Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 4, 2008

Tristram Shandy, Hypertext, and Distraction

Filed under: Discussion — moorekc @ 8:32 pm

It must seem strange to present an eighteenth-century novel as an aesthetic and theoretical artifact in a course called “New Media for the Twenty-First Century.” I was drawn to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy for a number of reasons that resonate with the themes we’ve been discussing in class, and I simply couldn’t resist once I discovered that there have been several attempts to make use of internet technology to better represent this novel of self-cultivated distraction. To take the novel on its own terms first, the book has always struck commentators as an interesting example of a printed text that makes extensive use of multimedia effects. The “shut the door” text break (Volume 1, Chapter 4), the blank page (1.12), the shifting fonts (1.15), the marble page (3.35), chapters that degenerate into lines of dots (6.39), Shandy’s reinterpretation of his earlier chapters with hand-drawn lines (6.40): the book is full to the bursting with media content that heightens the drama of the narrator’s famous digressive impulse.[1]It’s one thing that Shandy cannot tell his story straight, that as a prototype for the twenty-first century blogger he encounters the perennial paradox of the life-writer who cannot fully account for his continuously accumulating experience and therefore must choose a random, digressive mode of narrative transmission.[2]But many of the distractions in this text, notably the multimedia content, do not seem directly motivated by Shandy’s narrative crisis; they seem deliberately and mischievously placed to distract the reader. They constitute much of the readerly fun of the novel, and a force that keeps the reader guessing. They also seem an attempt by Laurence Sterne—who was a clergyman, whose distance from the imagined narrator of this novel is marked—to press hard on the generic boundaries of the emerging Novel. Instead of the project of representational fidelity that would become so important to nineteenth-century novelists, Sterne experiments with how much non-textual content a textual genre can contain.

 Tristram Shandy seems a clear example of the eighteenth-century media avant-garde. Nevertheless, its aggressive pressure on form has often been read by twentieth-century critics as anachronism, and a sign that Tristram Shandy is a novel of our own time inconveniently published in the 1760s. For example, Howard Anderson, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of the text, writes in his Preface that Sterne’s novel has managed “to emerge in our own time as the most modern of eighteenth-century novels” (vii). In the recent cinematic reinterpretation of the book, Steve Coogan—playing himself in what is (à la 8 ½) essentially a fiction about making a film of Tristram Shandy—calls it “a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about.” Whether the book is seemingly “modern” or seemingly “postmodern,” critics have long been willing to read it as part of our own aesthetic moment at the risk of mistaking the rise of the Novel as what might arguably be called the fall. 

Under the direction of a similar impulse, there have been at least two relatively recent attempts to update the text of Tristram Shandyusing new media technology. The idea in both cases is that the narrative logic of the hyperlink mirrors Shandy’s digressive instincts, and that an internet version might reinvigorate some of the text’s original digressive energy for distracted twenty-first century readers. In 1996, a group of students at Swarthmore College put together “the first hypertext rendering” of the novel. You can observe their efforts, which ended with Volume II, here:


A look at the text of one of the chapters put online by the Swarthmore group reveals hyperlinked text designed to allow the reader to engage matters left unrevealed by Shandy’s digressive instinct. You can click on a character’s name, for example, to find a “linear” representation of that character’s life and history. In this module, it would seem, our readerly impulse to understand the linear story of the novel oddly saves us from Shandy’s digressive instinct while retaining the appearance of our own distraction.


More recent—and much more complete—is the ongoing work of an Italian group at the University of Milan, who have also created a hypertextual rendering of the novel, but one which can also take the reader outside the world of the original novel and into the intertextual space of Tristram Shandy (including the space of scholarship on the book). This website is available here:


I would argue that this rendering is somewhat more faithful to the original, for the destination of each individual hyperlink is not the linear story to which the novel may or may not correspond, but an object in the broader multimedia intertext of which the novel is itself part.

Both reinterpretations—as well as the recent film version of the novel—place the novel at the crux of several interesting questions in the context of our course, some of which we might take up tomorrow. A brief inventory might include the following: what connection does the distracted reader of a distracted writer like Shandy have in common with the twenty-first century reader of online hypertext? What does it mean that students and scholars have attempted to add a hypertextual dimension to Tristram Shandy? Does their gesture resolve or reinforce the original problematics of reading and writing proposed by Sterne? Are these reinterpretations of Tristram Shandy really faithful to Sterne’s original project? (Their collaborative nature, for example, seems to mark an important departure from the original text.)

[1]You can check out most of the multimedia content of the novel here:

[2]Like a blogger, Shandy often plays with the fact that his novel was serialized over the eight year period 1759-1767, revisiting earlier “volumes” and “chapters” like a self-conscious blogger might refer back to an earlier post.


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