Hypertext and the Role of the Reader and Writer(editorialized content)
In this essay I will argue that hypertext challenges our notions regarding the relationship between reader and writer. Hypertext gives "permission" to readers to insert themselves into the meaning construction process and "write" a text in a way that is often different from what the author foresaw. Hypertext makes us conscious of the blurring of the reader/author role. Book technology seems to fix our notion of authorship and hypertext challenges us to rethink that role and the role of the reader. Historically, however, there have been other "challenges" to these roles, which is an important consideration when discussing the role hypertext plays in the act of reading and writing.
Ilana Snyder believes that hypertext is changing our notions of authorship. She notes that the absence of textual autonomy and centeredness disperses the author. But Snyder points out that the amount of control experienced by a reader is largely dependent on hardware and software. In Storyspace, for example, a hypertext writing program published by Eastgate Systems, links can be hidden in the text and the reader must either search for the links by randomly clicking on words that might be a link, or by executing a key stroke that highlights where the links are in the lexia. She points out that computers shape the way we think, encouraging some kinds of thinking and discouraging others. She uses the example of a blackboard where text is created with the assumption that it will be erased. Paper and pen writing encourages writers to attend to grammar and spelling and to use a more controlled type of thinking. Computers invite writers to think non-linearly and cooperatively. She points out that "we organize our writing space in the way we organize our thoughts, and in the way in which we think the world itself must be organized (69).
George Landow writes that hypertext blurs the boundaries between reader and writer and claims that, because of the nature of hypertext, the fact that the reader has to make choices and acts upon those choices by clicking on a word or image, the reader becomes "active." Perhaps it is important to point out here that although I consider Landow one of the key figures in hypertext theory, I have difficulty with his use of the word "active" here. All reading, all meaning construction is active. Reading is not a passive activity. Yet Landow sometimes uses passive and active in his explanations and defense of hypertext. For example, he points out in his first Convergence text ((1992) that hypertext "provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader, who becomes an active reader…" (11).
Perhaps a better word to explain the role of the reader in this re-centerable system is the word "deliberate." Hypertext reading requires the reader to make deliberate decisions about which path to take within a hypertext web. And as I write this, I know that there are instances when readers of more traditional texts like dictionaries and encyclopedias, not to mention magazines, make deliberate choices regarding where and what they will read. But for the time being, until I can come up with a better word, I will describe the hypertext reader as deliberate, as one who deliberately reads a text according to his or her own interests or organizing principles.
Landow frequently mentions narratologist Gerard Genette, and Genette's ideas are particularly relevant to a discussion of the reader/writer roles. Landow, citing Genette, maintains that hypertext is a means of escaping what Genette refers to as the idolatry or idealization of the author. Hypertext, because of its openness, its fuzzy borders that are so easily permeated, makes the author's role as diffused as the boundaries of the text itself. Landow also talks about Walter Ong's theory regarding the relationship between computer technology and orality. Ong argues that computers have brought with them a "second orality" that is very similar to the participatory sense of community and a focus on the present moment in oral cultures.
And, though Ong seems to go astray when he talks about computers and sequential processing, he (and Landow) make the interesting point that books and their authors cannot be challenged in any immediate sense. Hypertext readers, however, can challenge a text immediately, or as immediately as the reader can write a response and link that response to the author's text. This placement of text within a larger domain of text places the reader and the writer in a kind of dialogue that cannot happen as easily (if at all) in the world of paper and ink.
If hypertext is challenging the role of author and reader, it is not the first textual innovation to do so. Ilana Snyder (1996) reminds us that in manuscript days scribes often altered the work they were copying. This blurred, even then, the boundaries between author and reader. French literary critic Roland Barthes, in his interesting essay "The Death of the Author," (1993) points out that a piece of text is "not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, non of them original, blend and clash" (116).
Snyder also points out that oral texts had many of the features that theorists claim are inherent in hypertexts. Oral texts could be revised at will by the speaker who altered stories depending on the prompts from an audience. But book technology provided a new framing device for narrative and other forms.
Janet Murray (1997) points out that with electronic text the "author" is procedural, like a choreographer "who supplies the rhythms, the context, and the set of steps that will be performed" (153). The reader, or as she calls him or her, the "interactor", is a "navigator, protagonist, explorer, or builder, [who] makes use of [a] repertoire of possible steps and rhythms to improvise a particular dance among the many, many possible dances the author has enabled." (153)
In this sense, Murray reminds us that each time a reader enters a hypertext web, the reader creates a "new" text, written by the choices he or she makes as she travels through the docuverse. And Landow (1992, 1997) consistently reminds us that the text an interactor reads is not necessarily the text an author planned. All this seems much like the ancient storyteller who changes the text to fit the wishes of each audience.
The audience and the storyteller collaborate to create a narrative. Collaboration is a key element in hypertext reading and writing as well. Landow adds that a hypertext reader/writer "almost inevitably works collaboratively whenever creating documents in a multi-author hypertext system" (2.0, 110) Landow (1997) reminds us that print technology has imposed a more "passive" role on readers.
Landow believes that hypertext is the instantiation of Barthes' concepts of readerly and writerly text (Convergence,1992). Indeed, Landow borrows many of Barthes' terms when talking about hypertext-terms like lexia, meaning an individual writing space or block of text that can be accessed and has links to other lexias. Barthes envisions a readerly text as one in which networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest.
