Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Februar 2001 Editorial

Globalisation and the Loss of the Text

Stuart Sillars (Bergen)

Globalisation is, of course, a profoundly political process. According to its proponents, the old categories of centre and periphery are rapidly becoming elided to produce a single zone of international commerce: others less enthusiastic take the view that what is being produced is less a global village of entrepreneurial potential than a zoo of feral capitalism. The placement of aesthetics, at the levels both of ideology and individual cultural product, perhaps calls for a whole series of new theoretical positions and manoeuvrings beyond the scope of the present article. But it may be that, by exploring the ways in which the aesthetic objects of globalisation have changed from those of the pre-global age, we may get a little closer to understanding the choices that face us.

In this regard, I have been thinking a lot recently about two specific, and little discussed, dimensions of globalisation, which can best be formulated in two questions. First, how does the identity of the text - literary, visual, or any other - change when it becomes not a product of a single culture but something owned by many cultures or, increasingly, dependent upon a single pan-global net of cultural predicates? Secondly, what complex of biotechnological relations have come to bear upon the way in which texts are constituted and read when they are committed to or generated in cybernetic cultures? Bringing these two together expresses another question: how far are the global pressures of the internet age fundamentally different from those of earlier periods?

Let me begin by addressing something more fundamental, but still insistent: the practice of translation. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the act of translating a text from one language into another should be seen by lay readers as a simple act of relocating the essential thought within another set of linguistic markers. After all, translation as a literary process began to flourish in terms of mass availability at a period roughly contemporary with the onset of Romantic attitudes towards æsthetic creativity and a sense of pan-nationalism. It is remarkable how long such attitudes have survived, however. W. H. Auden dismissed a whole section from his translation of Goethe's Italienische Reise on the grounds that 'it is verbose rubbish and sounds like a parody of "deep" German prose'.(1) The absurdity of this becomes more apparent when we paraphrase it (which is perhaps another form of translation) with reference to Auden's own writing: the 'Address for a Prize-day' from The Orators (2) 'is verbose rubbish and sounds like a parody of "deep" English prose'. The point is as simple to state as it is complex to realise (that is, to understand): in translating we lose all the immediacy, which includes complexities, half-heard echoes and deconstructive sideslips, of the original text.

The point is that we should also be aware of translation as a major act of cultural relocation. It is, inevitably, Ezra Pound who realises this (that is, makes it real) most fully in his 'Homage to Sextus Propertius' (1917), with all its temporal relocations, parodies of schoolboy howlers, allusions to the physical nature of contemporary American life, and examples of what Donald Davie has called 'babu language'(3). Yet one only has to glance at some of the reviews it received when it first appeared (4) to realise how few people understood the nature of the text or its implications with regard to translation in theory and practice.(5)

For both these reasons, then, the act of translation involves the loss of the text in all its original complexity and slipperiness. The perils of this can be considerable, most particularly when allied with a naïve æsthetic that separates ideas from language and language from society. A ready example of this can be found in the study of literary theory. As fewer and fewer students can be assumed to read French or German, theoretical texts are increasingly addressed in translation. Generally this translation is done by American academics, who add their own coinages to match those of the original texts, and whose writing is read throughout the English speaking world - by speakers of English, Australian, Singaporean and many other englishes. Not only the incisiveness of the original ideas is lost, but so is the tone of their statement: the ludic dimension of Roland Barthes, for example, cannot be rendered in any other language, nor can the full effect of 'La mort de l'auteur' be realised without an awareness of its place in the same volume as essays on the Citroen DS - which is itself an untranslatable pun on déesse, of course. A further difficulty is the matter of ownership of the texts. The notion of maintaining minority, in which texts outside a dominant ideological tradition must constantly reiterate their foreignness, is by implication denied: alienness cannot be stated as completely within a language with which the reader, and not the writer, is familiar. The notion of maintaining minority, in which texts outside a dominant ideological tradition must constantly reiterate their foreignness, is by implication denied: alienness cannot be stated as completely within a language with which the reader, and not the writer, is familiar. Thus exile is compromised or, worse, given some kind of honorary canonical status. For example, in recent years Alice Walker's The Color Purple (6) has become a staple of introductory and world literature courses in universities in the USA, and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart(7) has achieved similar prominence in the United Kingdom.

