The Grotesque Corpus

Medium as Meat

Reading WOE strikes me as being a little like watching yourself undergo an upper G.I. Empty stomach, lurid pink barium cocktail, ultrasound monitor. You peer at the display, uncertain exactly what the map of light and shadow represents, then you notice the tube of your esophagus rippling with long swallows as you tip the stuff down your throat. You roll onto your left side and the gritty image shows you an inert bag filled with liquid, like a haggis; you flip onto your right side and behold the whole thing coming alive: the pylorus squirting, liquid sluicing right off the screen. You never knew digestion looked like this. All the diagrams and dissecting fetal pigs in high school biology prepared you for the mechanics of human digestion, of course. You just never imagined exactly how your peristalsis looked - you find yourself twisting uneasily from your left side to your right when piling into bed after a late-night meal, the grainy, shifting form etching itself on the insides of your eyelids. Reading WOE is like that. [Yell91, 112]

The docuverse could be shaped like your own intestines, and reading an act of dissection turned inside out, the text traversed convulsively by the contractions and dilations of the boundaries of what you used to think of as a book. You move within a hypertext like Michael Joyce's WOE in fits and starts, gulps and swallows deep within the undifferentiated flesh of the text. The electronic medium as meat: hypertext as sausage, its fits and starts joined by links.

The opening paragraph of Jane Yellowlees Douglas' introduction to WOE (A Beginner's Guide to Dissection) brings to the foreground the problem of the reader's place in the hypertextual corpus. Place as the fantasmatic scene of reading, the arena of the experience, its venue where we are and where we are coming to when we consume a hypertext. The connotations of the word corpus are, of course, the crux of the matter here. Defining a constellation of discursive artifacts as a body presumes the existence and the consequences of a textual anatomy (anatomy = organic structure and method of dissection); it requires, on the most elementary level, a projection of the reader's physiology into the theaters of writing and reading. The explicitness of this projection is, I believe, what makes Douglas' description of the experience of reading WOE striking and persuasive: the enticements of destination and intentionality (elements of a theory of reading as navigation) are overcome by the raw unconsciousness of peristalsis. Consuming a hypertext means having your mastery of the process of reading challenged in unsettling ways. Moving around in the docuverse promotes a kind of dyspepsia, the symptom of your acute awareness of the resistance that shapes the process.

What we make of this anatomical projection will depend on which diagnostic instrument we apply to it. The epistemology of hypertextual navigation lends itself to the methods of depth psychology (my preferred strategy is psychoanalytic): the readerØs subjectivity is informed by the unruly shape of the narrative she traces, and the internalization of that shape responds nicely to the armamentaria of the clinician.1 The consequences of that internalization for the reader as a social subject, an individual enmeshed in the fabric of shared discourse, are material for the critique of hypertext as political economy. Recent work in this area by Stuart Moulthrop [Moul89; Moul91b], for example, has shrewdly qualified the utopian relish of early depictions of hypertext culture.

The latter method is closer to where I'm headed. My goal in this essay is to draw upon the entanglements of hypertext anatomy to outline a stylistics of hypertext informed by its contours. The practice of hypertext as a way of writing and reading is determined by its formal traits as a way of conversation. Medium as meat, reading as peristalsis. This kind of sausage-making has a social and political shape, and that shape is the extension of its internal convulsions.

Dialogue: Hypertexts as Heteroglossia

Hypertexts are profoundly dialogic kinds of texts. Each of the threads in a hypertext is a fragment of conversation, subject to the influence of those threads to which it is linked, by accident or design. The link is a space of convergence, contact, interpellation - a social space, from which the combined effect of this chorus of discourses radiates outward to other threads and other links. Though any single hypertext is composed of a finite number of threads and links, it is potentially woven into a fabric of multiform discourses that exceeds the textØs capacity to represent its own boundaries.

