The Contingencies of the Hypertext Link

Terry Harpold


I'll begin where I began once before.

I come back to the problem of hypertext navigation. Presuming that navigation is a thing or a place that one can "come back to" presumes quite a bit more than that, but for the sake of expediency in these first paragraphs, let's allow that presumption to pass unexamined. The things and places of hypertext navigation are intractable concepts, nearly impossible to exclude from any discussion of what it means to "read" a hypertext.

So, "navigation." The word, or words related to it, are so common in writing on the subject of these unruly documents that they come easily, almost transparently, in discussion of nearly all aspects of design, implementation and cognition. I say "almost transparently" because the language of hypertext travel (reading as voyage, excursus as excursion) is invariably used in a cautionary, negative sense: the central difficulty in writing and reading a hypertext is that navigation is ... difficult. You have to get from one place to another. There is territory to be covered in between, and danger of losing yourself along the way. The freedom of movement in a hypertext brings with it an excess of narrative possibilities, some of which may lead you away from your original destination. The destination may shift dynamically, as other routes, other ports of call, appear on your itinerary. As the density of the textual fabric increases and the paths traversing the document grow more numerous, so does the potential for misdirection. You might not get to where you were going.

The language of "departure" and "arrival" in George Landow's recent review of the rhetoric of hypermedia design is exemplary of the double bind of the reading-as-navigation model of hypertext narrative:

Authors of hypertext and hypermedia materials confront three related problems: First, what must they do to orient readers and help them read efficiently and with pleasure? Second, how can they inform those reading a document where the links in that document lead? Third, how can they assist readers who have just entered a new document to feel at home there? Drawing upon the analogy of travel, we can say that the first problem concerns navigation information necessary for making one's way through the materials. The second concerns exit or departure information and the third arrivalor entrance information. In each case, creators of hypermedia materials must decide what readers need to know at either end of a hypermedia link in order to make use of what they find there. (Landow 1991, 82)

This is of course only a brief excerpt from a much longer discussion of hypertext navigation (and Landow's use of this language is more nuanced than these few sentences might suggest), but there's already a great deal of material here to consider.[1] Hypertext links have a destination and an orientation; they "lead" somewhere. The reader follows a course and arrives at that destination. The reader is a user—she needs to be aware of something "at each end" of the link in order to "make use" of what she finds there, and to "feel at home." (In Landow's formulation, this directed movement joins two terms of enormous epistemological import that are rarely mentioned in this context: pleasure and efficiency—though "feeling at home" can hardly be said to be less evocative. I will return to these matters again.) These are complex words; they need to be examined more closely.

Derrida has suggested that a history of writing in the West would require first a history of roads. This essay is not the place to take on the massive philosophical tradition that joins the language of travel, expedition and navigation to the practice of writing. It is, however, important to recognize that the lexicon of hypertext writing (or reading) as modes of voyage can't be disassociated from that tradition, in forms as diverse as the Sophists' tours through the halls of memory, the Romantics' promenades solitaires and Leopold Bloom's circuit between the headlines of the "Aeolus" episode of Ulysses.[2]

More to my purpose in this essay—and this will be crucial for making sense of the hazards of the hypertext excursus—the concept of hypertext voyage can't be disassociated from the negative implications of the language it employs. Navigation presumes displacement, separation and loss, departures and farewells. New ports of call, perhaps, but also old ones that are visited less frequently than before. Once you go some place else, you're not where you were anymore. If you got lost along the way—well, then you can't be sure where you are.

