Hyperrhiz 08: Reviews

Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco, Reading Hypertext

Marvin E. Hobson

Indian River State College


Bernstein, Mark, and Diane Greco. Reading Hypertext. MA: Eastgate Systems Inc, 2009. 280 pp. $39.95 (978-1-8845-1148-6)

Reorientations: That is ...Reading Hypertext.

The Hypertext, an inventive and nonlinear approach to reading, writing, teaching, and electronically navigating information, presents a direct contradiction to the traditional text. However, it provides avenues, webs, and flows that can illuminate, project, and reappropriate meaning in ways that the stereotypical reader, perhaps, could not have acquired in the past. When one hears the words "reading hypertext," computerized links, moving text, interactive visuals, and the possibilities of participating in a beta version of some new technology might come to mind. Reading Hypertext, edited by Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco, offers very little by way of technological aesthetics. Instead, the authors' arguments replace limited visual aesthetics with articles that enlighten us to the possibilities of hypertext, the cognitive disruptions at hand, the technological opportunities, and the connections it offers.

Another good name for this text might have been the "Nineteen-Headed Dragon," because the nineteen entries differ distinctly. Some roar in opposition with one another while others intertwine and weave a confusing, inseparable web between themselves that sometimes creates a unique connection and, at other times, a confusing dissonance. However, I believe that this text would serve extremely well for use in a rhetoric course that could introduce graduate students to the beauty and complexity involved in reading and writing hypertext literature.

These 'Hypertext Gospels' may be divided into four sections that cluster their core ideas:

  • Articles one through four display the freedom of possibilities involved in hypertext;
  • Five through nine deal with the disorientation found in the hypertext and give suggestions for harnessing that disorientation;
  • Ten through fourteen aggressively focus on the major role that the technology itself plays in the grand scheme of the hypertext; and
  • The final five articles ground the anthology even more into the future of the hypertext field and establish it for pedagogical implementation and rhetorical defense.

At first glance, a given reader may not be able to distinguish the differences, or the similarities for that matter, between the nineteen entries. Ultimately, the text needs more guided organization. It is, apparently, assumed that one would read the text from beginning to end, but, of course, that is not required. Without an editor's suggestion for an organized read, the reader is forced to form his own connections, and randomly reading this text is possible, but not suggested. As a result, I see this collection of works as a bridge between the old and the new, a unifier of the linear and the nonlinear, and a connector between traditional text and hypertext. So, I feel the oxymoron emerging as I ask for more organization in this text. Most anthologies have well organized sections that direct the reader because most, if not all, anthologies are not read from beginning to end. To orientate or re-orientate myself, I needed to read freely and separately, and then cluster the articles to make sense of them as a "single body of work." On occasion, this difficulty appears in some places more than others, because some articles overlap with others while some appear to negate others.

The Freedom

As one of the foremost hypertext scholars in the world, Mark Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry, reigns as publisher and product manager for Storyspace, and served as member and track program chair for the ACM Hypertext Conference. The anthology starts with his article "Into the Weeds," by far the most aesthetically and organizationally stimulating. The article divides into twenty-four numbered sections, none of which are more than a page or so long. At the end of section one, a bracketed list of numbers gives the reader the option of where to continue reading: "[y]ou may read this essay in the order in which it is printed. Or, if you like, use the numerals at the end of each section to pursue other paths through the text..." (2). This freedom gives the reader many options for exploration. I am reminded of Geoffrey Chaucer here — "Nothing ventured, nothing gained...." The reluctant reader who puts forth little or no effort and then just reads the order of words that are put before him may be putting himself in a precarious situation. On the other hand, the reader who picks and chooses, then disconnects, confuses, and finally reorientates herself becomes much more than just a reader; she becomes a writer or remixer of the possibilities.

This disjointed piecing that Bernstein introduces to the anthology both invites the reader into the text and gives either the courageous drifter or the conventional conformist ownership or partnership into the hyper-use-of-text, so that "[e]ven when we think we are reading in sequence, our eyes and our thoughts skip and jump, now here and now far away" (4). I read the first two sections in sequence and then began to drift. After a while, I started to experience disorientation and frustration. The non-linearity worked because I was not totally confused, but I did not know where I was, what sections I had read, or where I needed to go next even though I had several options, possibly too many. Perhaps, if the options at the end of the sections had other subtext or context connected to them to differentiate between where they would take the reader, then the disorientation might be better mediated. Nonetheless, Bernstein's nonlinear, introductory writing example demonstrates for the traditionalist a new way to use text and the possibilities of the innovative, multifaceted text: "[i]n practice, writing that matters never means precisely one thing, and its multiplicity or multivalence persists, however minutely we subdivide it."(10) This statement covers the ever-shifting foundation upon which all of the subsequent authors build throughout the anthology.

