Nostalgic Angels A Review

Mary Ann Eiler, PhD Program in Technical Communication and Information Design/Illinois Institute of Technology and Northern Illinois University/Society forTechnical Communication Institute for Professional Development

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan.  Nostalgic Angels:  Rearticulating Hypertext Writing.  Norwood, NJ: Ablex Press,
1997. ISBN 1-56750-281-4.
Nostalgic Angels imbeds and critiques the technology of hypertext in the politics, culture, and economics of postmodernism and deconstruction theory and practice. The book's intense knowledge base challenges prior convictions of what a text means and tempts readers to consider new theoretical alliances. Johnson-Eilola successfully maps for us an odyssey of hypertext "articulations" from the intertextuality concepts of Bush, Nelson, and Englebart and the hypertext systems they envisioned to postmodernist activities these systems were not originally intended to support. Because hypertext was not imagined in its beginning as a way to support postmodernist theory, Johnson-Eilola presents exacting discussions on key issues like

  1. Does the similarity between postmodernism and hypertext empower hypertext to automate deconstructionism? and
  2. Is hypertext a physical embodiment of postmodernist theory?

For context, he gives us rich discursive intersections with major hypertext theorists and their work: Bolter's Writing Space and Landow and Lanestedt's In Memoriam Web and Intermedia/Storyspace. He extends the meaning of composition beyond traditional argument and prose style to include online documentation, electronic discussions, and the Internet. Here he argues that functional hypertexts have been integrated in the post hierarchical workplace as "efficient machines" to increase technical efficiency at the cost of worker creativity, power and status, and as a late capitalist commodity where information space has a price tag. He also explores the complex approaches and issues of postmodernist space that exists within composition and literary theory from Derrida's "'there are only contexts without any center or absolute authoring'" (158) to positions taken by Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, and Lyotard, whose works represent "the (late) age of print rather than computer based text" (146).

Whatever the hypertext issue under discussion, Johnson-Eilola reminds us of the opportunities and dangers for the teaching of rhetoric and composition. A case in point is his explication of Karl Crary's resistance to the postmodern text Forking Paths, a hypertext constructed by Moulthrop from a fragmented version of Borges (1962) Garden of Forking Paths. He observes that in print Crary could write a critical essay with quotes and citations from Forking Paths and "physically distance himself from the text he was critiquing." Instead, in "Karl's Forking Response," Crary resists subordinating his own text "to the hypertext that is the object of his critical reading" (163). Experiences like Crary's involvement in a "forum of explicit fragmentation and indeterminancy [where] each additional text is taken up and broken apart, reconnected, and held open as a process rather than a discrete, isolated fixed object," Johnson-Eilola argues, has beneficial pedagogical implications. From Crary's experience students can recognize writing "as intertextual, social processes" rather than works of "isolated genius" (167).

Implicit in the Crary example is a focus on text as social construction of meaning which, as a formal linguistic approach to discourse study, has received at best a tangential status in hypertext forums and discussions. Johnson-Eilola's use of linguistics as a common theme in Nostalgic Angels, however, invites its further use as a tool to explore hypertext in socio-cultural environments.

As early as Chapter 2, Johnson-Eilola turns to Pratt's theory of linguistic contact zones as a perspective "towards constructing a theory and practice of hypertext that is both plausible and political" (36). As he explains, Pratt's concept of linguistic contact zones as "social spaces" where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" (quoting Pratt, 39), though apparently remote for hypertext, represents an important example of how a cultural clash is "negotiated, enforced, and resisted" (40). The example Johnson-Eilola provides is Pratt's discussion of the New Chronicle and Good Government and Justice, Poma de Ayola's 17th century letter, where the author-as-converted Christian claims royal Incan descent and attempts "to construct a new picture of the world, a picture of a Christian world with Andean rather than European peoples at the center of it" (quoting Pratt, 40).

