“a void rubbing out its own inscription”: Electronic Technology, Hypertext and the Paradox of Self-Erasure
The advent of electronic technologies like the computer and the internet necessitated new ways of writing and thinking about writing. Where the age of mechanical and industrial technologies led to Blake’s visionary engravings and Swift imagining a random text generator in Gulliver's Travels, “for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical Operations” (171), the electronic age might be said to have given rise to the work of composers like John Cage and Brian Eno, hypertextual writers such as Michael Joyce and Mark Amerika and the work of the Oulipo. Perhaps the predominant linguistic theory associated with, though not limited to, electronic technologies is that of “hypertext”. Hypertext is defined by Ted Nelson, who coined the term, as “non-sequential writing with reader-controlled links” (qtd. in Bolter 105), and George Landow as a technology that matches Barthes's ideal textuality of a “text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web, and path” (Landow 2).
Nelson and Landow’s succinct definitions are both accurate, but fail to encompass the extent to which the hypertextual model destabilizes conventional notions of the text. This essay will examine the ways in which hypertexts erase themselves, and the implications this paradox of self-erasure has for the whole field of signification, the material status of the text and hypertextual conceptions of identity.
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