This negative disposition of hypertext travel language is a subsidiary effect of its function as metaphor. The resemblance of the activity of threading through a complex document to that of forecasting a ship's route, or guiding its rudder, is based on a process of approximation common to both processes. (It's a critical cliché, but perhaps not unproductive to point out here that the root meaning of "metaphor" is grounded in shift, displacement, movement, etc.: "metaphor," from Latin, metaphora, Greek, metapherein, to transfer, to carry [pherein] something from one place to another.) "Navigation" implies movement and a changing proximity to a destination. The movement should be, as I mentioned before, intentional, and the proximity should, ideally, increase, but navigation as a strategy undertaken to bring you closer to a goal happens only during the journey, not once you get to where you were going. Each moment of the journey-as-navigation is conditioned by the deferral that shapes its entire trajectory. Movement qualifies as navigation, not because it's undertaken with a goal in mind, or because it brings you closer to your destination (though it is always measured against an end that progresses logically—teleologically—from the point of departure), but because you're not there yet.[3]

In hypertexts, this principle of deferral sustains polyform narrative structures that are much less common (and in some cases, impossible) in more linear texts.[4] In "Reading from the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of Forking Paths," Stuart Moulthrop has observed that, unlike traditional texts, where the metonymic structure of syntax enables the metaphoric closure of narrative meaning ("We negotiate the perplexities of the middle in order to reach the promised revelation of the end; metonymy precedes and enables metaphor" (127)), hypertexts are consumed in ways that subvert the relation of syntax to closure:

To conceive of a text as a navigable space is not the same thing as seeing it in terms of a single, predetermined course of reading. The early intimations of wholeness provided by conventional fiction necessitate and authorize the chain of particulars out of which the telling is constituted; but in hypertext the metaphor of the map does not prefer any one metonymic system. Rather, it enables the reader to construct a large number of such systems, even when ... these constructions have not been foreseen by the text's designer ... Metonymy does not simply serve metaphor in hypertextual fiction, rather it coexists with metaphor in a complex dialectical relationship. The reader discovers pathways through the textual labyrinth, and these pathways may constitute coherent and closural narrative lines. But each of these traversals from metonymy to metaphor is itself contained within the larger structure of the hypertext, and cannot itself exhaust that structure's possibilities. (129)

The wanderings of the reader in a hypertext discover traits of the text as a fabric of representations that are not evident if you don't dwell on the gaps in the fabric. Hypertext navigation means not only traversing a space between two points in the narrative; it means as well electing to diverge from a predetermined course. The possibility that the reader may choose to digress from a path of the narrative, and remain within a field/terrain that is still identifiably that of the text she is reading, greatly complicates metaphors of intentional movement that may be applied to the act of reading.

You might not get there, and something might happen to you along the way. I've argued elsewhere (Harpold, 1991) that the digressions of hypertexts are narrative instances of slippages in the fabric of language from which they are woven. The link serves not only to join the threads it associates, but also to circumscribe a place where the threads are divided from one another. The link is where the narrative takes a turn around a place that is inaccessible because you can only encircle it:

Turning is a circular process that is also divisive: a turn toward a destination is also a turn away from an origin; turning encircles a place that is neither origin nor destination, and the shape of the turn divides you from its center. The different names for that turn describe not only a trajectory but also the contour of a place that you never get to. (Harpold, 1991, 171)

This spiraling movement undercuts any instrumentalist notion of hypertextual writing, where the acts of writing and reading are strictly means by which information is communicated in a series of related assertions. Between the points in the trajectory described by the changing narrative, dislocation and interruption subvert the referentiality of the link as a pointer in a constellation of related speech acts. What you are unable to do with the link is as significant as what you might do with it.

Doing something with the link is what navigation as a narrative strategy appears to be all about, at least to the reader who optimistically invokes the belief that the hypertext is an instrument of discourse. The readers of hypertexts are, remember, called "users" by the technicians that design the environments in which these texts are read. Even in their patently recreational forms (interactive fictions, for example), hypertexts are imbued with a purposiveness that is less conspicuous in the traditions of paper literature. By virtue of existing purely within the electronic domain, hypertexts are contaminated with the instrumentality of the technological apparatus that encloses them. This concept—to avoid a stronger term, like "mythology" or "ideology"—of hypertext as an information tool runs throughout the literature of hypertext design. With very few exceptions, it presumes a model of communication (and writing) in which hypertext is a vehicle for thought, and the deployment of links, rather than opening indiscriminate possibilities for deferral and contingency, tends instead towards a saturation of meaning, and a commensurate improvement in the representation of the connections between ideas.[5]

