(Dis)possessing Literacy and Literature: Gourmandising in Gibsonbarlowville

Soh-Young Chung, Paul Dowling & Natasha Whiteman


Some time ago the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow (n.d.), penned ‘A declaration of independence of cyberspace,’ reconfiguring Gibson’s dangerous dystopia as the liberal paradise once dreamed of by Jefferson and de Tocqueville (and look where we are now); a paradise beautifully realised in Gabriel Axel’s film, Babette’s Feast. Here, the elders of the dour Protestant community can share with the gourmet general a table prepared by the finest chef de cuisine ever to delight Paris and all can depart sated by the certain knowledge that their principles have been upheld, that they have righteously abstemiously or rightfully indulgently or right creatively possessed the feast and, in doing so, denied no one. The feast, of course, was—at least subsequent to its preparation—inanimate and so indifferent to possession. There was, furthermore, quite enough to go around. Formal education, however, is centrally concerned with the possession of individuals and with the establishing of scarcity through its careful distribution of places and menus at its table: below the salt, literacy; above the salt, literature. All of course on the basis of merit. The question with which we are concerned here is, to what extent can the very highly visible and accessible (at least to those of us above the salt in the metropolis) activities in Gibsonbarlowville and its villages work transformatively on the institutions of formal education.

We are three authors with, respectively, backgrounds in literature, mathematics and then sociology, and film and media. This essay began life in the hypertext authoring environment, Storyspace (by Eastgate Systems, http://www.eastgate.com). This is the environment in which the first hypernovel, Afternoon: A story by Michael Joyce was written and is available. The essay had to be rendered in a form suitable for conventional print publication and so moved to Microsoft Word, but has retained, we hope, a few of the features commonly to be found in hypertext writing. It is produced in comparatively short sections—mostly a little longer than lexia, perhaps—which are to a degree self-contained. Writing in this way has meant that we have been able to author our delegated sections separately—though in discussion and with some overall editing—so they may retain clear style signatures. We hope also that there is just enough tension between the three strands of the essay and perhaps between sections within these strands to retain at least some of the openness in its reading that its hypertext rendering might have allowed. Nevertheless, the linearising of the essay has privileged one particular line of argument which considers the juxtaposition of bureaucratising practices in the school, academic community activity and several cases of community and individual activity that are tangled with developing digital media. This line asks the question that was posed above, but we will provide only a general and not a specific answer to it.

The possessive school

Schooling works differently in different educational systems and varies between systems and in time in terms of its strength of possession and in terms of the visibility of its possessive strategies. In the UK, the era in which the Conservative Minister for Education referred to the ‘secret garden’ of the school curriculum (Lawton, 1980) allowed the fostering of creative writing in the English curriculum and the rolling back of prescriptive grammar. Times have changed. However strong or weak its hold, a formal curriculum with its associated assessment and evaluation and management strategies effects a claim to the possession of the principles of evaluation of academic performances. These possessive strategies construct pedagogic relations between the school author and student audience of the curriculum (Dowling, 2001a, 2001b, in press; Dowling & Brown, 2000). In the field of literacy, these principles of evaluation are constituted as competencies to be transmitted to students so as to provide access to literate performances in diverse areas that include everyday practices such as the private consumption and production of popular and elite cultural forms. This access is mythical, however, particularly in relation to the everyday. The incorporation of the everyday into the formal curriculum always entails a recontextualisation that is to a greater or lesser extent transformative. The construction of literacies is always a context-dependent affair (see, for example, Street, 1993, 1999) whereas the curriculum must of necessity provide not only abstracted generalisations, but generalisations that are also organised into a sequence. This second aspect of the relation between everyday practices and curricular literacy is perhaps well illustrated by the relationship between a hypertext and any particular reading which, however engaging, is of necessity a severe reduction. Here is not the place to discuss the transformative effects of the recontextualisation of everyday practices by the school, but see Moss (2000) on media literacies and Dowling (1998, 2001b, 2001c) on numeracy.

Possession and privacy

The possessive power of the school is sustained by formal curricula which are institutionalised, generally, by state bureaucratising strategies, public examinations and so forth; that of the academy in respect of literary studies is sustained by international alliances that are realised in the journals and in the conference circuits. Whilst there may be substantial divergences across the territory as a whole, at any given point the institution constitutes a domain of literate or of literary competence over which it claims possession. This competence comprises the principles by which literate or literary performances are to be evaluated. If the competence may be referred to as the esoteric domain of literacy or literary knowledge, then what this competence recognises as legitimately literate or literary performances comprise its public domain (cf Dowling, 1998; 2001a,b,c, in press; Dowling & Brown, 2000). It is through their reading of the story in the literacy hour in the UK National Curriculum or through their perusal of the exemplary letter of application or their engagement with Jane Austin or James Joyce or Michael Joyce that the student is—at least potentially—able to enter the esoteric. Confronting this public domain are the everyday literate and literary practices that occur outside of the school, frequently in private but generally under conditions of comparatively weak institutionalisation which can pose little threat to the hegemony of the possessive regime of formal education.

