9(1), November 1991, pages 111-117

Book Review
Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Jay David Bolter, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991, 258 pp.

Reviewed by Joe Amato
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Because the subject of this printed book is the coming of the electronic book," Jay David Bolter writes in his Preface to his timely and important text, "I have found it particularly difficult to organize my text in an appropriate manner--appropriate, that is, to the printed page" (p. ix). Perhaps as a consequence, I have found it particularly difficult to render a fair account of Bolter's text, a text that exists both in book form and as a hypertext. Having read the text in codex format initially, I have chosen to discuss that version, not the Macintosh-STORYSPACE diskette. And I have opted to consider the book itself in light of this new paradigm of writing, a paradigm that informs the material practices and specificities peculiar to "electronic writing." It is also a paradigm which--if we take Bolter at his word--is effecting a conversion of culture away from the "unification" implicit in "high culture" to that of a potentially global "network of interest groups" (p. 233)--an interconnected but fragmented global village.

In discussing this intriguing book, I want to examine the darker implications of Bolter's argument, the ways in which electronic media and network technologies could end up constraining human consciousness and culture by splintering and isolating both groups and individuals. I want to resist, for the sake of this re/view, the quasi-evangelistic euphoria evident in Bolter's frank assertion that he decided to "remain the advocate, to argue rather cheerfully that the computer is a revolution in writing" (p. ix).

First, however, a brief account of the book's structure is in order, beginning with the following rough outline:

As one can see, Bolter's text is divided into three main sections, plus a cogently argued and highly engaging Introduction that whets the reader's appetite. Part I, "The Visual Writing Space," discusses the technological embeddedness of various writing practices, from stone tablets to ancient papyrus to medieval codex to the "Gutenberg Galaxy," including brief and informative forays into hypertext and hypermedia. Bolter is perhaps on firmest footing here, and his careful, lucid style makes for a highly persuasive, historically-grounded analysis that will be hard to dispute. This is the part of the book that those of us with even a modest interest in the impact of electronic media on writing will want to surreptitiously slip under the office doors of our Mont Blanc- or Smith-Corona-bound colleagues. Whatever minor lapses one notes in the early chapters--such as the somewhat reductive assertion in the Introduction that, "In the act of writing, the writer externalizes his or her thoughts" (p. 11)--are one-by-one accounted for as Bolter proceeds with the implications of his argument; he writes later, for instance, that "writing need not give voice to anything" (p. 45). Again, I regard this less as contradiction than as a progressive refinement of his argument, though some may feel that I am being a bit generous here.

Part II, "The Conceptual Writing Space," begins by tracing the ways in which the age-old conception of the "world-book" is shaped and constrained by particular technologies of writing, including, of course, electronic print. In Chapter 8, "Interactive Fiction," Bolter introduces the reader to Michael Joyce's hyperfiction, Afternoon (1987), and it is here, I believe, that many readers will find themselves beginning to resist the implications of Bolter's argument. In such interactive fictions, ordinary distinctions between writer and reader begin to blur. Readers are allowed to make (finite) choices about what to read next even as they proceed through interactive texts, choices that control the sequencing of the text itself. Thus there is really no fixed text, at least from the point of view of the reader-cum-writer (shall we write simply "wreader"?), and yet the (deep) structure of the "original" text would seem to be immutable. One is reluctant, at first, to think of a text as at once immutable and ever-changing. Having had the opportunity to toy both with Bolter's hypertext and Joyce's Afternoon, I can attest to that ambivalence with which one may well confront such emerging writing technologies; clicking away with my mouse, I began to feel a bit like a mouse in a labyrinth, sniffing my way to the site of an elusive hunk of Brie or, better still, Swiss. Bolter does point to Sterne, (James) Joyce, and Borges as literary precursors to interactive fiction; it is likewise evident, in these postmodern times, that the idea of a "fixed" text could be labelled a "reductivist interpretive construct." Though not entirely without precedent, it must yet be allowed that interactive fiction does encourage a more disjunctive, less linear, more casual (hence less causal), ostensibly more open-ended textual experience--provided, that is, that readers are willing to modify their expectations regarding "text," and aside from that retooling which will invariably characterize the writer's response to this new medium.