"Why are we still talking like this?" Diane Greco asks in her first entry following Bernstein's essay. In many instances, this entry acts as a call for papers, a generally charged list of do's and don'ts, or a preaching to the choir essay for subsequent contributors. "Either hypertext is something from which one must, at all cost, differentiate oneself, or it is something to which one must commit oneself fully, without reservation....I want to point out the grandiosity here, the extremism" (15). This tone forewarns the reader about what will be explored in the following pages and challenges the other contributors to meet a new mark or goal:

The problem is articulating these claims [about hypertext]...fully exploring the nature of the demands that hypertext makes on us, much as we would explore...other 'difficult' forms of art" (16)

Greco cries out for a new way to begin to talk about hypertext; the nonlinearity is not enough for her. She wants the contributors to grapple intensely with the artform in ways that will not just patronize, but truly contend with the medium from a different perspective. Then Greco sheds light on a concept that permeates the entire anthology: "Recall" (16), or returning, or repeating or reorientating. In hypertext, in other words, one needs the ability to forget, re-explore, remember, and the definitions go on and on, challenging and inviting the nonlinear. Why does Greco want this so much? "I've only got my own experience to go on. I'm not an academic, I don't have a critical agenda. I'm just a reader of the stuff." (17) This statement brings up a couple of interesting points, comma splice notwithstanding. One, Greco identifies with the reader because the reader, also, has his/her own experience to draw from, whether it be limited or exhaustive. In addition, her connection as a user of hypertext rather than an academic places her in direct juxtaposition with Bernstein, a chemist and an academic, which leads to an interesting choice of articles for the rest of the collection.

Charles Perfetti expresses great freedom in "La Maison Hypertext." This two page document replicates a French menu with some wonderful things, such as soups, hors d'oeuvres, fish, meats, veggies, cheese, and, of course, desserts. Perfetti uses the menu format to demonstrate the smorgasbord, if you will, that hypertext provides for those who care to dine. Each item on the menu has a tasty treat along with a hypertextual benefit, such as hyperfruits, creamy nonlinear cucumbers, Macintosh oysters, veal kidneys without reading goals, and the menu goes on.... The major issue with this entry is that it is primarily written in French. Some of the noticeable words that appear in the text: contructionisme, Hypertext, Nonlinear Flexibilite, Nodes, electronique, ill-structured. The surrounding words need translation from French for those of us who are not fluent. Albeit the shortest piece in the anthology, Perfetti clearly demonstrates the art of using text in innovative ways while heightening the implications and notions for the use of hypertext. Perfetti, a psychologist, thus sets up the anthology for the cognitive discourse thread which runs throughout.

To cap this first section, a more stylistically traditional article by Jill Walker, "Piecing together and tearing apart: finding the story in afternoon," represents the style of all the other articles in the anthology that appear after it. This article is settling, stabilizing, after the stark artistic, aesthetic and cognitive dissonances of the previous pieces. After experiencing that in the first three articles, Walker sets the reader at ease and lets him/her know that, even amidst such hypertextual madness, there exists method. Walker makes sense of the prior pieces by quoting Wolgang Iser on codex literature:

As we read we oscillate to a greater or lesser degree between the building and the breaking of illusions. In a process of trial and error, we organize and reorganize the various data offered us by the text. These are the given factors, the fixed point on which we base our interpretation, trying to fit them together in the way we think the author meant them to be fitted.

Walker effortlessly clarifies the oscillations, organizings, and reorganizings apparent in Michael Joyce's hypertext work afternoon, a story. She states, "[r]epetition is one of the most important rhetorical figures in afternoon" (30). She cleverly reintroduces this theory and extends it through the introduction of Nietzschean repetition, "a mode of repetition [that] posits a world based on difference" (31). This positing presents itself widely and differently, of course, in all of the conjoined passages and thus forces the reader to reorientate after each entry.

Harnessing Disorientation

N.J. Lowe's article entitled "A Cognitive Model" digs its tentacles even deeper into the hypertext foundation by retrospectively defining story, narrative, and text while essentially re-defining them as well. These definitions act as the spikes to secure a heavy tent [hypertext] built to withstand the detrimental weather [anti-hypertext believers]. Recollections from the likes of Plato and others contend with one another, but the most compelling of Lowe's arguments reiterates that

[narrative] reorganises story time (by flashback and flash-forward, manipulation of pace, selection and omission)...and imposes a more or less restricted point of view (by choosing and changing who observes the story, what they see, how much they know, and what they choose to pass on to the narrator — who will then, of course, filter the account of events through a second level of editorial screening) (35-51).