In his discussion of "Economics of Hyperspace: Digital Colonies and Markets", Johnson-Eilola again turns to linguistics with a focus on language and information as object and space. He reminds us that language "presupposes" an arbitrary, dynamic, and socially constructed connection between the spatial and objective world (104). Expanding on Saussure's arbitrary nature of the sign, he explains that language and reality are "mutually constructing." Applications to hypertext follow in his argument that while we "can attribute some of the objectification and spatialization of thought to the socially shared agreement or connection between language and world," we err -- and fatalistically so -- if we assume that current forms of spatialization are "natural." If, he argues, the "physical world does not provide the motivation between sign and referent," it becomes imperative that we "investigate the forces that do operate to shape our discourses" (105). Whatever the arbitrary or ambiguous relations between "word and world," for Johnson-Eilola "print succeeded most in turning word into object" and "printed books are easily subsumable into capitalist production" (105).

While Johnson-Eilola's use of linguistics in Nostalgic Angels, by design, assumes a supporting role in his delineations and articulations of hypertexts, his focus on the social dimension of language sets the stage for a more systemic linguistic approach to hypertext environments. Though a review of Nostalgic Angels is not the place to expound on linguistic theories or arguments, I found rich and provoking connections between Johnson-Eilola's hypertext articulations and the power of a functional approach to language to explicate them. To do so, of course, would require subjecting the functional and literary hypertexts he identifies to the type of text analysis implicit in a functional approach to language study as M.A.K. Halliday presents in Language as Social Semiotic. Throughout Halliday's work, the linguistic system is investigated and interpreted in the larger sociocultural context, and culture itself is viewed in semantic terms as an information system. For Halliday, language does more than express social structure and the social system. As he explains, "A social reality (or a culture) is itself an edifice of meanings -- a semiotic construct. In this perspective, language is one of the semiotic systems that constitute a culture; one that is distinctive in that it also serves as an encoding system for many (though not all) of the others" (2).

As early as the 1970s, functional linguistic approaches to discourse processes, like Halliday's, (albeit in the context of conventional print), addressed and explicated several of the issues that Johnson-Eilola foregrounds -- issues like "my text" "your text" "publishers' texts" teachers' texts" etc). Halliday's Text as Semantic Choice in Social Contexts was seminal to text analyses that described (sometimes in network notation), the lexical semantic intersections between texts, subtexts, interpersonal roles in text, use of field-specific metalanguage/sublanguage and the "decomposition" (deconstruction?) of discourse segments to identify instantial and other varieties of meaning. My own work Meaning and Choice in Writing about Literature documents young students' lexico-semantic choices in text formation. The study classifies these choices as originating in the literary texts they have read and/or in their own metatexts about these same literary texts.

It is rigorous studies like these that support Johnson-Eilola's observation that "Discourses are always multiple" (172) and anticipate his conviction that "In order to construct hypertext as a socially empowering technology, we have to expand our vision to the social, mapping the world and living the map....for all hypertext" types (173). Whatever the potential for extensive linguistic explications of hypertexts -- and however compelling -- the integrity and thread of Johnson-Eilola's own discourse in Nostalgic Angels should remain the priority of its readers if they are to savour and respond to the depth and range of his own scholarship.

Johnson-Eilola begins his treatise with the broad perspective of borders --"Writing has always been about borders, about the processes of mapping and remapping the lines of separation between things. Writing constructs implicit and explicit boundaries between not only products and process and said and unsaid, but author and reader, literacy and orality, technology and nature, self and other" (3). His concern for border consruction and deconstruction parallels "a concern about postmodern tendencies in contemporary society" (6). Through postmodernism, cultural studies, and critical pedagogy, he contends we can come to understand the complex (and sometimes contradictory) process of border-construction and deconstruction. He argues furthermore that we can thus "rearticulate new positive mappings" (7). Through a scoping and juxtaposing of hypertext types that include functional documentation, databases, literature and composition, he argues we can "highlight some of the political, social and technological forces constructing our lives" (14). In the process, he contends we need to rethink contexts instead of allowing "our nostalgia to channel new possibilities into old pathways..." (13). Johnson-Eilola himself says it best:

