Writing on the Hypertextual Edge

Stuart Moulthrop

Writing on the Edge, as the name suggests, is a place for thinking about borderlands and states of confrontation—"We want this to be a cross between College English and Rolling Stone," the founding editors once told me. In this issue we explore a relatively fresh cultual fault line, the interface between the printed word and the new electronic media typified by hypertext or "non-sequential writing." (For a more detailed introduction to hypertext, see my "In the Zones," Writing on the Edge, Fall 1989, or the articles by Johnson-Eilola and Douglas in this issue.) This technology holds significant implications for our theories of rhetoric and literature; but more important, it invites us to reconsider the ways we actually create and consume texts. So our encounter with hypertext here is both active and reflective, a matter of practical reading and writing as well as theoretical interpretation.

This issue contains articles about hypertext in general and about two hypertextual writings in particular, WOE and Izme Pass. The hypertexts themselves are included on an enclosed diskette. Our original plan was to create a single hypertext by passing Michael Joyce's fiction WOE through the hands of a half-dozen collaborative authors, each of whom would revise and augment the work. As the project expanded and time dwindled, we ended up not with a unified text but with a scattering of responses whose diversity may be as significant as their content. Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry refused to take WOE as a prior or instigating text, pointing out that this approach maintained a patriarchal concept of affilation as assimilation—the fault was mine and their point was well taken. Izme Pass, Guyer and Petry's collaborative text, is less a response to WOE than a parallel construction, contiguous and referential but also independent. By contrast, the articles by Bolter, Douglas, and McDaid all began as electronic texts written either within Joyce's structure or for eventual inclusion there. My own essay stands at a third remove as an extrapolation of McDaid's ideas. The essays by Harpold and Johnson-Eilola are addressed to general problems of hypertextual theory and rhetoric and were written without specific reference to the WOE project.

Different as these writings are, all address an underlying question: how does this interactive and polyvocal technology transform relationships among reader and writer, text and response? The unified WOE as I first conceived it was to be an open-ended, communal discourse. It would approximate what Michael Joyce calls "constructive hypertext," a form of writing that requires "a capability to act: to create, to change, and to recover particular encounters within the developing body of knowledge" ("Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertext," Academic Computing, November, 1988: 11 [Reprinted in The New Media Reader book as <>42]. Perhaps we have satisfied Joyce's prescription with our scattering of texts, written on and over the "edge" of hypertextuality. Or as Guyer and Petry might want to argue, maybe we have revised the definition of constructive hypertext, showing that a "developing body of knowledge" must be complex and diverse. Exactly what (and how) all these texts "mean" is best left to the reader.

[A short user's guide followed this introduction in the original; The note below appeared on the last page of the journal. —Eds.]

The Editors of Writing on the Edge wish to thank Apple Computer, Inc. for their generosity in funding the purchase and duplication of the disks provided in this issue.

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