November 1, 2006
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Women, a Footnote

In the first paragraph of her review of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, Jessica Laccetti interjects a footnote that (fortunately) has little to do with the review but which is, I think, completely wrong. (Updates: Diane Greco wants to stick her head in the over. David Silver thinks I'm too belligerent and that "hypertext studies is, like all academic fields, a field where males occupy the most privileged places, positions, and voices." )

She writes that

Theorists like Landow, Bolter, Joyce, and Moulthrop, have appropriated and moulded ideas from Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze, Iser, et al. in order to illustrate the parallels between print and hypertext fiction. The very term, hypertext, is loaded, suggesting a textual work which is beyond usual or established forms thereby immediately casting it in direct opposition to print discursive practice and traditions [1].


[1]Additionally, the prefix, "hyper" problematizes feminist thought (which has sought to destabilize hierarchies such as mind over body and vision over touch) as it adds inscriptions of hierarchy to an already seemingly hierarchical and male-dominated field. The theorists are male (Bolter, Landow, Amerika, Lanham, Joyce, Aarseth, Moulthrop), the hypertexts often discussed are written by men (Landow, Bolter, Joyce, Coover, Amerika), and the visions they present us with are distinctly male.

This sounds good, but it's wrong.

First, the "hyper" in hypertext does not inscribe hierarchy: it distinguishes linked text from unlinked text. When Nelson first wrote about linked cybertext in the 1960's, he naturally wished to explain how it differed from print. The argument begins with a non-sequitur; a distinction does not create a hierarchy.

Second, Ms. Laccetti manages to argue that "the theorists are male" by a simple expedient: she ignores every woman in the field. I could use the same technique to show that hypertext is dominated by Norwegians.

This means she has to pretend that her female colleagues don't exist. Of course, she cites Kate Hayles and Marie-Laure Ryan. The characterization of feminist thought in the footnote is childish when set next to Diane Greco's "Hypertext With Consequences: Recovering a Politics of Hypertext" (cited here in a redaction by the prominent Singaporean scholar Irina Aristarkhova). She affects not to know the work of Anja Rau, Wendy Morgan, Susanna Pajares Tosca (head of Digital Design at ITU-Denmark) and Jill Walker (head of Humanistic Informatics the University of Bergen), all of whose works seem directly relevant to Laccetti's approach. In the technical end of the field, the most influential industrial researcher is very probably Cathy Marshall (long at PARC, now at Microsoft) and the largest academic research group is directed by Prof. Wendy Hall, who is also president of the British Computer Society.

The list of authors of "hypertexts [that are] often discussed" is constructed to be exclusively male by even weirder means. The most surprising thing about Robert Coover's one hypertext, Heart Suit (McSweeney's 16) , is how seldom it has been discussed, and neither Bolter nor Amerika are best known for their hypertexts. The hypertext with the largest secondary literature is surely Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl; the English curriculum of New South Wales sets Patchwork Girl alongside Deena Larsen's Samplers: Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts.

We could go on, but let's not. -- not least because by making a big deal of "women in hypertext" we act as if it's remarkable. (I'm not wild about ELO's new anthology creating a special category of "women authors" either.)

Electronic journals need an editor. The editor in this instance is David Silver (University of San Francisco), and I hope he did try to save the author from this embarrassment.