In Chapter 9, "Critical Theory and the New Writing Space," Bolter's chief concern would seem to be to substantiate his claim that "Not only reader-response and spatial-form but even the most radical of theorists (Barthes, de Man, Derrida, and their American followers) speak a language that is strikingly appropriate to electronic writing" (p. 161). Bolter's point is that electronic text moots many of the critical concerns of the last two decades; as he puts it, specifically with regard to deconstruction, "The deconstructionists seek to disturb, to alienate, to dislocate, and so by embracing the techniques of deconstruction, electronic writing seems in a playful way to subvert the whole project" (p. 164). I really can't do justice within my somewhat limited writing space either to the nuances of contemporary critical theory or to Bolter's rebuke that current critical bugbears are somewhat beside the point. However, I am quite certain that Bolter will be taken to task in this portion of his text by a number of cultural critics--Marxist, feminist, what have you. And I am also quite certain that Bolter's unasked rhetorical question --"The question is whether the deconstruction of an electronic text seems worth the effort"--and what would appear to be his answer--"In fact, an electronic text is not hostile to criticism: it incorporates criticism into itself" (p. 165)--reveal his complicity in the euphoria referred to above, his otherwise ambivalent tone notwithstanding. The past two decades of critical inquiry, for better or for worse, are not about to be dismissed so readily, regardless the sorts of changes being wrought by the coming of hypermedia.

And yet it is to Bolter's credit that his text does not end here. Almost as if he has sensed the provisional and somewhat facile nature of his critique, he devotes Part III of his text to "The Mind as Writing Space." Beginning in Part I with the more material, visual aspects of writing, then, he moved on to consider in Part II metaphorical and fictional constructions. He concludes with a discussion in Part III of the ways in which the symbolic representation of mind in AI research--the cognitivists' version of "subject," "self," "agent," "identity"--reflects a new form of cultural transmission, figuratively and literally.

Chapters 12 and 13, "Writing the Mind" and "Writing Culture," warrant a few specific remarks. It seems a foregone conclusion today that any discussion of semiotics--the study of those signs and symbols with which we humans construct our cultures, our societies, hence our collective sense of ourselves--will of necessity invoke some aspect of that most prolific polymath pragmatist of late last century, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce's concept of the "man-sign" figures mightily in Bolter's formulation; in the subsection entitled "A New Republic of Letters," Bolter extrapolates Peirce's notion to assert that "For the new readers and writers, the human mind itself becomes a text to be fashioned and explored according to the principles of the electronic writing space" (p. 206). A new writing space, then, heralds a new text, a new mind. Bolter's subsection headings give one an idea of the discursive sweep of this portion of his text: "The Textual Mind;" "The Intentional Gap;" "Perception and Semiosis;" "Virtual Reality;" "Cultural Unity;" "Cultural Literacy;" and "The Electronic Hiding Place." I found these final subsections to be particularly cursory, even hasty at times; "intentionality" is perhaps too sticky to be relegated to a discussion of approximately four pages, and Bolter's gloss of Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, (and his casual reference to what has since become its companion piece, Allan Bloom's jeremiad) fails to account for the messy relationship between knowledge and the uses to which such knowledge is put, a problematic inherent in any such attempt to establish a measure of "literacy"--which leads me, full circle, to my opening remarks, my concern as to the "darker" implications of this "late age of print." My reservations begin with the sort of structural movement I have just outlined.

As I have suggested, Bolter's text appears to become more and more diffuse as one nears his "Conclusion" (as does, some might argue, this re/view). Note that his major conceptual transitions, the three parts of his text, each utilize a spatial framing metaphor--qualified by "visual," "conceptual," or "mind"--and in this way replicate reflexively the notion that what is at stake is indeed a new "writing space." Yet the mind is, as Bolter would have it, itself best represented by the symbolic modeling of mind via this new writing space; that is, the mind is modeled after the simulation, a simulation whose electronic medium is likewise used to orient his discussion along specific, spatially-conceived coordinates. Bolter's text, then, represents in effect an attempt to reproduce a curious sort of designed space, a space out of which emerges both electronic text and, albeit in printed format, the structural conditions requisite to such text.

This is spatial space--in other words, space, however mutable and fluctuating, that is assigned the mutual functions of (A) representing, or simulating, and (B) creating the latticework for such simulation. It might be thought of as a cognitivist version of mental space (and an interesting reworking of one of Kant's categorical imperatives). Thus, in representing the new (electronic) writing space, the old (scribal) writing space has begun to exhibit the effects of its own dislocation. Little wonder, then, that Bolter's argument should begin to spin off, fragment into hypercultural "aphorisms." (In this context, we can note his related remark about the "aphoristic rather than periodic" nature of electronic text, p. ix). Given this fragmentation, and with the model having become the motive, there is no ostensible means of providing for conceptual feedback. Or is there?