This is in fact the classic model of the relation of writing to thought. It is also a model that Derrida has profoundly called into question. In the "Writing and Telecommunication" section of "Signature Event Context," he focuses his attention on the classic view of writing, as an extension of oral communication and a substitute for the ideas of interlocutors who are no longer present to express their thoughts by word or deed.[6] For Derrida, the critical element here is that writing as it is traditionally defined is always inextricably linked to an absence: the absence of the thing written about, the absence of the writer, the absence of the intended receiver of the written mark. The practice of writing may be complicated by historical or generic modifications. It may take hieroglyphic, ideographic or phonetic-alphabetic forms—and the history of writing, at least in the West, is usually thought to progress in that order, increasingly abstracting its relations to the referent, and becoming both more general and more semantically efficient with each step in the progression. It will be, however, always directed towards the re-presentation of that which is not here, at the moment and place the writing is consumed. This is how writing communicates: it repeats; it is repeated; it brings from the place or moment in which it was created something that is not in the place to which it is destined. To do this, it must be able to stand alone, severed from its creator and the instance of its creation. The written sign, says Derrida,

is... a mark which remains, which is not exhausted in the present of its inscription, and which can give rise to an iteration both in the absence of and beyond the presence of the empirically determined subject who, in a given context, has emitted or produced it. This is how, traditionally at least, "written communication" is distinguished from "spoken communication." (317)

The effects of this potential iteration of the mark (Derrida calls this the mark's "iterability") are not, he goes on to claim, limited to the fortunes of the written utterance as a whole.

One can always lift a written syntagma from the interlocking chain in which it is caught or given without making it lose every possibility of functioning, if not every possibility of "communicating," precisely. Eventually one may recognize other such possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. (317)

"The circle is square," Derrida notes (citing Husserl's example), is not without meaning ("it has enough meaning for me to be able to judge it false or contradictory" (319)), though there may be no referent to which we can apply it.[7] Apparently nonsensical words or fragments ("abracadabra" and "the green is or," again citing Husserl) are only nonsensical within specific, albeit generally-accepted horizon of intention. But, since these words do not in themselves constitute their context, one might imagine a context in which they would be perfectly meaningful:

not only in the contingent case in which by means of the translation of German into French "le vert est ou" might be endowed with grammaticality, ou (oder, or) becoming when heard (where, the mark of place): "Where has the green (of the grass) gone (le vert est où)?," "Where has the glass in which I wished to give you something to drink gone (le verre est où)?" But even "green is or" still signifies an example of agrammaticality. (320)

In short, says Derrida, the "context" of an utterance can be radicalized along any dimension, plastic or semantic, capable of signifying something, even a failure to signify. The iterability of the mark beyond the horizon of the moment and the conditions under which it was written means that context (a place) and contextualization (a process or system that circumscribes a place) are at risk within the notion of writing-as-communication that appears to sustain both concepts. The sign (as written mark, utterance, or textual thread) can be excised from one place and grafted to another; the texture of the fragment may or not be consistent with the fabric to which it is grafted (though it may always be consistent with another grain in the fabric)—but in any case, neither the excision nor the graft are absolutely conditioned by limits that can be identified with the traditional notion of "context."

Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the usual sense of this opposition), as a small or large unity, can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion. This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside of its context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center of absolute anchoring. This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or an anomaly, but is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called "normal" functioning. What would a mark be that one could not cite? And whose origin could not be lost on the way? (320-21)

You might not get there from here.

