 article by Vannevar Bush in the Atlantic Monthly posed the problem of the information explosion, and the need for a means of threading through it all. Existing methods of categorizing and sorting data were far removed from the processes of the human mind, which "snaps instantly" from one idea to the next by association, so Bush proposed a device called a "Memex" (memory extender) -- a kind of giant desk packed with oodles of instantly accessed microform texts that would also give a reader the ability to annotate and rearrange the retrieved information. The memex would record the associations so they could be retraced or re-explored. George Landow writes that Bush was proposing "what are essentially poetic machines -- machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture the anarchic brilliance of human imagination. Bush, we perceived, assumed that science and poetry work in essentially the same way." (1)

Both virtual reality and hypertext, then, are about negotiating what would otherwise be an overwhelming proliferation of data. Each depends upon spatial metaphors for success. The spatiality of VR and, I have argued, its appeal in the popular imagination, is entrenched in the primacy it grants to bodily experience. Data is experienced in a sensorially-enriched fashion, and the promise of fully realized, hyperreal alternate realities continues to lurk just behind most non-specialist discussions of VR. The mapping of a familiar physical orientation onto unfamiliar systems of information literally transforms the digital into the tactile, reversing a process described by Baudrillard over a decade ago.

Hypertextual systems comprise a different kind of electronic experience. Despite the move towards multimedia, hypertext remains rooted in the culture of the word. Still, the rhetoric of spatiality continues to define the general proliferation of texts in the world ("a vast sea of databases") as well as the structures of hypertext ("readers move through a web or network of texts"). Jay Bolter maintains that every writing technology produces its own attendant "writing space," which is also a reading space.(2) The flexible, unit-oriented writing space of hypertext is repeatedly defined as a network that challenges the linear textuality of the book by calling into question such elements as: fixed sequence, definite beginning and ending, and a consequent perception of unity and wholeness. I'd argue that the reader continues to start, stop and otherwise organize the text by these very principles in order to produce a sense of unity or wholeness, but certainly textual authority has been displaced, if not obliterated.(3) Robert Coover, ardent hypertext enthusiast, notes that "narrative bytes no longer follow one another in an ineluctable page-turning chain. Hypertextual story space is now multidimensional and theoretically infinite..."(4) That phrase, "theoretically infinite," raises another question, as the lack of closure becomes a theoretical strength but a practical weakness. Landow concedes that "complete hypertextuality requires gigantic information networks" linked more tightly than existant networks,(5) and so such a "complete" hypertext, like that perfect simulation promised by virtual reality, remains a kind of electronic grail.

Descriptions of VR de-emphasize language in order to evoke a kinetic, phenomenologically heightened field of intense bodily movement and metamorphosis. This depreciation of the linguistic is easily aligned with an all-too-prevalent discourse (I call it cyberdrool) that imagines cyberspace as a site of Dionysian, anti-rationalist liberation.(6) In this version of the future, VR actually poses itself against language, and, ultimately, in its solipsistic focus on a solitary and disembodied subject adrift in the cyberdelic fields, against culture and history as well. "Virtual reality is made of other people," writes developer Jaron Lanier. "Period." Lanier's comments are typical of the rhetoric of subjective empowerment that surrounds VR. "In virtual reality, there's no question that your reality is created by you." The rhetoric of empowerment inevitably yields to an almost parodic evocation of sublime transcendence: "Virtual reality is the first medium to come along that doesn't narrow the human spirit."(7) Many writers, however, have correctly stressed the revelatory power of a medium that permits absolute control over the objective conditions of subject formation. Allucquere Stone and others have convincingly argued that VR encourages a new interrogation of Being, as once unalterable conditions, such as the relation between subject and bodily identity, are suddenly rendered malleable (at least in theory).

If VR becomes an ontological testing ground, hypertext permits an exploration of some poststructural tenets. It "creates an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment" of such issues as authorship, multiply-centered texts and the active power of the reader.(8) While the rhetoric may be more modest than the one associated with VR, by emphasizing an active, creative and free reader, following -- and forging -- links between units, hypertext also presents itself as a liberating "space" of empowerment. So hypertext also gives us the breakdown of barriers: between texts, between kinds of texts, between reading and writing, and between reader and writer. But even as hypertext celebrates decentered discourses, multiple authorship and multiple linearities, it still retains and extends the controlling power of the individual reading subject.

Paradoxes abound. While VR and hypertext designers privilege the individual subject, the formation of community is an axiom of both, and each posits new public "spaces" that will either enhance or replace more traditional spaces and communities. Virtual reality communities will operate in a real-time, simulated environment. Users coincide in time while their "real" bodies remain spatially distant. Hypertext communities, on the other hand, will incorporate (interesting word) temporally "distant" users, each using and annotating the same text over an indefinite and perhaps infinite period of time. The most active existing cyberspace community, the Internet, combines aspects of both of these modes, as users "chat" in real time (albeit without full sensory interface) or post messages and responses for other members of their newsgroups to encounter in their own good time.

Inevitably, as on the Internet, virtual realities and hypertexts move together. As real world limits reduce the scope of VR's ambitions, and increased power in desktop computing expands the capabilities of hypertext, the two forms will undoubtedly blur together. But at this time (at least until next Tuesday) there remains a significant separation between them.Their ultimate merger will generate a synaesthesia of data experience, one that might finally establish the crucial relation between the phenomenological subject privileged by virtual reality, and the acculturated, historical subject that grounds the hypertextual exploration.


1. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic Monthly 176 (July, 1945), 101-108; George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 18. (back)

2. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hove & London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991). See also writings by Friedrich Kittler on typewriter "space." (back)

3. Landow, 102. Landow grundgingly allows this possibility. (back)

4. Notes from a talk, cited by Landow, 104-105. (back)

5. Landow, 187. (back)

6. This position was best exemplified by the magazine Mondo 2000 for a brief but memorable period. (back)

7. Cited in "Virtual Reality," Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge eds. Rudy Rucker, R. U. Sirius, Queen Mu (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 254-256. (back)

8. See Landow, 34. (back)

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