Private possession

The acknowledgement and study of the social, collaborative activities surrounding media texts is not new.  When private and domestic in scope and context, these practices have remained relatively invisible.  Wilbur notes (in the context of romantic fiction)

… we suspect that there is something like a community of readers who share particular tastes and concerns … sometimes this potential community shows itself as something more solid, in the form of magazines like Romantic Times which chronicle its existence, or at conferences for romance readers and writers. (Wilbur, 2000; p. 52).

But this privacy is not to avoid the gaze of the academy. In the 1980s and 1990s a surge of ethnographic approaches to fan and audience reception studies attempted to address this suspicion and:

… the question of how historical subjects actively engaged with the mass-produced representations available to them … this work made an effort to ask whether media consumers were determined in their response to mass-produced significations by the character of their formal properties, or whether those consumers could make those representations into something more specific that they themselves could use. (Radway, 1996, 236) 

Radway describes how the methodological response to this challenge involved a transition away from demographic approaches to the study of audience, towards highly localised focuses on sites of practice/activity (Radway, 1996, 237).  This shift resulted in the generation of descriptions of specific confrontations between types of texts and categories of viewers (Ang, 20, 1996) such as popular romance readers (Radway, 1984), Star Trek fans (Jenkins, 1992) and soap opera audiences (Brunsdon, 1984; Geraghty, 1991).  More recently, the objectification and ‘showing’ of ‘singular fan cultures’ or ‘narrow intertextual networks’ (Hills, 2002, p. 89) has been criticised, with the gaze being drawn instead toward the fluctuating and shifting involvement of individuals in ‘multiple fandoms of varying intensities at different times’ (Hills, 2002, p. 89, see also Baym 2000).

Active possession

Private audiences may nevertheless be active in productive auditing. The ‘active audience’ model is founded upon a vision of media consumers as producers, nomads (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988), and poachers (De Certeau, 1988). It is at the heart of a ‘cultural studies orthodoxy’ built ‘around the assumption of the creativity and skilfulness of active audiences and consumers’ (Featherstone, 1984; p. 11), which has been particularly influential in legitimising the study of activities surrounding popular culture texts such as soap operas and horror films. This model celebrates the housing of realisation principles with the reader/viewer and problematises the possessive regime.   It involves a ‘blanket extension of productivity’ (Hills, 2002, p. 30) to include a range of activities with different degrees of visibility and regulation; including ‘work’ by fans (the creation of fan fiction, fanart etc), talk and gossip, and the act of reading/viewing itself (see Hills, 2002).

The transition to the study of hypertext environments has involved even more explicit claims about dispossession and agency.  Aarseth, for example, highlights the limitations of the productive capacity of the conventional reader (and by association the viewer) who

… however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative, is powerless.  Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player. (Aarseth, 1997; no page nos.).

Aarseth’s ‘cybertext reader’ engaged with ‘machines for the production of variety of expression,’ such as hypertexts, MUDs, adventure games and some print fictions, is claimed to be more ‘truly’ productive, dealing not only with ‘interpretation’ but ‘intervention’ (Aarseth, 1997). In a similar way, Landow bestows upon hyptertext the creation of ‘an active, even intrusive reader’ and describes the ‘near merging of roles’ between reader and writer (Landow, 1997; p. 90).  He argues that hypertext offers an electronic enactment of poststructuralist conceptions of textuality (p. 91); shattering previous notions of monolithic authority/authoring of the text, and highlighting the illusory centre within the stabilility of linear forms of writing.

Electronic visibility

In the UK the possessive nature of the school has been increasing apace since the landmark of the 1988 Education Reform Act (see Dowling & Noss, 1991; Flude & Hammer, 1990). Essentially, state intervention has decimated and linearised and objectivised the school curriculum performances which are measured against standardised assessments and regular inspections and published. Similar bureaucratising activity is now moving into higher education in the form of quality assurance. Cost efficiency exercises as well as the quest for commensurability across and within institutions has seen the modularisation of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Teacher educators are now required to record up to eight-hundred competencies in trainees over the ten-month period of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education course. Even doctoral studies in the UK are coming under pressure from state funding agencies to normalise completion times and to include approved and generic research methods (research literacy) programmes. Research output is regularly measured in a ‘Research Selectivity Exercise’ which determines funding distribution. In the UK institution in which one of us is a full-time academic (as well as in many others) a currency has been devised which renders commensurable academic outputs in the form of publications, teaching, and administrative practices such as dealing with admissions; in the future all of these and other activities will be measured against actual monetary income.