My use of the term dialogic is borrowed from Bakhtin's pioneering work on the structure and dynamics of human discourse.2 For Bakhtin, all discourse, whether written, spoken or gestural, is constituted in conversation with other discourses in a material, lived context. Every speech act is embedded in the social fabric of other speech acts:

The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. [Bakh75a, 276]

Dialogue is not divisible into discrete utterances by isolated individuals, nor can the forces that shape it be fully dramatized or described, or its boundaries resolved. No speech act occurs in a vacuum, free of the influence of other speech acts, or of the social and physical context in which the speech act occurs. Human beings converse with one another; as they converse, their dialogue is reshaped by the conscious and unconscious contributions of each of the participants. As this external multiform dialogue takes place, each individual is also caught up in the internal exchanges of discourses she has assimilated during her lifetime. The course of these dialogues is further directed by non-discursive forcesÒthe influences of (for example) the physiological or environmental circumstances at the unique moment of the speech act. In short, all human dialogue is subject to a matrix of conditions that exceeds the intentions and awareness of its participants, or the putative meaning of their utterances. Those conditions determine the unique import of a speech act at a specific moment, within a specific constellation of discursive and non-discursive elements. When one of those conditions changes, an otherwise identical speech act may have a very different import for those who perform it or respond to it.

Bakhtin calls this contact and interpenetration of multiple discourses heteroglossia (raznorecie). He considers it a fundamental trait of all human utterances. That is, heteroglossia is not a species of discourse, but the profoundly social condition of discourse, because speech is only possible as a dialogue involving two or more positions. Different discursive artifacts may illustrate heteroglossia in different ways and with varying degrees of distinctness, but they are all shaped by the radically social context in which they are produced.3

Clearly, even static hypertexts (documents with limited capacity for structural variation, what Joyce calls exploratory hypertexts [Joyc88]) fit Bakhtin's descriptions of heteroglossia. Hypertext multiple fictions [Joyc91a, ª41], which allow readings that vary according to which of several intersecting narratives is followed (Moulthrop's Victory Garden [Moul91a] is a rich example), are arguably better models of heteroglossia than the novels of Dostoevsky from which Bakhtin drew most of his examples. Hypertexts that permit or encourage the user to reshape the direction and boundaries of the narrative as she moves within it (Joyce's constructive hypertexts [Joyc88]) are supported at every level by a dialogic exchange that draws the matrix of reader's conscious and unconscious discourses into the structure of the ostensibly discrete document.4 Hypertexts are polyvocal and radically social dialogues, constructed at the lowest level of discrete yet interacting speech acts. What distinguishes them from other heteroglot speech artifacts is the prominence of their heteroglot structure, their unmistakable and robust polyvocality, their relentless contingency. Hypertexts are multiform discourses with their surfaces turned inside out, so you can see the irregular rhythms of their innards.

We're back to reading as internalized dissection: uncovering a messy, unrestrained pulse within the meat of the text. Elsewhere, I've used the term narrative dismemberment to describe this process [Harp91b], but that metaphor relies heavily on an image of the text's surface, the boundaries of its anatomy, and I'm after deeper structures. Tracing the twists and turns of a hypertext's machinations requires a more internalized model, and the secret wrenchings of peristalsis feel about right. It's a problem of recognition, what you make of the unruly anatomy as you follow its contours.5 Dissection opens the skin, layers of muscle and internal organs turned back, but the distinctions it makes are artificial and temporizing. When a hypertext is consumed, the multiple elements are folded into one another; though there may at any one moment appear to be clear distinctions between each section of the tract you follow, the place and the instant where it becomes relevant, functional, is subsumed into the matrix of the narrative. Imagining the texture of the stuff that moves in your gut is, I think, an appropriate beginning for thinking about the texture of the space defined by the anatomy of an electronic text: there's an ordered mass, a materiality that you can almost get around, but the unruliness and the slippery intersections of the fleshy parts can give you reason to pause.

The Grotesque Body

The tripe were plentiful, you understand, and they were so dainty that everyone licked his fingers. But the great mischief was this, that it was not possible to keep them long, for they would have stunk, which would have been indecent; and so, they decided to gulp them down, without losing a mouthful.

Grandgousier, big-hearted fellow that he was, took a very great pleasure in all this and ordered them to spare no expense. But he kept warning his wife all the time, that she should eat the least of any, in view of the fact that she was approaching her term, and this mess of tripe was not a highly commendable dish.

"A person would, like as not, eat dung," he said, "who eats the sack that holds it."

Notwithstanding these remonstrances, she proceeded to eat sixteen hogsheads, two barrels, and six jugs full of them. The fine fecal matter that must have puffed up inside her!