Yet despite the loss of the text that it demonstrates, translation in other senses maintains the text's original quality. The temporal sequence of the verbal progress is maintained, albeit changed into the rhythms of another culture as well as another language, so that the logical rhythm, if not the logocentric flavour, is maintained. And, in some cases, the larger cultural consequence of translation may be claimed as an advantage, from which considerable cultural benefits may be said to accrue (and try translating that into another language while maintaining its self-conscious parody of an accountant's annual report). I am thinking here of the translations of Shakespeare into German by Tieck, Goethe and Schiller, to which ultimately we must be grateful for the foundation of modern critical study of the canon. And translation does not always have to present itself as seamless and perfect. Indeed, the more it reveals itself as inadequate, incomplete, or transitory - one state of the text's progress - the more effective it becomes, allowing the reader always to remember its strangeness. And here we return to the work of il miglior fabbro: Pound knew all about this and embedded it within the apparent awkwardnesses of 'Sextus Propertius'.

There are other ways in which translation may be said to enhance, rather than to deny, the origin and identity of the text. Walter Benjamin makes this clear in his examination of 'The Task of the Translator'.(8) Speaking of the 'hallowed growth of languages' (74) he asks:

How far removed is their hidden meaning from revelation, how close can it be brought by the knowledge of this remoteness? (75)

The question here is one that sees translation as a practice that reveals the mystery of the original, its inviolability: the preparation of a version in another language can only serve to emphasise the difference and otherness of the original. This introduces something very important for my present purpose: the idea that the act of translation itself, the process, is in some ways of greater importance than the product that results, the text redefined and approximated in another language for readers from another culture.

Translation, then, both ensures the loss of the text and continues it in new directions, so that we might well choose to see it as a transformational process in which the life of the text is extended rather than denied. Should we worry that such a view, with its implicitly synoptic outlook, denies the circumstance that most readers will be present only for part of the parade, in that they will see only one version of the text? Perhaps - although one counter to this might be that the variety of the reading experience, and the impermanence of the deconstructed text itself, makes this a universal part of any coming together of text and reader.

Returning to Shakespeare as a model, we might consider other kinds of textual change. What happens, for example, when the text is reinvented in terms of a painting or an opera? As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, many people became aware of Romeo and Juliet through paintings and engravings showing Juliet on the balcony(9); in different periods, others knew it through Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture (three versions, 1869, 1870, 1880) and Prokofiev's ballet (1935-6), and still more through Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and Zeffirelli's film (1968). At what stage in this progress do we move away from one text and into another? Has the verbal text been lost, or has it simply gathered to itself a series of new harmonic upper partials that clarify and amplify the original fundamental note? How far is it valid to consider hypertext within this frame? More specifically, is the change that a text undergoes when it is presented in cyberspace comparable to earlier 'translations' or is it so different qualitatively that it demands a wholly new critical vocabulary?

I would argue that the difference lies not so much between internet presentations of texts and those that came earlier per se, but in a key dimension of the kind of translation from one medium to another that we are witnessing. The difference is apparent in the examples I have already mentioned: paintings of Juliet relocate the text by moving outside its temporal sequence, suggesting the character as an entity independent of the larger textual progress, whereas programme overtures, ballets and operas offer a temporal sequence that, while significantly changing the text, offer us what we might call a continuous tonal analogue of its original form. We might call this another version of the text, an interpretation, or a sustained critical commentary in a different æsthetic medium: whichever way, the current of the text is maintained, whilst the process of transformation becomes part of the currency of æsthetic exchange. In this way it is closer to the ambiguous nature of the 'text' of a play: constantly being recreated in theatric performance, the printed script is closer to an orchestral score as the basis for continuous reinterpretation than to the deceptively finite text of a poem or novel.

Internet versions of texts are generally presented by their advocates as offering a far greater freedom of approach. Two examples are relevant here. In Bergen, the University's Seksjon for humanistisk informatikk has produced a hypertext version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (, offering a hyperspace tour of the wood outside Athens (itself a relocation, or translation, of the Forest of Arden) alongside the text of the play and a range of textual glosses and other information. In an earlier academic life, in a university in the southern States, I helped to produce a cyberspace version of Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale'. Its basis was the text of the poem, with hot links giving notes on individual words and aspects of the text. Further links gave access to a reproduction of the manuscript text, biographical information, notes on Keats' medical condition, and a bibliography of critical writings. There was a recording of the poem read aloud by an English voice; and, for those born in a Southern wild, a recording of the song of the nightingale was also included.

