Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

This paper combines film and hypertext theory to try and 'prise open' some hypertextual questions that have been poorly framed. It will use incorporate short film examples. It is also hoped that along the way it might provide a useful way for thinking about how, or why, cinematic theory (of one sort or another) is becoming increasingly relevant in hypertext theory.

The recent history of hypertext and the image has produced a geneology that seems to have orientated itself around one of three major axes:

  • poststructural literary theories
  • post-ditigal celebrations of hypermedia 'promiscuity'
  • post-digital appropriations of cinema into 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, Michael Joyce, George Landow and Richard Lanham. This work implicitly locates hypertext within existing literary traditions and relies upon the insights, and appropriation of, various softened forms of poststructural philosophy (Derrida, Deleuze, de Man, Iser, et al).

Where this material relies upon ideas of the image can be divided into two practices. The first is the recognition that in hypertext our writing has 'imagistic' qualities (for example our use of colour and layout). Furthermore some hypertexts (this is particularly the case in Storyspace) allow us to produce webs that are, at a material level, ekphrastic. The second is the more literal case, where we are assured that we can now include image (moving and still) in our work, and that this will add to our writing about these 'things' immensely.

The second category is evident in the work of people like Greg Ulmer, Michael Joyce's recent teaching, Gaggi's writing, Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen's ambitious "Imagagologies", and most of the first category writers as they discuss possible futures.

The third category is best seen in the recent work of John Cayley (who at this conference explicitly calls upon cinema studies to help define or think about hypertext), John Tolva's hypervideo project, Nick Sawhney's hypercafe, and the clearly evident interest in hypertext temporality evident here and at recent conferences (for instance HT'98). This 'cinematic' allure is also evident in the work at Xerox PARC on 'fluid user interfaces' which, if nothing else, quite literally seek to animate the relation between hypertext nodes.

This recent work offers a major direction and set of possibilities for hypertext, but appears constrained by a difficulty in thinking or writing 'with' the image in hypertext. What appears to be the general model is that images are constrained in their role as illustration, or hypertext is leveraged as a vehicle for delivering variations around existing discursive regimes, for example hypertextual cinema. However the 'allure' of the cinematic is what needs to be accounted for, and it is possible to argue that Michael Joyce has it wrong when he described hypertext as the word's revenge on television. Alas (for Michael), hypertext is the word made cinematic.

This paper wishes to consider an integral cinematic practice (the edit) from the point of view of hypertext. It is suggested that there is an isomorphic relation between film edits and the hypertext link (certainly in link node hypertext) and this pragmatic definition provides a point from which we can reconsider some of our approaches to hypertext. In doing this some of the 'qualities' of linking ought to be elucidated, but more importantly some of what might be thought of as the immanent qualities of the link will become highlighted.


While there is considerable research in cinema studies regarding editing most of this has been subsumed under general categories of particular styles. Hence there is 'classical continuity cutting' where the function of editing is to conceal the constructed nature of film and narrative and to present a seamless fusion of events, character, and movement.

An edit, for all the rules and grammars that theorists encase it within, is best considered as an example of Austin's performative. While generally considered a speech act, performatives are constituted by their very practice ‹ in saying a performative we simultaneously 'do it', and as performatives are 'felicitous' or 'infelicitous' (Austin's terms) we can see that they are contextually dependent and enabled.

While the classic example of the performative is the promise (though Austin demonstrates that all speech acts are performative), there are many other forms of the performative (the order, the vow, the bet, etc), and while a list of possible edit types in these terms is silly (it is not a system of classification) it is clear that film edits work in this manner. (Indeed, much the same point has been made about literary narrative by Stephen Petrey in his "Speech Acts and Literary Theory".) Indeed, it is their performative nature which guarantees their success: as the Russian montage theorists discovered many years ago, an edit translates into "this is connected to this".

Edits in film also represent moments of risk, whether this is thought of from the film's, the narrative's, or the reader's point of view, yet they remain a fundamental enabling condition of what constitutes film.


Hypertext, on the other hand, relies upon the link, but links, like edits, are also moments of risk, and for all the same reasons. Coherence, whether of the hypertext's structure, narrative, or reader, is always chanced in, or with, the link.

