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“Oh, I've had such a curious dream!” said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about…” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12)
Text and medium seem easy to separate. And in simple terms, the difference is clear; the medium is tangible, the text is not. For instance, if I were to write a poem on a piece of paper, the words and ideas would be the “text” while the piece of paper and the pencil I used to make the letters would be the medium. Then, say, I typed it up exactly as I had written it and emailed it to you; we wouldn’t say that “text” of the poem had changed. The collection of words and ideas remained the same even though in its first version it was written on paper and in its second it was typed on a screen. And this dichotomy between the medium (the thing you hold in your hand) and the text (the thing that first existed in my head) usually works pretty well and we feel comfortable thinking in these categories, so much so that we usually take them for granted.
However, while separating text and medium in theory may be simple, separating them in practice is more of a challenge, indeed I would argue impossible. After all, when the poem is still in my head, no one can read or see it, or even know if it exists and thus, in effect, is meaningless. In the same way, a medium without a text is pretty meaningless as well, like a blank piece of paper. And just as the two cannot be separated without destroying the meaning of the whole, the medium, with its specific constraints or advantages, works with the text, not only to represent, but even to create the meaning of the whole.
Consider this example: “Yesterday, I wrote a poem.” Did you see it?
“Yesterday, I WROTE a poem.”
Medium and text are so intertwined that our very word for the act of creating a poem implies a medium, a physical representation of the poem through writing. Clearly the nature of the relationship between a text and its medium is so complex that both are required for a work to have any recognized meaning.
From One Medium to Another
Often, the only times when we notice the effect that the medium has on the text is when a text is transformed from one medium to another. We call these transformations adaptations, recognizing that the text must change somewhat to fit the demands of the new medium. For instance, in the “Other Media” section of this site, you can compare several different “adaptations” of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for film, television, theater, music, and others, all of which contain some elements from the original “text,” altered (sometimes drastically) to fit the new medium. We expect this. No one goes to see an Alice in Wonderland film expecting to see pages from the book with Tenniel’s illustrations being flipped, while a Carroll-like voice-over reads the words. That wouldn’t take advantage of film as a medium. Living in an age where a good deal of literature exists in multiple media, we have come to expect that the texts will look different in different media.
Yet, curiously (as Alice might say) there do not seem to be the same expectations regarding electronic literature. Most people, if they interact with electronic literature at all, seem to want their “e-texts” to resemble print texts as closely as possible. However, it is important to remember that the Web (and other forms of electronic literature) is not print. It is a medium all of its own, and we should expect texts adapted for this medium to look quite as different from print as a film adaptation.
I will concede that there are quite a number of similarities between electronic and print media. Even much of the vocabulary is the same. Blocks of “text” appear on “pages,” which one must “scroll” down (an older print term, but a print term nonetheless). However, there are also some major differences. The first main difference is that electronic literature supports the abundant use of hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are clickable portions of text that automatically take the user to another page, usually with related content. Hyperlinks affect the reading experience in a few major ways:
1) They give the reader increased control over what to read and in what order (Roche 196).
2) They basically destroy the idea of reading linearly. There is no “correct” way to read a hypertext, since every few words the reader is allowed (even encouraged) to switch to a new page (Vandendorpe 78).
3) Finally, electronic texts do not encourage an extended reading time, either from the ocular strain of reading on a screen, or the very freedom that allows us to leave a page so easily. Indeed, Mark William Roche compared reading a Web page to skimming a newspaper (176).
These characteristics of hypertext, which are almost entirely incompatible with the traditional idea of a novel, also offer new and exciting possibilities for literature. “Native hypertexts,” that is, texts originally created as electronic text, take advantage of some of these unique features, for instance creating non-linear or multi-linear fiction. In addition, electronic literature is ideal for some common types of texts which were never meant to be read linearly: dictionaries and encyclopedias. But more than that, electronic text also has the advantage over print in its ability to incorporate other media, such as images, music, and video clips. There is also an increased availability factor to the Web. When my poem is on paper only one person can access it at a time, but if I publish it to my blog, millions of people could potentially read it at the same time.
Alice goes Digital
So why adapt Alice? After all, Lewis Carroll meant it to be experienced in print. Millions of readers have experienced it and fallen in love with it in print. If it’s in any other medium it’s not the “real” Alice, so why bother?
This is the view that many fans of print and of Alice take. And of course they are right, in the sense that if there is a “real” Alice the electronic version most certainly is not it. But that shouldn’t keep us from taking advantage of the Internet as a medium for electronic literature, especially scholarly electronic literature. After all, you can do a lot of stuff on a website that you cannot do in the Norton Critical Edition.
Literary scholars, aside from taking advantage of Internet databases for critical articles and plain text e-versions of the “classics” (Project Gutenberg), for the most part have been slow at adapting to electronic literature. However, Roche has a more optimistic view of the future of scholarly hypertext. He imagines that they
will have links to the various kinds of questions one can ask of a work in the realms of production aesthetics,…artwork aesthetics,…and reception aesthetics. Supporting materials might include etymology, maps, encyclopedic references, and historical information. In addition, such texts will eventually have not simply references to sources but the sources themselves, and not simply descriptions of performances but clips of performances or entire performances. (197, bold mine)
And that is exactly what this website attempts to be; my own attempt to discover what a truly scholarly hypertext might look like. Of course, I’ve tried to make the site as user-friendly as possible, so that even anyone might be drawn to notice to the difference medium can make.
And, it turns out, Alice is ideal for this kind of project. For one, the book is nearly impossible to read without notes these days. The inside jokes, the references to popular cultural items of the 1860s, and the mountains of critical and popular attention all make Alice ideal for hypertext to link to explanations and theories. In addition, the fact that Alice has been adapted for basically every medium, lets me show off one of the advantages of a website as a medium. And finally, the structure of Alice itself, which unfolds basically in a series of vignettes without a rigid plot structure, lends itself to the non-linearality of an electronic medium. I’ve expounded in other places about the similarities between Wonderland and the Internet, which just go further to make Alice a perfect case for scholarly hyper-texting.
As you explore the “Texts” section, take a minute to really experience it. Notice how reading the text on the screen in its different versions affects your understanding of it, or what you take away from it. Do you feel, as Christian Vandendorpe said, “a perpetually unsatisfied, superficial curiosity” (134)? Do you feel rather like you’ve fallen down a Rabbit Hole and you’re not sure which way to go next? In short, do you feel like Alice? I hope so.
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