All of these bureaucratising developments have been facilitated by the development of digital technologies which enable the input, storage, superfast manipulation, output and publication of vast amounts of information which, to be comprehensible, is generally organised into comparable forms. One result has been to raise the visibility and measurability of the activities of formal educational institutions. Another, many academics would claim, has been the severe weakening of what we have called the esoteric domains of many (not yet all) spheres of academic practice from the elementary school to research in universities. At the same time, demands for ‘relevance’ in research and in the school curriculum are encouraging more and more activity in the public domains comprising recontextualised literate and literary performances.

In some tension with these moves is the potential, via the internet in particular, for both the expansion and strengthening of existing academic alliances on a global basis and for the generation of new alliances including alliances between weaker, minority positions that may seize the opportunity to establish a critical mass. In some tension also is the potential of these global digital environments to facilitate alliances in the popular consumption and production of popular and elite cultural forms thus raising the visibility of hitherto private practices onto a world stage.

Audiences online

Online, the ‘showing of self’ of privatised ‘real world’ activity is played out on a large scale, and within the public sphere. Although the activity may remain for specialist interest only, it is theoretically visible to anyone able to access the Internet. The transition to online environments has generated new empirical sites for investigation by media theorists; such as the ‘viewer mastery’ demonstrated on the Usenet alt.tv.twinpeaks (Jenkins, 1995), the newsgroup activities of X-Philes (Clerc, 1996), and the newsgroup rec.arts.tv.soaps (devoted to the American soap opera All My Children); the story of how

a collection of previously disconnected individuals took their shared interest in a pop culture text and transformed it into a rich and meaningful interpersonal social world. (Baym, 2002. p. 21) 

The increasing visibility of Internet-based fan involvement and immersion within fictionalised environments described in these studies, has coincided with an apparent transition from reading (and writing) to a multiplicity of (re)readings and (re)writings. Janet Murray uses the Internet fan activity surrounding TV dramas to demonstrate ‘the suitability of epic-scale narrative to digital environments’ (Murray, 1997; p. 84), an environment which she describes as offering ‘writers the opportunity to tell stories from multiple vantage points and to offer intersecting stories that form a dense and wide-spreading web’ (Murray, 1997; p. 84).

Murray’s ‘story webs’ are particularly pertinent to fans expansion and transformation of canon universes (see Penley, 1992) and the processes of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of media products and fictional environments demonstrated online. The authority of these privileged media products is both built up (through celebration) and destabilised via a multitude of paths, performances and gateways; both exploratory journeys through Internet sites (of journalism, marketing, fan culture etc) and the imaginings of fictional, narrative paths within fan production.  Both types of ‘hypertextual’ participation are linked explicitly to an immersion/surrender to an imaginative world (Murray, 1997, p. 110) previously described by Henry Jenkins in his discussion of fan production ‘Fans seemingly blur the boundaries between fact and fiction as if it were a tangible place that they can inhabit and explore’ (Jenkins, 1992, p. 18).

The incident on The West Wing

The West Wing, Season 4, Episode 22, US screen date 7th May 2003.

Throughout its four seasons to date, the American television workplace drama series The West Wing has flirted around the romantic pairing of two of its characters; the arrogant yet lovable Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman and his sarcastic and super-capable assistant Donna Moss. Ancillary characters such as the brittle Amy Gardner—introduced as a love-interest for Josh in the third season—only served to highlight the fact that within this fictional universe, Josh and Donna are ‘meant’ to be together. Unrequited and repressed love affairs in television serials have always proved powerful conduits for fan interest and Josh and Donna’s (J/D’s) relationship has spawned a number of dedicated sites on the Internet. These sites examine and attribute significance to both textual and subtextual material. They scour over the snatches of dialogue and glances between the couple that suggest the possibility of movement towards union, a movement that is tantalisingly delayed by the constraints of the narrative.  

The fourth season saw this movement gathering some momentum, with an increasing explicitness of references to the relationship. One moment in particular was to cause great excitement within J/D communities.  This scene involved a superficially casual, but emotively loaded, confrontation between Donna and Amy and the asking of a crucial question. A transcript posted online a few days after the episode aired offers a neat description of the final minutes of the scene;

Amy gently pushes a beer bottle around on the table and replies, ‘You said, you have to get Josh.’ Donna, looking madly through a little red book, says, ‘Yeah... that was….’ She hesitates, wondering how to crawl out of this: ‘I didn’t mean to say that you don’t … get him…’ Amy casually asks, just before taking a sip of beer, ‘You in love with Josh?’ Even though Amy can’t see her face, Donna manages to control it.  Cornered. She smacks the book shut and the camera cuts away as the lyrics to the song continue: ‘To love you love you love you love you love you love you …’  (Deborah’s recap for episode 4-22 Commencement, http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com)   

Yahoo! Groups

Yahoo! Groups is a ‘free website and email group service’ provided by the Internet portal Yahoo! and promoted as ‘a convenient way to connect with others who share the same interests and ideas’ (http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/groups/groups-01.html). Messages emailed to the groups are archived on their websites and are accessible by a numbered archive system which is used in references in this paper. The websites thus house permanent catalogues of preceding communication which can be dipped into at will. For some of the sites, including the two discussed below (JDTalk and JoshDonnaFF) it is necessary to register by emailing the site administrators in order to gain access and contribute to the archives.