After dinner, they all went pell-mell to the Willow-Grove; and there, upon thick grass, they danced to the sound of joyous flutes and melodious bagpipes, so gaily that it was a heavenly pleasure just to see them having so merry a time. [Rabe46, 59-60]

The indelicate excesses of heteroglossia are the subtext of Bakhtin's study of the role of popular-festive forms in the works of Rabelais [Bakh65]. Bakhtin sees the early Renaissance as a critical moment of transformation of Western social discourse, and Rabelais as the exemplar of that transformation. If Rabelais is the least popular, the least understood and appreciated of all great writers [Bakh65, 1], it is because, says Bakhtin, modern readers have lost an appreciation for the deep philosophical meaning of festive laughter in Rabelais' time. In Rabelais, he writes, laughter is the expression of a new free and critical historical consciousness [Bakh65, 73]: irreverent, anarchic and rejuvenating, subverting the moribund, hierarchical discourses of the ruling classes of the Middle Ages. The scatological and pornographic elements of RabelaisØ art must be understood in light of their popular-festive origins. Bakhtin's analysis of the popular-festive is grounded on two fundamental tropes: the grotesque body, a figure of unruly biological and social exchange, and the carnival, a ritual of social and political transformation.

Bakhtin traces Rabelais' use of the grotesque to the preclassic Western visual arts known technically as grotesque.6 These were characterized by playful monstrosities and fantastic transformations of animate and inanimate forms. In grotesque art, the borderlines that divide the kingdoms of nature in the usual picture of the world were boldly infringed - There was no longer the movement of finished forms, vegetable or animal, in a finished and stable world; instead the inner movement of being itself was expressed in the passing of one form into the other, in the ever incompleted character of being. [Bakh65, 30-32]

Grotesque art is an art of transitional spaces, founded on precise observations of natural forms, but exaggerated all out of proportion, to a point where the texture of the gaps between objects overruns their boundaries.

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an extraordinary flourishing of these arts in architecture, painting and literature. This re-emergence, argues Bakhtin, was driven by the suitability of the grotesque for the subversion of the social values embodied by contemporary representational norms. The grotesque became an arena for the struggle between dominant and emergent political discourses, in which the former were undone by the latter through formal exaggeration and negation. RabelaisØ fiction marks a crucial moment in this subversion in its internalization of the grotesque, recasting political conflicts in the dynamics of human physiology: the Rabelaisian grotesque body.

In Rabelais' fiction, the human body is a theater of transformation. His art ignores the body's smooth surface and focuses on its excrescences and its orifices: the gaping mouth, loins and anus. The grotesque body is constantly active, exceeding its margins: a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed: it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body - Eating, drinking, defecation and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body - all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. In all events, the beginning and end of life are closely linked and interwoven. [Bakh65, 317]

Michael Holquist has remarked that Bakhtin's reading of the Rabelaisian body is intercorporeal, in much the same way as discursive artifacts are intertextual - that is, heteroglossic: the body cannot be conceived outside a web of interrelations of which it is a living part. [Holq90, 90] The grotesque body is, literally, the embodiment of the dialogic interpenetration and radical contingency of human discourse: the dynamics of the social body made material, living, actual.

This activity has, of course, a profoundly political dimension. Bakhtin argues that the excesses of the Rabelaisian body are deeply festive and utopian [Bakh65, 19], in direct contradiction of the rigidly codified debasement of the fleshly in Medieval religious and intellectual discourses. The elevation of body and its ejecta goes hand-in-hand with a debasement of the spiritual (the abstract, not of the body) and the otherworldly (not of the world in which the body lives): vomit, urine, semen and excrement are the stuff of philosophy brought down to the rhythms of the flesh. They stand in opposition to an intellectually static and physiologically moribund figure of the social body fostered by discourses that deny the material matrix of life as it is lived by the common folk, outside of the imposed hierarchies of Church and State. The rumbling in the Rabelaisian belly is the sign of a discharge of political conflict in a period of profound social transformation.

The Carnival

The social conflicts figured in the grotesque body are externalized in the second of the fundamental tropes discussed by Bakhtin, the carnival. Our modern festivals of excess pale by comparison with the prodigality and violence of the European carnival of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. In addition to the drunkenness, bawdy and general mischief we might associate with mass celebrations, Bakhtin catalogs typical activities bizarre to a modern sensibility: the election of mock kings, who are then beaten nearly to death by the revelers; the festive flinging of urine, vomit and excrement at passers-by; obscene gestures and words offered as signs of greeting to strangers; blood-besmirched newlyweds running an armed gauntlet of laughing wedding guests; public masses in which excrement and urine are used as host and sacramental wine.

