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2.2. The open-ended 'living text'

A second benefit of the electronic format was the opportunity to write a 'living text'. My work was meant to be open-ended and continuously evolving. Once on the World Wide Web, I was hoping to receive many valuable comments and indeed criticism from readers and reviewers. I wanted to make some if not all of them available as part of the work itself, and this is in fact what I did (see http://citdpress.utsc.utoronto.ca/holtorf/11.0.html; cf. Harnad 1995 for similar aspirations regarding journals). In doing so I had hoped to reduce the conventional status difference between author and reader, and indeed help to bring about something like a 'democratisation' of academia (perhaps naively — cf. Ess 1994; Huggett 1995 and Denning, this volume).

With reference to the desired role of critical readers, future reviewers and last, but not least, the examiners of my thesis, I used Robert Coover's term 'participatory criticism' (after Landow 1994, 36), hoping for their thorough critiques to become part of the work itself. Unfortunately, my examiners in 1998 never did send me any comments in writing. But instead I subsequently received almost forty unsolicited email messages from around the world offering all sorts of compliments, questions, comments, and suggestions. They included comments from people who are perhaps unlikely to have come across my work anywhere other than on the net: two anthropology students from Canada, an intellectual from Amsterdam, a German medievalist, an Australian art historian, a Welsh amateur archaeologist, a British geographer, two computer scientists from Budapest and Edinburgh respectively, an Australian graduate student in organisational studies, a psychoanalyst from New York, a Norwegian exhibition designer, two locals from my study area, four German amateur archaeologists, a German magazine editor, a journalist in San Francisco, a graphic designer in the UK, a film student and tutor from Australia, two British and one Spanish archaeology students, a number of professional archaeologists from Sweden, Poland, Spain, Botswana, and Germany, and four others in the US, the UK, Germany and Ireland. The issues raised were often valuable, and ranged from asking for further examples and clarification of some specific issues, to a suggestion to add some unconventional historical theories to problems in locating one particular site in the field.

It is still too early to determine whether 'living texts' such as mine will eventually challenge current characteristics of archaeological discourse such as the divide between professionals and amateurs, between authors and readers, and between writers and reviewers. But the signs are encouraging, I think.

There is another sense in which I intended my work to be open-ended, although this was less visible in my thesis (following good advice!) and has become prominent only in the published version. That is the fact that my work has neither a Conclusion, where my argument draws to a close and eventually formally ends, nor a Table of Contents, which could indicate to the reader when he or she has read all parts deemed interesting and can therefore stop reading. As Landow and Delany put it, 'hypertext materials are by definition open-ended, expandable, and incomplete' (1991, 13). After arguing not only that meanings are varied and keep changing, but also that people can make sense of something by making connections, I could hardly 'close' my work and thereby prevent more meanings and more connections from being made. Similarly, a Table of Contents would have limited the degree to which every reader creates a completely unique reading or browsing sequence through my work. Without one, the reading experience is in practice never 'complete'. There is always more to be found, more connections to be made.

This, by the way, is not a characteristic that depends on the electronic medium alone. In the best print books, with or without a Table of Contents, there is always more to be found, too. Wherever it occurs, such lack of closing is not a consequence of the 'disappearance' of the author, as Marcos Martinón-Torres (2002, 133-4) suspected, but the result of a cunning provision by the respective author for different readers and multiple readings. But is it working? Is the reading experience of my work broadly as desired by its author? One message I received was particularly encouraging:

'The construction of meaning is an apt theme for an electronic work that remains alive, continually evolving, never finished; it is a perfect concept to communicate via the Internet. Yours is the first work I have read that really made me understand Marshall McLuhan's statement "The medium is the message".'


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