Invading the Ivory Tower

Hypertext and the New Dilettante Scholars

How to Cite

Bruns, A. (1999). Invading the Ivory Tower: Hypertext and the New Dilettante Scholars. M/C Journal, 2(2).
Vol. 2 No. 2 (1999): Invasion
Published 1999-03-01

One of the most frequent comments about Internet-based media, particularly about newsgroups and the Web, is that they provide a forum for everyone, no matter how obscure or specific their interest -- you'll find dedicated fora for every field, from high-energy physics to learning Klingon, from the campaign for an independent country in Northern Italy to Indonesian cooking. This is seen as a positive development as often as it is regarded as a negative force -- optimists see these fora as potential bases for the formation of virtual communities which may be able to reinvigorate previously neglected niche groupings, while pessimists predict a further shattering of societies into disparate fragments with mutually almost unintelligible cultural attitudes. Examples supporting either view can be found amongst the multitudes of newsgroups and Websites available on the Net, but let us skip this debate for the moment; instead, let's focus on some of the potential consequences this situation may have for academia.

It requires little prescience to predict that the next few years will see an increasing use of the Web and, to a smaller extent, newsgroups in academic teaching and research. Continuously updated Websites will enable students and scholars to work with the latest developments in their disciplines, rather than limiting themselves to whatever recent books and journals their university library has managed to acquire, and newsgroups can help put interested academics in touch with each other in order to exchange news and pointers to information on the Web, as well as discuss recent research. For anyone with a computer, much of this information will also be accessible more easily electronically, via the Internet, than physically through libraries, bookstores, and photocopies. If it is organised efficiently on the Web, interested researchers may also come to be able to better target precisely the information they need, avoiding the need to leaf through volumes of journals to find the one useful article they might contain.

Such research isn't limited only to academics and university students anymore, though. As hypertext scholar George P. Landow notes, "hypertext provides the individualistic learner with the perfect means for exploration and enrichment of particular areas of study. By permitting one to move from relatively familiar areas to less familiar ones, a hypertext corpus encourages the autodidact, the continuing education student, and the student with little access to instructors" (Hypertext 129-30) -- particularly the ethos of information freedom that is widespread on the Internet means that any amateur enthusiast may conduct their own self-education with the materials available on the Web. This was already possible, after a fashion, in pre-Web times, of course, but the Net increases the amount of information available, and removes the physical and psychological barrier of entering a university library as a non-student, and facilitates connections to other (self-taught as well as 'official') students through newsgroups and email.

What's more, the Web also allows adding one's own voice to academic debates: "in a book one can always move one's finger or pencil across the printed page, but one's intrusion always remains physically separate from the text. One may make a mark on the page, but one's intrusion does not affect the text itself" (Landow, Hypertext 44). By creating a Web page displaying one's own thoughts on the matter, providing links to related sites, and ideally receiving links from those sites, too, any outsider may now invade the discourse in an academic discipline. In most cases, such invasions may go largely unnoticed -- but nothing's to stop a self-taught enthusiast from creating a highly useful Website that even 'proper' academics may consider relevant, and so from adding own articles to the discipline's body of knowledge.

As a side-effect of such presentation on the Web, then,

texts by students are no longer so easily subordinated to those by revered authors, and disparities between them are less visible. The text as a site of authority can also become a site of resistance: in hypertext, indeed, opposition to the canonised texts is more likely to succeed in conditions of hypertextuality than in the print culture, if only because hypertext makes it easier to expose the contradictions and power moves in such texts, and the multiply constructed positions from which they might be read. (Snyder 77)

Both these points pose a major problem for the currently prevalent conventions of academic debate, of course, which (despite post-structuralism's argument for the "death of the author") still evaluate the relevance of academic work partly based on its authorial source. Canonisation of particular scholars and their works (a process which is not limited only to literary disciplines) must ultimately fail -- "because all electronic texts are interrelated, none has well-defined borders; instead, each text reaches out to link up with past, present and future texts. It therefore becomes difficult to cordon off and to canonise a few great texts and authors" (Snyder 75). And generally, Nunberg notes, "media like the Web tend to resist attempts to impose the sort of solutions that enable us to manage (even imperfectly) the steady increase in the number of print documents -- the ramification of discourses and forms of publication, the imposition of systems of screening or refereeing, the restriction of the right to speak to 'qualified' participants" ("Farewell" 126). The freely accessible information on the Web includes texts by revered researchers as well as badly-informed beginners, and elaborate essays as well as superficial scribblings.

This realisation has caused many academics who grew up with the apparent simplicities of print to regard Internet-based media with despair and, frequently, with contempt; Nunberg himself provides a good example by stating that "any undergraduate student is free to post her night thoughts on Mary Shelley or the Klingon verb to a 'potential audience' of millions (a quick search of the Web turns up numerous examples of both), and there will be nothing in its mode of circulation to distinguish it from communications from better-qualified contributors" ("Farewell" 127). Such remarkably condescending prose indicates more than anything a paralysing fear of an invasion of the proverbial academic ivory tower by the uncouth hordes of self-taught dilettantes who have no respect for scholarly authority: Nunberg's insistence that a notion of academic 'qualification' (expressed no doubt in degrees and positions) could do any more than indicate vaguely that an author might have something valuable to say, and that anybody not 'qualified' this way cannot possibly contribute anything worth one's while, is surprisingly hierarchistic. Surely, in reality the onus for determining a text's worth should (and must) always eventually lie with the individual reader; the sense a text makes, not the source that made the text, should determine its quality.

