A Call for Theoretical Consistency and Completeness
”Hypertext Notes,” a self-described experiment, serves as a rich and rewarding example of hypertext. Its opening premise–that most hypertextual work retains the linear structure familiar to us from print–is clearly correct, and the author’s effort to develop and explore the non-linear possibilities of writing in hypertext promises to enhance our understanding of both the possibilities and limits of hypertext.
I believe that “Hypertext Notes” nicely succeeds in this project, though not necessarily in ways it may have intended. (This is not a criticism: the author is intentionally vague about the various intentions of the project.) For me, “Hypertext Notes” raises some central theoretical problems which I believe hypertext authors and readers must confront more directly, if we are to avoid potentially fatal contradictions and conceptual muddles.
As I raise these problems, however, I fear that I may sound excessively reactionary and curmudgeonly. To help offset this impression, you may want to indulge me in a little autobiography (and a lot of shameless bragging)–the point of which is to establish that I come to hypertext in general and “Hypertext Notes” in particular with a long and respectable record of involvement and enthusiasm.
I also come to hypertexts primarily with the intentions of a classroom teacher. My authoring of hypertexts is almost exclusively focused on exploiting the medium to (a) help students better understand difficult material, in part by (b) using the links to articulate the often complex and multiple conceptual relationships between different sorts of material. My primary model for hypertexts, then, includes the simple notion that authors have a rather clear notion of what they want to say to their readers–including just what the web of links and linked material mean.
Admittedly, much of the literature surrounding hypertext calls my simple paradigm into question. It may be helpful to remember here that poststructualist and postmodern theorists–who dominate most of the theoretical discussion of hypertext–attack my simple paradigm in various ways. Roughly, this paradigm is seen as modernist and structuralist, precisely because it assumes that authors intend meaning for their readers, meaning that is partly conveyed through structures (logical, syntactical, etc., especially as these structures are bound up with the linearity of printed texts). More horrifically, this paradigm is associated with an Enlightenment meta-narrative, one that surreptitiously accords totalitarian power to something called “reason,” as the meta-narrative overtly but deceptively claims that human liberation and fulfillment will come through the expansion and victory of this reason over earlier forms of knowledge and social organization.
The poststructuralist/postmodern alternatives to the allegedly totalizing/totalitarian reason of Enlightenment include “decentering,” a process of undermining centers of authority and meaning allegedly privileged by the Enlightenment meta-narrative. Hypertext is celebrated as embodying this process of decentering, as the hypertextual medium dilutes, if not obliterates, the “authority” of the author, throwing the full weight of constructing meaning onto the “reader” who, now freed from the ostensibly unnecessary restrictions of print media–including the dreaded “linearity” of print–can maneuver through hypertexts in whatever sequence and fashion he or she chooses.
My point is not to argue for an either/or–a simple right/wrong choice between modernist and postmodernist paradigms: such an either/or itself represents the classically modernist dualism of Descartes–one rather inconsistently urged upon us by postmoderns who assume just such an either/or as they urge us to reject modernity in favor of postmodernism! Rather, using “Hypertext Notes” as an example, I argue first that the modernist paradigm of an author who seeks to convey meaning–in part, through logical and syntactical structures, including the linearity associated with print media–cannot be easily abandoned by even the most ardent proponents of oststructuralism and decentered hypertexts. More broadly, “Hypertext Notes” itself stands as an example of both paradigms operating helpfully side-by-side. My large point is that instead of accepting the either/or between modernism and postmodernism enjoined upon us by many postmodern enthusiasts–we as theorists, authors, and readers of hypertexts will be better served by a theory of hypertext which explicitly acknowledges the role of both paradigms.
The opening page of “Hypertext Notes” announces its function as something of an experiment. The author explicitly states, “My purpose is to exploit the medium of hypertext in a way that is only rarely done, especially on the web, in order to make some points about a wide variety of aspects of digital text.” Obviously, the author intends to convey multiple meanings to his audience: not everything is left up to the reader. The author must further explain to the reader the semiotics and the structure of “Hypertext Notes.” We have to know what all those interesting, but baffling ISO characters at the top of the page mean in this context if we are to navigate this hypertext, and so the author obligingly–but also out of necessity for our understanding as readers–tells us: they are the link markers that will take us somewhere, though the order of our journey is left up to us. Indeed, the author explicitly states, “… I have intentionally chosen symbols as independent of order as ISO characters will allow so as to avoid imposing my own order onto the text.” This seems to be integral to the author’s larger project for his readers:
Make what you will of this essay. I’ve intentionally avoided explicitly outlining the manner in which this document is written–it’s a kind of a puzzle or tapestry which can be put together on several levels, for example what I’m saying and why I’m saying it this way. The work is different every time it’s read, and I suppose the meaning varies. In some ways this kind of document seems unfathomable, maybe because of how we’ve been trained to read, and trained to think.