The definitions allow the reader to identify with the disorientations prevalent even in traditional texts and help him/her to realize that the same disorientations can and will appear more evidently in hypertext, and so the existence thereof needs the mind to deliver the narrative as well. So, never fear; this cognitive model essay could be reclassified as a definition essay. Lowe goes on to define plot as "something texts do inside our heads in the action of reading" (52). Therefore, as long as we, the readers, continue to use our heads and engage actively with the text, we should be able to make sense of hypertext for more inventive reading and writing.

J. Yellowlees Douglas, a Professor of English at the University of Florida, introduces two important topics: closure and indeterminacy. She encapsulates that thought in her wonderful little question, "How do I stop this thing?" Douglas realizes that hypertext lends itself to a multiplicity of options, but in order for it to fully act as narrative, it must "satisfy the desire for the finality..." (59 qtd. Joseph Conrad). Douglas takes the reader on a journey through the need for closure in the traditional text and into similar demands of hypertext, namely Michael Joyce's Writing on the Edge. As a precursor she references "Frank Smith's concept of prediction as the keystone to the act of reading" (60). This search for closure is what causes us to turn the page, creating what Douglas calls "indeterminacy." In other words, it is in the application of the indeterminacy that a reader finds options for desired closure.

The next article by George Landow, "Reconfiguring Writing," displays further problematic plateaus involved in disorientation: where to go, how to get to where you want to go, position, relationship, time, place, and identity-all evident and valid problems that can occur in a hypertext. Landow, Brown University Professor of English and Art History, speaks of these with ease and eloquence. He dismisses the amateur who might think that all of the work for the hypertext lies in the link: "linking, by itself, is not enough" (96). Landow questions the significance of the link in detail, and in the two articles following — "The Lyrical Quality of Links" and "A Pragmatics of Links" — Susana Pajares Tosca responds harshly to the importance of the quality of the link. Tosca refers to Mark Bernstein's idea that "hypertext structure does not reside exclusively in the topology of links..." (99), but she expands it when she states that "what the link is (a word, some words, an image...) is not so important as the connotations it carries, that can range between the specific and the surrealistic" (100). She brings to the forefront a word that speaks volumes- implicatures. These are what I would call links that imply or make a wide range of implications. Tosca goes on to differentiate between how one might create relevant links in a text for information (like a newspaper) and how one might use links in a more explorative text (116). Sufficient, but not exhaustive, Tosca's argument could have been extended even further by giving more specific examples about how one might hypertextualize or create relevant links within particular canonical texts (especially since other authors in the anthology chose specific texts, hyper or traditional, that they expounded on in relation to critical theory).

Technology for the Hypertext

George Landow returns in the following section with his article "Stitching Together Narrative, Sexuality, Self: Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl." Patchwork Girl is referred to by many who explore hypertext because it revisits a traditional text, Frankenstein, but tells the untold story of his companion. Landow makes his way through the piece by talking of suturing, a term borrowed from film theory. However, he wants us to focus more on the scarring or disorder that is often a result of suturing or order (124-126). He walks the reader through how Storyspace is used in this well-known hypertext narrative.

Anja Rau, in the next essay, "These Waves of Bugs," lets us know what to look out for in the interface. While new programs are invented regularly, it is important to know what to pay attention to during the beta stage and later. Rau believes "including the interface or shell as another meaning-bearing layer opens up expressive options" (136). Rau's great argument is followed by Adrian Miles's critique in "Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext." Miles disagrees with Michael Joyce when the latter states in Of Two Minds that "hypertext is the word's revenge on TV." (Joyce 1995, 47). Miles argues that "hypertext is in fact cinema's revenge on the word" (139). He takes issue with the overwhelming power given to the node. In other words, the node and the link are not powerful by themselves, but they have to have what he calls "force" or performance. This, he believes, occurs naturally in the editing of cinematic content. Miles makes some of those connections obvious, but others are too abstract. This would have been the best place for some visual applications or even a connected link for reference. He does, on the other hand, help us to begin to see the connections between cinema.

