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Hypertext and the Female Imaginary

Hypertext and the Female Imaginary

by Jaishree K. Odin
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2010
176 pp. Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-6669-0; ISBN: 978-08166-6670-6.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University

There are things to admire about this book. Yet there are also nagging irritations and limitations, at least for a reader who recalls fondly the momentary flourishing of hypertext literature and maintains hope for its potential and values its rich (and feminist) history worthy of debate.

Hypertext has a grand history, from its theoretical formulation by Ted Nelson, through the commercial products that enabled it - Apple Computer Inc., Hypercard, and Eastgate Systems' Storyspace - through delivery media of floppy disc, CD, the World Wide Web to more recent collectively user-constructed Web 2.0 realms. One can identify the first generation of hypermedia creatives (arguably in the majority female) as those flourishing, publishing, and presenting their works at artists' forums and conferences around 1990. Odin's book centers upon a second generation of works, from the middle of that decade into the next and seems inattentive to the foremothers.

In her introduction and first chapter "Discontinuity", Odin sets out the frameworks of postcoloniality, différance and metanarrative that the authors of hypertexts she examines occupy. She establishes them in the traditions of writers Leslie Marmon Silko and Toni Morrison and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha. Odin examines Trinh T. Minh-Ha's works, but it seems a stretch to call any conventionally time-based cinema work "hypertextual", as the filmmaker remains in control of sequence, as well as duration. Yet a book like Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, with its author-dictated nonlinear readings, might be called a nascent hypertext, or in an ancestral category all its own.

The second chapter "Fragmentation" builds upon and enlarges the author's piece "Embodiment and Narrative Performance" in Judy Malloy's 2003 anthology Women, Art and Technology, where Odin examined two hypertext works that probe embodiment and gender, both published by Eastgate Systems. Judy Malloy's 1993 its name was penelope was a work reflecting upon women's creativity. Shelly Jackson's 1995 Patchwork Girl or a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelly and Herself made use of a fragmented narrative of multiple threads and allusions to historic novels Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and Patchwork Girl of Oz by Frank Baum. In Women, Art and Technology, this work's navigational tree map was illustrated, a helpful aid.

Chapter 3 "Multiplicity" is a very fine close reading (close clicking?) of "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot," a poem by Stephanie Strickland, originally a conventionally printed project that was then published on the Web. One wonders if its author is kin to Rachel Strickland, researcher and videographer who worked with Brenda Laurel at Interval Research in the 1990s. Chapter 4 "Assemblage" similarly examines, in depth and with subtlety, M.D. Coverly's Califa (2001) and Egypt: The Book of Going Forth by Day (2006). These two chapters may be some of the best and most attentive writing on new media, doing justice to two second-generation hypertexts.

And this is this reviewer's big gripe: Odin seems to give short shrift to the earlier demographic, a whole generation of female hypertext authors, the groundbreakers who preceded Strickland and Coverly. The hypertext works by Richard Powers, Stuart Moulthrop, and Michael Joyce that Odin cites are important, but less germane to the female imaginary than those of women who were active innovators two decades ago. Northern California artist-authors (visual hypertext blurs boundaries) Sonia Rappaport and Lucia Grossberger-Morales are appropriately mentioned - though neither appears in the index - but where is Vital Journey, Virtual Heart by Beverly Reiser, or Beverly Reiser and Barbara Lee's Private Loves/Public Opera?

Among Midwestern American hypertextualistas that remain unacknowledged in Hypertext and the Female Imaginary, Michigan poet and publisher Judith Kerman gave a memorable presentation at ISEA '93 (the International Symposium of Electronic Art) on hypertext poetry using her own examples published by Eastgate, and the work of several other women poets. Yet one especially regrets the omission of Colette Gaiter, her significant works developed while she taught in Minneapolis and Chicago from a book with a postcolonial focus. Gaiter's Hypercard work The Pyramid wittily commented on racist conventions of female beauty (it juxtaposed societal promise of "Separate but Equal" with undergarments to "Lift and Separate"), as well as George H.W. Bush's campaign use of black reprobate Willie Horton. Her 1992 hypertext easily remembered/conveniently forgotten critiqued both the Christopher Columbus commemorations and Clarence Thomas' hearings for the Supreme Court. The multimedia installation Space/RACE, built in Macromedia Director in 1995, juxtaposed 1960s NASA astronautical aspirations and the nation's struggle for racial equality, as remembered by this daughter of an African-American US Air Force Colonel. Gaiter subsequently created The Natural Order of Things, a World Wide Web-resident hypertext work giving impressions on race relations in South Africa, from travel there shortly after the fall of its apartheid regime.

Odin's extensive bibliography contains the usual suspects' university press books on hypertext, but her review of its literature should have taken her wider - to back issues of Leonardo journal, YLEM Artists' Using Science & Technology newsletters, SCAN (Small Computers in the Arts) and ISEA conference programs. I fear the creative women cited above - no small inspiration to this reviewer - have been written out of the conventional histories of hypertext literature. They established the historical context in which I wish Jaishree Odin cited her own valuable, specific readings.

Odin's fifth and final chapter "Technocracy" was clearly written before the Kindle, Nook, iPad and other electronic reading devices changed the playing field of where literature is experienced. One suspects that this is her earliest writing on the interface of tech and art, before she came to focus on female authors, for she discusses Richard Powers' "Galatea 2.2", with its motifs of science fiction texts worked into a neural network, and Neil Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age. While these works are worthy of mention in any discussion of future of tech-enhanced literature, even a guy can tell that they have little to do with the female imaginary . . . when so many other strong works, by women, do.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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