Which brings me back to the vicissitudes of the hypertext link. The metaphor of hypertext navigation (directed and intentional movement) subjects the link to a double effect of contextualization. It posits a position for hypertext among the species of communication, and suggests that what is "hyper" in hypertext (the dynamic constellations of associated threads) constitute a widening and saturation of context. In this view, the link is where the threads are joined, where they communicate, in the classic sense of the term that Derrida has called into question. The margins of the docuverse may be dynamic, and the capacity of the system for forming links within that space virtually unlimited, but the structure of the link will always be conceived of as an elaboration of the system of the docuverse, a further saturation of the space of reference with more defined or refined connections between related themes.

"Context" (in the classic sense) appears to be an epistemologically inevitable element of our reading of these texts. The fact that we are able to make sense out of hypertexts is proof that contextualization determines how and why we bother to read (in the everyday sense of the word) these texts. (What would a hypertext that you couldn't read—in the everyday sense, trusting to anticipation and retrospection—look like? How could you read it? A text like that would threaten to scatter around you at any and all moments. Where would that leave you?) But making sense, supporting connections or widening context are not the only effects generated in the place and moment of the link. The fabric of a docuverse is woven in patches, a bit from here, a bit from there. What keeps it from collapsing into a Byzantine collection of embedded narratives (what might be called the "conventional" sense of "citationality") is that the frame that appears to enclose the destination-thread within the departure-thread opens out both ways: while you're crossing, the fabric can be textured in both directions.[8]

If, instead of conceiving of the link as an instrument of textual communication (movement and meaning), you consider it as a trace of the iterability of hypertextual threads, as the shape of the turn that divides them and subverts the limiting traits of context, then navigation across (or by means of) the link amounts to moving within a dilatory space whose limits can't be circumscribed. The susceptibility of the divagations of the hypertext to the limiting effects of context is subverted by the divisions written explicitly into the narrative structure of the text. The link is where contextualization is distracted, where it slips away in the iterable mark.

Doing something with the hypertext link—using it as a navigational guidepost, for example—obscures the non-instrumental effects of iterability that inhabit the place of the link. The perceptual impediment in the case of electronic (hyper)texts is that the technology that raises the narrative consequences of iterability to the level of the user's awareness is reconstituted by other factors in ways that contribute to the process of contextualization. As I pointed out earlier, the technology of hypertext—the silicon chips and the electron beams, but also the techné of hypertext: hypertext as a tool, a thing you do stuff with—contaminates the reader's experience of the text. The machinery gets in the way. It obscures the effects of hypertextual iterability at the same time its designers aspire to make the apparatus invisible: a well-implemented electronic text, it is widely assumed, should feel "natural" to the user (she should feel "at home" in the text)—that is, it should feel very much like reading a paper text, only on a video screen. "Interfaces," whatever metaphors they are based on, will always presume a philosophy of gesture and language, and it is usually one deeply rooted in the classic concept of writing-as-communication.[9] When, on the other hand, the narrative effects of iterability are encountered in robustly digressive paper texts, (the Talmud, Ulysses, The Dictionary of the Khazars, Glas—to name a few obvious examples), their subversions of the text's capacity for saturation and closure seem more conspicuous, more palpable. We have grown so accustomed to the shapes of words and pages, to the passivity of the book as an object held and manipulated, that when texts resist familiar strategies for extracting meaning from them, the novelty of the impasse is the first thing we notice.[10]

Doing something with the hypertext link substitutes narrative closure for the dilatory space of the gap between the threads. It disavows the narrative turn, and fetishizes the link. I want to stress this point, because it seems to me that the instrumental notion of the link exactly makes the link into a fetish object for the reader. The fetish, remember, is the pervert's response to the trauma of a cut . By "cut," I mean, of course, "castration," but it's essential to see that "castration," in its psychoanalytic applications, defines a general economy of cut and division that is applicable to the breaks in the structure of hypertext narrative (Harpold, 1991, 174-76). Whereas the hysteric and obsessional can only repress (Verdrängung) the cut, the pervert seeks to disavow (Verleugnung) it entirely, by finding a fetish object to repair the lack. The neurotic will forever pursue the missing phallus in a negative form, in the substitutive process of sublimation. For the pervert, however, the phallus is still there: no lack, no gap, no cut.[11]

To read the link as purely a directional or associative structure is, I would argue, to miss—to disavow—the divisions between the threads in a hypertext. "Missing" the divisions is how the intentionality of hypertext navigation is realized: the directedness of the movement across the link constitutes a kind of defense against the spiraling turn that the link obscures (Harpold, 1991, 181, n6). What you see is the link as link, but what you miss is the link as gap.

