CriticaLink | Rationale

History of the Project
In the spring of 1997 I teamed up with two of my colleagues in the University of Hawai`i Department of Art to teach a class called "Internet Authoring and Design". The course attracted a group of students from the Graphic Design program, English, and Computer Science. Their semester-long collaboration produced SitesPacific, a World Wide Web journal that explores the intersections of design, communication, technology, and the cultures of the Pacific region.

I assigned Martin Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" as one of the readings for the course. In order to provide students with some assistance in reading this challenging text (and to practice the web authoring skills we were all learning together) I assembled an online reading guide to Heidegger's essay. The first version was a frame-intensive, GIF-heavy clunker, but in the process of producing it and thinking through the problems I was encountering, I became interested in exploring hypertext as a way to present philosophy and literary theory to undergraduates. When I moved into my present position in the UH Department of English in the fall of 1997, I continued to work on a web site that would function as a kind of theory textbook, but that would also serve as an experiment in web-based instruction in critical thinking and methods of analysis.

As I'm particularly interested in hypertext's capacity to emphasize connections within a body of information, my first goal was to develop a small set of modules that focused on a particular theme. I was teaching Ovid's Metamophoses, and I began to gather texts that related in some way to the story of Echo and Narcissus. In addition to guides to the Heidegger and Aristotle's Poetics, the reading guides that are presently available in a more or less whole--though hardly finished--form treat Sigmund Freud's 1914 essay On Narcissism: An Introduction, Jacques Lacan's 1949 paper on The Mirror Stage, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 1993 article Echo, which engages both of the earlier texts.

What's at Stake?
One of the fundamental convictions guiding this project is that any position we take about literature is shaped by a theory of literature, although we may not be fully conscious of what that theory is. Even positions we might characterize as naive, reactionary, and anti-intellectual are theoretical insofar as they are based on conceptions about what literature is (and should be) and how literary art functions in the world. In order to make viable arguments about literature--to participate in the ongoing "defense of poetry" as writers and as literary and cultural critics--we must come to terms with the basic assumptions that shape our beliefs, our opinions, and our passions about literature. Something is always philosophically at stake whenever we think seriously about what literature means for us. I've tried to design CriticaLink as a resource for people who want to explore the philosophical stakes of their own relationship with literature.

Where are We Coming From?
Perhaps the most basic question CriticaLink tries to encourage students to ask is "where are we coming from when we think about literature?" To "come from" somewhere means to be moving in a certain trajectory that begins in a particular place, but it means at the same time to be departing from that place, leaving it. When we write, or when we attempt to understand a piece of writing, we can't help but be influenced by the ideas about literature that we have gained from our past experiences of reading, from our schooling, and from growing up in our cultures. Our ideas about literature are themselves shaped by our ideas about language, meaning, human consciousness, truth, and reality. There's no reason to believe that we have to stick with these ideas, however, and it's often the case that the problems we have with writing, or with understanding what we read, are connected in complex ways to how we think about the world. Unless we keep moving and continue to reflect on and reevaluate our basic conceptions, we don't develop as writers and readers.

Where is CriticaLink Coming From?
The author of this site is John David Zuern, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

CriticaLink certainly emphasizes the importance of the intellectual traditions it tries (very selectively) to represent, but it seeks to place reflection on these traditions in the service of innovation in the domains of literary production and literary criticism. Ongoing experiments with literary forms are intersecting with developments in hypertext and digital media in ways that pose compelling questions about what literature is and can be. As we begin to think rigorously about the new directions writing is taking, it is worth our while to reexamine the intellectual traditions that have given us our concepts of literary art, not to reaffirm their universal validity so much as to understand where we are "coming from" as we formulate new frameworks for the practice and theory of literature.

The project's emphasis on the importance of a philosophically rigorous examination of the concept of literature for both creative writers and literary critics is a response to a cultural tension that characterizes many American departments of English. Even though the period of what some people call "high theory" is over, the profound changes in conceptions of literary value, in literary-critical methodologies, and in standards of rigor that "theory" brought to the professional study of literature in the U.S. academy continue to rankle those who see theoretical reflection as an attack on the integrity, beauty, and eternal truths of literature. The potentially productive role of creative writing programs within English departments has been hampered by the tendency of writers to share these anxieties about theorizing, since it is (at least in theory) their work which is vulnerable to such despoilation. The tendency on the part of theorically engaged critics to hold a contemptuous view of writers as naive and reactionary anti-intellectuals whose insights have no value for the study of literature has been equally damaging. The split exists, of course, at the level of institutional culture and does not divide neatly between "writers" and "critics"; many individual critics are hostile to theory, just as many individual writers recognize that it's important to think critically about their artistic practices.

By assembling a linked set of reading guides to important texts in philosophy and literary theory, glossaries, discussion questions, biographical sketches, timelines, and lists of resources, CriticaLink aims at assisting visitors in learning and thinking about a variety of responses to the question of what literature is and what it means to be "creative" in the domain of the literary. By involving students and faculty in the development of this online resource, the CriticaLink project also seeks to foster a lively intellectual community in which these questions can be explored.

CriticaLink also hopes to respond to the historical, cultural, and political tensions that arise from the fact that the project is being developed in an American university in Hawai`i. As an American academic trained in comparative literature with an emphasis on German and French intellectual traditions, what expertise I have lies primarily in the domain of European philosophy and literary theory, and at present the CriticaLink resources are mainly devoted to material within these areas. I have tried to address the problem of how to introduce predominately European ideas about literature to my own students, many of whom have stronger ties to the intellectual and cultural traditions of the Pacific Basin and the Pacific Rim than they do to those of Europe. Where it has seemed appropriate I have suggested connections to issues relevant to the Pacific context, and many of the discussion questions encourage a comparative, critical orientation to the concepts. I hope that opening participation in the project to students and colleagues here at the University of Hawai`i will allow us to expand the base of materials to include non-Western traditions and perspectives.

Where is CriticaLink Now?
This project began in 1998 with the support of grants from University of Hawai`i Research Relations. A limited demonstration version of the resources has been available on the World Wide Web since that year. I offer a description of the project as it stood in 1999 in "The Sense of a Link: Hypermedia, Hermeneutics, and the Teaching of Critical Methodologies," Literary and Linguistic Computing (1999): The current version is still very much in development, and as I discuss the project with other participants and conduct usability studies in actual classes at the university, I expect that we will make substantial changes, particularly to the ways in which the various components are integrated.

Any suggestions from vistors on any aspect of CriticaLink, from typos to interface design to overall conception, are most welcome.