In hypertext, we are like angels without maps, suddenly gifted with wings discovering not only that we cannot find heaven, but also that walking made us less dizzy, that our new wings snag telephone wires and catch in door frames. We recognize the apparently radical enactment of nonlinearity inherent in the node-link structure of all hypertext; we proclaim in various ways that revolutionary potential; and then we immediately rearticulate those potentials in terms of our conventional, normal practices. (13-14)

To avoid such normal practices, he contends "We must find a way in which to talk and think about writing as a complex activity evaluating not only writers but also readers, texts, societies, politics, economies and technologies (as well as the complicated way each of these terms is articulated)" (18).

What is to be particularly applauded is Johnson-Eilola's extension of hypertext re-articulations beyond "first year composition" to include "areas such as technical communication, interface design, library and information science, and others" (21). At the same time, I would have welcomed a treatment with more explicit and detailed examples in technical arenas like online help -- the discussion of Hypercard not withstanding -- that matched the insistence and marshalling of research and practitioners that characterizes his critique of more traditional genres. Here Nostalgic Angels cries out for a sequel -- though it is understood that technology like the Internet has been subjected to sparse theory-based criticism. Whatever the need for more, we remain enriched by what he does give us and challenged to pursue and respond.

For example, in The Future of the Book research scientist and linguist Geoffrey Nunberg cautions that"...the technology itself is changing so rapidly and unpredictably that even those who tend to think of it deterministically should have severe qualms about trying to predict what form it will wind up taking or what its cultural consequences are likely to be" (11). Johnson-Eilola's position that "technologies, as objects articulating and being articulated by ideologies, are powerful methods for constructing subjects into specific positions" is also subject to the rapid pace of technological evolution. His argument that "an instructional hypertext normally offers users a large number of possible paths through the document but the ideology of the workplace (prioritizing technological efficiency) provides for only one correct choice among the many offered: the subject hailed as worker is positioned in a mechanical way in this machine" (44) can be countered with "Maybe." Witness Microsoft's Office 97 (though a micro example, perhaps) where options spread across buttons, menus, wizards, if anything, leads to cognitive overload and a scream to "turn them off" by workers themselves who prefer one way of completing a project or a simple memo!

With full recognition that this review cannot exhaust Johnson-Eilola's compelling and provocative treatment of functional hypertext and at the risk of a compulsive approach -- I often felt like I was eating popcorn and couldn't stop -- I present the following sampling, fully aware that only a dedicated read of the book itself could ever do it justice. Here goes.

Johnson-Eilola on Functional Hypertexts

  1. "The machine seems to anticipate the user's needs, responding like a shadow to every wish and movement" (50). As a result, Johnson-Eilola argues that users are "defined, socially and politically," in a "politics of amnesia." This type of immediate response to user needs -- "whatever was needed was right there" -- he tells us is even part of the definition of "well designed" vis a vis Norman and others. In his The Design of Everyday Things, Norman takes a strong human factors approach and does advocate the necessary match between the designer's conceptual model of a product and the user's mental model of the same product. Is this amnesia?

    Although academic research, Johnson-Eilola explains, has begun to bridge composition and writing in the workplace, such research focuses on the writing and reading of memoranda more than on more constructive and creative activities like the writing and reading of online help. Functional documents like online help, he argues, have been relegated to technical, efficiency-oriented analyses that, although certainly important, in isolation may contribute to a mystification and naturalization of technology (51). Though his list of analytic exceptions is impressive, his argument suffers when he excludes major theorists like John Carroll. Carroll's The Nurnberg Funnel and subsequent work (though not without its own critics) challenges technical communicators to develop instruction that is based on user models, cognitive psychology, learning theory, and other mature disciplines. I discuss in summary some of the issues and debate surrounding minimalism in Minimalism and Documentation Downsizing.

