[Colonial & Postcolonial Theory]

The Performative and Processual: A Study of Hypertext/Postcolonial Aesthetic


Part One: Lanham's Bistable Oscillation

Jaishree K. Odin, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Transferred onto the topology of hypertext, the tension between the performative and the processual in the postcolonial context can be seen in terms of the binary oscillation that Richard Lanham elaborates upon in the hypertextual context in his work The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Lanham argues that due to its mutability and interactivity electronic text shows an oscillation which he terms as AT/THROUGH oscillation in which both the expressive representational surface, text on the screen with which the reader is interacting, as well as the conceptual universe it signifies to are in a bistable oscillation. In print text the attempt is made to keep the actual verbal text, black alphabetic marks on white surface, as unobtrusive as possible, so as to make it a transparent medium for conveying concepts. Lanham notes that "Print represents a decision of severe abstraction and subtraction. All non-linear signals are filtered out; color is banned for serious text; typographical constants are rigorously enforced; sound is proscribed; even the tactility of visual elaboration is outlawed" (73-74). Electronic text changes all that. The text is highly mutable, not only can the textual unit displayed on the screen be enlarged or diminished in size, the individual components within a particular textual unit or subunit can be subject to a variety of changes in terms of size, color, and form. The verbal text can be combined with visual images and even sound. The highly mutable nature of electronic text, including its adaptability to easy contextualization and recontextualization adds an entirely different dimension to the experience of the text. Lanham compares the electronic text to the rhetorical paedia of classical Greece for its ability to model, to change, to carry arguments at various levels, and so on. He describes hypertexts as three dimensional. "Fuguelike, they can carry on an argument at several levels simultaneously. And if we cannot read them simultaneously, we can switch back and forth with great rapidity" (21).

Lanham's description of the electronic text as a return of the rhetorical paedia is enlightening since it foregrounds the importance of the representational surface itself in any reading/writing experience. Its similarities to the oral rhetorical tradition in its dramatization, its interactivity, its ease of contextualization and recontextualization is also revealing. However, as Lanham himself points out, "The entire rhetorical tradition is deeply self contradictory Rhetorical education regularly invokes two opposite kinds of reality, a self that is first social and then central, a society that is first dramatic and then externally sanctioned, a physical reality that is both 'decorous,' that is to say created by the discourse which describes it, and at the same time 'out there' and independent of the language describing it" (147). Just as in classical rhetoric there is a tension between the social self in a dramatic society and the central essentialist self in a non-dramatic mode of thinking, so there is in Lanham's descriptions of hypertext as a rhetorical mode a tension between the polyglot reality of the individual texts or rather cultural texts and the Western cultural text rooted in an essentialist central patriarchal self.

It is the latter finally that occupies the centerstage in Lanham's electronic rhetorical paedia. His argument about digitizing the Great Books of the Western culture to bring back the appreciation of Western culture is flawed from the start since the premise on which it is based lacks movement of an open structure which is the very essence of hypertext. The interactivity of the electronic medium can be used to experience the ancient wisdom of the "Great Books" of both the East and the West in a new way, but this new way involves a representational mode which is decentered, and nonhierarchical and hence, resists notions of cultural hierarchy of any sort. Michael Joyce's anecdote from his book Of Two Minds comes to mind where he relates his conversation with a philosopher; the philosopher is worried what would happen to Plato in an hypertext environment. Joyce rightly speculates that the philosopher's fear lies in the realization that as the readers trace their own path through platonic or nonplatonic maze, they might recover their own version of Plato which might be very different from that of the philosopher's. And I might add they might discover their own Plato, a Plato who does not come from the Greek antiquity, but comes from the margins of Asia or Africa.

Lanham's bistable oscillation reminds me of liberal humanists' notions of cultural diversity. By turning cultures into objects of knowledge where each culture has a fixed place and identity, these theories promote cultural relativism under the guise of multiculturalism. You make space for other cultures, analyze them, categorize them, and also essentialize them, thereby keeping them in their place so that the dominant culture can maintain its hegemony. As Bhabha rightly points out, the notions of multiculturalism or cultural diversity belong to the domain of comparative ethics, aesthetic or ethnology where cultures are regarded as fixed, separate, fossilized and exist "unsullied by the intertextuality of their historical locations, safe in the Utopianism of a mythic memory of a unique collective identity" (1995: 206). On the other hand, the site of cultural difference is marked by interactivity and dialogue rather than static and fixed descriptions and it involves interdisciplinarity or interpenetration of cultural texts, so "that we cannot contextualize the emergent cultural form by locating it always in terms of some pre-given discursive causality or origin" (1994: 163). The notion of cultural difference shifts attention away from regarding cultures as fixed static entities and instead focuses it on the shifting mobile relations among interacting cultures that is marked by hybridity.

Postcolonial OV PoCo Theory Themes