The Yahoo! Group JDTalk (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Jdtalk) is the domain of a number of television fans united by their choice of a particular show, and within this show, of two characters. It is a space for asynchronous chat and discussion about The West Wing and its cast, but most importantly, offers a communal support system for Josh/Donna fans. 

The first posting to the group to react to the the incident on The West Wing contained the confirmation by one member—after the obligatory spoiler warning announcing upcoming plot revelations—of what had taken place during the episode and excitement that previous speculation had been proved correct;

Exchanges between those who had and had not seen the episode contained shared anticipation as well as anxiety that the issue had been put on so firmly on the line:

… wow, Amy and Donna do have a scene and a slightly tipsy Amy asks ... wait for it ... She asks Donna if she loves Josh! I so knew that question would be asked. And I am revelling in the glory that I knew Amy would ask Donna! (posting 14545, May 7 2003, 8.38pm). 

This was the first of series of responses in which the moment was communally digested:

Yes, but do you know what her answer is? I mean we all know what the answer is, but will she admit to it out loud and to Amy? (posting 14547,  May 7 2003, 8.43pm).

I gotta say, after I read that, I was practically euphoric. I screamed. My sister thought someone had died. But then my super-worrying side took over. And since you've seen it, I've gotta ask, what does Amy ask that Donna responds, ‘He's past it.’ (or am i getting my spoiler eps mixed up?) help! I can't WAIT to see this! (posting 14565, May 7th 2003, 11:45pm)

The scene was celebrated as a move towards potential realisation and fulfilling of these fan’s investment in the relationship, and outside sources (such as quotes from the actors and Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing’s ‘creator’) were pulled into the debate in order to inform speculation of potential future events.  At the same time, a range of online resources were used to convey the scene for those who had not seen it; both dramatically (through detailed descriptions and links to fanfictions from their sistergroup JDFF that involved similar confrontations between Amy and Donna) and visually (via screencaps from the episode). 

Within the diversity of responses on JDTalk, The West Wing is configured as a closed, authored space. The activity maintains a respectful stance in relation to the show, aiming instead for the mastery of its text via complete understanding/creation of a perfect, total version of it.  JDTalk constructs what Michael Joyce (1996) has described as an ‘exploratory hypertext’; a site for exploration and interpretation of textual material that is, in this case, possessed by the reality of the show, its official participants (authors, actors, etc) and associated secondary and tertiary texts (Fiske, 1999) that might assist in interpretation.


JoshDonnaFF (JDFF) (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/JoshDonnaFF) is a Yahoo! Group built upon the exchange of fan-written fictions (fics) concerning Donna and Josh and feedback on these stories. Although JDFF is in many ways highly regulated—moderators banning abusive flaming/negative criticism and enforcing a no-NC-17 classification (which bars descriptions of explicit sex/violence)—individual performances are relatively unrestricted and authority is located with the fans-as-authors. The group’s activities demonstrate a transformative extension of the authored, canon text to include space in which readers can play, making public inscriptions upon the canon and rendering it an ergodic text (Aarseth, 1997). Some fics are closely tied to the frameworks of screened episodes; offering post-episode denouements, filling gaps, developing possible storylines and adding backstory/future events to the chronology of the canon text.  Others are more fantastical, involving shifts from canon to alternate universes where Donna could be Josh’s boss, and crossover fictions such as Cindy Brewer’s 26-part CSI/West Wing crossover fic series ‘Gone’.

The response of JDFF authors to The incident on The West Wing was to assimilate, develop and extend the critical moment, providing parallel readings (what if Josh overheard the discussion) and continuations which provide the answer (and satisfaction) that the TV viewer was denied.  Fictions were posted shortly after the episode screened (on 7th May): Jo March’s ‘Twenty Questions’ (‘Why do you ask, Amy? Are *you*?’ Message 16381, posted 8th May 2003); Misha’s ‘The Question’ (‘I look her straight in the eye as I answer the question, “Yes, I am.”’ Message 16374, posted 8th May 2003); and Mary Dell’s ‘Question and Answer’ (‘”Before you called earlier, Amy asked me a question. I didn’t get a chance to answer her before the agents came through. I couldn’t have told her the answer, but I do need to tell you.” She paused and took in another deep breath before saying, “Josh, I love you. I’m in love with you.”’ Message 16384, posted 9th May 2003).  