My question is this: has the text been lost by these attentions, or has it merely been retranslated into another medium? Two polarities are possible in answering this question. One position would assert that the play and the poem have been carefully preserved, since both are still there in their original temporal sequences and - in the case of the poem - in being read aloud it is something closer to any notional original than a silent reading from the printed page of the Norton Anthology would allow. According to the other extreme, it has been destroyed, since the reader can now dance around from explicatory note on one word to medical testimony to biographical detail to nightingale's song, and a sense of growth through time as well as through linguistic and literary unfolding has been denied.

To this we must make one counter enquiry: just what is it that the cyber version offers that cannot be accomplished elsewhere, by judicious use of a range of separate sources that one might find in a library? The practical response to this would be: yes, but as fewer libraries have a full range of critical texts, let alone recordings of bird song, reproductions of literary manuscripts and recordings of Keats' poem, making all these available in a single electronic capsule has much to offer. Bolder critics might add that expecting a student to consult all these texts is unrealistic these days anyway - a point to which I for one would respond with a shudder of recognition and regret. So, ultimately, the text is not lost, but undergoes another act of translation and critical commentary.

This brings me to my second, and larger, point. I began by asserting that no act of translation could fully enfold the many voices and levels of the original. Similarly, no mere version of a pre-existing text can embrace the identity of cyberspace if it does no more than to offer a text and a series of ways of reading that have all existed before the development of the medium itself. Our approach to cybertext has inevitably been directed by what we already know, so that the history of our coming to terms with what is genuinely new in computing and the internet has been undertaken through a series of wrong turnings. In the late seventies, when computers began to be available in academic communities, I remember attending a course in what was called 'Computer Appreciation'. It dealt with Babbage's conversion engine and the punched cards of Jacquard looms: it presented computers within a tight historical sequence. This was piece of point-missing so egregious as to be almost endearing. A little later, when the structural changes of computing came to be more widely appreciated, programming became the fashionable subject to study: we were all expected to learn ALGOL, and the rapier wit of computer instructors was demonstrated when colleges offered courses called 'Basic BASIC'. When it became apparent that this was beyond the interests, and thus beyond the achievable abilities, of most of us, the software revolution began. We bought - or, more often, stole - WordStar, WordPerfect and ultimately just Word, and used it to produce papers that were really much the same as those which we had produced on portable typewriters a few years earlier. It is probably that shift - from stumbling along in BASIC to using a shiny software disk - that has led to the most complete misunderstanding of what cyberspace is and what it can do with the text. We do not need to confront the way in which a computer thinks and organises material, because already it has been turned into an imitation of the way we do it for ourselves. The shift is seen in language: whereas we used to try to use the language of computers to explain processes in the human world, we now use human terms about computers. The other day I was told that my laptop had had a lapse of memory, to which I responded by offering to put the kettle on and make it a nice cup of tea.

Similar approaches underlie the internet. Currently it is most striking as a form of international trading. You know the sort of thing - you access a website, type in your credit card details and address, and, videte miraculum, a mere three weeks later the person next door receives a postcard telling you that the item you have ordered is out of stock, only to be bombarded for several months by expensively produced catalogues of the item that you had originally wanted to buy - a remarkably traditional form of communication. Sometimes it doesn't even get that far. I've had an order refused because I didn't say in which of the contiguous States of the US Bergen was to be found. It is ironic that the most successful forms of e-commerce deal with an item that has changed little since the sixteenth century, the printed book. But most successful in what terms? As we all know, has yet to return a trading profit.

Texts that are available on the internet can be immensely successful, but again we must think seriously about their ultimate value. It is now possible to download the Arden Shakespeare; but, considering that all the volumes are available at a fairly modest cost and provide immediate access when purchased, whereas printing out the whole of a text costs the user (or, more likely, the user's employer or university) almost as much in terms of paper and laser-printing time and materials it does not seem a worthwhile exercise. And, of course, you can't read the screen in bed. Others are different. The Brown University Women's Writers project has made available scholarly texts at a fraction of the cost of a printed edition; the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online allows flexibility of use and the possibility of rolling modification and editorial revision undreamt of a few years ago. My first published article was an antedating of one sense of the word 'Subject', which had to wait twenty years before it was assimilated into the new version of the dictionary. Now, it would take only the administrative time needed to read and evaluate the article and enter it into the revised dictionary. More information on the process of putting the dictionary on the net is available at In addition, there are commercial issues to be resolved: the OED on line can only be accessed by subscription (, costly for an individual but much cheaper for a group: it is intriguing and ironic that the use of such devices may well lead to an increase in use of a much more traditional site of intellectual exchange, the library.

