Blesok no. 25, March-April, 2002

Modernity and Postmodernism in “Hypertext Notes”
A Call for Theoretical Consistency and Completeness

Charles Ess

    ”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.

    This certainly sounds respectably postmodern. In particular, the effort to avoid “imposing” one's own order may be seen as an admirable respect for the reader's autonomy of choice, as it ostensibly allows the reader to create his/her own structure or reading of the available lexia (text units). But it should be equally clear by now that this effort to avoid imposing order is only partial. The author has chosen for his readers a limited set of lexia, linked in specific ways, accompanied by an opening set of instructions which tell us the overarching meaning of this hypertext--a meaning defined by its purposes (to exploit the medium and “to make some points” about digital text), its navigational signals, and its structure. Over against the possiblity of navigating the linked lexia in different ways--the texts within the lexia, beginning with the carefully articulated instructions, are themselves robustly linear, and the links themselves often constitute a linear, indeed logical connection between the elements of thought, the claims and propositions, contained within the lexia.
    In these ways, the author has retained to a considerable degree the modernist paradigm: the hypertext still stands as an effort by an author to convey meaning to an audience, and part of this project includes the familiar elements of logical and syntactical structures, including linearity. My point is not that the author has thereby failed in his apparently postmodern project. Rather, it seems that any hypertext constructed by an author for an audience must include these elements of the modernist paradigm. Otherwise, why offer one's hypertext to an audience who will hopefully understand at least part of what one means?
    It might be thought that I'm making an obvious point: of course postmodern hypertexts cannot abandon wholesale every element of modern conceptions of the author attempting to convey meaning to an audience. If this is an obvious point, however, it is not one suggested within the hypertext itself. Rather, the author specifically calls into question especially linear argument: “This [preservation of linear structure in hypertexts] may well be because it is the most suitable form. But what if it isn't? What if discursive texts do not need the structure of an 'argument'?…”
(zprune) The suggestion seems to be here the typically postmodern one--that we can abandon modern concepts entirely, including the notion of linear argument. Let me emphasize here that at least some members of the philosophical community are indeed quite excited and interested in the potential of hypertext to open up at least alternative forms of argument. Perhaps the best known of these, David Kolb, has in fact argued that hypertexts will make possible the recovery of argument forms (e.g., Hegel's dialectic) which are only awkwardly expressed in the (largely) linear frameworks of print. But if hypertexts open up the possibility of discovering (or recovering) forms of argument only awkwardly articulated in print--in our rush to abandon linear argument, we run the danger of abandoning a body of knowledge which, in my view, has much to teach us still regarding what makes for a valid and sound argument, in contrast with what may be simply persuasive but ill-grounded. In point of fact, the author's essay inadvertently confirms this fear in at least one instance. The author's rhetorical suggestion that discursive texts do not need the structure of an argument is ostensibly supported by a link to quotes from Bolter's Writing Space including:
    Bolter says the writer of hypertext designates these signs in the act of creating connections. The reader is left to make choices more than ever before--an argument is no longer a linear statement of “Here's what I think and this is why I think it, 1-2-3-4,” and instead puts the burden of responsibility more than ever before on the reader to make the connections--as if to say “Here's a map, the sites are clearly marked--now where would you like to go.” The specific textual experience that was a tour bus had turned into a lone hitchhiker with a backpack. Go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do. What you put into the experience, what you put into your brain, what you put into your “trip,” is what you will get out of it. The spirit of manipulative propaganda may live on in the text, but it must become more sophisticated if it is to thrive.
    How are we to read this link? Is this itself an argument about what argument in hypertextual documents is? If it is an argument--it is a fallacious one. At best, what's at stake here is Bolter's (admittedly considerable status as an) authority regarding hypertext. But it should hardly take a logician to point out that accepting a claim (that we do not need the linear structures of argument) on the strength of an appeal to an authority (who simply states that linear argument is no longer to be found in hypertextual media) is not a logically satisfying move. Rather, as students learn in their elementary logic course, this is an example of a fallacious argument, usually referred to as appeal to authority. To be blunt: if these linked lexia are intended to constitute an example of an alternative hypertextual argument, they unfortunately read as fallacious argument as well. This apparent logical weakness is not unique to “Hypertext Notes.” Rather, it turns out that the postmodern tendency to abandon the ostensibly confining restrictions of linearity and linear argument quickly become mired in a fatal series of contradictions.
    Again, my point is not to trumpet the victory of modernity over the postmodern. Rather, it is to urge us, on the occasion of the “Hypertext Notes” experiment, to recognize more clearly how our hypertexts represent a theoretical mix of both modern and postmodern elements. If Hypertext Notes succeeds--as I believe it does--as an interesting and fruitful experiment in hypertext, I would argue it succeeds precisely because it conjoins modernist notions of the author-reader relationship, linear argument, etc., with a postmodern interest in exploring the nonlinear possibilities of hypertext and the role of the reader in constructing his or her path through the lexia offered by the author. By exploring this conjunction more explicitly--by examining carefully how the modern and postmodern elements work together to create rich experiences of authoring and reading--I believe we will make progress towards a more complete, consistent, and useful theory of hypertext.

    This essay in Volume 6, Number 3 of EJournal (July, 1996) is (c) copyright EJournal. Permission is hereby granted to give it away. EJournal hereby assigns any and all financial interest to Charles Ess. This note must accompany all copies of this text.

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