The fetish model of the link joins, to borrow from Landow's formula cited above, efficiency to pleasure. When we read a hypertext, we accomplish something, we bring something to an end: we do it, and we do it efficiently (from the Latin, efficere, "to effect, to accomplish, to bring about"). The nature of the pleasures of reading these texts is open to question, but the instrumental structure that sustains the phenomenon of pleasure is clear.[12] Reading the link as a directional structure means taking it as a safeguard of the conclusion, a version in miniature of the directedness of the general economy of the docuverse. It means making it into a compromise object, capable at the same time of describing the tears in the fabric of the docuverse and closing those tears by binding the threads more tightly. The fetishized link points the way (the route and the method) to an end, and the satisfaction of a opportunistic desire to make meaning from the movement back and forth, across the tears in the fabric.

But the link might point you astray; it might not point you where you wanted to go. You might find yourself, as Landow suggests, at home, but that might turn out to be an uncanny sort of place. (The term "Uncanny" derives from Unheimlich, Freud's name for the thing that is both intimately familiar—heimlich: "home," "homey"—and disturbingly strange. The German word means both things.) The domesticity of the uncanny is always suspect.[13]


The might not (you might not get there, might not know where you are, might not know what to do once you get to the other side) is in fact the central problem of hypertext navigation. It's where the teleology of navigation is diverted from its course, where home begins to feel a little unfamiliar.

One of the consequences of the "ideal iterability" of all marks, Derrida argues, is their "capacity for diversion" ("My Chances," 16). The iterable mark's freedom to be moved from place to place ("context" to "context") implies that it may also be mis-directed. The original reference or motivation attached to the mark at the moment of its creation, or the references or motivations attached to it at any moment thereafter, are irrelevant to its ideal citationality, and may be irrelevant to any actual destination to which the mark is directed. Moreover, because a mark is a purely differential structure, defined only in its relation to a constellation of other marks, any single instance of a mark may be further differentiated from itself by being multiplied or divided to produce new instances distinguishable from that instance. In effect, the mark (or any of its avatars) may wander all over the place, and the destination it will take is ideally indeterminable. Derrida calls this principle the "destinerring" of the mark ("My Chances," 16).

The movement of a mark's destinerring, wandering toward and away from its destination, will be shaped, he suggests, by the destabilizing effects of chance. Language is a way or marking (it is "only one among the systems of marks") that has the paradoxical property of "simultaneously [inclining] toward increasing the reserves of random indetermination as well as the capacity for coding and overcoding or, in other words, for control and self-regulation" ("My Chances," 2). The successes of speaking or writing (in the classic sense, their capacity to communicate) will always fall subject to the hazards of the marks deployed therein.

The things with which I am bombarding you are linguistic or nonlinguistic signs: words, sentences, sonorous and visual images, gestures, intonations, and hand signals... [This list would include the range of non-alphabetic marks and gestures that fall under the rubric of "hypermedia"] On the basis of numerous indices, we form, you and I, a certain schematic idea of one another and of the place where contact could be made. We certainly count on the calculating capacity of language, with its code and game, with what regulates its play and plays with its regulations. We count on that which is destined to random chance (ce qui destine au hasard), while at the same time reducing chance. Since the expression "destiner au hasard" can have two syntaxes and therefore can carry two meanings in French, it is at once of sufficient determination and indetermination to leave room for the chances to which it speaks in its course (trajet) and even it its "throw" ("jet"). This depends, as they say, on the context; but a context is never determined enough to prohibit all possible random deviation. To speak in the manner of Epicurus or Lucretius, there is always a chance open to some parenklisis or clinamen. "Destiner au hasard" could mean resolutely "to doom," "abandon," "yield," or "deliver" to chance itself. But it can also mean to destine something unwittingly, in a haphazard manner or at random. In the first of these cases, one destines to chance without involving chance, whereas in the second, one does not destine to chance but chance intervenes and diverts the destination. (3-4)

