Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Critical Essay on David Kolb's "Socrates in the Labyrinth"

Untangling the Threads of the Labyrinth in David Kolb's "Socrates in the Labyrinth"

“He fought with the beast in the darkness,
till the Minotaur fell down dead,
and then Theseus retraced each step he had made,
following the line of the thread.” — Rachael M. Nicholas, “The Minotaur”

As David Kolb pointed out to the audiences who sat rapt during his Traversal of Socrates in the Labyrinth, his work asks the question, “Does a philosophical argument need to be in a linear order?” “No,” he answers––but this seemingly benign line of thought suggests larger, more challenging questions relating to hegemony and the dominance of practices that limit modes of discourse, methodologies, perspectives, and ultimately thought. In this sense, the Minotaur is not the philosophical problem to solve by following threads of an argument through a maze of potential intellectual possibilities, but rather the representation of the singular idea that one must seek to slay––that is, if one’s heroism is up to it. Because the might of the Minotaur overwhelms the weak and foolish, only a Theseus (with the help of an Ariadne) can prevail.

Perhaps after experiencing even just the handful of lexias from the work read to us yesterday one could argue that Kolb was that warrior and hypertext, that muse. Kolb did arrive at the center of the maze––the truth where the monster resides––with the dual discovery that 1) “philosophy is more than argument,’ and 2) “hypertext opens up the possibility of new ways to do philosophy.” And while he is one hero whose labor went unsung by his colleagues in philosophy, Kolb was not ignored by media theorists. Reviews of his work by Nick Carbone, Susana Pajeres Tosca, and others lauded Kolb’s achievement as “well-crafted” and “exciting.”

But I am getting ahead of myself: "What is 'Socrates in the Labyrinth?,'” you may ask.

It is one of a handful of hypertext essays published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. and the only one that focused on the topic of philosophy. It consists of five files: the titular one + four more: Habermas Pyramid, Earth Orbit, Cleavings, and Aristotle’s Argument. Kolb also produced a 6th file called Caged Text (named after the great experimental thinker, John Cage). This one, currently unpublished, was structured around random pages from randomly chosen books from his personal library and linked together by a mix of randomly selected and intentional paths to demonstrate that humans make meaning even under such circumstances.

Kolb, a classicist trained in both Greek and Latin who had taught philosophy at both the University of Chicago and Bates College, started "Socrates in the Labyrinth" in 1992 after reading Robert Coover’s article, “The End of Books,” for the New York Times while Kolb was visiting Eugene, OR (where he now resides). Having been introduced to Mark Bernstein, the owner of Eastgate Systems, Inc. by another hypertext essayist, George Landow, Kolb purchased a copy of Storyspace and set out to use hypertext for exploring new methods for making philosophical arguments. Ultimately, Kolb rethinks Landow’s view of deconstruction and hypertext presented in Landow’s book, Hypertext (1992), which arguably––along with Jay David Bolter’s Writing Space (1991)––figured as among the most important works about hypertext theory of this period. Kolb argues instead that hypertext doesn’t necessarily take away a “primary axis of organization” (12) or “de-center[s]” a text (13). “It can,” Kolb says, “but it doesn’t have to.” Those of us who know ancient Greek grammar automatically recognize the suggestion of the Greek preposition mev de (>on the one hand / on the other) that lends itself well to a broader notion of argumentation structuring Kolb’s findings.

Kolb's texts follow the multi-linear structure those of us familiar with The Storyspace School [1] come to expect of a hypertext built on this platform. Kolb’s hypertext presents us with a 195 nodes in the opening interface that open to other boxes nested within them. In total, "Socrates in the Labyrinth" is made of up 26,000 words, 307 nodes of text with 741 links.

The four hypertexts that accompany it are built on specific structures identifiable by their names. As Nick Carbone points out in his 1996 review of the work in Kairos:
Habermas Pyramid” is a linear essay accentuated with a “multi-level pyramidal hypertext outline” (8)
“Earth Orbit,” presents “statements of linear argument . . . ordered in multiple cycles and epicycles” (9)
“Cleavings,” combines “four classic but diverse texts” (9) and makes a comparison of their hypertext form to their linear form
“Aristotle’s Argument” takes a “complex argument from Aristotle” (9) and puts it into the ‘mixed form’ explored in “Socrates in the Labyrinth”
"Socrates in the Labyrinth" is indeed a tour de force and an important work in The Storyspace School for its content and approach. Perhaps the work will receive renewed attention after this Traversal. Kolb has turned over his digital and physical archives to the Electronic Literature Lab. We will, with his permission, be making his papers available to scholars once we have inventoried and catalogued them.

In the meantime, I recommend you read his second major hypertext, Sprawling Places, a work that “discusses contemporary places, and suggests new ways to evaluate them, while questioning some of the common critiques leveled against them.” As Kolb points out, “The text is large, it contains over 100,000 words and nearly a thousand images, on over 600 pages. Some of the pages are quite short, others are longer.” It was created for the web using Eastgate Systems, Inc.’s Tinderbox and offers an accompanying book published by the University of Georgia Press.[2]

[1] Because works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. include by numerous different platforms including Storyspace, HyperCard, ToolBook, and Hypergate as well as programming languages like Visual Basic, I refer those using Storyspace as part of The Storyspace School since those produced on the other platforms can differ aesthetically.
[2] We want to thank David Kolb for taking the time to visit us at ELL and for his generous gift of his archives. For those of you not familiar with David, we recommend you read about him on Wikipedia and know that when you do, there are two David’s by that name. We are working in ELL to update this entry and to produce one for the Electronic Literature Directory, which currently does not exist.

Works Cited
Carbone, Nick. “Socrates in the Labyrinth: David Kolb Re-Thinks Argument and Philosophy.” Kairos 1.1. Spring 1996.

Kolb, David. "Socrates in the Labyrinth." Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc., 1994.

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

Tosca, Susana Pajares. Hipertulia. “Review of David Kolb’s Socrates in the Labyrinth.”

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