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[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Terry Harpold for sending this for TidBITS. If you can make it to this session, we guarantee that it will be a stimulating hour and fifteen minutes. Most of you have read about Ted Nelson and Xanadu in our special issue, but Stuart Moulthrop and Jay Bolter may be less familiar. Stuart and Jay helped to make my degree in Hypertextual Fiction from Cornell University possible. Without Jay’s Storyspace (more on Storyspace in a few weeks) and their combined support, I never would have completed my senior honors project. They are appropriate companions to Ted Nelson in that all three live and breathe hypertext, something that I wish were not so rare.]

A Special Session of the 1990 Convention of the Modern Languages Association: "Canonicity and Hypertextuality: The Politics of Hypertext"

Session #344
Friday, 28 December 1990
1:45 PM – 3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom East, Hyatt Regency Hotel
Chicago, Illinois

Important note: Sessions of the MLA convention are generally open only to MLA members and their guests, though it is possible to register to attend only sessions on a given day. For more information on registration, contact:

MLA Convention Office
Modern Languages Association
10 Astor Place
New York, NY 10003-6981
Telephone: 212/475-9500

DESCRIPTION OF SESSION — One of the principal assumptions of the promoters of hypertext applications is that the freeform, non-linear organization of linked documents in a hypertext system alters not only the way in which the document is consumed, but also how it (and the information it contains) is perceived. Hypertextuality, they argue, is a different kind of textuality; the experience of navigating a docuverse (a open set of documents by one or multiple authors, all or some of which may be linked in any number of ways) is qualitatively different than the experience of moving within the relatively closed space of a conventional, linear text.

While the extent of these effects is still open to debate, there can be little doubt that the formal aspects of a hypertextual corpus offer unique challenges to the historical and institutional constitution of literary canons. Hypertextual literatures are fundamentally non-hierarchical, collaborative textual environments, in which traditional distinctions between authors and readers, or between more or less proficient readers, are subverted. In the most radical hypertext systems, these distinctions collapse completely.

This panel will address the political dimension of hypertext as a literary mode and institutional practice. Each of the papers will analyze from a different perspective the effects of the fundamentally non-hierarchical, non-linear structure of document relations in a hypertext environment for the description and dissemination of a literary canon in that environment. Hypertextuality has a fracturing effect on structures of canonicity. If, as is widely believed by theoreticians of hypertext, these technical innovations in the deployment of textual information mark an historical and epistemological break with earlier forms of literature, then the consequences for the future shaping of what we have known as the literary canon are of enormous significance.

DESCRIPTION OF PAPERS — The papers for the panel will be structured as a linked series of exchanges. The panel will begin with Ted Nelson’s introduction of Project Xanadu, the best-known and most sophisticated hypermedia system currently under development. This presentation will include a brief slide presentation of the system in action and a discussion of its methods and philosophy. The slide presentation will serve as a nodal point for the discussions that follow. After this introduction, Nelson will present his analysis of the political consequences of a non-linear, non-hierarchical literary corpus, and the new literature that is taking shape in the development of hypertext systems. Stuart Moulthrop will follow, applying and critiquing Nelson’s analysis in relation to the institutional domains of the academy, and, in particular, to the contradictions that emerge within pedagogical applications of hypertext for a profession that is founded on hierarchical relationships of canonicity. Jay David Bolter’s paper will follow, addressing Nelson’s conclusions from an historical and epistemological perspective, in which the political dimension of hypertext-as-a-new-literary-form is considered with relation to the history and philosophy of literature in the West.

Though Nelson’s presentation and analysis will to a large extent direct the shape of discussion in the panel, Moulthrop and Bolter will not be acting strictly as respondents. Our goal here is to weave the three presentations together so as to address the issues raised by Nelson from positions that, while in agreement with many of his conclusions, come to those conclusions by very different methods. The panelists will be working collaboratively on their presentations before the session, and are being encouraged to keep a large part of each presentation open for extemporaneous divagation.

  1. Ted Nelson: "How Xanadu (Un)does the Canon"
  2. Stuart Moulthrop: "(Un)doing the Canon (1): The Institutional Politics of Hypertext"
  3. Jay David Bolter: "(Un)doing the Canon (2): Hypertext as Polis and Canon"


TERENCE HARPOLD — (Session leader), Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania

Related Publications:



  • "The Grotesque Corpus: Hypertext as Carnival." (In a forthcoming special issue of Computers and Composition. Spring, 1991.)
  • "Hypertext and Hypermedia: A Selected Bibliography." The Hypertext/Hypermedia Handbook. Emily Berk and Joseph Devlin, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.
  • "Threnody: Psychoanalytic Digressions on the Subject of Hypertexts." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Paul Delany and George Landow, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 171-184.

    TED NELSON — Founding Designer, Project Xanadu; Distinguished Fellow, Autodesk, Inc.

    • Widely considered the foremost theoretician of electronic textuality, hypertext and hypermedia in the world. He is generally credited with having coined the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in his writings on electronic textuality in the mid-1960s, and with being the first to advance the concept of a universal server for electronic document linkage.
    • Founding designer of Project Xanadu, the twenty-odd year-old hypermedia project that is the ancestor and paradigm of nearly every hypertext system since devised.

    Related publications:



  • Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computers. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press, 1987
  • Literary Machines. Swarthmore, PA: T.H. Nelson, 1981. Literary Machines. Vers. 87.1. Guide Envelope Document. Bellevue, WA: OWL International, Inc., 1987.
  • Innumerable articles and lectures on electronic textuality and hypertext.

    STUART MOULTHROP — Associate Professor of English, University of Texas, Austin.

    Related Publications:



  • "Hypertext and ‘the Hyperreal’." Proceedings Hypertext ’89. November 5-7, 1989, Chapel Hill, NC. New York: ACM, 1989. 259-267.
  • "In the Zones: Hypertext and the Politics of Interpretation." Writing on the Edge 1.1 (1989): 18-27.
  • "Making Nothing Happen: Hypermedia Fiction." The Hypertext/ Hypermedia Handbook. Emily Berk and Joseph Devlin, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.
  • "Reading from the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of ‘Forking Paths.’" Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Paul Delany and George Landow, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 119-132.
  • Numerous publications on electronic gaming and interactive fiction.

    JAY DAVID BOLTER — Assistant Professor of Classics, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    • Leader of the design and programming team for Storyspace, a hypermedia design and authoring system for the Apple Macintosh platform. Storyspace will be published by Eastgate Systems in December, 1990.

    Related Publications:



  • Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
  • "The Idea of Literature in the Electronic Age." Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts 39 (1985): 23-34.
  • "Topographic Writing: Hypertext and the Electronic Writing Space." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Paul Delany and George Landow, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 105-118.
  • Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

    Information from:
    Terence Harpold
    Graduate Group in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory
    420 Williams Hall
    University of Pennsylvania
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104
    Telephone: 215/898-6836
    America Online: THARPOLD
    Bitnet: tharpold@penndrls
    CompuServe: 72647,2452

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