The play of narrative across the hypertext link is subject to this double deviation of the iterable mark. Hypertext navigation is always conditioned by the randomness of the possible paths that the narrative may take, the detours and the impasses that may at any time intrude upon the directness of the movement. Navigation will always be, in short, contingent. I don't mean by this that it will be subject to the circumstances (historical, environmental, affective, etc.) that obtain at the moment the reader elects to take one path through the text and not another, at least not in the way these elements are usually understood, as traits of "context", but rather that the turns of a hypertext reading are subject on every level and at every moment to chance alignments and deviations that exceed the limits of any boundary that might be called "context." This is the simple consequence of the narrative excesses of the hypertext excursus: at any moment, you might (not) know where you are going. The difference between knowing and perhaps not knowing is where navigation turns ambiguous.

You have to take your chances. Taking them may mean making something of the accidents of reading. The reading of a hypertext (any kind of text) is guided by a will to make sense of the text, no matter what confusing or contradictory turn it may appear to take. In other words, it is guided by a determination to make all the chance encounters of the reading meaningful. Reading, then, relies on a duplicitous faith in the principle of chance, because chance is always assumed to be meaningful, which is the same thing as assuming that there is no real chance.

This faith in the absolute connectedness of the elements of a reading is, as Derrida points out, part and parcel of a long metaphysical tradition that places the structure of representation (writing, speech) squarely within the domains of causality and teleology ("My Chances," 22-25). That the core principles of that tradition are also the core principles of the classic model of writing-as-communication is hardly, to turn an ambiguity of language on itself, an accident. The faith in the absolutism of context that sustains the latter is the bad faith in chance that sustains the former, and that bad faith is equally subject to a deconstruction of its presumptions about the moment and effects of chance. Absolute connectedness is usually cited as a defining limit for the realm of superstition: things don't just happen in this-or-that-way because of arbitrary conditions outside the proper context of the event (for example, the position of the stars in the heavens). In literary terms, you can't just make any sense out of a passage because of what you ate this morning or because your birthday falls under a certain sign in the Zodiac. What counts, this restriction of the reading asserts, are the relations between the significant traits of the reading. (I'm ignoring here the enormous issues raised by notions like "proper" context of an event, or the "significant" traits of a reading. These open lines of inquiry that begin somewhere near the classic concept of context and join it in a direct path to the most elementary problems of representation.)[14] How you define the field from which these traits are drawn will place you within one or another school of reading. But the limits of this field (in another word, this "context") are slippery: the structure of your explanation of the limits of context looks exactly like that used by the superstitious person; it's just that her idea of context is defined by a different field of significant traits. Each field may be suitable for a different moment and place; each is subject to contingencies that may divide it further into fragments of potential suitability for other moments and places. Which is to say that the connections become, at best, very tenuous.

This is not to suggest that there is no relation of causality, no instance of connectedness in reading a hypertext that could undo the effects of what we are accustomed to calling "chance," but rather that there is a principle of indeterminability (a generalized "chance") operating between the gaps in the reading that may sometimes turn you back on your path. The link may not join the threads you would navigate; it may not guide you to a place you can call home. It may not, in the end, get you to where (you thought) you were going.

Misdirection is, then, not a secondary or unfortunate consequence of the narrative excesses of hypertexts. The accidents of reading a hypertext (changing your destination, forgetting your point of departure, or getting lost along the way) are not a priori the effects of inappropriate cues, misinterpreted reference or poor design, but the general condition of the hypertext as text (a fabric of iterable marks), amplified by the narrative turns of the link (the trace of the marks' iterability). The directionality of the link may be always supplemented by its misdirections, and the latter may contribute as much as the former to the navigational opportunities of the docuverse.

