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deconstructing melville
text v. hypertext )
by kevin giovanetto
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The Author

Kathleen loved Moby Dick. She embraced the novel as a miracle of creativity and originality. She especially loved the way Melville managed to weave references from other texts into a unified fabric. Determined to trace the origins of every reference embodied in the book and further prove Melville's genius, Kathleen started with the opening line's reference to Ishmael derived from the Genesis account of Abraham's rejected son and worked page by page and line by line. A thousand references later, she had finished her preliminary work on the first chapter.

Stacked before her were notes and passages from hundreds of texts. Kathleen felt like she had pulled at one small thread and had unraveled the entire fabric of the first chapter. She couldn't make any sense out of the independent threads, and she could no longer read the first chapter as a unified whole. All she could see were the threads. What's more, Kathleen could no longer read any text without either noticing or suspecting that they, too, were nothing but the loose threads of a thousand references woven carelessly together. Then she began noticing threads in the spoken language of those around her. Her quick and agile mind made instant connections in casual conversations to television shows like Friends, The Simpsons and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. The lack of creativity, the lack of originality weighed on her heart, plagued her mind, troubled her soul.

Kathleen now lives on a small farm in Iowa that she tends herself. She never speaks aloud and never entertains guests. She used to have a number of farm animals on the place, but now she's sold them off as well. She began suspecting that the animals were endlessly referencing each other.

The Text

Consider the powerful implications of a Text created by an Author and specifically designed to transfer knowledge deeply and directly to a Reader. What an incredible communication device! Once the Text is crafted it can communicate for centuries to any Reader who picks it up. The Author becomes immortal through the Text, and the Reader inherits the wealth of all recorded human thought.

This view of the text is founded on several assumptions. First, there is the assumption that the author who wrote the text is conveying a level of truth or revelation that cannot be conveyed by anyone else. The author is the authority on the matter. Second, there is the assumption that a text can contain the exact representation of the author's thought in a form that can be easily transferred to others. Third, there is the assumption that a reader takes no active role in the communication process other than trying to understand the author's exact meaning. All three of these assumptions are flawed.

The Theuth, the whole Theuth and nothing but the Theuth

In Phaedrus, Plato identifies Theuth as the father of writing. Theuth claims that his invention will make people wiser and improve their memories. Plato argues that writing will do the exact opposite. It will make people think they're wise when they're not, and it will encourage forgetfulness.

Plato also warns that a text apart from its author is problematic. A text may seem to communicate as if it were the author speaking, but if you ask a text a question it can't answer. It just goes on saying the same thing over and over forever. What's more, a text without its author is subject to the interpretation of the reader. Ten different people can interpret the same text ten different ways. Without the author to defend it, a text is at the mercy of its readers. Plato's arguments address the second and third assumptions implicit in the linear communication model of author to text to reader. The text cannot be an exact representation of the author's thought, and the reader has power over the meaning of the text. But what about the first assumption? Is an author, any author, no matter how intelligent or learned, the final and single authority for any given text?

Oral Culture

The idea that a single author can produce an original and definitive work is relatively new in the annals of human history. For thousands of years before the invention of writing, stories were considered the possession of a community not an individual. Oral cultures passed stories from person to person and embellished here and there over time. The "author" of such stories was unimportant. A story took form and dimension as it was shared many times by many people. Stories that struck a chord with the community were passed to the next generation. Stories that didn't quite hit the mark or did not embody some bit of tribal wisdom were forgotten.

Connections were made between individual stories within a community, and these linkages created a web of meaning that through generations became the foundation of the community's religion, philosophy and history. Oral cultures understood that stories were collaborative works, fabrics woven by the community over time into one seamless garment. Oral cultures understood the hypertext before hypertext existed.


The Internet is built on hypertext. One document links to another via a single word or thought. If you surf the texts of the web, you start with a single passage or page and click to a hundred different web sites with a hundred different but related thoughts. On the Internet the idea of a single definitive statement on any given subject doesn't have meaning. Experienced users understand that there is an entire web of related ideas, positions, thoughts, arguments, and theories that contradict, support, deny, and defy each other. No one has the final word. There is no single author with the single answer on any topic.

But maybe it's always been this way. Consider the possibility that every written work is a hypertext, a fabric of many works woven together. Despite how original, unique or authoritative any text might appear to be, it's really a hypertext with links into hundreds or thousands of other works. If we could see the complete dimensions of a Shakespeare play, we would see the links to all the works that influenced Shakespeare, whether these works were written or spoken, cultural or experiential.

If we could see the hypertext dimensions of a single sentence and could diagram that sentence not based on grammar but based on meaning, we would follow the words in that sentence to other words in other sentences and words in those sentences on to other words in yet other sentences. We would see the great and fearful truth that all texts are hypertexts. Nothing is original. Everything is built on everything else.

And what about you? What are you? Are you an original, unique human being? Or are you a hypertext? Are you free of the influences that have shaped your life or are you an intertextual amalgamation of your parents, friends, teachers, books you've read, shows you've watched, religions you've believed in, things you've experienced? Can you speak an original thought or are your words linked to the words of others which are linked to the words of yet others?

For my part, I've accepted my fate. I am a hypertext, and this article is not one, unified article. It's a hypertext incorporating what I've heard, learned, feared, and experienced. I'm okay with that. I feel a deep and abiding connection with the texts I'm part of. With the words of the past and present. And it won't end there. My words are also woven into the fabric now, and they will remain a part of this great and powerful garment of humanity both now and in the future.

Copyright © 2000 Kevin Giovanetto All Rights Reserved

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