The risk that a link represents, and its inevitable overcoming, suggests that we can think about hypertext links as performatives, as orders or promises (to use the two strongest forms). This, for instance, simply makes Joyce's words that 'yield' a felicitous promise, and a reader's frustration at a lack of 'yielding' an infelicitous promise.

While we might find it helpful to think about links as promises, and possibly even consider edits as promises, it isn't clear in what way this might help us think in any particular sense or manner about hypertext. However, there are parallels to be drawn, if only so that we might later be able to discount them.

The operation of links (the movement of the link), is generally concealed from the reader. In most hypertext systems the distance between nodes is not a quality recognised (any node is as available as any other), where we struggle with the dream of instant bandwidth where every link is as available as any other. This is of course much like continuity editing ('classical narrative'), where the space between is concealed, or sutured, and in this non­moment erased.

However, in cinema there are mechanisms that emphasise interstitial space, and while they have generally been surrendered to representation (they are dedicated to the representation of story) they often reveal themselves as some of the most 'intense' (in Deleuze and Guattari's sense of intensity) spaces in a film. What I'm describing is what is commonly called a dissolve, a film movement that emphasises the between of a before and after.

We can think about the dissolve as a moment in film where the usually concealed edit is made manifest, where the effort to conceal the process of the edit is less important than the movement that is the edit. This is clearly evident in a film like Chris Marker's 1962 "La Jetée" where a series of still images are cast into movement by virtue of the edit, and more particularly the dissolve.

The dissolve is a temporal device, it occupies time by extending the usually occluded moment across the space and time of the image. What does it achieve in doing this? - perhaps nothing but a celebration of itself, or more abstractly a moment where the film slows long enough to enjoy its own thinking, its own being. They are moments where the emphasis is not so much on the promise as on the act of promising. Dissolves are one of the moments in film where an enabling condition is made visible (assuming that edits are constitutive of cinema).

Hypertext writing and reading happens 'in' the link. It is not in the nodes that hypertext 'happens' but in the causal connections and pathways made between nodes. To try and think about, to describe, or even approach in any reasonable way the question of what lies in this 'between' (after all to say "it's the link" is to beg the question) requires us to shift our attention from nodes to links, from textual content to processes of construction. It is in this shift that cinema can not only help us in providing some theoretical or critical tools, but it is because hypertext is about the connecting of separations (of separate pieces) that we all find ourselves making our hypertext's cinematic.

The cinema rapidly defined for itself a method of stretching that shows or uncovers what lies between its parts. If hypertext does have a temporal dimension, and is performative, then we need to think about what lies within these links;

  • if we could slow down links what should occupy or occur during their time?,
  • what is the 'leap' that the link performs?
  • what promises does a link make, and who makes them?
  • what might a hypertext dissolve look like?
  • what should happen in a hypertextual dissolve?

If any answers to these questions are possible then in some manner we can think of hypertext as a temporal medium, a writing and reading that occupies times like film, a time as much determined by the text as by the reader.


This is an important task for hypertext as it finds itself struggling against its literary heritage. Hypertext is defined not by the presence of nodes, but through its links. It is only in this 'between' that hypertext is constituted and practiced. In trying to point to this 'between' this paper merely wants to reformulate some questions about what we do when we 'do' hypertext.

works mentioned

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale (N.J.): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

Burbules, Nicholas C. "Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy." Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. Ed. Ilana Snyder. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1997. 102­22.

Gaggi, Silvio. From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media. Ed. Emory Elliott. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Joyce, Michael. "Reader's Introduction." Afternoon. Computer software. Eastgate Systems, 1987. Macintosh.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Landow, George P. "The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Ed. Paul Delany and George P. Landow. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994. 81-103.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Petrey, Sandy. Speech Acts and Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1990.

Ulmer, Greg. "Grammatology Hypermedia." Postmodern Culture. 1.2 (1991): n.a.

Sawhney, Nitin "Nick", David Balcom, and Ian Smith. HyperCafe: Narrative and Aesthetic Properties of Hypervideo. Proceedings of HT'96. Washington: ACM, 1996.


Taylor, Mark C., and Esa Saarinen. Imagologies: Media Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Tolva, John. "MediaLoom: An Interactive Authoring Tool for Hypervideo." (Accessed September 22, 1998), 1998.

(Source: DAC 1998, Author's abstract)

Critical writing that references this:

Title Author Publisher Yearsort descending
Storyspace 1 Mark Bernstein 2002
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Scott Rettberg