The above examples are reference works which use cyberspace merely as a tool. To find a genuine text we must explore those which owe their origin to the medium itself, and which subsume the nature of the medium into the text itself as much as Keats' 'Ode: to a Nightingale' subsumes the printed page or Romeo and Juliet does the Elizabethan theatre. Examples of these are still rare, but they are important. Strikingly, they cross boundaries between poetry, theatre and visual art, and the most significant occur in the area of installation art. I would urge you, for an example, to look at the website of the journal Frieze ( and to access from it a site called WordPerhect (, by Tomoko Takahashi. This is a reinvention of that older software program that turns the original concept on its head. The screen represents a pencil drawing of a word-processor screen, with small icons that function as in a word-processing program. Except that they don't: one advises the user to make some tea, another to go outside and play. The spell check button that tells you to get a dictionary, the cut and paste button to go and get a pair of scissors and some glue. Messages appear not in razor sharp rectilinear boxes but as odd bits of paper attached to the screen with masking tape. What it does is to confront how we see the word-processor as an image of our own way of thinking in a witty yet disturbing way, by turning it upside down and using technology to create something that is in no way technological, and yet which also parodies the idea of the technological. It could only exist as a cyberspace presentation, but it self-consciously and deliberatively fails as one: as such it represents both a genuinely new kind of text and a post-modernist deconstructive critical reading of the processes of such texts.

There is another, and larger, sense in which the loss of the text may be seen as something valid and productive. The exhibition Detox !, which ran at the end of 2000 at Bergens Kunstforening, contained a number of exhibits with which the onlooker is encouraged to interact. All employ some form of computer generation and many use or refer to internet technologies (an online catalogue is available at Yet none produces what we would call a finite text - a finished art work in the traditional sense of an object that has an identifiable producer - or, to use more loaded words, creator or author. The interest is in process, not completion, and the process occurs when the viewer or user interacts with the components that are offered and so produces not a final text but an experience. The same is true of Simon Faithfull's contribution to Temporary Accommodation at the Whitechapel Art Gallery which he walks the streets around the gallery sketching on a Palm pilot and sending these images back to the gallery for display ( Here the interactions - between artist, setting, gallery, onlooker - are multiplied and magnified by existing in both real and virtual space, so that process becomes form in a very powerful sense.

Since the coinage of the term 'cybernetics' by Norbert Wiener in 1948(11), various theories have been developed for the discussion of cybertexts. George P. Landow's pioneering work Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)(12) attempted to 'convince literary theorists and computer scientists that they have interests in common and might therefore wish to talk to one another now and then'(13). Espen Aarseth's research at the University of Bergen, including his book Cybertext (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 and at has broadened the discussion of theory into the discussion of texts that he terms 'ergodic' - those in which, in 'the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence' (Cybertext, 1) to generate a text by moving sequentially through a series of hyperlinks. In so doing the reader controls the access process to a degree, and in a manner, quite different from those involved when reading text in print. Yet all of these theorists still look, at least in part, towards the generation of a text through this experience. What to me is the really new element of cybertext, and the one that has most influence to bear on globalisation, is not the text that is eventually generated through the new semiotic sequence, but the process itself: in this, it is not so much that a new text is generated at the end, but that the process itself becomes a text of a new shared, consensual identity.

If we take this in conjunction with the idea of moving a traditional, printed text and placing it in cyberspace, the result is a dual process that involves both mediation and genuine change. It is not only that a pre-existing text - one translated not only between languages but from language into cyberspace - the text that, with our traditional expectations of what a processing program is for, we assume will be produced - is demonstrably absent. What has happened is that the text - both sorts of text - has been lost, in the new awareness of the peculiar process of cybernetics. This is not easy: the distress that is produced by this for most onlookers is similar in kind to Benjamin's sense of regret at the loss of the 'aura' of the original art object,(15) but if anything larger in degree. Yet only if we are free to accept this loss may we fully understand, and consequently fully explore and employ, the potential of the medium. How this will happen is impossible to say: at the moment, the Detox! show offers some suggestions. This is exciting because it draws together a whole range of intellectual endeavours. The medium of experiencing cyberspace as an aesthetic entity in its own right, with all the questions of identity and ownership this raises, inevitably lays stress on the notion of process rather than completion, developing ideas from Richard Rorty and the philosopher of science T. S. Kuhn(16). Perhaps most interestingly, this process-art elides aesthetic areas formerly separated into theatre, performance art, cinema, written text and installation art. This is demonstrated in a specific but representative way by the fact that in 2000 Tomoko Takahashi's WordPerhect was nominated for the Turner Prize, one of the best-known awards for visual art in Great Britain. Within this process, the beholder's share changes from one of assumed knowledge of the sort defined by Ernst Gombrich(17) to one that is far less specific; and, as a result, the franchise of the art object is extended. We may regret the finite art object, but its loss enables a far wider, and far fuller, dialogue - one that may, within a fully global context, allow genuine, free and equitable exchange between areas hitherto characterised as centre and periphery.