In Bakhtin's account, the venue of the Renaissance carnival, the public place, is the arena where social and political hierarchies are suspended or inverted, where the respectable and ineffable become the objects of ridicule and assault [Bakh65, 10]. The carnivalesque crowd in the streets is not, says Bakhtin, "merely a crowd. It is the people as a whole, but organized in their own way, the way of the people. It is outside of and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socioeconomic and political organization, which is suspended for the time of the festivity." [Bakh65, 255] The feast of fools is a feast of profound folk wisdom, based on the truths of laughter and excess, and carnival violence is an active form of social speech, outside the coercive limits imposed by the ruling classes. [Bakh65, 255]

The carnival is, in short, the public enactment of the principles of regenerative disorder that shape the grotesque body: Even the pressing throng, the physical contact of bodies, acquires a certain meaning. The individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body. In this whole the individual body ceases to a certain extent to be itself; it is possible, so to say, to exchange bodies, to be renewed (through change of costume and mask). At the same time the people become aware of their sensual, material bodily unity and community. [Bakh65, 255]

Hypertext as Carnival; The Anatomy of Style

What interests me about the carnival and the grotesque body is how they are constituted in a dynamic discursive matrix. Understanding the political and social character of this matrix is, I think, is the key to understanding the style of the hypertext corpus.

The semiological, narrative and political hierarchies of hypertexts are profoundly unstable, contingent and heteroglot. This instability shapes, I've noted above, even hypertexts supporting only limited structural variety between readings. It becomes positively vertigo-inducing in highly complex, dynamic systems, where there are more possibilities for the reorganization and interpenetration of threads than can be visualized at any one moment by the reader who moves within the docuverse. Consider for a moment how this dialogic interpenetration is multiplied in systems that support simultaneous, multiple, and interacting readers. In these systems, there is space for such riotousness of exchange that dialogue is raised to the level of hubbub, cacophony, chorus. Dialogue becomes polylogue, to borrow a term coined by Julia Kristeva to describe the novels of Phillipe Sollers [Krist77], and independently developed and applied by Michael Joyce to hypertext fictions.7 [Joyc91a, ª15] It is, I think, an intriguing consequence of our living lives within discursive environments that appear to support only limited simultaneous exchange - speech, print, even forms commonly labeled multi-media - that it is nearly impossible to think of hyperbolically multiplied discursive systems in any terms other than chaos.

Hypertextual discourse embodies - gives body to - heteroglossia. The hypertextual corpus is a grotesque corpus - grotesque in a Bakhtinian sense - where discrete speech acts are fragmentary, dialogic and contingent. The style of hypertext can be said to be both grotesque and carnival. The former label defines the structural projection of the reader's position in the hypertext as a discursive artifact; the latter defines a way of dialogue that shapes hypertexts as a social event. Medium as meat, polylogue as fools' feast.8

In either mode, the form of the thing is convulsive, irregular. And intimate: you could get entangled in the links of this kind of sausage making. Michael Joyce has noted that network culture (intertextual polylogue) is, even with its apparent abstractions of voice and place (the text editor, the computer terminal, the anonymous gestures of fingering and fetching), curiously more social than "so-called more normal social ties. We understand from the third person what we have written in the first person, but only in the process of reading the second person. The electronic culture estranges us, not from the familiar, but from the privilege of isolate individuality." [Joyc92, 10] The shape of the body you move in draws you into the exchanges that define it. I would argue that reading these texts is often unsettling (think of Douglas' description of reading WOE as an invasive physical exam) because their robust polyvocality and contingency reproduce the dynamic form of the social matrix in which we emerge as speaking subjects. You lose the illusion that the fleshy parts can be easily divided from one another.

To make sense of this matrix, you need the right instrument with which to probe the corpus. The measure of the unruly anatomy of hypertexts requires, I believe, a stylistics founded on the carnival style of hypertext style as the text's formal traits and as the social-political condition of its dialogic speech. A carnival stylistics of hypertext would penetrate issues of interface, navigation, and rhetoric, to the heart of hypertext as a radically social phenomenon, entangling the social body with the discursive body. The heart of the hypertextual corpus lies in its Pantagruelesque belly: the gullet, the stomach, the tripe grave; all the knotted and labyrinthine forms of this heteroglot form. Only a stylistics of hypertext aware of and grounded in its profoundly social substance can be attentive to the rumbling rhythms in the entrails of this grotesque body.


