Surely Teaching Hypertext in the Composition Classroom Qualifies as a Feminist Pedagogy?

- Carlton Clark, Texas Woman's University

My purpose with this paper is to place hypertext theory in a productive engagement with feminist epistemology and feminist pedagogy. The major hypertext theorists (e.g., George Landow, Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce) have focused, for the most part, on the relationship between hypertext and print. I wish to depart from this practice by examining the relationship between hypertext and people – specifically, people who read and write literary hypertext. In other words, my aim is not to compare and contrast two different technologies or literacies, but to examine human interactions with hypertext. In a sense, then, this paper is an exploration of the cyborg.
          Hypertext, for the purposes of this paper, will be defined very simply as text that is structured as a nonhierarchical network of nodes and links. Jay David Bolter, drawing on the terminology of classical rhetoric, describes hypertext as "topographic" (36); that is to say, hypertext consists of textual topics (literally, places), also called lexias or simply "chunks" of text, that are spatially dispersed yet linked together in a dynamic network. Hypertext, furthermore, should not be considered in opposition to print. As a number of theorists (e.g., Joyce, Espen Aarseth, N. Katherine Hayles) have demonstrated, print texts can be quite hypertextual, whereas a document published on the World Wide Web may not necessarily be hypertextual. Thus, to avoid the false print/hypertext dichotomy, I will speak of hypertext vis-a-vis conventional text, not hypertext versus print. A final point regarding terminology is that the words "reader" and "writer" do not transfer smoothly from traditionally literacy and literature to the new medium of hypertext. Following Pamela Gilbert and others, I will use the neologism wreader to represent the blurring of boundaries between the acts of reading and writing discussed by Landow (4).
          The second field of inquiry that I wish to discuss, feminist epistemology, is relevant because I treat hypertext as a way of knowing, or epistemology; moreover, the epistemology of hypertext overlaps in significant ways with feminist epistemology. An epistemology, or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, developed in a hypertextual environment would be expected to differ in significant ways from an epistemology constructed by readers and writers of conventional text. Reading and writing conventional text and wreading hypertext are two quite distinct ways of knowing. For instance, conventional text relies heavily on linear, syllogistic logic, while hypertext logic is associational. An epistemology that reflected hypertext experience would embrace paradox, open-endedness, tangential thinking, and other qualities that are suppressed in conventional text.
          According to Lorraine Code, "Mainstream Anglo-American epistemology [has] defined itself around a conviction that its principle task [is] to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions for objective, uniformly valid 'knowledge in general'" (173). Feminist epistemologists differ from the mainstream in arguing that knowledge is contingent, tentative, and partial. There is no neutral, universal, objective, or apolitical epistemic location or standpoint. Knowledge is also validated within epistemic communities, as opposed to resting solely on evidence observed by an individual knower.
          Mainstream Anglo-American epistemology, as Code explains, is founded on a paradigm of knowing medium-sized objects, or objects visible to the naked eye and manipulable by human beings. The most famous medium-sized object in the history of science is Newton's apple. But when knowledge of medium-sized objects is taken as paradigmatic or exemplary, a firm subject-object, or dualistic, epistemology results. In contrast, feminist epistemologists such as Code advocate knowing other people as a more appropriate epistemic paradigm. After all, human infants come to know other people (especially their primary caregivers) long before they gain knowledge of or are able to manipulate medium-sized objects.
          A familiarity with the tenets of feminist epistemology leads one to suspect that conventional texts have traditionally been treated very much like other medium-sized objects (e.g., apples, chairs, household appliances) that can be known in an objective way – known, that is, in the same way by different knowers. But knowing a hypertext is more like knowing another person, or at least another changing, living being of some sort. Like a person, every hypertext shifts and resists final predication; the text cannot be "nailed down." Software, such as Eastgate System's Storyspace, that allows the wreader to add and delete links and change the text further enhances the sense of hypertext as a living being.
          The reader of a conventional text knows how many pages are in the book or article; she knows when she has read every word on every page and there is nothing more, on the surface anyway, to see. Of course, some allusions are inevitably missed and texts are misinterpreted or misread to various degrees, but the reader can be sure that she has read the complete text – and read it in the sequence intended by the author. The reader of a hypertext, by contrast, never knows if she has read the entire text – unless she knows beforehand how many lexias there are and then goes to the trouble of keeping a running tabulation as she reads. As N. Katherine Hayles says, "Print is flat, code is deep" (9). That is to say, the entire print text is visible on the surface, while with hypertext the code is buried at various depths.
