Electric Theory (Truth, Use, and Method)

  1. 1. Tamise J. Van Pelt

    Idaho State University

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First Wave critics of the electronic environment - especially those critics who discuss hypertext in the late '80s and early '90s - make an interesting discovery about theory and computing: electronic literacy confirms post/structural theories of reading and writing. Given a computer environment, theory finds that its principles are indeed true.

Defining semiosis as the reading of codes and the writing of signs, J. David Bolter (1991) argues that "the theory of semiotics becomes obvious, almost trivially true, in the computer medium" (196). Similarly, George P. Landow (1992) extends Bolter's claim to encompass the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Bakhtin, and Derrida, pointing to the bilocation of ideas of textual openness, of the network, of polyvocality, and of decenteredness both in post-structural theory and computerized hypertextual writing. Thus, Landow concludes: "something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out precisely to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual, rather than physical, forms" (8). Even the hypertext novel can be an exemplar of literary criticism; for instance, Michael Joyce's Afternoon embodies both the content and the practice of psychoanalytic theory, using resistance as a literal compositional principle and placing desire at the center of the novel's reader-text interface.

This amazing convergence between post/structural theory and the computing medium suggests that hypertext's ability to stage the principles informing diverse (and even contradictory) literary theories defines a property of the electronic medium itself. Since the computer environment offers theory a self-validating medium, the question that once determined the authority of a theory - can its principles help the reader discover the truth of a text? - seems futile to ask. If Dillon is right and our technologies are actually embodiments of our theories (in Rouet, 8, emphasis mine), then this self-validating function of electrified theory undermines, by inevitable affirmation, the critical position of the reader-theorist. Because the electronic medium reconfigures the relation between the reader and the text, it literalizes the way that the reader brings theory to the text: In a medium where "the text is a stage and reading is direction" (Douglas, title), the very agency of the "reader" tends to strip away rather than develop critical distance. Thus, Espen Aarseth replaces the idea of the "reader" with the more ambivalent term "user" to describe the person who interacts with the electronic medium. User, Aarseth writes, "suggest[s] both active participation and dependency, a figure under the influence of some kind of pleasure-giving system" (Cybertext 174). Since a user-theorist of e-text operating under the print assumptions connecting theory to authoritative truth finds in electric theory the headiness of addiction to confirmation, electric theory necessitates attention to use itself.

To better define issues of user dependency and control in the convergence of theory with the electronic medium, I will examine two very different methods of computerized theoretical study that solve the problem of literalness: Earl Jackson, Jr.'s semiotics and psychoanalysis website and Havholm & Stewart's computer modeled structural narratology. Both methods arise from the computing environment and would be impossible without it. Whereas the former site places the user of electric theory in a webbed environment of emergent meanings and open-ended exploration, the latter practice programs theoretical principles in order to radically constrain theoretical outcomes. Either method's willingness to replace truth-value with use-value provides a way out of the self-confirming impasse created by the encounter between First Wave theoretical assumptions and the computer medium.

Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

July 21, 2000 - July 25, 2000

104 works by 187 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20190421230852/https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/allcach2k/

Series: ALLC/EADH (27), ACH/ICCH (20), ACH/ALLC (12)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None