* * *

In traditional terms, then, the text is lost: but what has come to replace it is something of a wholly different nature. This change has, I hope, been apparent to some degree in the course of this article: it has shifted from a traditional piece of academic analysis, pursuing a linear argument and freighted with footnotes, and thus directed largely by a notional author, towards a much more flexible structure in which references are to other websites and control over argument and linearity has passed to the reader/participant - although mercifully in this process the death of the author has occurred only at a metaphorical level.

And here at last is the connection between translation, ownership of the text, and cybertext. There is in one sense no need for an act of translation, because it will be part of the medium in which it is presented: the translation act itself has been translated, into the notion of process, which displaces rather than constitutes the notion of text in the new art object. It is in this sense that the text has been lost - that is, transformed into something that is far more collaborative in the process that is generated by each reader in finding her or his own way around the hyperlinks in this essay and in other texts that are far more imaginative. How this actually works - the values and conceptual richness that it reveals - becomes the responsibility of the user as much as the notional author: depending on the contributions from both, it can either be a peptide orchestra of great generative power or manifest the frenzied but arbitrary energy of a conceptual pin-ball machine.

For the future, if we can genuinely fuse biotechnology and artificial intelligence with human textual impulses, then these new texts - processes and not finite objects -will become immeasurable in their range and nature. But only if we approach the medium-as-the-process-as-the-art-object: this displaces translation and authorial authority, and so allows globalisation of cultures to be fully egalitarian and non-exploitative.(18)

But there is a choice. If cyberprocessart moves, through globalisation, in the direction I have been discussing, we have something positive. If, instead, it adopts and mediates more traditional versions of verbal texts, the way is open for the cultural annexations. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, school pupils in British India studied the geography of the north-east of England, and learned with pride that the docks at Grimsby and Immingham were the deepest in Europe. With cybertext, this kind of absurdity can be reproduced with exponential growth in all four dimensions, and the fourth - time - will perhaps be the most dangerous. Even in the nineteenth century, there was a well established maxim that a rumour can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on. The political dimension of this is clear: either the internet is a mechanism for even greater and more widespread annexation of the periphery by the centre, the third world by the first, or the freedom of cyberprocess art allows involvement and sharing at a level hitherto undreamt of.

Or, to put it another way, we must choose between Coca-Colonialism and WordPerhect.

© Stuart Sillars (Bergen)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


(1)  Goethe, J. W. von, Italian Journey (1786-1788), trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer. New York: Schocken Books, 1968). Introduction, xxv.

(2)  1931. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1977. 61-4.

(3)  Ezra Pound. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 57.

(4)  Some of these are cited and discussed by Davie in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, 79-81. For the texts of some of these and some others, see Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage. Edited by Eric Homberger. London: Routledge, 1972.

(5)  Hugh Kenner (The Pound Era, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971, 168-71) discusses the poem as a 'transformation', and writes suggestively about the interest in transformations of various kinds in the scientific and aesthetic community at the time.

(6)  The Color Purple: A Novel. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

(7)  London: Heinemann, 1958.

(8)  Most conveniently available in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968, 69-82. This is, of course, the essay in translation.

(9)  For example, Frank Dicksee, Juliet on the Balcony (1875: oil on canvas, 60" x 40", Dundee Museum and Art Gallery) and William Hatherell, Juliet (1912: body colour and watercolour, 9 ½ " x 7 ", Tate Gallery, London).

(10)  Last access to this and all further mentioned Web sites 2001-02-15.

(11)  Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. New York: Technology Press, 1948.

(12)  George P. Landow: Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

(13)  'What's a Critic to Do?: Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext', Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 1-51. Quotation from p 1.

(14)  Espen Aarseth: Cybertext. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. WWW:

(15)  "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Illuminations, 217-52.

(16)  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

(17)  In Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Oxford: Phaidon. 2nd. Ed., 1989.

(18)  Related issues are discussed by Charles Ess in 'The Political Computer: Hypertext, Democracy and Habermas' in Landow, ed.cit.

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