I would argue that Bolter, for all his attention to the work of novelists such as Joyce (of both varieties), gives relatively short shrift to several (late-) print-age techniques that might well have provided his final section with a bit more oomph (and, I suspect, might well have made it that much more difficult for him to locate a publisher). Specifically, had he broken with sentence/paragraph structure--even within his print-bound format--the resulting aesthetic reflexivity could, I think, have avoided what must otherwise be read as a sort of tacit irony, the paradox implicit in having to use print for a discussion of un-printable technologies. While the move to hypertext and hypermedia cannot be simulated on the printed page, it does not thereby follow that the only way to address such technologies is through the linear, prosaic essay that characterizes, even in today's intellectual climate, most scholarly endeavor. And though it might be objected that this would surely serve to marginalize Bolter's text even more, it is nonetheless the case that the text as it now stands, especially its final portion, may be subject to a harsher re/view than I have indicated. In effect, and in all good conscience, I am a bit dismayed that Bolter did not work harder to make good on his claim that electronic text "incorporates criticism within itself" by rendering a more aesthetically-informed account of this project in print. And given that all aesthetic impulses imply corresponding ideological assumptions, this leads me to a final reservation.

No critic of the nineties can afford to ignore the consequences of taking for granted one's ethnicity, gender, economic class, etc. (Yes--it's almost a platitude by now.) One person's meat is indeed the vegetarian's poison, and the individual, as many of us now recognize, may no longer presume to speak for the many. We each owe our individual predilections and beliefs to our social birthrights (and wrongs), in combination with luck, circumstance, genetics, and so forth; hence, the network culture that Bolter describes may be a good thing in that it makes evident this fact by imposing specific, albeit incredibly multitudinous, choices from the outset--who actually is permitted to speak to whom, what choices one actually has in the midst of an interactive fiction, where one actually ends up situating one's self. But all of this talk of networking is occurring at a time when the various global (and national) villages have shown themselves either unwilling or incapable of dismissing specific cultural imperatives--in many cases, justifiably so--and it is as yet far from clear whether networking may not itself merely represent a further trivializing of human experience, a way of de-tuning the political consciousness of groups of individuals, if only non-conspiratorially. Bolter is, of course, aware of this; he writes, for instance, that even though "hypertext has become the social ideal," enabling a heretofore unprecedented "freedom of choice," it is likewise the case that "for many Americans this ultimate freedom is not available" (233). But "freedom of choice" of the sort Bolter suggests--what he refers to parenthetically as the ability to "rewrite one's life story"--often obscures the narrative tensions implicit in social and institutional realities, aestheticizing lived, and felt, experience in what might be merely the illusion of writing one's own destiny--a theme park with no admission, no way to write oneself out of the black-and-white box. And if this is what is to constitute a new culture, and a new form of literacy, each of us may find ourselves at some point unable to re/view the ideological consequences inherent in such apparent self-authorization, falling into our functional network niches as singular splinters with little hope of ever recognizing the structure itself--both trees and forest.

Bolter's text, finally, is a text that demands a critical reading and, I think, re/reading. It is provocative, useful, and--unlike many such accounts of new technologies--sensitive to its limitations, however much my remarks might indicate otherwise. To use an entirely outmoded style of analysis, I would say that Bolter's tone, his self-avowed "ambivalence," is that of a writer who has just discovered that he has written himself out of a job. But it may simply be that Bolter's job--each of our jobs--now requires retooling, hence a rewriting of our already comprehensive job descriptions. All scholars, in fact, are going to have to give some serious thought to whether or not we can afford to resist the types of changes in print technology Bolter discusses, to consider whether, in the wake of these changes, such resistance indeed accommodates the interests and needs of our colleagues or of our students. Personally, I find resistance a helpful strategy once I know what it is I am resisting. As in confronting all ultimately social technologies, the question becomes one of participation in the development of an active and informed community of teachers, writers, thinkers; in this case, a community (inter) connected in real time both on an experiential and intellectual plane with extra-academic communities--simply and fashionably put, networked. In the absence of such a community, how might we mitigate less sanguine, and more disciplinary, consequences?