Below is one of the essays I wrote as part of my comprehensive examination in hypertext theory for my doctoral program in English at Michigan State University.
Hypertext and the Role of the Reader and Writer
How has hypertext changed the relationship between the reader and writer? Several writers on your list argue that hypertext has changed this relationship. Some like Sven Birkerts see this as a negative change while others like Janet Horowitz Murray see this change in more positive terms. Do you agree that hypertext changes the relationship between the reader and writer? If so, do you see this as a positive change or negative or somewhere in between? In your answer, be sure to explain how at least three or more writers on your list envision the change in this relationship. If you think the relationship has not changed, explain why you think the three or more writers are mistaken.
I have been wrestling with the issue of how hypertext changes the role of the reader for a long time. On the one hand I do not believe that hypertext alters the act of reading any more than any other new genre would. We read magazines differently than we read novels. We read textbooks differently than we read computer manuals. Some theorists like Landow and Lanham believe that the simple presence of a cursor on a screen alters the reading experience because the cursor is a physical means of inserting the reader into the text, it is a physical reminder that the reader is always present. Lanham believes that because text resides on a hard drive that readers approach it differently. The fact that electronic text is no longer caught between the covers of a book, that it only becomes present when a reader calls it up on a screen, invites the reader to come closer to the text, to write the text anew each time he or she engages with it. Bolter (1991) believes that because the text is "non-print, undark, dry, unimprinted, prone to sailing off" (86) it is dynamic and volatile, and the reader loses track of where the writer has left off and the reader begins.
Some of this is a little tough to swallow. In what way is a cursor any different than a finger following along? Why does it make any difference to a reader if the text resides between the covers of a book or on a disk or hard drive or server somewhere? The reader is still able to access his or her prior knowledge, is still able to predict what is yet to come. If we are to believe Rosenblatt, then the meaning in of a book or magazine is still called into being by the reader and each reading can be made anew as the reader brings newer experiences with life and text to the reading. So where are the differences?
I think there are differences, actually. Not perhaps in the actual act of reading but in the attitudes that readers and writers bring to electronic text, which includes hypertext. Critics of electronic text like to point out that it is difficult (and dangerous) to read hypertext in the bathtub. And they are right. And when I want to read something long, I print it out and read it at my desk or on my couch. But perhaps the reason I do that is because I am used to book text. I'm used to its conventions and I know what to expect. I did not learn to read or spend my "formative" reading years at a computer. I did that stretched out on my bed hoping my mother wouldn't drag me away to dust mopboards or change the cat litter. Every moment caught up in Nancy Drew's adventures was a moment away from the litter box and the mopboards. Or so it seemed. And so the pleasure of reading is, for me, caught up in those secret moments when I could sneak and read. And in those stolen moments I became accustomed to the feel of a book, to the conventions of book text and magazine text.
But conventions change, just as they did in the transition between scribal culture and book culture. I know my students would rather go to the computer lab than do anything else. And when they are in front of a computer, they are totally engaged, consciously making decisions about where to click, what to read next, and what to add to an electronic text. There is something different going on. It could be novelty. I suspect it is something more.
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. The authors I will draw on most frequently in this discussion will be Janet Murray, George Landow, Sven Birkerts, and Ilana Snyder.
Sven Birkerts (1994)believes that electronic text, and hypertext in particular, is killing the author. In a traditional reading situation, Birkerts places the writer, "the flesh and blood individual" at one end of a continuum. At the other is "the flesh-and-blood reader" (96). He places between these two, "words on a page [that'] don't change" (96) Birkerts is uncomfortable with the disorientation he experiences when he reads hypertext. And he worries that hypertext will destroy literature and its role in our culture. He believes that hypertext and other electronic texts will weaken the quality of writing and displace order for chaos.
Snyder 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).
I know that for most of my life I wanted to write short stories. I never seemed to be able to do that using paper and pencil or even a typewriter. I tried. I never finished anything and I was never happy with what I had written. It wasn't until I got my first computer, IBM's first laptop. They didn't sell and so IBM offered them to teachers for $300. I bought one and six months later I wrote my first short story. Had I been willing to turn the story into a novel, as two editors, one from Farrar, Stauss, and Giroux and the other from Houghton Mifflin suggested, I might have sold it. Such was the power of electronic writing from me as a writer. The task was simply different in front of a computer than in front of a typewriter or with a paper and pencil.
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 in the world of paper and ink.