Certainly a hypertext reader is more than just a consumer of the text. The hypertext reader seems more akin to the ancient audience of the storyteller--a collaborator. The hypertext reader is a deliberate force within the text itself, not divorced from the text, but a partner with both the author and the text.
I am reminded of an interesting National Geographic site on the world wide web that allows readers to "become" someone accused of witch craft in Salem, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. The background of the narrative is black.The reader "feels the power" of the text.The National Geographic site and other hypertexts, bring an interesting question into the discussion--that of agency.
Murray believes that hypertext does not diminish the author's agency, but it may make the reader more conscious of his or her agency within the narrative or other discursive form. Murray emphasizes that readers ...can only act within the possibilities that have been established by the writing and the programming. They can build simulated cities, try out combat strategies, trace a unique path through a labyrinthine web, or even prevent a murder, but unless the imaginary world is nothing more than a costume trunk of empty avatars, all of the [reader's] possible performances will have been called into being by the originating author (152)
Louise Rosenblatt believes the reader brings a text to life. In order to bring that text to life the reader must transact with the text, the reader must write the text for herself or himself. And in the reader's mind the text sifts through all of the reader's previous experiences as the reader goes through the meaning-making process. In this sense the reader is always central to the text.
Espen Aarseth, however, makes a point that transactional theory cannot adequately explain what happens when a reader engages with hypertext, or ergotic literature, as he calls it (Cybertext, 1997). The hypertext reader "also performs in an extranoematic sense" (1). This happens through the semiotic sequence of physically clicking on a hypertext link which places the reader in a physical act of meaning construction.
Foucault (1977) argues for a loosening of the author's constraint over text, and hypertext seems to be one way in which this can happen. He writes: Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author-function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence" (159-160).
Landow and the others frequently assert that hypertext is bringing about changes in the author/reader relationship. But that relationship was already being questioned by Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida who were talking about the decentered self and about the decentered or nomadic web of knowledge where knowledge can be accessed from an impermanent nomadic center (Landow 1992).
But there is a group of hypertext theorists who are, in their own way, trying to maintain the structure of a given piece of knowledge, a given piece of hypertext, not because they are necessarily alarmed by the postmodern condition and the increased agency of a reader, but because they see a disoriented reader. These are the cognitivists who approach the role of the hypertext reader and author from a different perspective. In order to understand the cognitivist approach to hypertext reading, it is important to first look at the reading theory that many of the cognitivists use as the foundation for their stance on the roles of readers and writers.
When discussing reading comprehension, many of the cognitivists use what is known as the Kintsch model of reading comprehension 1 2 3. This is a more linear process that only considers the cognitive processes in meaning construction. Certainly the cognitivists have brought some valuable ideas to reading theory. But in considering the role of the reader and writer, the cognitivists do not look at the social transactions involved in meaning construction.
The cognitivists tend to deal with the ways in which current readers make use of hypertext. The cognitivists are concerned about a reader's disorientation within a hypertext web, and indeed, that can be a concern, especially in a test preparation situation. But the writer of a hypertext goes into the task knowing the reader will not progress through the text in any given sequence or at least has the option of taking multiple possible paths. It may be that a hypertext writer will have to envision different readers who have different purposes.
John Slatin (1992) actually identifies three different types of hypertext readers: the browser, the user, and the co-author (158). The browser reads for no particular purpose other than to find something interesting with which to engage. The user is looking for specific information and uses the hypertext to find that information. The co-author collaborates deliberately with the hypertext, inserting his or her own lexias in response, or incorporating existing lexias into a new hypertext web or docuverse. It is impossible, actually, to predetermine whether a hypertext will serve the needs of the browser, the user, or the co-author, so a writer cannot always create a hypertext web with any particular audience in mind. And that is why the cognitivists have some important ideas in terms of hypertext reading, at least during a time when we may be experiencing a transition between two information technologies.
Where the cognitivists seem to have difficulty is in the fact that readers, when they get used to the new text spaces of hypertext, will develop new reading strategies. The cognitivists call for hierarchical overviews and more "ordered" progressions through hypertext webs seems much like the calls for order that were heard when the printing press began making an impact on how people thought about readers and writers.
But hypertext, whether it is literary or pragmatic, whether it is Stuart Moulthrop's novel or a new version of Excel, is here. We will adapt to hypertext with as much ease or as much difficulty as we adapt to a changing larger culture. Because essentially it is the culture that is changing. Hypertext is merely a symptom of that change.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on ergotic literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Modern Litarary Theory: A Reader, 2nd edition. Ed. Rice and Waugh. London: Edward Arnold, 1993.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Elecronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
Bolter, David Jay. Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991.
Charnay, Davida. "The Effect of Hypertext on Processes of Reading and Writing." Literacy and computers: The complications of teaching and learning with technology. Ed. Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligoss. New York: MLA, 1994.
Dee-Lucas, Diane. "Effects of Overview Structure on Study Strategies and Text Representations for Instructional Hypertext." Hypertext and Cognition. Ed. Jarmo J. Levonen Jean-Francois Rouet, Andrew Dillon, Rand J. Sprio. New York: Erlbaum, 1996. 73-107.
Foucault, Michel. "What Is An Author." Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Landow, George P. Hypertext: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Slatin, John. "Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Ed. Paul Delaney and George P. Landow. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992. 153-169.
Snyder, Ilana. Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth. New York: New York University Press, 1996.