This merging of official and unofficial authoring within these fictions involves a weakening of the possession of the canon text which is extended and opened up by individual authors’ fictive trajectories. When individual requests and monthly challenges for fics incorporating specific scenarios are posted on the site, the authorised text is transformed into a pliable, bespoke environment.   Within this multiplicity of remakings, stability is constructed at the level of character; it is in plot and story that particularity and breaches from implicit canon are demonstrated. Replication of ‘authentic’ aspects of the show’s ‘voice’ is constructed via the emulation of the stylistics of the show’s dialogue (particularly the rapid-fire screwball-comedy style patter of the show). This capturing and creating of textual, partial verisimilitude is apparent even in those fics that reimagine the textual universe in radically different ways.

Such ties to the canon text suggest certain modes of competency that are made more explicit in modes of evaluation which enable the certifiable hierarchising of authors and fics, and particularly in the sites annual fanfic awards and monthly challenges (www.geocities.com/joshdonnachallengearchive/Welcome.html). The fanfic awards’ different categories and genres of competency (such as Canon, Non-Romance, Alternate Universe and Best humour) may constitute a repossession of the textual space in terms of verisimilitude, but one which remains weakly defined as awards are voted for by members.

Hypertextualising literature

Prior to the development of globalised digital environments, literature was (and still is) widely consumed outside of the academy in trains, planes, armchairs, beds and book clubs. Here, there is scope for unlimited dispossession of the academy; if you want to leave out all of the poems when you read Byatt’s Possession because you decide that they do not advance the storyline, then you can (although you will still have pay for the now redundant 195 pages or so). But the invisibility that enables this smooth reading space (cf Deleuze & Guattari, 1988; Nunes, 1999) also serves to privatise it so that it poses no threat to the academy. However, the broadening of internet access—still limited, of course, to regions of affluence outside of Castell’s (1996, 1997) ‘Fourth World of exclusion’—radically raises the visibility of hitherto minority and privatised reading in the formation of new communities.

An example of such communities is The Republic of Pemberely, a website dedicated to Jane Austen, her novels and adaptations of the novels. Membership of the community is acquired by self-claiming an ‘obsession with things Austen.’ The forum section titled Jane Austen Novels and Adaptations is the site where members post their readings of Jane Austen’s novels and adaptations. The space is highly regulated, strongly classified (Bernstein (1996), Dowling (1999)). The poster of anything adjudged irrelevant to the novels and adaptations is admonished. Subsections dedicated to specific novels are strictly defined and the scope of discussion delimited. Comparisons among the works or discussion that is not concerned with a specific novel is confined to the section, ‘Austenuations’. Sequels of the novels can be talked about here. Members’ readings of the novels range from a brief comment on a single character to lengthy, analytical writing on a novel. The site maintains strong possession over principles of recognition, but dispossesses literary theory and tradition of the readings which are smoother reader celebrations.

The site also provides a space—‘Bits of Ivory’ (BoI)—for fan fiction. Here, readers can begin to dispossess Austen. But the nature of the fan fiction is strictly regulated. The vision statement of the board clearly indicates that characters and their basic traits and plots remain in Austen’s possession.

The stories at Bits of Ivory are intended to present Jane Austen's characters behaving as she wrote them in scenes we might wish she had an opportunity to write herself. We may describe what happens before or after the events in the novels, re-tell parts from the point of view of another character, or elaborate scenes which she, in her wisdom, did not describe in great detail. In this, the guide is Jane Austen's own sense of taste and humanity. (http://www.pemberley.com/derby/guidenew.html (last accessed 03/07/03))

The contributor guidelines provide more specific rules: a story should be faithful to the original conception of Austen’s characters; the story must be set in the same historical year as Austen’s; and so on. In effect, the canonised space of Austen’s oeuvre is opened to include BoI, animating it as a living textual space that thrives on interaction with its readers/writers. Yet the reconfiguration is carefully guided not to commit ‘ontological violation’; authorship is limited to extrapolation, which essentially contributes to celebration of Austen’s work. There is to be no evolution of the species, only cloning. Crucially also, discussion of fan fiction is limited to BoI itself. A reminder posted by one of the committee members advises:

… we do not discuss fan fiction on the boards here at Pemberley. If you liked a particular BoI story, you can comment on that board or contact the author of the story directly. (This wording has now apparently been replaced by the simpler, ‘Please do not discuss BoI stories or fan fiction on the other discussion boards.’ Messages posted on ‘Austentations’ at http://www.pemberley.com).

Readings are hierarchised not by the manner or their presentation, but by their object text. Discussion about novels and adaptations are regarded as primary texts. Interestingly adaptations are possessed by their literary sources, a feature evidenced in that films are introduced without directors’ names. Then sequels of the novels, which have been published in print. are privileged over fan fiction. The former may be discussed in iAustenuations’ which is one of subsections of Jane Austen Novels and Adaptations; fan fiction is restricted to BoI which belongs to ‘Slightly Off the Austen Track.’

