Crashing the System? Hypertext and Scholarship on American Culture

Roy Rosenzweig June 1999

This article originally appeared in American Quarterly 51.2 (June 1999), 237-246. It introduced a group of online, hypertext articles, which are available at

Looking back over my folder of more than 250 e-mail messages from my past year as “guest editor” for this experimental section of American Quarterly on “hypertext and American Studies scholarship,” I see many messages that deal with topics familiar to those who have done any scholarly editing–discussions of acceptance and rejection letters, suggestions for revisions, and, of course, reminders of impending and past deadlines. Yet others have more unusual subject headings like “20K streams,” “still further testing,” and “AQ article crashes Netscape.” No doubt, American Quarterly editors have had to deal with many different kinds of disgruntled readers over the years, but I am surely the first to need to respond to people complaining of “JavaScript errors” that were “crashing” their browsers.

These disparate messages offer a good indication of the mixed goals that have motivated this particular project, in which we have tried to bring together something rather old-fashioned and established–the scholarly journal article–with something new and still emerging–the networked and digital space of the World Wide Web. Indeed, the issue of American Quarterly that you hold in your hands is another example of the hybridity of this project–it is a print symposium that also has the goal of getting you to put down this journal and go to your computer to look at, where these hypertext articles now reside. We could see this combination of print and cyberspace as a contradiction or even a slippery slope that spells the end of academic publishing as we know it. But, I would argue that such combinations and juxtapositions are considerably more likely than some sudden and apocalyptic death of the book (or journal). The future seems likely to be one where scholars take advantage of multiple media and move between them readily.

In imagining the shape of that future, one basic question we need to ask is: how might hypertext and new media change the nature of scholarly argument, communication, and publication? Although there has been much theorizing about hypertext and scholarship, there are very few concrete examples of scholars using hypertext and new media to present the results of sustained inquiry into the subjects that they study. Rather than invite more theoretical statements about the possibilities of on-line publishing, we wanted to see what electronic publication might mean concretely for American studies scholarship.

Despite the promises of cyberspace prophets that the Internet will bring “the death of distance,” it was proximity that was crucial to getting this particular project off the ground. The four people involved–Lucy Maddox and Terry Murphy, the Editor and Associate Editor of American Quarterly; Randy Bass, the head of the ASA Crossroads Project; and myself–all happened to live within five miles of each other and teach at three different Washington-area schools.1 Ironically, the electronic medium seemed to make in-person meetings more rather than less necessary, because we often needed to look at on-line proposals and prototypes as a group.

We brought different backgrounds to the table (and the computer), but we shared an interest in encouraging unconventional departures in form while also retaining the conventional validation and peer review that characterizes scholarly publication. However, we soon realized that if we asked people to submit hypertext essays for review and then, as would be expected, we rejected many of them, the authors would have no other journals where they could send their work. In other words, if we were the only game in town, then they would not have the option generally open to those whose work is rejected by a scholarly journal–of submitting their work elsewhere. In that context, it seemed unfair to require completed projects from authors.

Our compromise was to invite people to submit proposals for on-line scholarly “articles.” Despite the short time we gave people to prepare and the limited circulation of the call, we received more than twenty submissions in May of 1998. Significantly, most of the proposals came from graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s–presumably the group most likely to have thought about putting their scholarship into hypertext formats. And interestingly, a number of proposals also came from groups–an indication that the medium encourages people to think about collaboration. The four of us evaluated the proposals with some additional input from subject matter experts.

The four successful proposals were given a green–or really a yellow–light to proceed. We gave the authors the summer to prepare prototypes of their projects, which we would judge further to see if they should be fully developed. Thus, while we did not entirely follow the conventional peer review process, these projects received substantial scholarly scrutiny. In September, we gave all four the go-ahead, although we also offered close criticisms and suggestions for revision. Finally, in January, 1999 we advertised their “publication” through various listserves, although–in the spirit of a medium that undercuts fixity–we allowed authors to continue to revise their work.

In making our selections, we drew on the combination of conventional and unconventional goals that shaped the project. We wanted articles that did something new or innovative, that used the electronic medium to advantage. But we also wanted them to meet the conventional criteria for publication in American Quarterly–solid research, crisp analysis, interdisciplinarity, and clear prose.

