The American Quarterly in May of 1998 initiated a project called
Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies, which in the words of the
project's editor Roy Rosensweig "wanted to see what electronic
publication might mean concretely for American studies scholarship.
We also wanted to offer some of the conventional validation and peer
review that scholarly publication in a journal generally
offers". Rosensweig, professor of history at George Mason University and a
leading developer and thinker on the use of new media in history laid out the criteria for
selection of the essays to be published.
- new and innovative
- used the electronic medium to advantage
- solid research, crisp analysis, interdisciplinary, clear
The project resulted in four separate hypermedia essays
"The Spanish-American War in US Media Culture"
"Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger"
Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz
"Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the
Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American
by Thomas Thurston
"From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County: Three
Narratives of the Early Comic Strip"
In June of 1999, American Quarterly then printed another special
issue, which was a forum designed to provide a space to reflect on these on-line experiments, inviting
the authors to comment on the experience of producing hypermedia
scholarship, but also the editor to comment on the process of editing this
project, and most importantly, for scholars to produce critical readings of the
Although the experiment provided a framework for the response
essays, nearly all the writers took the opportunity to re-frame the
questions in their own terms. The authors asked the following questions/made the
- experiment with making an argument that depends on the
simultaneity of interpretive threads as wells as the multiplication
of archival and evidentiary materials:
- can digital spaces be used to express disciplinary and
- can you create something that moves forward in an overacrching
idea (or set of ideas) in an environment that intrinsically lends
itself to digression, juxtaposition, dissolution, interconnection,
and supplantation? If you can make an argument, what would it look
- how are exposition and argument shaped by what seems, in its
clunkier moments, essentially a data entry and extraction machine?
- Where are the critical and productive affinities between a
field's materials, methods, and epistemology on the one hand, and
the inherent structure and capabilities of interactive technology
on the other? (bass)
What makes this a particularly interesting set of texts to analyze is that it was
created within the framework of an experiment to address/assess the conditions
of possibility necessary for this new form of scholarship to exist, and thus
produced meditations not only on the new texts, but also on the reception of
these texts, both with respect to the relative merits of the contribution to the
intellectual field, and with respect to the formal features that enabled new
forms of argumentation. Reception is useful as a model for how scholars
will learn how to evaluate these materials. The formal features of the documents
produced (made largely by hand with fairly simple technologies) can provide
guidance to technologists and librarians (fn) about how to design software
systems and support structures that will enable the production of this type of
Speed and Splashy Delight
Randy Bass' questioning of the
suspicious and false dichotomy characterized by techno-enthusiasts
who think that "the engaging power and linking capabilities of
multimedia will revolutionize learning and eradicate the need for
teachers and schools altogether" versus what a group he calls the
elegists, who believe that "etexts and networks are pure ephemera,
offering us only speed and splashy delight" . Considered within this
polarized framework, the responses to the hypertext
projects were, not unsurprisingly varied. Not surprisingly what many considered to be the largest weakness of
a given project (and of hypertext scholarship) turned out to be for
others its most endearing quality. In this manner, the shift to a different
delivery mechanism/medium changed not a thing, simply shifting the on-going
ideological differences to a new space for disagreement.
Thurston, author of the Hearsay of the Sun, notes that these
creations that exist only on the network are far less stable than
they would be had they been committed to paper. While it is a
wonderful thing that one can revise a document for as long as you
might wish, it is also the case that the social relations that allow
for access to the documents are fragile."People make their own web sites, but
not on the servers of their choosing. It
is as if the existence of every book in every library depended upon the ongoing collaboration of every author, publisher, reader, and
librarian, a Schrodinger's cat experiment designed by Rube Goldberg.
A lot of social links must be maintained to keep this contraption
going, and over time these links dissipate. "
For Thurston the ability to continuously revise is a mixed
blessing which he in the end ends up declaring to be a feature rather
than a bug, for others, in particular Wilson, this 'provisionality'
equates to a resistance to revision and undermines what is good about
the peer review process.
"Better than a tight, logical argument and The Sterility of
Many of the authors of the AQ pieces, and others that we have
looked at, have found the interaction between scholarship and the
development of an archive to be a liberating experience, as they feel
that their readers can examine their sources in their entierity and
(perhaps) come to their own conclusions. In its extreme form, this
position can be charactereized as it is by the authors of the site on
Arnold Schwarzenager in language that echoes Donaldson's views on the
interaction of argument and archive: "we all have drawers and basements full of
notebooks and videos and scribbled napkins and emails that lead us
through our subjects better than a tight, logical, proper argument".
While not all of the essays are as experimental and open ended as
their essay, the other authors do say things like " Rather than
simply serving as a means towards a single rhetorical end, a
hypertextually annotatted primary source has the potential to become
a meeting place where different analytical threads can rub against
and play off of each other. My hope is that the reader will be able
to use my analyses to tease individual contextual threads out of an
image, tying these threads to broader historical narratives without
losing sight of the image's thickly layered whole." (Westbrook) " and
" I was able to reproduce the vertiginous excess of the period that I
was studying." What Randy Bass describes as the " shifting
relationship between argument and artifact " he claims is a shift
from the creation of an argument to the creation of an environment.
Thus, one would expect to see some protests around this shift. Wilson
in his essay notes wryly that "with the archive as the center-piece,
there is a fear that scholarly work will be reduced to 'sterile
caption making'" , and worries that a " link between text does not
describe a causal explanation for their apparent similarity" . For Smulyan, the
lack of physical constraints of paper leads to lack of intellectual discipline.
She wonders if the inclusion of primary sources benefits authors as much if not
more than readers, who may be less interested in direct contact with archives.
In her strongest
statement of dissent, which echoes Wilson's worries, she suggests that by using this
methodology, "authors abdicate their responsibility to declare their
own positions." On a practical note, she wonders about the financing
of this sort of scholarship, which clearly takes more time and more
resources to produce. Will publishers pay for this? Or Universities? Who will provide the glue for this type of activity?
The interpretive problems created by these interventions result as much from methodological disputes within the field of American Studies
as from anything inherent in web technology. Thus,
depending on one's position with respect to closure, authoritative
voice, the proper balance of evidence to assertion, one will either
celebrate or dimiss this particular way of doing scholarship, which as
Rosensweig points out, inevitably arrives with both technological and