You have to take your chances. You might have to steer by the Zodiac, or by another guide similarly attuned to the vagaries of fortune. A fetish can also be a charm, a phylactery, a thing invested with the power to ward off injury. In the concluding paragraphs of my earlier essay, "Threnody," I suggested that hypertexts are dismembered sorts of texts, marked by wounds at each irreducible turn of the narrative, and that reading these texts is a kind of ritual binding of the wounds, and an elevation of the fragmented corpus to a totemic object (178). This is what the fetish model of the link can do, with all its presumptions of utility, pleasure, context, and intentionality: it can represent the contingencies of hypertext discourse in a localized, concrete form that, from the position of the user, will appear singularly non-contingent. Navigating with the link amounts to investing it with the power to rise above its contingencies. It presumes that the link, as compass, as tool, as trustworthy guide, will shield us from the effects of the aleatory space we must traverse before we return to a place we can call home.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David. "Topographic Writing: Hypertext and the Electronic Writing Space." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Eds. Paul Delany and George Landow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 119-32.

———. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

Derrida, Jacques. "Limited Inc, a b c ..." Trans. Samuel Weber. Glyph 2 (1977).

———. "My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies." Trans. Irene Harvey and Avital Ronell. Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature. Eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. 1-32.

———. "Plato's Pharmacy." Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. 61-172.

———. "Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [Pointure]." The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 255-382.

———. "Signature Event Context." Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. 307-30.

———. "To Speculate—on 'Freud.'" The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 257-409.

———. Signéponge/Signsponge. Trans. Richard Rand. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund. "Fetishism." 1927. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 21: 149-57.

Harpold, Terry. "Threnody: Psychoanalytic Digressions on the Subject of Hypertexts." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Eds. Paul Delany and George Landow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 171-84.

Landow, George. "The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Eds. Paul Delany and George Landow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 81-104.

Laplanche, Jean and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.

Moulthrop, Stuart. "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. 119-32.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. Literary Machines. Version 90.1. Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press, 1990.

Ulmer, Gregory. Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

———. "Grammatology Hypermedia." Postmodern Culture 1.2 (January 1991).

———. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video. Routledge: New York, 1989.


[1] See, for example, his extended footnote on navigation metaphors (1991, 102n2): "Because hypertext linking takes relatively the same amount of time to traverse, all linked texts are experienced as lying the same 'distance' from the point of departure. Thus, whereas navigation presupposes that one finds oneself at the center of a spatial world in which desired items lie at varying distances from one's own location, hypertext presupposes an experiential world in which the goal is always potentially but one jump or link away."

[2] Much of Derrida's work can be seen as a commentary on this tradition. See, for example, his discussion of Plato's critique of the Sophists' mnemonic techniques in "Plato's Pharmacy," his analysis of the "speculative" movement of the fort/da spool in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle," ("To Speculate—on 'Freud'), and the thread on travel, tourism and voyage that runs throughout the "Envois" section of The Post Card. Derrida's "postal" strategy is a version in miniature of the effects of displacement, shift, detour that are implicit in the philosophical language of voyage. Ulmer (1985 and 1989, especially the "Memory II: Tour Routes" chapter of the latter) has demonstrated at length how a Derridean reading of memory as voyage, discourse as excursion, can serve as the basis of an inventio of theory and writing.

[3] The intentionality and directionality of "navigation" within hypertexts is my primary concern here, but I should also add that these concepts presume a more primitive concept, without which reading as movement can't be conceived of: they presume that hypertexts have a spatiality, a topography over which one navigates. Jay Bolter has written extensively on electronic text as a topographic medium (1990, 1991).