Michael Joyce finally speaks through the non-fiction as the author instead of the criticized in "Nonce Upon Some Times: Rereading Hypertext Fiction." Apparently, the editors did not haphazardly place this article in the center of the anthology. As one of the central articles, Joyce drills into the reader "that which is reread is that which is not read" (149). This implies that a given reader not only reads, but he or she also un-reads simultaneously. Joyce brings us back to the significance of returning, principally as he also fluently explains the use of Storyspace. Then, he coins a phrase, "wreader," to explain that "reading in hypertext means to recreate the writer's experience of rereading in the process of composing printed words" (156). While Joyce focuses on the wreader, Dave Ciccoricco, in "Returning In Twilight: Joyce's Twilight, a Symphony"clearly shows the evolution of the hypertext narrative as he criticizes Joyce's afternoon but praises his Twilight and the growth of the software therein. What is creative about this piece is that Ciccoricco places his theory within a musical, symphonic context that illuminates how "repetition and return shape hypertext narrative" (165). In short, just as a melody returns, repeats, and refrains to reorientate and reestablish itself in a given form, Ciccoricco speaks of a hypertext narrative that acquires the same kind of structure. When one considers the elements of jazz, one can see how a basic or even an intricate melody played by different musicians at different skill levels will lend itself to a varied expression or delivery of expression for that given melody. What if hypertext literature were to take on the same kind of artistic structure? Ciccoricco comprehensively deals with the Twilight hypertext but relieves anyone who has seen a 1000 page book and squirmed — "Since the links themselves constitute an integral part of a network narrative's structure, any systematic reading that seeks only to exhaust a complete catalog of nodes is inevitably a deficient reading of the work" (183).

The Future of the Hypertext

"As biologists and economists in the last century met the challenge of feeding an exploding population, we might take up the work of reinventing literacy for a world increasingly beset by ignorance. No doubt a change in agenda by any particular group of academics will not in itself correct the widespread misunderstanding of media, let alone combat vast global threats like the rejection of modernity. Yet as all in this community know, ideas that start — e.g., the World Wide Web — have tended to exceed initial expectations." (256)

Stuart Moulthrop states these profound words at the end of the anthology in "What the Geeks Know." It summarizes the last five articles and what they all intend to do:

  1. Develop better structure in the hypertext and the traditional text (David Kolb's "Hypertext Structure Under Pressure"),
  2. Place an emphasis on the actual 'reading' that can occur within a hypertext and the demands thereof (Catherine C. Marshall's "Reading Spatial Hypertext"),
  3. Raise consciousness about the pedagogical notions and implications pervasive in hypertext literacy, writing, and reading (Adrian Miles's "Hypertext Teaching"),
  4. Revisit the continued political discussion of the digital haves and the have not's, and, also, think about how hypertexts might "elevate the human spirit" (Diane Greco's "Hypertext with"), and
  5. Recognize that the World Wide Web is not birthed out of a utopia, so neither will it be one even though technological advances materialize before us (Stuart Moulthrop's "What the Geeks Know: Hypertext and the Problem of Literacy").

All of the articles do a wonderful job of exposing the binaries within their given facet of hypertext. The links, allocations, appropriations, manipulations, reconfigurations, returns, reiterations, reorganizations, and reorientations create what one could call the multifaceted hypertext with endless meaning, multiple closures, and a continuous hypertextuality. Bernstein states at the beginning that the idea for the book emerged out of a desire to house some of the most influential hypertext theorists in one place. Bernstein and Greco deliver on that goal; nevertheless, the lack of some kind of guided organization, section or chapter summations, pre-contextualized sub-titles, or any additional structure of the information makes this text less user-friendly for the possible media studies professor or the media studies graduate student.

The cover appears to be in direct opposition with the organization and nonlinearity that threads throughout the discussions. Perhaps Eastgate Systems Inc., the publisher, wanted to focus more on the content rather than spend money on the cover or other illustrations. Obviously, the anthology's editors geared the text to the extremely perceptive graduate student and/or scholar who should make connections on his/her own without aesthetic assistance. Reading Hypertext will force an intense read and an aesthetic deficiency. Mark Bernstein explained that the editors wanted to "represent the anthology as a single body of work," and perhaps they thought a detailed, more aesthetically inviting cover might disrupt that unity. Nonetheless, one should acquire a multivariate awareness of the freedom, possibilities, disorientations, and reorientations that can take place while Reading Hypertext.


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, Troilus and Criseyde (bk. V, st. 112). 1482.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach. In Lodge, David. Modern Criticism and Theory. A Reader. Longman, London, and New York, 1988.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: university of Michigan Press. 1995.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York, Palgrave. 2001.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/008.r01