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Hypertext and Queer Theory

Jonathan Alexander, PhD
University of Southern Colorado
Conference on College Composition and Communication
Phoenix, Arizona
March 12-15, 1997

My understanding of hypertext recently got a jolt from a situation which developed far from my computer screen. Outside my office door, which is located in a busy and heavily travelled hallway, I posted a sign with the contradictory slogans "Everyone is Bisexual" and "There is no such thing as bisexuality." I knew this was a provocative act, but it's one that's completely in character since I think of the teacher as the agent provocateur. I was right. Barely a week passed by before a host of messages appeared around the poster, spilling over onto adjacent signs. The messages ranged from Biblical critique to open hostility (e.g. "Screw you") to support for the poster's thought-provoking message. After awhile, it was difficult to determine which message came first, second, third, etc.--all of them seemed to be linked to one another in a curious multi-layered, literally three dimensional intertextuality.

It occurred to me later that the students we're creating a polyvocal "hypertext" around my door--a paper "intertext" consisting gay, straight, bi, student, teacher, perhaps even staff readers and writers. A complex discussion was developing as various participants "riffed" off of one idea or statement and gave it a new twist in a text which acted in turn as an open invitation for yet someone else to come along and riff yet further. The daunting beauty of it all was that no consensus was created; each additional layer emphasized the multi-dimensionality of the subject, suggesting its associational connections and complications with other "subjects" such as religion, politics, and especially pedagogy.

It is just this hypertext quality, the randomized and multi-dimensional texts that are linked, that I find provocative and satisfying as a teacher and queer theorist. As a compositionist, I resist my students' often crude understanding of the world as a series of simple binarisms (something is right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral) and push them to understand the ways in which reading and writing, by their very associational, metaphoric, and metonymic natures, encourage us to think of the complex and multi-faceted connections which comprise experience. We all use language, but our many varied and even contradictory uses of it complicates the ways in which language represents and creates reality. By the same token, as a queer theorist, I resist my students' desire to categorize humans into gay and straight--another crude binarism which runs rough shod over the complexities of experiences, feelings, and human possibilities. We all have bodies, but how we use them and how they use us makes the division of humanity into two species both simple and simple minded; our students deserve a chance to develop more sophisticated understandings of the increasingly complex and multi-dimensional world of sexuality. Thinking back to the hypertext metaphor I used to describe the messages collecting outside my door, it began to occur to me that virtual hypertext is a powerful medium to connect my ideas as a compositionist and a queer theorist--and, in light of the bridge between the two, a powerful pedagogical tool as well.

Let me explain. Just like the "hypertext" collecting outside my office door, virtual hypertexts allow students access to exploring the multi-dimensionality of each and any human existence or experience. I often start with myself and my own web page(s) as an example []. Students can access information about me and my interests which range from computers to Christianity [], to (no surprise) homosexuality []. In a curious way, the hypertext gives me more dimensionality than my actual human presence (at least most of the time). For instance, most students know that I am openly "gay," and, considering the number of stereotypes revolving around gay people, they make many immediate assumptions about my beliefs--politically (I'm a radical liberal), spiritually (I'm an atheist), and otherwise. This is where the hypertext becomes so useful, because it allows students to "experience" me at many different levels; they can see, for instance, that an interest in homosexuality does not preclude an interest in religion--a realization which is often eclipsed because students are so fixated on my being gay that they tend to discount any other possible interest, as though being gay were the all-consuming feature of my existence. In this regard, the hypertext links serve a profoundly educational purpose.

Indeed, it is the static nature of "identity" which hypertext most wonderfully challenges. As a compositionist, I have used hypertext and web pages to allow students to rethink their identity as "writers." Most of our students, particularly our English 102 (Argument and Rhetoric) students are "scared to death" about dealing with complex social issues, and they question their ability to write about them successfully. Knowing this, I have used hypertext to explode my students' conceptions of themselves as writers by creating a Web page for my 102 class and "publishing their essays" on the Web; the ease of "publication" yields a phenomenal return as students see their work "go public" and begin to think of themselves as "real" writers--even though their texts are virtual! Further, student access to these pages allows other students to reconfigure their conceptions of what goes on in English 102 classes (one of the most dreaded general education requirements at our school); students see that the work in such classes might actually be exciting and allow them to explore many possibilities of research and social engagement.

