This essay first appeared as "Cinematic paradigms for hypertext." in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 13.2 July (1999): 217-226.
The recent history of hypertext and its discussion of the moving image has produced a genealogy that has orientated itself around one of three major regimes: poststructural literary theories; post-digital celebrations of hypermedia 'promiscuity', and; post-digital appropriations of cinema into, or by, hypertext.
The first category is what could be characterised as 'canonical' hypertext theory, and is represented by the early work of people like Jay David Bolter (1991), Michael Joyce (1995), George Landow (1992) and Richard Lanham (1993). This work, while implicitly distancing hypertext from existing literary traditions, relies upon the insights, and appropriation of, various softened forms of poststructural philosophy (Derrida, Deleuze, de Man, Iser, et al) to illustrate the relationship of hypertext to print. However, this work, by defining itself in terms of a poststructural reappraisal of print (even in an apparently positive definition 'what poststructuralism suggests - hypertext performs') already casts hypertext under the surveillance, orbit or authority of the page and its particular discursive practice and traditions.
These 'early' theorists describe hypertext's relation to the image in two broad ways, the first is the manner in which digital writing allows our writing to adopt or express 'pictorial' qualities (for instance the use of colour and layout in HTML writing), and the second is the more ordinary use of images, where digitisation provides a lingua franca for otherwise discrete media types:
[T]he computer has the capacity to integrate word and image more subtly, to make text itself more graphic by representing its structure graphically to the writer and the reader. The computer can even dissolve the distinction between the standardized letter forms and symbols of the writer's own making. True electronic writing is not limited to verbal text: the writeable elements may be words, images, sounds, or even actions that the computer is directed to perform. (Bolter, 1991: 26.)
For these poststructural literary theories the ability to incorporate images into the space of a critical writing (for the examples proffered are always a critical writing - hardly any of this group of theorists seems to have thought that images might offer something to hypertext fiction), offers itself as an opportunity to embellish and add 'depth' to otherwise monocultural textscapes. But it is also clear that for these first glimmerings of the image's relation to the hypertextual word there is an anxiety of the image in relation to the word. This is evident not only in the manner by which the image is relegated to the role of 'illustration', 'figure' or 'supplement' but in the much more specific way that hypertext theory attempts to prescribe rules of use.1
The second category, those theorists who embrace hypertext's discursive or textual promiscuity, are represented by people like Greg Ulmer (1991, 1997), Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen (1994), but also includes the direction indicated by the more recent work of Joyce (n.d.), Moulthrop (1998), and Amerika (n.d.), and most of the first group of writers where they discuss possible futures. While this is a surprisingly short list, an examination of the literature demonstrates that for most hypertext theorists and practitioners the ability and desire to link between and across documents is explicitly tied to text based domains.
While the relation of image to word in hypertext is a complex one, and generally under theorised, it is in the third category, what I'm characterising as the hypertextual 'appropriation' of cinema, that a possible hypertextual practice can be identified. Early work in this arena is best seen in John Tolva's 'MediaLoom' (1998), Nick Sawhney and David Balcom's 'HyperCafe' (1996), John Cayley's 'textMorphs' (n.d.) and the clearly evident interest in hypertext temporality evident at recent hypertext conferences (Shipman et al: 1998, Tochtermann et al: 1999). This 'cinematic' allure is also evident in recent work at Xerox PARC (Zellweger et al, 1998, Price et al, 1998) where the effort to animate the relation between hypertext nodes is simply reinventing a cinematic practice and procedure for traditional nodal relations in hypertext.
This recent work offers a major direction and set of possibilities for hypertext, but appears constrained by its difficulty in thinking or writing 'with' the cinematic in hypertext. Indeed, the literary bias within existing hypertext theory and practice operates as a prejudice, and here I mean 'prejudice' in the sense argued by hermeneutic philosophy (see, for instance, Gadamer, 1987), that is almost hegemonic in its efforts to reclaim the cinematic within the grammatical and literary fold. This hegemony is manifested in many ways, extending from the use of animated gifs on the Web through to the maintenance of existing broadcast models and televisual aesthetics for the presentation of audiovisual content in hypertext. This represents a literal reduction of the cinematic into a hypertextual domain that already accepts the linguistic and grammatical order of the word. Now, it is clear that hypertext theory is recognising this, and it is also clear that the now regular use of, for example, W.J.T. Mitchell's work on the relation between word and text (Mitchell, 1986, 1994), or the call to cinema already described, are hypertext's response not only to the 'assault' of HTML but also to theoretical impasses confronting hypertext. HTML and the web represent or perform a writing that is, at best, disinterested in the claims of hypertext theory (at least the sort of hypertext theory I'm describing here), and while hypertext theory can appear as merely reactionary in the face of the Web's colonisation of hypertext the move to questions of temporality and the image are a positive theoretical response to hypertext's Balkanisation by HTML.