The Web of Text and the Web of God: An Essay on the Third Information Transformation. Alan C. Purves. New York: Guilford, 1998. <http://www.guilford.com/com/purves.htm>. 230 pp. $35. ISBN: 1-57230-249-6
In his recently published, posthumous The Web of Text and the Web of God, Alan Purves asks the big question--the one haunting all English teachers with an abiding attachment to traditional texts (either great literature or the struggling efforts of our students)--namely, "What happens to being literate when the nature of the text is transformed into hypertext, when the world of books and the library become the screen, the Internet, and the Web?" (73). The most fitting testimonial that one can offer the late professor Purves (who died March 24, 1998) is that, after years at the very center of professional English studies (past president of NCTE, director of SUNY's Center for the Study of Writing and Literacy, Professor Emeritus of English and Education at the University of Illinois and of Education and the Humanities at SUNY), he did not shy away from so bold a challenge to business as usual.
Asking such an important question, one that challenges the identity of English studies, is often easy for people who, due to the exigency of an unfair labor market, find themselves (one hopes only temporarily) on the fringes of the profession, as part-time or temporary instructors, or who as members of a distinct minority group have a clear, well documented historical grievance with the profession. But here in this last monograph, Purves movingly presents this issue, as it were, from insider's perspective, from deep within that defining, text-based institution of WASP culture, the Episcopalian church. In the autobiographical introduction, Purves professes himself to be "a believer, a practicing Episcopalian, and one interested in various forms of ministry" (5); in the Acknowledgements we learn of his participation in a colloquium sponsored by the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life; and, in the notes, that while writing this book he had been enrolled in the Education for Ministry Program of the School of Theology, at the University of the South, where he studied the theological writings of Harvey Cox (Secular City and Fire from Heaven) and Wilder Cantle Smith (What Is Scripture?) among others.
Here then is a mature, carefully thought-through work, like that of Ong and McLuhan, concerned less with the liberatory potential of new computer technologies such as hypertext and the Web and more with eschatology--specifically, the overriding issue of human fulfillment. "My studies," writes Purves, "have shown me over and over again how deeply rooted in religion making, reading, and thinking about books and written documents have been and remain" (5), or, as he writes elsewhere, "Literacy is not a state or an ability but rather an habitual activity that is social as well as private and involves both oral and literal components, much like scripture. An activity, according to many psychologists, is a complex of separate acts, so that literacy involves selecting what to read, finding a site in which to read it, reading it, and then sharing the reading in some way (if not sharing it, then somehow memorializing it). As an activity, then literacy may best be defined as the general term encompassing the specific religious activity we called 'scripture' "(71). This relationship between language, technology, and religion is at the core of this book, in much the manner of and with some of the same resonance as one finds in similar works by two of Purves's most visible and important predecessors in this area, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, both Catholics.
At the core of our traditional notion of text is a fundamental aspect of Protestantism that so disturbed McLuhan and seems to concern Purves and Ong as well: namely, the displacement of pleasure, the recognition almost instantly available to anyone browsing a text-filled, pictureless, routinely formatted book that whatever enjoyment one is to find in these pages can only be the result of concerted effort, of a certain kind of work. The printed book at the center of English studies this century is literally an emblem of Freud's reality principle: heavy, weighty, dull (in design if not content)--that which is sanctioned by our parents. Come it says: Become an adult; resist the quick and easy pleasure of the senses (in this case, pages of colorful pictures), delay your gratification by working at the text, reading it, relying solely on your imagination, and in turn your pleasure will be of a higher order--the mature, worldly pleasure of an adult--pleasure condoned by the superego!
Compare the literature anthology with its opposite, the Web, and that earlier avatar of the Web, the print catalog, that even when it is as thick and as weighty as a Norton literature anthology, promises the possibility of new delights on each page. Browse my pages quickly, the catalog, tells us, and all you will learn is the need to slow down, to examine each page, each image carefully as a possible source of escape from work, routine, responsibility. Turn my page, it says, and see something different that you can do for yourself--free from the dictates of others and, just as terrifying as Freud and others tell us, the dictates of self-imposed guilt.
This is a story that we can trace at least back to the production of the most famous catalog of our era, The Whole Earth Catalog, first produced by Stewart Brand in 1968, and if we go back to its original Foreword, we can discover the liberatory language of the personal computer revolution and, more to the points raised by Purves, the broad dissatisfaction with, almost resentment toward, large, monolithic, traditional institutions:
So far remotely done power and glory--as via government, big business, formal education, church--have succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains, a realm of intimate, personal power is developing--the power of individuals to conduct their own education, find their own inspiration, shape their own environment, and share the adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.
Brand's message, meanwhile, becomes more pointed in the foreword to the 1994 edition, called the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, where he calls the personal computer revolution a "direct result" of that earlier phase of rebellion:
It was initiated and carried to fruition by youthful longhairs, on purpose, with striking consistency between what was intended and what was accomplished. The impulse was to decentralize society--to undermine the high priests and air-conditioned mainframes of information technology and hand their power to absolutely everybody. There were a few inspirers but no leaders and no books to follow. Only years later did the movement-defining battle cry emerge--"Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control."
"Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" just as the battle-cry of traditional book culture might be, its supporters shout, "Contemplative, Value-packed, and Authoritative," or its detractors cry, "Slow, Expensive, and Controlling."
Of course it is this sense of the imminent dissolution of the book as we know it--the serious, text-based, single-minded tome--into the playful, picture-filled, corporate-produced catalog that so frightens text-based conservatives, but not the likes of Purves, Ong, and McLuhan, each of whom shares a religious reason for distrusting the tyranny of print. "For the greater part of its history," writes Purves, "literacy as a practice has derived its nature from being an extension of the activity of scripture" (Web 71).The ethical force to delay pleasure in working with texts, in other words, has long been derived from religion--or as Vico would suggest, from the process of culture itself, that like the marriage vow of monogamy that so intrigued Vico, limiting the range of present pleasure for the long-term culture-building at the center of all human accomplishment.
And much in the spirit of Vico, Purves is strongest when he seems ready to champion the unfashionable, the irrational, elements at the core of human culture. In The Web of Text and the Web of God, Purves challenges us to consider new forms of literacy and, even more to his point, new models of literate communities. "The nature of the literate community changes (73)," he speculates when the material basis of literacy itself changes, in the present world, by the possibility of hypertext itself. (Note: Purves composed this text with Storyspace software in the mid-1990s; hence the "Web of Text" of the title refers more to hypertext generically than to the World Wide Web, although many of his conclusions are strengthened by changes since then.) Specifically, in the most compelling sections of the work, "Suspended in the Web of God," Purves puts forward two little considered and surely, for most academics, two unexpected communities as models for where we may and perhaps should be heading: Pentecostal Christians (those descendants of Vico that Purves sees as growing out of a "nonrational, nonmodern fire in the soul") and Alcoholics Anonymous and especially its Twelve Traditions (http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org/em24doc7.html) that Purves sees a model for a new ecclesia.
Purves only hints at what his two model communities, Alcoholics Anonymous and Pentecostalism, have in common, but again it is Vico and his new sense of history, as glossed by the great British historian of thought, Isaiah Berlin, who provides the key. Vico's true historian, according to Berlin, wants to get beyond objective knowledge of the world in order to understand how people felt about their world, what they desired in and for it: "This kind of knowledge is not knowledge of facts or of logical truths, provided by observation or the sciences or deductive reasoning; nor is it knowledge of how to do things; nor the knowledge provided by faith, based on divine revelation, in which Vico professed belief. It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought or action, the intuitive sense of the nuances of personality or feeling or ideas" (352-53).
At the center of The Web of Text and the Web of God is a plea for a new community--a new world for us all where real knowledge has a strong component of the intuition and intimacy found in our knowledge of friends--all organized around a new kind of flexible, adaptive, interactive text: that is, around hypertext. In this, Purves is joining with Ong and McLuhan before him in looking for a new kind of communal fulfillment not offered by the traditional, isolated text. While Purves calls himself an "optimist" (xi), it is an optimism that shares a basic similarity with that most pessimistic of all Freud's writings, the conclusion of Civilization and Its Discontents when Freud considers the demands (both personal and cultural) placed on us by the superego. "It issues a command," Freud writes, "and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. On the contrary it assumes that a man's ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it, that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake" (90), Freud concludes, a big mistake--perhaps the really big mistake of human civilization.
On a much smaller scale, Purves seems to be arguing that hypertext and now the World Wide Web itself is offering us an alternative form of reading, one that in some respects may be lighter, but one that seems more in accord with a healthier, more playful psyche--and hence a new form of reading that, for our collective well being, we would do well to take seriously.
Purves's timely message to us, then, is clear: Let's consider new forms of social organizations whose active sharing of texts already resembles the practice of collaboration we are increasingly seeing in online communities. As language teachers, he encourages us to use new modes of literacy and linking especially to suggest new possibilities, to invite imaginative new forms of thinking. The new Web of Text should be both playful and sensuous, and thus, again the spirit of Vico, freed from the analytical abstraction of print. "The text may be a map," writes Alan Purves in his conclusion, "but the hypertext is an icon to the world of the writer and a revelation to the reader of the world he or she has coauthored." And finally, we can conclude with all Vico's successors, it is revelation, along with a new form of personal commitment--as compared with relentless map-like, Cartesian analysis--for which all of us (teachers, students, and the society generally) stand most in need.
Berlin, Isaiah. "The Science and the Humanities." The Proper Study of Mankind. London: Chatton & Windus, 1997.
Brand, Stewart. Foreword to 1968 and 1994 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog. <https://www.well.net/mwec/frontmatter/foreword.html>.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: WW Norton, 1961.