Murray poses an interesting argument that in electronic text, which includes other media besides hypertext, the author still exists but as a choreographer. The reader is not the author of the text but can experience many of the "exciting aspects of artistic creation-the thrill of exerting power over enticing and plastic materials" (153). Murray makes an intriguing point. The reader of electronic text, and especially hypertext, is not experiencing authorship. The reader is experiencing agency. Murray defines agency as the ability to take meaningful actions and to see the results of those actions (126). Murray points out that the kind of agency that takes place in the reading of hypertext fiction, particularly, is rather rare in more traditional narrative forms. The difference may be that by entering a computer environment, the reader alters the environment of the text through his or her participation.
In the case of MUD's and MOO's, textual gaming spaces, (now often spaces in which colleagues gather to "talk") the reader can greatly alter the environment by creating new spaces in which to play or participate. This has happened in a number of gaming MUD's and MOO's where participants, dismayed over the types of interactions they were encountering , simply constructed new "rooms" or other spaces in which to play out their character's actions. And at times players have simply created spaces in which to converse with other players or characters without challenge from those who wanted to duel or engage in other types of narratives. But the reader can insert himself or herself in more pragmatic hypertexts as well, simply through the act of deliberately selecting which lexias or writing spaces he or she will read. And the reader can write a response and link it to the piece he or she is responding to. This is always an option in hypertext.
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. Snyder adds that the tradition of print literacy privileges the author. Nothing, supposedly, can be changed about a text once the author (along with the publisher and editor) have finished with the text. 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).
Most hypertext theorists would agree. 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. 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. We could perhaps say that the interactor is the author of a particular performance within an electronic story system, or the architect of a particular part of the virtual world, but we must distinguish this derivative authorship from the original authorship of the system itself" (153)
In this sense, Murray is reminding 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 (author) collaborate to create the narrative.
Collaboration is a key element in hypertext reading and writing. In a sense both the reader and the writer collaborate with the computer. But because the reader is physically required to execute some sort of command and to make a choice as to which command, the reader collaborates with the author. We can put this in Murray's terms and say that the reader or dance is collaborating with the choreographer or writer so that some version, perhaps a new one, of the author's plan flashes onto the screen. But Landow adds that a hypertext reader/writer "almost inevitably works collaboratively whenever creating documents in a multi-author hypertext system" (2.0, 110)
Hypertext also enables authors to collaborate from a distance. One writer may place a draft of a web up on a web space where another author, a continent away can look at it, add to it, make notes, revise the web, and place the changes in the same space as the previous one. Landow (1997) reminds us that print technology has imposed a more "passive" role on readers. This technology--that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page--engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertexts make untenable (69). Certainly print technology can be seen as privileging the author, if for no other reason than the fact that once text is set and printed on a page it is difficult to change or add to in a way that "respects" the changes. We may insert our readerly selves into the text by making notes or underlining passages, but our notations look different and that difference clearly indicates that the changes were added after the fact.
Hypertext, however, allows the reader to insert himself or herself, either through copying and pasting words onto a new "page" or lexia, and adding to the text, or linking a reader's lexia to the author's. This of course turns the reader into an author, and has the potential to turn the author into a reader. Of course, theoretically this has always been true. Someone can alter a text by typesetting a new text, and a reader may write a critique and publish it in a book, but the process is cumbersome and even costly and delayed.
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 [reseaux] are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable…(cited in Landow, Convergence, 3). And though it seems as though Barthes is talking specifically about hypertext, he is not.
But Landow points out that hypertext blurs the boundaries between reader and author in much the way Barthes suggests text should. Landow goes one step further and posits that the distinction between readerly and writerly text is essentially the distinction between electronic or hypertext technology and print technology. Barthes writes: "…the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader" (S/Z 4).
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.
Birkerts, of course, is distressed by this and blames hypertext for "delivering a mighty blow to the long-static writer-reader relationship. It changes the entire system of power upon which the literary experience has been predicated; it rewrites the contract from start to finish" (163). Birkerts warns that hypertext is ruining literacy and literature, along with killing the author. Birkerts argues that the "subjective ecology of reading" allows him to feel the power of the words on a page, and that this power cannot be felt with hypertext.
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 hears wind in the trees, the tolling of a church bell, the fall of footsteps up the stairs of the gallows. Ultimately the reader "dies." The effect is chilling. Students who read the narrative are totally engaged. And yet they are clicking on frames and making choices as to how to proceed, as to how to manipulate themselves away from the hangman's noose. 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 points out that there is a distinction between authorship and agency. 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)
It may be that print technology diminished the agency of the reader by forcing the reader to comply with a way of organizing text. Birkerts believes, however, that book text is natural and stabilizing. He writes "The words on the page, chiseled and refined by a single author, aspire to permanence" (159).
Louise Rosenblatt would disagree with Birkerts' notion of authorial power. 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. Aarseth writes "In [hypertext] literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" (1). This "nontrivial effort" loosens the author's dominion over the text.