[Bakh65] Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. 1965. Trans. HÄlÅne Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

[Bakh75a] Bakhtin, Mikhail. ÓDiscourse in the Novel.Ô The Dialogic Imagination. 1975. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 259-422.

[Bakh75b] Bakhtin, Mikhail. ÓForms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.Ô 1975. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 84-258.

[Harp90] Harpold, Terence. ÓThe Anatomy of Satire: Aggressivity and Satirical Physick in GulliverØs Travels.Ô Literature and Psychology 36.3 (1990): 32-43.

[Harp91a] Harpold, Terence. ÓThe Contingencies of the Hypertext Link.Ô Writing on the Edge 2.2 (1991): 126-138.

[Harp91b] Harpold, Terence. ÓThrenody: Psychoanalytic Digressions on the Subject of Hypertexts.Ô Hypermedia and Literary Criticism. Ed. Paul Delany and George Landow. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.171-81.

[Holq90] Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. Routledge: New York, 1990.

[Joyc88] Joyce, Michael. ÓSiren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts.Ô Academic Computing 3.4 (1988):10-14; 37-42.

[Joyc91a] ÓNotes Toward an Unwritten, Non-linear Electronic Text: ÕThe Ends of Print Culture.ØÔ Postmodern Culture 2.1 (September 1991).

[Joyc91b] Joyce, Michael. ÓWOE.Ô Writing on the Edge 2.2 (1991). [Storyspace¿ document.]

[Joyc92] Joyce, Michael. ÓA Feel for Prose: Interstitial Links and the Contours of Hypertext.Ô Center for Narrative and Technology Technical Report, Jackson Michigan, 2/92.

[Krist77] ÓPolylogue.Ô Polylogue. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977. 173-224.

[Moul89] Moulthrop, Stuart. ÓIn the Zones: Hypertext and the Politics of Interpretation.Ô Writing on the Edge 1.1 (1989): 18-27.

[Moul91a] Moulthrop, Stuart. Victory Garden. Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Press, 1991. [Storyspace¿ document.]

[Moul91b] Moulthrop, Stuart. ÓYou Say You Want a Revolution?Ô Postmodern Culture (Spring 1991).

[Nels74] Nelson, Theodor H. Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computers. Chicago, IL: HugoØs Book Service, 1974.

[Nels90] Nelson, Theodor H. Literary Machines. Vers. 90.1. Sausalito, CA: Mindful Press, 1990.

[Rabe46] Rabelais, Franìois. The Portable Rabelais. Trans. Samuel Putnam. New York: Viking Press, 1946.

[Yell92] Yellowlees Douglas, J. ÓUnderstanding the Act of Reading: The WOE BeginnerØs Guide to Dissection.Ô Writing on the Edge 2.2 (1991): 112-127.

