6.0386 Literary Theorist Meets Hypertext (1/59)

Tue, 8 Dec 1992 18:36:16 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0386. Tuesday, 8 Dec 1992.

Date: Tue, 8 Dec 1992 14:34 EST
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@BRANDEIS>
Subject: J. Hillis Miller on hypertext

If you're doing any work in the realm of electronic texts or hypertext,
you should look up a recent book by an eminent literary critic and
theorist: *Illustration*, by J. Hillis Miller. It has a few pages of
discussion on these subjects that will prove useful to many.

Not because of their actual content, for the most part. A standard
argument for literary theory is that without it you almost certainly
wind up parroting unexamined prejudices rather than thinking new
thoughts. That's certainly borne out by this text, which, like many
such productions by people who don't do humanities computing, betrays
an ignorance of the work done in the field, of a kind that its author
would certainly consider unacceptable in an essay on, say, literary
theory. Miller assumes that a person with sound common sense can just
stroll by and make sensible criticisms; of course these sensible
criticisms all sound like cliches or plain misconceptions to anyone
with a knowledge of the scholarship in the field. It's no accident
that much of what Miller says is closely paralleled by a recent article
by a non-theorist: Sven Birkerts, ``Perseus Unbound,'' Harvard
Magazine, November-December 1992, 57-58, 60.

But I'll skip a discussion of these failings, which will be readily
apparent to other scholars. What's unusual is that Miller does have
one bit of theory to support him in this exploration---Walter
Benjamin's essay on art and mechanical reproduction. Though the
prejudices of his field, and the conventions of the kind of essay he's
writing, push Miller towards considering hypertext a Bad Thing,
Benjamin's essay spurs him to some thought of hypertext as a Different
Thing that has complex consequences. And so he comes to a conclusion
that's not what the discourse would dictate: that hypertext is
interesting and important. His principal discussion of the topic,
which focuses on a Thoreau hypertext in the works at the University of
Minnesota, ends with this paragraph:

Nevertheless, the `Thoreau Prototype' project, as its name
affirms, is just that, an admirably conceived *prototype*
for what will no doubt be an immense proliferation of such
programmes and databases. This proliferation will transform
humanities research in the coming years.

Keep this essay in mind when you're writing your next paper or grant

The source is:

J. Hillis Miller
The Work of Cultural Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction
Cambridge, MA
Harvard University Press
The chapter covers pages 9-60; the quotation above is from 42-43. The
principal discussion of hypertext is at 32-43, but Miller refers to it
intermittently throughout the chapter.

John Lavagnino
Department of English, Brandeis University