Affiliation to the academy is established on ‘Special Austen Pages’ which includes links to collections of academic articles and quotes from famous literary figures. It even includes Shakespeare resource pages. However, these affiliations hardly serve to lock readers into the conventions of literary studies. The hypertext markup language (html) of the website levels the significance of each affiliation to diverse sites outside of Pemberley. The link to the internet bookshop and the link to Shakespeare are democratized as equals. But all of these off-world links are marginalised as slogans or logos, the whole of the site is dominated by the celebration of the readers’ performances and discussions. The possessive principles of recognition of what can legitimately be posted on this site achieve a bureaucratizing structure for what are now weakened principles of realisation relative to the academy. But unlike the academy, perhaps, possession here is not itself bureaucratic. Whereas the academy must effect an objectifying distance from its canon, possession by the canonised author is here established and succoured by passion. The paradigm of literary study is destabilized by the crack that is opening between its sustaining cultural surface and its shifting social structure.

The possessive academy

Antony Easthope proposes five features that characterise what he regards as the onanistic paradigm of literary study:

(1) a traditionally empiricist epistemology; (2) a specific pedagogic practice, the 'modernist' reading; (3) a field for study discriminating the canon from popular culture; (4) an object of study, the canonical text; (5) the assumption that the canonical text is unified. (Easthope, 1991; p. 11)

Thus literary study is territorialized as an extrasemiotic and ontological space. Both the text and the manner of its reading are in the possession of the academy and literary education has been preoccupied with the presentation of the canon text and the transmission of the means of accessing its essential experience. The principles of recognition of the text reside in the official canon and the principles of its realisation reside in the official pedagogy constituting a highly possessive regime. This self-closing aesthetics of literary study has survived a sequence of theoretical interventions.

For Arnold and F. R. Leavis, the literary work was a source of aesthetic and moral integrity that was opposed to and so should be deployed as a defence against mass civilization and industrialisation. Since a literary work is the embodiment of its author’s humanistic vision, it or rather the authors of literature can be placed in a hierarchy according to the intensity and profundity of their ‘awareness of the possibilities of life’ (Leavis, 1948, p. 10). New Criticism continues the reverence towards the literary work regarding it as an organic and harmonious whole, a ‘well wrought urn’ (Brooks, 1968). Literary texts bear superior values that transcend the impact of their social and historical context on their own structure. They are even detached from their authors and become autonomous objects in an ultimate, formal aesthetics of truth. Despite their clear differences as the focus of critical interest moves from authors to effectively authorless texts, the possessive regime is sustained.

Reader-oriented theories introduce a disruptive move by apparently problematising the possession of the modes of textual realisation by enfranchising the reader as meaning maker. Literary texts are no longer insulated from readers’ responses to which attention is now drawn. Various theoretical frames are deployed to explain them: psychoanalytical (Holland, 1975), hermeneutic (Fish, 1980), phenomenological (Iser, 1974), and so forth. However, the initial moves by these theories to privatise readings—to dispossess the academy—have failed because the theories ironically install themselves as guarantors of legitimacy that they invest in specified subject positions. Readers are given more options than in the Leavisite and New Critical paradigms which fashion them to a ideals. But each subject position remains locked into its reading. Two, at least, of Easthope’s defining features—an empiricist epistemology and a modernist reading—are shaken yet quickly re-stabilised as literary texts are re-possessed by the academy.

Poststructuralist theories disrupt the field for the object of study announcing the death of author and at the same time annihilating the boundaries of a text (Barthes, 1977, 1981; Foucault, 1977). Now, the meaning of a text is produced through the ways that it connects with other texts, so they are perpetually open to new meanings. No hierarchical distinction between texts is possible so that the distinction between the canon and popular culture is invalidated. Non-canonical work, as well as conventional ‘literary’ texts, are dealt with in the literature department. Such a state of affairs seems to challenge all of Easthope’s conditions, radically dispossessing the academy: the paradigm of literary study seems untenable. However, poststructuralist intervention affects literary study not so much in terms of its practice as in terms of its identity. Now a more or less explicit fluency with poststructuralist theory takes over as the competence legitimating readings, establishing repossession of the principles of evaluation of critical performances. Furthermore, possessive strategies reinstate hierarchical principles in, for example, the privileging of literary texts over their film adaptations which now find their way in the academy, but as the ‘cultural bastards’ (Kempley, 1993) of the canon (see also McFarlane, 1996; Pellow, 1994; Reynolds, 1993). As was the case with earlier forms of literary theory, the strongly possessive regime is reasserted.