420 Williams Hall University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104 215.476.8143


  1. The reader's complicity in and coercion by the representational effects of narrative fragmentation are not limited to hypertexts. Cf. my essay on Satirical physick; in Swift ([Harp90]) for a discussion of the reader's internalization of narrative's violence (in structure and content) and how, conversely, the success of a text as an example of genre (in this case, satire) depends on the readerØs unconscious participation in that violence.
  2. The implications of Bakhtin's work for the analysis of hypertext exceed the modest application I make of his terminology here. Of particular importance for the study of hypertext as a narrative form is, I suspect, Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope, the temporal and spatial matrix/ratio/dialogue of the story (the fabula of the Russian Formalists) and the plot (the Formalist suyzhet.) In hypertexts, the temporal rhythm of reading is directly shaped, or mis-shaped, one might argue, by the profound fragmentation of the text as a navigable space. The Bakhtinian chronotope offers a model for describing the relation between narrative time and space as a characteristic of narrative genres. Whether the model is applicable to hypertext as a mode of discourse, or only to individual hypertextual genres (in the classic sense, meaning traditions of storytelling or narrative form) would depend largely on how one relates the time of the narrative as a story to the time of its consumption as a plot (that is, the time of the reader's movements in a hypertext.) For a lucid and thorough summary of chronotopy and dialogism in general, see [Holq90].
  3. For Bakhtin, the novel is the exemplary heteroglot literary genre: a system of utterances that synthesizes their multiform styles and variform voices, while retaining the attributive structures of individual speech acts. The stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous unities into the higher unity of the work as a whole [Bakh75a, 262]. He contrasts the heteroglossia of the novel with the language of (lyrical) poetry, which is largely founded on a theory of monologic speech: The poetic trope is not dialogic: all of the play of the poetic symbol is in the space between the word and the thing [Bakh75, 327]. Poetic and novelistic language reflect very different visions of the position of the speech act in the world: poetry is a Ptolemaic genre, anchored in a defined and definable ideological and semantic center; the novel is an expression of Galilean language, [which begins] by assuming an ideological and semantic decentering of the world.Ô [Bakh75, 286; 366].
  4. These kinds of documents are often called interactive fictions. I think that that term has become too attached to electronic texts (interactive novels and role-playing adventure games) that better fit Joyce's exploratory model. What is needed to clarify our thinking about electronic interactivity is, I suspect, to take apart the word and consider what it means to inter-act with a text: who is acting (and in concert with whom?), and where (inter = inside which inside?) is the action taking place? How is the subjectivity of the reader (and, presumably, that of the one or more agents constituted by the text's responses to the reader) defined by the process?
  5. This is not to say that you couldn't work within a language of hypertextual palpability (palpation being an act that supposes an perimeter that you can stroke). See, for example, Joyce's elegant discussion of the contours of hypertexts, [Joyc92].
  6. The origin of the word is Italian, from grotessca, Ógrotto-work, a name applied to fantastic mural decorations discovered in late fifteenth century excavations of ancient Roman baths. [Bakh65, 31-32]
  7. How would such fortuitous developments be described within spaces of electronic exchange? In the on-line bibliography I've created for drafts of this essay, entries for Joyce and Kristeva are grouped next to each another, but the connection feels more proximate than that accident of the alphabet. I recall that it was in one of my very first conversations with Michael Joyce, that I brought to his attention that polylogue had been used before by Kristeva, and that he called me on the phone a few days later for the citation. I remember also that I first read Kristeva's essay while attending a class taught by her in Paris years before. Contingency shapes our experiences of memory and narrative; it directs the narratives that we make of our memories. In hypertext narratives, contingency is, I've argued elsewhere [Harp91a], a foundational principle of our relations with the texture of these artifacts. That the accidental and persistent connections of memory suggest an analogous model for the interpellation of threads in a hypertext is a well-established thesis. [Nels90, 1.19] In the context of hypertext anatomy, it seems to me that the mnemonic model is valuable because it is supported by a corporeality of memory: in the flesh of the electronic space, threads touch and donØt touch one another, in much the same way as I imagine my memories of Kristeva and Joyce residing in distinct locations in my mental repositories, that nonetheless communicate somewhere across a physical bridge.
  8. The most enthusiastic proponents of hypertext have long claimed for the users of very large, dynamic docuverses precisely the kind of freedom from political and institutional hierarchies that Bakhtin celebrates in the carnival. [Nels74, Nels90] While I believe that the comparison is valid on the level of structure, I would argue for a more circumspect analysis of the limits of the political subversion. Bakhtin sees the increasing explicitness of heteroglossia in modern literature as the sign of a radical revolution in the destinies of human discourse.Ô [Bakh75a, 366] I consider hypertexts to be exemplary heteroglot discourses, but I'm not prepared to announce that they represent a revolutionary step forward, in any sense other than as a dramatic foregrounding of the grotesque structure of all discursive artifacts. Political subversion can always be coopted by its targets, and the anarchic pulse of negation can always be converted to a ritual discharge of conflict in a system that thereby retains its equilibrium. (Much of Bakhtin's enthusiasm for the political dimension of the carnival is, in fact, offset by his pessimistic discussion of the decline in the boldness of carnival/grotesque motifs, and their absorption into the dominant political discourses of the modern era.) I'm suspicious of hypertextual utopias, wherein each writer or reader enacts her own revolt against established hierarchies of narrative and information. I am, however, intrigued by the violence of the detours she must take in her efforts to do something like that. Clearly, the monologic traits of individual threads are suspended where the threads link and converse, and that suspension has institutional and political consequences. The swerve where the corpus turns grotesque may be festive or subversive (or both), but it is without question anarchic and excessive in the style of the carnival.