  3. Johnson-Eilola tells us he is concerned not so much by the "transparency" of technical communication -- "I would not want to use functional documentation that made communication difficult for no apparent reason" (63) but with "the apparent prohibition on questioning the validity and overwhelming strength of simple, technical efficiency in this discourse" (63). For him, "freedom" in functional hypertext "is culturally defined...the little machine of functional hypertext operates through and is regulated by scientific management techniques and technologies constructing late capitalism, a relationship often encouraging automation as a route to increased managerial control, speed, and profit" (70). Hypertext as little machine is positioned for technical and managerial efficiency, thus making the worker "part of the machine" and all but destroying creativity. For Johnson-Eilola (following Slack et. al. 1993), "Commonly the technical communicator is not seen as author but as the encoder or translator" (78). Such contentions invite us to revisit the concept of "author" and "authoring systems" in popular and erudite multimedia packages like Macromedia Director, Authorware, and others, where author takes on connotations of originator and creator.

Johnson-Eilola on Infomation Space

As with the the "little machine" articulation for functional hypertext, Johnson-Eilola argues that information spatialization "has become so prevalent that it seems natural" (97). We think of information as residing on a CD-ROM, in a warehouse, in a table of contents, etc. Further, information space has become a commodity. The commodity metaphor is especially convincing, for not only as Johnson-Eilola points out does the word browser apply to both shopping and reading on the Internet, we can think of even more examples like the shopping cart and screen real estate. For linguists who view language as text enabling and a text as a product of its environment, Johnson-Eilola's positions are especially poignant. His argument that "we can attribute some of the objectifiction and spatialization of thought to the socially shared agreement on connections between language and world" (104) reminds us of Halliday's discussions in Text as Semantic Choice in Social Contexts. Halliday argues that "In its most general significance, a text is a sociological event, a semiotic encounter through which the meanings that constitute the social system are exchanged. The individual member is, by virtue of his membership, a 'meaner,' one who means. By his acts of meaning, and those of other individual meaners, the social reality is created and maintained in good order, and continuously shaped and modified."

Johnson-Eilola on Nostalgia

To re-articulate hypertext writing is to be an "angel in rehab" and to re-articulate hypertext is to confront nostalgia. Is hypertext "a code word for the innocence we sometimes assumed marked human experience prior to print"? (176). If so, Johnson-Eilola argues we should analyze the situation. Again, he says it best:

Nostalgia reminds us that the past is never the way we imagined it was (or would be), that the world was constructed for people walking, or riding in cars, or flying in planes rather than on their own wings. We do not just get wings and take off. We have to articulate those wings to old and new possibilities, taking into account the changes we might need to make but it is also more than likely we are just people with mechanical wings strapped to our backs. It is a metaphor, nothing more (or less). (176)

Be all this as it may, he reminds us that "we are changed" and that "new potentials do exist." Finally, and most importantly, "our use of hypertext in writing classes and elsewhere can be used to help students think about their writing and reading as social and political activities" (176). Thus it is that in his final chapter he discusses how hypertext can be used in the classroom and how it can be used to work "transformatively within current dominant articulations" (180) and that even if it can offer "angelic powers," it does promise a potential for re-articulations. As teachers we should:

  1. "Critique, transgress, and remake the borders normally separating discourses" and do so "for political perspectives" (180) and
  2. "Teach students to appropriate the technology, to construct more active and critical roles as users" (186).


For many (if not all) of us, it will take several re-reads to absorb and internalize all the pedagogical suggestions Johnson-Eilola offers, not to mention the translation of them into our classroom practices. Nonetheless, I, for one, finished Nostalgic Angels enriched as a teacher and ready to experiment with his proposals. Confronting corporate cultures as I do each day and teaching at the university level as well -- now with Nostalgic Angels "under my belt" -- I am already beginning to see with a different (possibly re-articulated?) eye, concerned that our "angels" may go from nostalgic to "fallen" if we do not at the very least address the re-articulations Johnson-Eilola gives us.

    A Postscript