[4] It has, of course, been clear from the earliest chapters in the history of hypertext that narrative nonlinearity is not a unique trait of the electronic forms of the genre. Nelson's definition of hypertext as "simply ... non-sequential writing" (1990, 1/17), embracing anything with a footnote, inset, marginal commentary, etc.—in other words, nearly every kind of paper document written or read—is the zero-degree model against which all discussions of the electronic texts are posited. It seems equally clear, however, that certain traits of electronic hypertext—the evanescence of the written artifact (compared to paper and ink) and the possibility of non-sequential indexing or browsing mechanisms in the computer environment—alter by degree the perception of the possibility for narrative divagation common to all forms of writing.

[5] Cf., for example, Nelson, 1990, 1/19: "It is my belief that this new ability to represent ideas in the fullness of their interconnections will lead to easier and better writing, easier and better learning, and a far greater ability to share and communicate the interconnections among tomorrow's ideas and problems. Hypertext can represent all the interconnections an author can think of; and compound hypertext [Nelson's term for the linked documents created by different authors] can represent all the interconnections many authors can think of."

[6] The immediate object of his critique is Condillac's Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge.

[7] Exactly what Derrida means by the use of the word "meaning" in this passage is a problem that goes beyond the limits of this essay. The concept, its history and its rhetoric are at the center of Derrida's readings of Austin and Husserl in this essay and elsewhere. For an extended discussion of the relation of the concept to that of performative intent, see Derrida's blistering response to Searle's defense of Austin, in "Limited Inc."

[8] The model of the link invoked here is what Nelson calls the "transclusional pointer"—that is, a marker of the inclusion of a portion of one document in another, or (to define the link dynamically) an opening from the current document out to another document. What distinguishes transclusion from simple inclusion is the uncertainty of the direction and the relative priorities of the documents—in other words, the effects of iterability on the relation of "inside" and "outside," "primary" and "secondary" that are implicit in the idea of inclusion. This principle is applicable to other kinds of links. See Nelson, 4/41-4/60.

[9] See Ulmer, "Grammatology Hypermedia," ¶ 1-3: "The very concept of the 'apparatus' indicates that ideology is a necessary, irreducible component of any 'machine.'' (¶ 2)

[10] The flip side of my earlier observation that electronic hypertexts do not have a monopoly on the effects of radical narrative digression is that the detours that are possible within the confines of paper and ink have, to some extent, become the most commonly cited models of detour in electronic narratives. Those of us who have tried to describe an electronic hypertext to someone who has never seen one often resort to familiar examples of robustly cross-referenced documents (the dictionary, the encyclopedia), "only more so." Exactly what the unique traits of electronic text (or more generally electronic media) as a narrative genre are, or will come to be defined to be, is by no means clear. One of the most intriguing recent forays into this largely uncharted area is Ulmer's Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video.

[11] Cf. Freud, 1927; Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973, 118-21 ("Disavowal"), 306-9 ("Perversion").

[12] Cf. Derrida's discussion of the problematic distinctions between "pleasure" (Lust) and "unpleasure" (Unlust) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, "To Speculate," 275-277.

[13] In numerous passages, Derrida has suggested that the fetish is a powerful counter-model to the model of representation that has dominated the Western tradition. (See especially "Restitutions" and Signéponge.) For Derrida, the fetish challenges the the logic of castration (and the principle of mimesis joined to that logic) by means of an alternate, individual and contingent economy of detail, wherein the fetish, instead of substituting for the "real" thing, defines a chain of simulacra in which original and substitute are no longer clearly distinguishable from each another. A Derridean reading of the hypertext link as fetish might argue that the link's fetish-effect has a double value: at the same time that it covers the effects of the link as gap, it supplements the logics of association, direction and intentionality by deferring (differing) the distinctions between linked texts.

[14] The problematics of the proper (the original, the right, the clean ("propre")) and the proper name run throughout Derrida's writing. Among those works cited elsewhere in this essay, see especially "Restitutions," "To Speculate" and Signéponge.

[Back to the Writing on the Edge special section, 1991 index.]