Looking at The Rape of the Lock project helps us
track how the Web can actualize literary theory.
The Rape of the Lock project provides scholarly information about contexts and criticism as well as annotations for a poem written by Alexander Pope. It takes the hypertext shape of the spoked wheel with links to additional material radiating from the text at the hub. Many of these links complicate the shape of the hypertext, however, because they lead to discourse forums where readers can exchange messages about the poem. This design injects issues of literary interpretation into the project with the hope of literalizing the idea that meaning emerges in the context of a discourse community.
|The first major analysis outlines reader-response theory and talks about how interpretive dialog might replace the text of the poem.|
|Reader-response theory suggests that the meaning of a
text is to be found not in the text itself, but in the interpretations that
readers construct about the text. Stanley Fish popularized this thinking
throughout the 80s. Fish himself received some response from readers like E.D.
Hirsch and M.H. Abrams, who said, "wait a minute!" If the meaning is to be found
in readers' interpretations, what's to prevent an infinite plurality of
To counter this possibility, Fish posits interpretive communities. These communities consist of like-minded people who share ways of talking about the text. Rather than any number of possible meanings, the meaning of the text will emerge from the discourse of the interpretive community. The screen from this possible implementation of the Rape of the Lock project shows how the interpretive community concept can be pushed to the extreme. The main window in this design normally would display the text of the poem. However, when a reader chooses to discuss or look at a discussion, the dialog replaces the text of the poem in the window. I call this a hard version of reader-response.
|The second design for the project suggests an equivalence between the text and the discussion about it|
the idea that meaning issues from interpretive communities is the suggestion that
the world as we know it is socially constructed. Social construction, often
drawing on theorists like Fish or the philosopher Richard Rorty, tries to build a
foundation for knowledge that moves beyond reliance on traditional western
We need to use care, however, when we define the social context that founds our conceptions of meaning and the world. In fact, determining just what the social context is entails a complex analyses. It turns out that artifacts like poems are also a part of the social context. Social interactions influence the material world and the material world impacts our interactions. With this in mind, the project was revised to place the social dialog about the poem in conversation with the poem itself. The main window in this design continues to display the text of the poem. Now, when discussion takes place, it happens in the gloss window below the text. To counter the possible privileging of the original poem, the background textures of the gloss and the poem window are made identical, suggesting an equivalence between the original poem and the discussions about it. I call this a moderate version of reader-response.
|The final design for the project aligns the discussion about the poem with the hypertext itself|
communities construct knowledge about a text seems a valuable insight for someone
trying to teach literature or critical thinking. But these theories tend toward
the abstract. The discourse may construct meaning about the poem, but the place
where this happens and what this actual construction might look like are somewhat
Joseph Harris notes that the communities that theorists refer to are "all quite literally utopias--nowheres, metacommunities..." Harris continues, "[f]or all the scrutiny it has drawn, the idea of community still remains little more than a notion--hypothetical and suggestive, powerful yet ill-defined"
Additionally, the interpretations that the community constructs can often be mainly suggestive. When the poem and the discussion about it are essentialized, either in the metaphor of conversation or as communities of texts, the possibility of abstraction sets in. It may be that playing down the differences between the poem and the talk avoids considering the complexities of text and context, the social and the material. So, the final version of the project places the discussion of the poem in the gloss window, but uses the background texture of the hypertext. The suggestion is that it is the hypertext that instantiates the metatext; moving away from the equivalence of texts in conversation to a concretion of meaning in the hypertext. I call this a soft version of reader-response.