Hermeneutics of Discovery vs Hermeneutics of Revelation

Bertrand Gervais notes a number of points which I would argue against when speaking of theories of textuality in a digital space. His statement that “Roland Barthes would roll over in his grave!” at the narrative in Richard Powers’s “Literary Devices” is odd – this story is a remarkably cogent expression of Barthes’s intertextuality, and points quite directly to how the searchable internet (particularly when partnered with natural language systems) represents an intertextual semiotic field and what Barthes meant by “Death of the Author.” His quote drawn from Olliver Dyens (2002) – “learning, on the Web, is not acquired from the text itself, rather it is acquired in the act of navigation from one site to another, from one text to another” and thus “The Web is not a book. It is not a text. It is therefore useless to ‘read’ information”— should similarly be questioned (Gervais does question the idea that one does not “read” the Web) because, again, this is a rather excellent explanation of how Kristeva (through Barthes) constructs her ideas of intertextuality in print materials. This is why my theories of hypertextual intertextuality do NOT suggest that it is in fact a different semiotic mode with different functional mechanisms, but rather that it is a more concrete example – or, in Moretti’s language, a more useful model – of contemporary theories of intertextuality for any medium.

 

My biggest point of contention, however, is with Gervais’s theory of reading the hyperlink, wherein he describes it as a logic of “revelation” rather than a logic of “discovery” in print. Gervais’s argument is that, hermeneutically, a person reading an un-embedded (i.e. print) text is interpreting the meaning through discovery, through a process with a potential for “error” which searches mentally through words and phrases to “discover” meaning. In contrast, the hyperlink has a static connection: hyperlink A is coded always to link to text B. Thus while a reader hermeneutically “discovers” through un-embedded text, the hyperlink “reveals” its meaning to the reader.

I disagree. First off, hyperlinks are only static to the extent that the pointed-to materials remain static – not true in a website which links within itself (as it is a living document capable of continual editing), not true in a website which directs the reader to exterior sources (as exterior sources, too, can and often do change). Second, if a reader comes across material which she does not know and wishes to find some definitive material for it, the kind of movement to do so is the same. If she comes across the word “autotelic” in a Norton anthology, a gloss will likely be provided, which is very similar to a link which provides some definition thereof. If no gloss exists, she will look in a dictionary (even a hard-copy one – yes, they do still exist!), and this movement of “discovery” through finding and using a dictionary, albeit slightly more laborious and time-consuming, is not necessarily that different from a hyperlink to a dictionary definition or merely typing the word into a Google search. All of these could be argued to be discovery, all could be argued to be revelation. The only difference is who is providing the information and how hard it is to acquire it.

Hence my skepticism toward concerns of excessive “authoritative control over interpretation” through hyperlink annotations: it is temporally, not theoretically, different from a non-embedded text. Someone coming across the word “swyved” in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” can easily look up what that word means in any number of dictionaries in any number of media-forms (a person’s mind, of course, also presenting a sort of dictionary). Or, with the Broadview Anthology, one could look at the gloss stating it means “made love to.” In a digitized version, there could be a hyperlink on this word pointing to the OED page for the word or giving an OED definition – we’ll stick with the euphemism and go with “copulated with” for sake of parallelism. The important part of all of this is that, though the gloss and hypertext undoubtedly provide an easy answer which a reader is much more likely to rely on, in no way is the reader limited to accepting this definition as “THE” definition. Such glosses are suggestions by the editor, not commandments from on high. It is semantics, after all, and semantics as a field is built upon chaos and flux.

Even if a reader were to ignore the gloss, or not click on the hyperlink, and then went to a dictionary, the only difference they would likely “discover” there would be the modifier “vulgar.” One would likely have to ask a specialist in English literature to find out that the word as used in Chaucer’s time is more equivalent to the word “fuck” in the present era.

The user is no more required to follow a hyperlink than she is to look up words in a dictionary; and the user has no greater impetus to follow a hyperlink for a word or reference she already knows than to investigate this if there was no hyperlink. Suggesting that hyperlinked text involves a wholly different hermeneutic method than un-embedded text ignores the potential for a reader to use secondary materials when reading and suggests an inappropriate division between listening to what a given editor suggests and what Google or Britannica or a Harold Bloom essay suggests. The only theoretical difference is ease and speed.

 

Gervais, Bertrand. “Is There a Text on This Screen? Reading in an Era of Hypertextuality.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Eds. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 1/27/2016.

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