          Hypertext typically involves a great deal of rereading of lexias and sequences of lexias, and the end of the narrative comes when the reader decides she has read enough. In a similar way, we usually do not know how long we will know a particular person when we initially meet her, but the more time we spend with this person, observing recurrent patterns of behavior and attitude, the better we come to understand her. A living person, in other words, is a kind of shifting, sliding text. Gaps in one's personality or character are also revealed throughout one's life. In speaking of hypertext as a living being, I am explicitly rejecting the conventional spatial metaphor of hypertext as landscape, which Gilbert has associated with a masculinist, colonial narrative (258). Hypertext, with its mutable, dynamic, unstable nature, cannot be known effectively as an object or a mapped landscape.
          In principle, there is no reason that a conventional text might not also be treated as a living being, as its meanings or interpretations change with its reception over time and across cultures. With electronic hypertext, however, the shifting, changing character of the text is more obvious or tangible. The transformations are visible on the surface of the text, not just at a deep level of reader-response. It is not just a question of hermeneutics, in other words.
           Donna Haraway argues that the mainstream, objectivist ideal of the neutral observer or investigator is founded on "the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere" (189). The relevance of this statement for hypertext theory is that in hypertext, rather than reading and writing from nowhere or seeking a neutral perspective outside the text, the wreader is located within a shifting network of texts. Wreading hypertext is very personal. Because choices, such as which tangent to follow, must be made to instantiate the text, the self is deeply implicated in the hypertext wreading process. Adopting a metaphor used by Michael Joyce, we might say that the wreader is located within a "hypertext contour."
          Adopting a metaphor used by Michael Joyce, we might say that the wreader is located within a "hypertext contour." For Joyce, the hypertext contour is "the readers' [. . .] sense of changing change across the surface of a text" (166). Joyce writes, "Contour [. . .] is one expression of the perceptible form of a constantly changing text, made by any of its readers or writers at a given point in its reading or writing. [. . .] Contours are represented by the current reader or writer as narrative" (22). If the contour, then, is a metaphor for changing changing, it seems that time, the fourth dimension, must play an important role. Thus, it is not just another spatial, topographic landscape metaphor, which are quite common in discussions of hypertext, but a temporal-spatial metaphor; it recalls the Einsteinian curvature of space-time. And living beings, of course, are immersed in both space and time.
          As I make the connection between hypertext and feminist epistemology, Joyce's contour metaphor suggests to me a turning back toward the self, which implies a union of subject and object as the self becomes an object of the subject. On a flat surface, the subject is free to look out at the objective world, to objectify the Other from a safe distance; the observer does not feel compelled to turn back to the self. But a feminist epistemology obligates the subject to pay very close attention to her own epistemic location and the material conditions of her lived experience, beginning with her body. Concrete, embodied self-knowledge is thus a central concern of feminist epistemology. A knowledge that takes the subject or knower into account cannot remain abstract or decontextualized; it must continually turn back to examine the material conditions and social relations of the knower, bringing knower and known together. And the hypertextual contour, if we visualize it always curving back in the direction of the wreader, may serve as a productive metaphor for this epistemology.
          With respect to the epistemology of hypertext, the ideological implications of syntax must also be considered. In this context, three rhetorical terms are useful in articulating the subversive potential of a feminist hypertext theory: taxis, parataxis and hypotaxis. Richard Lanham, in A Handlist of Rhetoric Terms, gives the literal meaning of the Greek term taxis as "arrangement, order" (150). Another source defines taxis as "To divide a subject into its various components or attributes" (Burton). Taxis, then, is roughly equivalent to the Ciceronian canon of arrangement. Parataxis ("placing side by side") is defined as "clauses or phrases arranged independently (a coordinate, rather than a subordinate, construction)" (Lanham 108). Hypotaxis ("subjection") is defined as "an arrangement of clauses or phrases in a dependent or subordinate relationship (Lanham 87).
          For feminists and other critics of hierarchical social formations and discourse structures, the phrase "dependent or subordinate relationship" in Lanham's definition of hypotaxis has significance far beyond the realm of syntax. The syntactic patterns of elite literary discourse reflect concrete social and political inequities. The syntax of elite literature was not created in a social vacuum; it is gendered, classed, raced, and so on. If we accept without question dependent or subordinate relationships in syntax, we may also accept similar relationships among people. Although changing a language, as in promoting non-sexist language, does not necessarily produce change in the "grammar" a society, it may be a step in the right direction. As Barbara Page argues, the literary hypertexts so far composed by women indicate that "resistance is possible at least at the level of syntax and structure" (14). If it is true, as Landow claims, that hypertext is "intrinsically anti-hierarchical" (227), then the paratactic structure of hypertext may contribute to the destabilization of gendered hierarchies.