We think that these four articles meet this difficult, dual standard, although the ways that they do so vary considerably. Thomas Thurston’s “Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American Courts” does something at first glance very straightforward but rarely, if ever, accomplished in print scholarship. It presents not just an argument about the legal status of photography in the previous century but also virtually all the evidence that supports (or perhaps even undercuts) the argument. One can read Thurston or one can read forty-two court decisions, articles, and excerpts from various novels and legal treatises. Or, ideally, one can read both. Given enough pages (not a small matter, as authors who are continually told to cut or adhere to page limits know), this might be done as well in the print version of the journal.

But Thurston also offers us something else–a system for seamlessly linking argument and evidence. He does this by taking advantage of two features of Web browsers: the “anchor” tag, which makes it possible to move the reader directly from one reference to the paragraph from which it originated and the “frame,” which enables Thurston to keep all the different pieces (argument, footnotes, sources, illustrations) of his “article” on a single screen. Thurston’s manipulation of these Web tools is significant, because the Web has not been designed with humanities scholarship in mind, and the tools that it offers to the scholar are, in fact, quite clunky and limited. For example, the Web handles footnotes considerably less well than word processors developed fifteen years ago. Thurston’s innovative piece offers scholars one interesting model for scholarly work.

James Castonguay’s “The Spanish-American War in U. S. Media Culture” also provides us with a scholarly innovation in the way that it connects evidence and argument, although it offers a more selective view of that evidence than Thurston. As Randy Bass notes in his commentary, the evidence presented here is more illustrative than comprehensive. But, significantly and perhaps for the first time in film scholarship, the “illustrations” include actual films rather than just film stills. Writing on the appropriateness of digital media to scholarly editing projects, Jerome McGann has argued that we no longer need “to use books to study books,” and to be limited by the “scale of our tools.”2 Surely, this dictum applies with particular force to film and media studies where these new tools allow us to put the full range of evidence “before the bar,” as Thurston puts it.

For a scholar of comics, the “scale of tools” available in print publication is also limiting. A print journal would find it prohibitively expensive to include the more than fifty illustrations that accompany David Westbrook’s “From Hogan’s Alley to Coconino County: Four Narratives of the Early Comic Strip.” And few, if any scholarly journals (outside of art history), would include any illustrations in the original color that we get to examine here. Moreover, Westbrook also enables a kind of simple interactivity that print cannot easily replicate–he encourages the reader to interact with the evidence and test his or her ability to see what the seasoned scholar notices. Take a look, for example, at Richard F. Outcault’s 20 September 1896 “Yellow Kid” strip. Westbrook’s initial caption, “The Kid as Anti-Authoritarian,” provokes one to consider the cartoon and think for oneself about why Westbrook has given it that label. But after you have made your own reading of the cartoon, you can click on the caption and be shown what Westbrook had in mind–the abuse being heaped on the hapless dog-catcher is now highlighted in red and explained with a supplementary caption. Even more, you can click on this second-level caption and be taken to a much more detailed discussion of class relations in Outcault’s strips.

In this interactivity and hypertextuality, Westbrook goes beyond providing a richer body of evidence to offering a different mode of argumentation. Considered from a linear perspective, Westbrook’s essay consists of three different sections (The Business of the Strips, The Culture of the Marketplace in the Strips, and Spectatorship and Framing in the Strips) with an “appendix” including all of the illustrations used in the essay. Conceptually, he argues that he is doing something very different. Each of the three sections, he writes, “approaches the subject matter from a different direction and defends a distinct analysis.” But, he maintains that the three threads still add up to a single essay “because none of the threads can stand alone. Each depends on concepts and observations built up in the other threads.” The fourth thread, however, does stand alone, constituting “a sort of ‘meta comic strip’ that tells the history of the strips through a series of panels that are themselves comic strips.” Here, the comics get to speak “for themselves in their own language” and “thumb their collective nose” while the scholars shut up.

Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz’s “Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger” shares with the other three essays an interest in using the expansive space of digital media to present a good deal more than is possible in print. In their case, it is quite a bit more. Among other things, their site includes descriptions of their 143 dreams about Arnold (totaling more than 23,000 words of text by my count); brief comments on at least eighteen different Arnold films; detailed essays on two films; fifteen magazine covers with Arnold on them; thirty references to Arnold in “everyday culture” (e.g., a radio announcer says of Russian leader Boris Yeltsin: “Y’know, he’s not exactly the Arnold Schwarzenegger of world leaders”); CNN transcripts of the O. J. Simpson Trial (because he was reported to have had a dream about killing his wife); five photographs by Krasniewicz from the Ms. International Competition 1993; dozens of 1995 e-mails between Krasniewicz and Blitz discussing love, life, and Arnold; and three “tidbits” on Maria Shriver. But this exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) archive does not exhaust the site, which also contains dozens of links to other Web sites from The Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic Body Building Competition in Columbus, Ohio. Interestingly, it is the only one of the four articles that is unbounded–sending the reader to every Arnoldian comer of the Web rather than containing the audience in one site.

If all of this seems a bit chaotic, chaos is, according to Krasniewicz and Blitz, precisely the point. They were attracted to hypertext, they tell us, specifically because the conventional scholarly forms (book, article, and conference paper) did not seem to meet the needs of their subject and their analysis. “We needed a medium, a forum,” they write, “that would allow us to incorporate not just the more formal components of investigative research, but also the kinds of discoveries and reflections that are more traditionally relegated to the margins of qualitative research.” They find in hypertext “a mechanism for connecting disparate information in the same way that a dream does.” At least for Krasniewicz and Blitz, hypertext doesn’t merely do a better job of representing the fullness of their work on Schwarzenegger; it is the only way of representing it.

Collectively, then, these essays point up the advantages of the new medium for the presentation of scholarship–whether in the richness of documentation or the complexity of argumentation (or nonargumentation). Not surprisingly, they also point up some of the limitations and problems with scholarship in hypertext. Some of these limitations and problems–whether stemming from the medium itself or the authors’ use of the medium–are explored by our three commentators, Randy Bass, Susan Smulyan, and Chris Wilson. Rather than repeat their able critiques (and appreciations) of the specific essays, I want to close by considering some more technical and structural problems facing scholarship in this medium.

On the one hand, the online essays that we have presented are more widely accessible than the print version of American Quarterly–a high school student in Birmingham and a college professor in Bangkok can both read them even if they or their institutions are not subscribers. But, on the other hand, these essays do impose a technological entry fee–you need access to a computer and an Internet connection. Even more than that, some of them require specific kinds of set-ups–Westbrook’s essay only works if you have Netscape or Internet Explorer of version 4.0 or higher; Krasniewicz and Blitz warn that you should “allocate at least 8000K (8Mb) to Movieplayer . . . . [to] enable the movies to play without crashing your machine,” and recommend that you use Internet Explorer rather than Netscape. In addition, Westbrook’s and Castonguay’s articles work considerably better with a fast connection. Obviously, the print version of American Quarterly does not impose any differential requirements for reading specific articles–we do not expect warnings like “Must be read with an up-to-date pair of bifocals.” On the other hand, reading the Quarterly also comes with its own elaborate set of educational and epistemological requirements. In this transitional period, “minimum requirements” for reading are going to be a part of online publishing.

Although the burdens that this imposes on readers are obvious, it should be noted that the unsettled state of the technology also forces some unusual burdens on Web authors. Pages designed for Netscape on a Windows machine will look different when viewed in Internet Explorer; on a Macintosh you will notice still more variations. Even a careful author who has tested his or her article on multiple platforms and multiple browsers can be left behind by the quickly changing nature of this technology. Internet Explorer 4.5 for the Macintosh became available just as these articles were going to “press,” and it turned out that–for unfathomable reasons–it rendered the text of Thurston’s article (which looked fine in every other browser) too faint to be read. (The electronic medium also imposes new burdens on us as editors; too late in the process, we realized that while print essays require copy editing, these electronic essays require what people in the software business call “beta testing” and “quality assurance.”)