Literary hypertext

The primary textual feature of a hyperfiction is its manner of presentation. A hyperfiction is in essence a collection of blocks of writing, lexias, which can be assembled in diverse ways. A narrative is produced as a reader selects paths through lexias. Furthermore, the interpretation that a reader will make of any lexia will at depend—sometimes strongly—upon the route that they have taken in getting to it and, indeed, the number of times that they have got to it before. So, readings of hyperfictions vary logistically, and because of this they are far less predictable than readings of conventional fiction which at least invites us to turn pages sequentially. Since, commonly, the reader is not given access to a map of the work as a whole there may be no certainty that all available lexia have been encountered. Thus even the point of completion of a reading is open. Many hypertext theorists have pointed out that the instability and transmutability of narrative has already occupied a large part of literary discourse and that experimentation with the textual form has also been done before. So the first and one of the most widely discussed hypernovels, Afternoon, a story, by Michael Joyce, is placed in

… a long tradition of experimental literature in which one of the main strategies is to subvert and resist narrative. The novel (‘the new’), from Cervantes to the Roman Nouveau, has always been anti-genre, and Afternoon is but its latest conformation. (Aarseth (1994); p. 71)

But the devolution of authorship to the reader in hypertext has a different significance from that in those literary theories that are concerned with the transaction between texts and readers which are essentially subliminal to the literary text the materiality of which is unmoved. The dynamics of aporia and epiphany in conventional literary work is played out in reading space, while in hypertext it is played in both reading and writing space as the reader’s meandering is instantly enacted in the formation of a narrative ‘self-organisation’ (Hayles (1999)). Joyce describes this feature of hypertext: ‘Hypertext is the confirmation of the visual kinetic of rereading’ (Joyce (2001); p.132). Each reading is a new reading or an un-reading of the previous one.

The inevitable entanglement of the reader with the text, the immediate merge of writing and reading spaces interrupts possessive process of establishing any conventions of reading apparently cancelling the space for critics. The immediacy and unseen possibilities of a variety of narrative denies an intensified and unified gaze of any theory. There are only readings, no interpretations. Every individual performance is a version (Bolter, 2001). Critics are no longer able to act as a posteriori investigators, but should be like ‘the participant observer of social anthropology…[who] must make it happen—improvise, mingle with the natives, play roles, provoke response’ (Aarseth 1994; p. 82).

Bolter’s use of the terms ‘performance’ signals the dispossession of the author in favour of the audience in the hypertext mode, yet his counting of individual performance, like the nominalising of ‘reading’, invokes closure as well as openness. In her The end of books—or books without end? Reading interactive narratives, J. Yellowlees Douglas (2001) reads and re-reads this ambiguity in classroom activities with print text—in its ‘original’ form and cut into segments—and with hypertexts and in the readings of critics and theorists and, of course in her own readings of, amongst other works, Joyce’s Afternoon, a story. Douglas reaches the point at which she feels she can ‘close the book on afternoon’ (p. 101) after her fourth ‘reading’ having reached a conclusion on what happened to the wife and child of the main protagonist, Peter and thus ‘satisfied one of the primary quests outlined in the narrative’ (p. 101). But this alone does not account for her sense of closure.

I am not, for example, absolutely certain that Peter didn’t simply see his ex-wife keeping company with his employer, swerve and strike another car, carrying an unknown woman and child in it. That would certainly account for the ‘investigator finds him at fault’ as well as the bodies stretched out on the grass, but not his son’s school paper, blowing about on the grass—just as it wouls also leave Peter’s search for Lisa and Andrew as open-ended as it was when I first began reading afternoon. Which makes all the more intriguing the reasons for my closing afternoon, feeling satisfied with the last version of the text I read, and accepting the approximate, albeit stylized, type of closure I reached at that last ‘I call.’ (Douglas, 2001; p. 101-2)

Douglas identifies the lexia, ‘I call’ and another, ‘white afternoon’ as key ‘places’ and her sense of their very particular placements in the topography of the hypertext that combines with her having arrived at what she feels is an optimal interpretation of the mystery posed by the novel that, for her, stimulated her sense of closure.

The absence of an obvious last page in this form of hypertext may well have stimulated Douglas’ intrigue represented in the main title to her chapter, ‘just tell me when to stop.’ Certainly her approach resembles, in a sense, that of the participant observer advocated by Aarseth although here the author/reader is under her own observation. But fundamentally, what she has done in this auto-ethnography is to find a way of returning to the author of the novel—in this case, Michael Joyce—an authorial voice that may otherwise be lost in the celebration of open readings. We might not ask ‘just tell me where to stop’ of a painting which generally has a frame to define its spatial boundaries. In material terms, the conventional novel defines temporal rather than spatial boundaries. The hypertext is, to use Bolter’s term, ‘topographic writing’:

Whenever we divide out text into unitary topics, organise these units into a connected structure, and conceive of this textual structure spatially as well as verbally, we are writing topographically. Many literary artists in the 20th century have adopted this mode of writing. (Bolter, 2001; p. 36)

But of course, many visual artists in the 20th and 21st century are doing much the same thing. These and other developments such as the ‘technotexts’ that are read by N. Katherine Hayles (2002) would challenge the visual arts/literature distinction. In demanding of a work of literature, ‘just tell me where to stop’ Douglas casts a distinctly literary and perhaps distinctly temporal gaze onto the hypertext in a strategy that, in effect, repossess that which rightfully belongs to the literary critic.