          Keeping in mind that we are dealing with metaphors and not endorsing biological essentialism, we might think of the side-by-side, parallel quality of parataxis in conjunction with Luce Irigaray's statement, in her essay "This Sex Which is Not One," that "Woman 'touches herself' all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus within herself, she is already two – but not divisible into one(s) – that caress each other" (1467). The decentered hypertext, then, is analogous to decentered eroticism. Parataxis lends itself to multiplicity and dispersal, rather than the phallic singularity of one truth, one God and one way to read a text.
          Another concept, which is closely related to parataxis, is recurrence. As Joyce, Landow, Laura Sullivan, and many others have observed, hypertext involves recurrence or redundancy as the wreader returns, or literally turns back, to a lexia and then sets out in a new direction. The wreader of a hypertext revisits or retouches already-read lexias, but in different contexts the lexias are read differently. In an interesting parallel, Irigaray writes, "In her statements – at least when she dares to speak out – woman retouches herself constantly. She barely separates from herself some chatter, an exclamation, a half-secret, a sentence left in suspense – When she returns to it, it is only to set out again from another point of pleasure or pain" (1470). In these words, as well as in Irigaray's prose style, there is sense of "touching on" an idea or topic, going off in another direction, and then returning to the previous idea (or place/topic). Through this process, unilinear (phallic) progression is subverted, and a shifting, sliding network of signifiers is constructed. Of course, this is exactly what occurs with hypertext: the wreader touches on one node, leaves to pursue a link, and often returns to the where she started, only to depart again on another tangent. Hypertext wreading paths are, if anything, highly tangential; finding the shortest distance between two points is not the goal.
          Another way of describing this is to say that hypertext works by altering the print-based principle of contiguity. In conventional text, contiguity simply manifests as the proximate, adjacent structure of words on a page. Segments of text can also be noncontiguous, as in a footnote, endnote, or index, and readers can obviously skip around or reread sections of text as often as they feel the need to do so. Yet there is still a spatial separation. In hypertext, by contrast, lexias become contiguous through linking, and this causes the print-based sense of spatial separation or noncontiguity to break down. In hypertext almost any lexia can be read as contiguous. In fact, there need be no distance or noncontiguity at all between lexias – no objective distantiation. Irigaray discusses contiguity as well. Describing a woman speaking, Irigaray writes:
For when 'she' says something, it is already no longer identical to what she means. Moreover, her statements are never identical to anything. Their distinguishing feature is one of contiguity. They touch (upon). And when they wander too far from this nearness, she stops and begins again from 'zero': her body-sex organ. (1470)
Hypertextual recurrence or repetition also preserves the sense of a coherent, readable, if not unified, text. Sullivan recognizes the role of repetition, as she observes that "Some feminists theorists point out that dualistic thinking promotes a decontextualized method of knowledge-making. [. . . They] value contextualization and recognize that different contexts provide different perspectives on the same information. One way this contextualization is accomplished in hypertext is through repetition" (34).
          In other words, repetition allows us to experience the same "reality" in different contexts or from different epistemic locations, allowing us to see or experience something familiar as if for the first time. This is a what Sullivan calls a "multiperspectival approach" (34). Sullivan goes on to argue that the "multivocality and fragmentation made possible by hypertext [. . .] enable the hypertext creator to foreground the different parts of her self and to document the contradictions within which females in our culture live" (37). Richard E. Miller, in the following quote, also emphasizes the importance of not glossing over contradictions: "When students are presented with the idea that successful mastery of the writing process produces a smooth voyage to clarity, they come to understand that anything that stands in the way of clarity must be expunged: ambiguity, obscure references, contradictions, paradoxes, tangential thoughts – the fundamental material [. . .] of lived experience and of one's mental life" (23).
          This statement suggests a feminist rationale for teaching hypertext in first-year composition. The gaps and fissures that are suppressed in the "seamless" conventional text are pried wide open in hypertext, which may encourage the student-writer to take a closer look at how texts are constructed. Following tangents (or even creating new tangents), embracing paradox and ambiguity, resisting the impulse for closure, adopting multiple perspectives – in short, not writing a classical, unified text – is what advocating a pedagogy informed by hypertext comes down to. Once we have been exposed to hypertext, conventional literacy no longer "goes without saying"; the neutrality, invisibility, and taken-for-grantedness of conventional writing are called into question. As Landow writes, "even a brief experience of reading and writing in a hypertext environment denaturalizes and demystifies the culture of the printed book" (307). Hypertext functions as an Other or foil, defamiliarizing conventional text, and a number of feminist writers and theorists have found hypertext intriguing for this reason. For example, Mary-Jo Haronian, in 1996 article on feminist experimental fiction, spoke of women who "write beyond the old endings to delegitimate the romance plot's usual conclusions, and to envision new paths for lives as well as for stories" (32). She goes on to argue:
If the story is to continue to serve as a metaphor for the agency and power we seek, we will need to envision stories without endings, because when the current definition of story is used to represent agency, every story's end marks the end not only of the tale, but also of the teller. [. . .] I can imagine a future novel – possible now – of simultaneous and interwoven sub-plots, following no set order and allowing for infinite stories with infinite uses: something like a rich Victorian novel in Hypertext software. (32).
What Haronian envisioned existed even before 1996 in the form of hypertext novels such as Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling (1992) and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995), as well as many shorter works, including J. Yellowlees Douglas's "I Have Said Nothing" (1994) and Mary-Kim Arnold's "Lust" (1994). Unfortunately, the theoretical and critical works, both pro and contra, published about electronic literature and hypertext appear to vastly outnumber actual literary hypertexts.
          I should note that there are several problematic issues to consider before drawing any firm conclusions on whether teaching hypertext in the composition classroom meets the criteria of a feminist pedagogy. Certainly no technology, in and of itself, can purposefully advance any pedagogical agenda. To suggest otherwise would be to endorse technological determinism. What I have in mind is using hypertext in the service of a feminist pedagogy. In this context, one interesting question is, Does reading and writing (or wreading) hypertext work against collaboration or community-building?
          Rhetoric operates, according to Kenneth Burke, by inducing cooperation (43). Successful rhetoric, or the successful rhetorical text, forges a sense of social identity, solidarity, or common cause. Throughout its history (or herstory), feminism has been furthered by powerful texts (e.g., Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Helene Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa," and many, many more). But can a literary hypertext such as Patchwork Girl or Quibbling do the same? If each wreader is alone in her own contour, wreading her own hypertext, how can feminist social action, or praxis, be carried out? How can "the text" be discussed – and how can it function rhetorically or politically – if there is no text but only readings? Or stated another way, does hypertext contribute to social and/or epistemic isolation?
          I stated above that I was interested in using hypertext in the service of a feminist pedagogy; however, I must acknowledge that hypertext may change feminist pedagogy even as it is ostensibly "used" in the service of a feminist pedagogy. Engaging with a technology is never a one-way street. Technologies change the way we do things and the way we think. If we are always already cyborgs, we cannot remain apart from our tools, as an objectivist might wish; our tools get inside us and change us as we use them. To acknowledge this fact is not to fall into technological determinism, however, because technologies do not act purposefully. A technology such as hypertext does produce effects, but not through any intention of its own. The effects, then, are unpredictable.
          At this point I can only hint at the problematics of hypertext. To pursue these questions in any depth would require a separate paper. For now, though, I think I can tentatively say, based on what I have discussed above, that teaching hypertext does have the potential to further the goals of a feminist pedagogy. The intersections of hypertext theory, feminist epistemology, and feminist pedagogy are, I believe, too compelling to ignore.

Works Cited

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Burton, Gideon O. "Silva Rhetoricae." Brigham Young University. 30 May 2001.

Code, Lorraine. "Epistemology." A Companion to Feminist Epistemology. Eds. Alison M. Jaggar & Iris Marion Young. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 173-84.

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Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism for the 1980s." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Ed. Donna Haraway. NY: Routledge, 1991.

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Hayles, N. Katherine. "Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media Specific Analysis." Forthcoming (2001).

Irigaray, Luce. "This Sex Which is Not One." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1467-71.

Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Miller, Richard E. "What Does It Mean to Learn?: William Bennett, the Educational Testing Service, and a Praxis of the Sublime." The Kinneavy Papers: Theory and the Study of Discourse. Eds. Lynn Worsham, Sydney I. Dobrin, and Gary A. Olson. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000. 255-75.

Page, Barbara. "Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing, and Hypertext." Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism 6. 2 (1996 Jan).

Sullivan, Laura L. "Wired Women Writing: Toward a Feminist Theorization of Hypertext." Computers and Composition 16.2 (1999): 25-54.