From Universe to Multiverse

One definition of "classic," among those suggested by Calvino, could be adopted as a hypothetical point of departure for our exploration: "A book is called Classic when, like ancient talismans, it configures itself as an equivalent of the universe" (Calvino, 9). Yet, more than the "total book," as dreamt by Mallarmé, these words seem to describe aptly only a "possible" world among many (or infinite) textual worlds, within a universe in perpetual expansion (in multiple directions).

This tentative definition introduces us directly to the concept of electronic hypertext which could be described (1) as an expanding textual universe governed by non-linear, multi-directional internal links or correspondences, multiple structures within a virtually boundless textual domain. It seems fairly clear that in describing the qualities of writing (and reading) that he considered the most essential and precious for the next millennium, Italo Calvino was also describing the new gravitational (or anti-gravitational) laws of a hypertextual "multiverse" (on Raymond Queneau and Calvino as forerunners of electronic writing see Paulson, 296-299).

Quickness, lightness etc. are all among the foremost properties of a hypertextual environment. If, as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, philologists are "the masters of slow reading," in our post-philological times this "virtù ecdotica" seems somewhat obsolete, although (we believe) made more valuable by the artificial velocity of the (hyper)textual circuit. The first question that we pose, therefore, is the following: what happens to our reading and teaching of a "classic" like the Decameron when our idea and practice of the (literary) text seem to be disengaged from the physical and theoretical support that embodied it for centuries, namely the book?

1. Here and throughout this essay the term "hypertext" is used in its inherent twofold meaning: the technological device, the encoding system or software which enables the production of hypertexts and the new form of textuality that the new technology enables us to produce; which of these two meanings pertains to a specific passage of our text should be made clear by the context. A general warning: we are not directly addressing a fundamental problem, that of the specific relationship between the design of a hypertext for educational purposes and the technical design of the system or software to be adopted; in other words, the issue of who is really in control of the technological process of culture. This does not mean that we are not aware of the issue: on the contrary, we consider it crucial, although in the context of this essay we will address it only in relation to our choice of existing systems or softwares.

(M. R.) William Paulson, "Computers, Minds and Texts: Preliminary Reflections," New Literary History 20 (1989).

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