Literacy and literature are possessed by institutions of formal education in different ways. Literacy is possessed in the school—at least in England—by totalising curricula, assessments and inspections which regulate the public domains of literacy activities that are generated in classrooms. This possession is now rendered more effective and more visible by digital technologies including the hypertext environment of the World Wide Web on which the curricula and inspection reports are published. Insofar as they are also possessed by these structures, teachers are bureaucratised. But the World Wide Web and the internet more generally also raise the visibility and accessibility of the popular production and consumption of literacy in the areas of popular culture itself (The West Wing) and in conventionally elite forms (Jane Austen). We might expect particular sites to undergo transformations precisely because of their open access and this is poignantly illustrated in Nancy Baym’s (2000) revisiting of the site of her participant observation some years after her initial study. We will also expect that new sites will emerge and some old sites will disappear. Previously, though, the public domain of school literacy was confronted by highly localised and generally invisible popular culture authoring and audience practices, now readers of the school have access to a visible public field of audience authoring that will inform their readings. The question then is, what does school literacy look like from the perspective of JDTalk, JoshDonna FF and The Republic of Pemberley.

In the cases presented in this essay we have described at least two modes of audience authoring. The participants of JDTalk construct a site for exploration and interpretation that is possessed by the reality of the show and by its official participants (authors, actors, etc). The game is the collective completion of a hypertextual space differentiated only by the shift from information about that which has already occurred to speculation on that which may occur. The past in this sense imposes stronger possession than the future. Because the show runs to different schedules in the US and elsewhere, the past may be defined differently via the use of spoilers and spoiler warnings. JoshDonnaFF constitutes a more constructive hypertext (to borrow from Joyce, 1996, 1998) which is ergodic (Aarseth, 1999) and is very weakly possessed by the show which now stands primarily as a reservoir of resources. Here, the past/future distinction is established only in terms of the availability of resources provided by the show. The Republic of Pemberley also includes fan fiction, but unlike JoshDonnaFF the fiction is probably better interpreted as itself an exploration of Austen in which fans try on her clothes, so to speak. Through its spotlighting of an officially canonised author and her work, Pemberley constitutes a potential dispossessing of the school if not of the academy in respect of the location of principles whereby modes of engagement with the canon might be regulated.

Higher education is generally not yet bureaucratised to the same extent as the school. Its practices are regulated via academic alliances and oppositions. The apparent democratisation of access to global networks that is facilitated by the internet may lead to the formation of new alliances and the subsequent redrawing of the map of literary studies. It seems clear that developments within the media of artistic endeavour are resulting in radically new environments. One result may be the potential erosion of the distinctiveness of the visual arts and literature as writing increasingly becomes topographic and multimedia and as the visual arts increasingly explore these new multimedia, hypertextual environments. As Hayles (1999) points out, it has always been misleading to regard the artistic content of a work as somehow to be separable from its material form. This error aligns with the Cartesian dualism of mind and body that is the problematic of a range of popular culture works including Gibson’s Neuromancer, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and its Filmic reaslisation in Blade Runner; these works, of course, now attract literary attention. New media, then, entail new artistic forms that the academic community will work to territorialise. The evidence of Douglas’ readings of even ‘first generation hypertexts’ (Hayles, 1999) suggest that at least a part of this process will be constituted as some form of rearguard action directed, however imaginatively, at restoring literary authority to the literary critic.

So what of the impact of the denizens of Gibsonbarlowville on literacy and on literature within the institutions of education? Contrary to Barlow’s naēve optimism (see Dowling, 1996) territory new or old is always precisely the terrain of struggles for possession, dispossession and repossession, for the formation and dissolution and transformation of communities. Contrary to Gibson’s rather more imaginative pessimism, the struggles for free expression in cyberspace are not over before they begin. Advancing bureaucratisation seems set to make the school an increasingly dour place to be and obstructive conservatism in departments of literature is also a grim prospect. Doubtless, the bureaucrats and Luddites will present a sour face to the feast of exciting new literate forms and communities that is emerging with the new electronic technologies, much to the amusement or irritation of the digital gastronomes. But this is definitively not Babette’s Feast; there will be resolution. As interested participants, we await it with eager trepidation.


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Babette’s Feast (Babettes Gĺstebud) (1987) Gabriel Axel (Dir.)

Blade Runner: The director’s cut (1991) Ridley Scott (Dir.)