The new medium imposes another burden on authors in requiring them to be both designers and programmers. Authors for the print American Quarterly are not expected to know page layout software; electronic authors must know considerably more than that. To get a feel for how much, bring up one of the images in Westbrook’s article and “view source.” Here are just the first 14 lines of about 250 that you will see:

“if (document.layers) {
visible = ‘show’;
hidden = ‘hide’;
else if (document.all) {
visible = ‘visible’;
hidden = ‘hidden’;
} [End Page 243]
function getobj(id) {
if (document.layers) {
obj = document.layers[id];
else if (document.all) {
obj = document.all(id).style;”

Not exactly what most graduate programs in the humanities teach. In some ways, an even more demanding skill that this work requires is design judgment–something most notably on display in Krasniewicz and Blitz’s attractive site. One might argue that such matters should not be in the purview of authors and scholars, but George Landow points out that good design was traditionally something that writers thought about. Until the 1930s, he writes, “authors routinely wandered around the typesetting shop at Oxford University Press while their books were being set and were permitted to render advice and judgement.”3

These problems–technical, production, design–do not bother print authors in scholarly journals chiefly because such journals operate according to a very conventional set of standards by which, for example, layout, typography, and format are already well established. And, in the end, it is the absence of clear standards that makes this scholarly work in hypertext both exciting and problematic. Standards are inherently conservative; they are, in part, what make conventional scholarly articles so conventional. But while such standards can be deadening, they also make scholarly articles easy to read–at least by those who know the “codes.” Most academics can very quickly get the main points of a scholarly article–they can rapidly find the “thesis” in the first few pages; the conclusions on the last two pages; and a sense of the sources used through a quick scan of the footnotes.

Such reading skills–finely honed through years of graduate school and professional life–are worthless when confronting these hypertext essays. Not only is the “thesis” hard to find quickly; it is not even clear there is a thesis. Where is the beginning? The end? What counts as a legitimate criticism? Our editorial committee struggled with the language of criticism to use in responding to these and other potential authors. Can you say to a hypertext author that his or her argument is not clearly laid out?

Moreover, reader expectations about the investment of time required to master an essay are entirely disrupted. Do you need to read Krasniewicz and Blitz’s 143 dreams or view all 64 film clips in Castonguay’s essay to have “read” their articles? Indeed, in the case of “Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger,” it would be difficult, if not impossible, to figure out where the essay actually “ends.” In effect, these essays undercut the unwritten social contract that exists between readers and writers of scholarly essays–a social contract in which the author agrees to follow conventions of argumentation, organization, and documentation and the reader agrees to devote a certain amount of time to give the article a “fair” reading. They also undercut the sense to which a scholarly article can be seen as a very clearly defined and bounded “product,” with a niche into which it cleanly slots. (Not coincidentally, they also unsettle our standards for what “counts” as scholarly publication–are these one article or many? Publications or work in progress?)

Many of these problems will gradually disappear as clear expectations and even standards emerge for online scholarly publication. But, as with computer software, we will all be better off if we develop a set of “open standards” that reflect an emerging community consensus–the sort of process that has led to free operating system software like Linux rather than closed, proprietary software like Windows.4 That will only happen, however, if we are willing, like the authors of these initial forays into hypertext scholarship, to put ourselves on the line (and online), where our work can be criticized as part of the process of advancing the state of the art. And as readers, we must commit ourselves to struggling through essays that are sometimes hard to read–whether that means that they crash our Web browsers or that they clash with our expectations of what scholarship is all about.

Author Bio: Roy Rosenzweig is CAS Distinguished Scholar in history and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Footnotes:

1 Saul Cornell of Ohio State University played an important role in suggesting this project in the first place, and we are grateful to him for his early encouragement as well as to Mike O’Malley who helped set up the Web site where these projects reside. I also want to thank Randy Bass, Deborah Kaplan, Teresa Murphy, and Mike O’Malley for their helpful comments on this introduction. On “death of distance,” see Frances Cairncross, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives (Boston, 1997).

2 Jerome McGann, “The Rationale of Hypertext,” available at <>.

3 George Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore, 1997), 62.

4 For an astute discussion of standards and computer software, see Philip E. Agre, “The Law of Opposite Numbers: Standards Dynamics and the Global Logic of Software,” Paper presented at the Florida Conference on Electronic Government and circulated online by Agre’s Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE), which you can subscribe to at <>.

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