It's easy to see that this emphasis which Nunberg and others place on a text's source is in fact determined by print as the still-prevalent technology of information dissemination. As Bolter describes it, "the idea of a relatively stable canon made sense in a culture dominated by printed books. ... But the notion of a standard has now collapsed, and the collapse is mirrored in the shift from the printed to the electronic writing space, in which a stable canon of works and authors is meaningless" (237). Landow elaborates that hypertext's

effects are so basic, so radical, that it reveals that many of our most cherished, most commonplace ideas and attitudes toward literature and literary production turn out to be the result of that particular form of information technology and technology of cultural memory that has provided the setting for them. This technology -- that of the printed book and of its close relations, which include the typed or printed page -- engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable. The evidence of hypertext, in other words, historicises many of our most commonplace assumptions, thereby forcing them to descend from the ethereality of abstraction and appear as corollaries to a particular technology rooted in specific times and places. (33)

Today, on the Web, however, where anyone can participate by adding their own texts or simply rearranging others', we lose once and for all notions of the author or the text as a stable entity. Thus, Nunberg claims, "on the Web ... you can never have the kind of experience that you can have with the informational genres of print, the experience of interpreting a text simply as a newspaper or encyclopedia article without attending to its author, its publisher, or the reliability of its recommender. We read Web documents, that is, not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another" ("Farewell" 127-8). Again, however, Nunberg claims a simplicity of the print media which simply doesn't exist: he goes on to say that "we should look to electronic discourse to provide a counter and complement to the informational forms of print -- a domain that privileges the personal, the private, and the subjective against the impersonal, the public, and the objective" (133). In reality, though, anyone who today still reads a newspaper or any other form of printed information as an 'objective' source, without an awareness of its publisher's or its journalists' political and economic agenda, must certainly be regarded as a naïve fool -- not just in Australia, with its atrocious standards of print journalism. If the modern media have taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as 'objective truth'; the Web, with its unprecedented opportunities for world-wide publication, just makes this fact particularly obvious.

While they may contribute to more openness in dealing with contributions from non-traditionally qualified sources, however, such realisations won't completely eradicate academia's fear of an invasion by the self-trained and the untrained. Some hope is at hand, though: "at the very moment indeed when the new technologies of memory can make us fear an alarming glut of traces -- a true change of scale in the collective accumulation of archives, at once written, audio, visual, and audiovisual -- these same technologies increasingly lighten its load, at almost the same pace, by facilitating individualised retrieval" (Debray 146); more elaborate search engines and resource listings on the Web can help point interested researchers to useful contributions both from within and without the ivory tower, and multiple alternative engines and listings may cater for various definitions of what constitutes 'useful'. "In the future, it seems, there will be no fixed canons of texts and no fixed epistemological boundaries between disciplines, only paths of inquiry, modes of integration, and moments of encounter" (Hesse 31).

This may also have negative implications, though. On the one hand, as Bazin writes, "the digital empire puts too much emphasis on relation and circulation per se, rather than on the acquisition of content. Instead of the substantialist metaphysics of the hidden meaning which a 'vertical' reading would attempt to reveal, it prefers the rhetoric of exchange and conversation. It counters the aesthetics of depth with a pragmatics of interface" (163-4), and researchers on the Web may stay on the surface of a discipline rather than explore the very depths of its discourse -- they may stick with digests, digest-digests, digest-digest-digests, to borrow from Ray Bradbury (55). "Electronic linking almost inevitably tends to lead to blending and mixing of genres and modes ... . Hypertextualising a text produces not an electronic book but a miniature electronic library" (Landow, "Twenty Minutes" 226-7), and sticking to one's research topic may prove difficult. On the other end of the scale, the Net's tendency to group interests off into niches may lead to specific deeply involved research being done without any awareness of related disciplines that may offer alternative approaches to a subject -- in short, without any knowledge of the bigger picture one's discipline fits into. To avoid both pitfalls demands a researcher's discipline and attention.

On the positive side, the invasion of the ivory tower allows for unprecedented public involvement (as Net theorists have often promised it):

we are witnessing the appearance ... of a 'dynamic textuality' ... that by freeing itself from the straitjacket of the book is transforming not only the individual's relation to the text but also the traditional model of producing and transmitting learning and practical knowledge. In the place vacated by a linear transmission, inherited from forebears and relatively individualised, a system for the coemergence of bodies of knowledge is tending to be progressively substituted -- a system in which instruction, self-apprenticing, intellectual creation, and diffusion all closely cooperate. (Bazin 163)

Naturally, this process won't mean that anybody can now easily become a nuclear scientist, economic expert, or cultural historian -- in most fields, to make it to the very top of the profession will still require a level of access to materials and equipment that only academic and professional institutions can offer. Nonetheless, more self-trained amateur enthusiasts will now be able to make meaningful contributions to their discipline -- a development we already begin to see in fields as diverse as astronomy, computer sciences, and some forms of literary studies. At the very least, it will create among the participants a more interested, more informed and more involved public, thinking for themselves and questioning the commonplaces of a print-based culture. "We are promised ... less of the dogmatic and more of the ludic, less of the canonical and more of the festive. Fewer arguments from authority, though more juxtaposition of authorities" (Debray 146). The invasion of the ivory tower is no attack on the Bastille -- the new dilettante invaders come to learn and share, not to destroy.

Author Biography

Axel Bruns