e-Lit Resource
What Cybertext Theory Can't Do

Written in response to both Nick Montort’s “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star”
(www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/cyberdebates) and Markku Eskelinen’s “Cybertext Theory: What an English Professor Should Know Before Trying”
(http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/notmetaphor), Katherine Hayles' essay adds to the cybertext/hypertext debate as witnessed on the electronic book review. What began with Montfort’s review of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997), Hayles felt compelled to respond to Eskelinen’s laudatory comments about cybertext theory, and his subsequent derision of hypertext theory. Hayles adds to the commentary surrounding this issue on ebr, hoping that her comments will “set the record straight and be rigorously careful about what cybertext theory cannot do, as well as what it can do.”

Hayles’ main concern with cybertextual theory is its focus on functionality and its ignorance of materiality: “Despite the frequency with which Aarseth and Eskelinen use the word ‘material,’ in an important sense cybertext theory is very immaterial, for it largely ignores the material difference between, say, computer-generated text, the I Ching, and print novels.” Hayles has long been a proponent of media-specific analysis, thus her concerns with cybertext theory are in line with much of her critical writing on the topic.

At the heart of the debate on ebr is the supposed opposition between cybertext and hypertext, strongly positioned as such in Eskelinen’s essay. Hayles, however, sees glaring holes in Eskelinen’s approach, noting how “he himself admits that hypertext emerges as a subset of cybertext, so how can they be opposed?” Hayles comes to the defense of such pioneering figures of Landow, Douglas, and Manovich, who she believes Eskelinen is guilty of condemning all too quickly, for they were the early theorists of electronic textuality (including cybertext theory). Just as Eskelinen strives for an independent study of computer games, so does he believe that cybertext needs to repel any colonizing attempts from other disciplines. Hayles sees an issue with this: “Ironically Eskelinen is quick to claim other disciplines want to ‘colonize’ cybertext, while engaging in a rhetoric that in its ideological excesses is an imperialistic as anything I have read in recent years.”

Hayles takes issue with Eskelinen’s antagonistic approach to the field; she asks whether it would make more sense “to take an ecumenical approach that seeks to show how different theories make different kinds of contributions in ways that may be complementary rather than antagonistic?” This is really what Hayles attempts to validate: in the nascent field of electronic textuality, there can be a place for conflicting theories as long as those theories advance the field forward.

More from Hayles on ebr:

“Metaphoric Networks in Lexia to Perplexia”

“Visiting Wonderland”
“Engineering Cyborg Ideology”

“Cyber|literature and Multicourses: Rescuing Electronic Literature from Infanticide”