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). Tuman suggests that the future of authorship "may have less to do with a single vision of writing defined in terms of invention, creativity, and copyright than with earlier, multiple visions" (64)
These multiple visions are brought on by cultural changes which brings me to an important point. 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. 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.
A number of cognitivists have conducted studies on how readers engage with hypertext. One such study (Dee-Lucas, 1996) looked at the way in which undergraduates constructed meaning during a test review process that used two different kinds of hypertext--one with a hierarchical overview that indicated which headings contained the main ideas and which contained subordinate information, the other with a simple list overview that listed the headings in alphabetical order. Dee-Lucas found that students who used the hypertext containing the hierarchical overview felt better prepared for the test and had an easier time moving through the hypertext web than students who used the hypertext with the list overview.
The cognitivists tend to deal with "what is," rather than "what could be," of course. They are not so concerned with the changing role of the author and reader as they are with the ways in which current readers make use of hypertext. And so Dee-Lucas' recommendation that hypertext webs show readers where the main and subordinate ideas are within the web seems a little odd, especially in lieu of what Landow and the others say. Landow, who has overseen a huge "informational" hypertext web at Brown University would find Dee-Lucas' recommendations tantamount to heresy. 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.
The problem here is that Dee-Lucas' study looked at a non-traditional piece of text that was being used to prepare students for a very traditional rule-bound task--a test. Of course students would find the hierarchical overviewed hypertext more suited to their task of test preparation. A hierarchical overview would indicate exactly what the main ideas were and which parts of the hypertext they needed to concentrate on the most. Their agency was diminished because of the task they were preparing for. In a hierarchical overviewed hypertext, the author maintains his or her power. The reader is not a collaborator. Yes, within the hierarchy, readers may choose which main idea they want to read first, but the act of suspending and balancing those ideas, the act of deciding for himself or herself which ideas are most important, has been denied the reader. The author has done that already.
Davida Charney is perhaps the most recognized of the cognitivists who write about hypertext. She scoffs at what she calls the Romantics (meaning Landow, Bolter, etc.) who approach hypertext as a more "Coleridgean" concept of an infinitely evolving text that liberates readers and writers from textual boundaries. Charney does not believe that readers necessarily know best which information is important, and so it should be the role of the author to establish that for them (241) To be fair, Charney admits that her goal is "not to accept or dismiss hypertext processes or hypertext in principle, but rather to point to specific aspects of reading and writing processes that hypertext designers must consider if they are to serve readers and writers effectively" (241).
But Charney defends hierarchical overviewed hypertexts because she believes, based on empirical studies, "that as people read, they build a hierarchically structured mental representation of the information in the text. As they read successive sentences, they link the ideas of proposition expressed in them to their developing hierarchical representation by means of chains of repeated concepts" (243). But Charney's beliefs about hypertext are based on long-established assumptions about readers and writers, assumptions that are based on a print culture that has been in place for centuries. Charney assumes that readers conduct themselves through a sequential process, one that has been designated by the author whose sole purpose is to see that the reader conducts himself or herself through a progression of ideas the author has perhaps laboriously laid out.
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 if taking multiple possible paths if there is a default sequence. The writer's role, as Murray says, is to choreograph the text, to set it up so that the reader can dance among the lexias as he or she sees fit. It may be that a hypertext writer will have to envision different readers who have different purposes.
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. Most websites provide some sort of overview of what is contained in the web. Sometimes this is in the form of a site map. Other times it is in the form an opening page menu.
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. Landow, citing Tom McArthur, points out that, first, there is nothing natural about the book. It took four thousand years for it to come about, and that evolution disrupted the previous "elites" , the scholastics, who had worked hard to conventionalize the plots and themes, not to mention the structure and look of the books of their time. The printing press, Landow points out, presented the scholastics with a different order, a different way of organizing knowledge. And this new way may have appeared disjointed, even chaotic (Landow, 2.0, 77).
This sounds all too familiar when we read Birkerts and even Charney. Ironically, perhaps, I see all this as simply change. I enjoy my book reading life. I enjoy my hypertext reading life. The more aware I am of hypertext the more I see evidence of the rhizome, what I sometimes think of as the the proto-hypertext. Birkerts may be alarmed, but as more and more hypertext sifts into our lives, we will adapt to it and in a hundred years find Birkerts' disgruntlement charming. There may even be nostalgic Birkerts Societies where everyone swears off hypertext for a day or week when they "go back to nature."
But hypertext, whether it is literary or pragmatic, whether it is Stuart Moulthrop's latest novel or a new version of Excel, is here. And unless the lights all go out at Y2K, it will affect us all in one way or another-either through the simple click on a name in an e-mail message, the calling up of data in a spread sheet, or the browsing for information on the world wide web, it's 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.
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