More specifically, in terms of reconfiguring students' perceptions of the writing process, hypertext serves another key function. We already know that the computer can encourage our students to think of writing in terms of process (Faigley), but hypertext has the potential to radically expand the process since it "supports multiple (sometimes contradictory) readings, [and] intertextuality" (Johnson-Eilola, 102). Johndan Johnson-Eilola has written eloquently on this subject, stating that "In hypertext...the visible artifact of the text--no longer printed or authorial, but open and polylogical--comes to represent the deconstructing text" (115). As with other electronic media, such as Daedalus Interchange, students are allowed to "gloss" texts and understand how many ideas, reactions, and views can cluster around a single subject, so much so that that subject is de-unified into a complex site where many voices can come together to agree, disagree, challenge, and provoke. The necessity of such pedagogy should be obvious in an increasingly multicultural and diverse world in which we want our students to have appropriately sophisticated understandings of human experiences. Further, traditionally marginalized students are allowed the opportunity to have a voice in ways which were not previously available. I have seen this work on numerous occasions, particularly with gay students who have often been hesitant to "identify" (i.e. target) themselves in class but who nonetheless want to contribute their awareness of how issues of sexual orientation can powerfully influence, affect, contribute to, and shape individual senses of identity and self-representation (Malinowitz, chp. 1; Alexander, in press). For instance, in a Web page with hypertext glosses on Walt Whitman's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," a gay student can contribute his own link (with additional links) to explore the homoerotic overtones of the poem--which can also have Civil War links and biographical links, all of which build an increasingly complex understanding of this poem and allow for an understanding of homosexuality can impact and be impacted by politics and personal history.

It is in this way that hypertext and queer theory join together in some interesting ways--and not just because gays and lesbians are allowed "voice" in the building of "queer" links. Again, let me explain via a queer metaphor. "Queer" and "bent" are two words which have been used pejoratively to label and describe homosexuals. Their contemporary reappropriation, in addition to being a declaration of our right to self-define against the norm, is also highly suggestive of the new attitude among homosexual activists; specifically, we view our mission as a "querying" of the norm (of heteronormativity in particular) and a "bending" of "normalized" consciousness into not just a tolerance of homosexuals but a reconsideration of how ALL sexual orientations are delimitations and reductions of the innumerable possibilities offered by the body. Queer theorist Simon Watney defines the queer critique as those "who are contesting the overall validity and authenticity of the epistemology of sexuality itself" (in Morton, 280). In this light, homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality are all re-understood as social labels and limiting possibilities--not fixed ontologies. Ultimately, queer "articulates a radical questioning of social and cultural norms" and aims at clearing the ground for the establishment of a "radical pluralism" (in Morton, 280, 284). Put simply, queer theory wants to explode thought about sexuality out of its binary thinking (straight vs. gay) and asks all to consider the ways in which our sexualities are complex stories told by many different voices in many different ways. "Straight" and "Gay" are too simple in a world in which more and more people are imagining and living themselves out of such simple categories. Bisexuality, the deconstructor of the gay/straight binary opposition, is only the tip of this iceberg (Garber, chp. 1).

When we bring these ideas back to bear on computer technology, we see that hypertext and queer theory go theoretically hand in hand. Johnson-Eilola allows us an entry point for comparison; in talking about "modern composition pedagogy" and the uses of hypertext, he makes a link with social construction theory, stating that such theories, like hypertext, "attempt to overturn the idea of text as an authoritative monologue developed by a single, completely isolated writer" (111). Michael Joyce, quoting Donna Haraway, puts it this way: "[C]hange is the only true destination, the only reliable occupation in a world that, as Haraway says, make[s] problematic the statuses of man or women, human, artifact, member of trace, individual identity, or body'" (2). Queer theory does the same with heteronormativity, the single story our culture has been telling itself to privilege heterosexuality and demonize homosexuality. So, both hypertext and queer theory are about breaking out of simple, often binary, hierarchial, and linear forms of thought and, instead, engaging more sophisticated, polyvocal ways of understanding, or at least representing, human experience, sexual and otherwise.

The theory is in place. The praxis is provocative (e.g. students glossing a Whitman poem with hypertext links) and will become even more so--just witness the phenomenal amount of material on the Web about les-bi-gay issues. The increasing density of such discussion, linked and re-linked and linked yet again to many other sites on heterosexuality, marriage, friendship, relationships, politics, social issues, etc., only serves to draw our students' and our own attention to the ways in which no single simple story can be told about our lives. This sophistication is the queerest asset that hypertext can bring to our classrooms. It may also be that which allows us the most sophisticated--and human--understanding of ourselves and others.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan. "Out of the Closet and Into the Network: Sexual Orientation and the Computerized Classroom." Computers and Composition (in press).

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Erotics of Everyday Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Halperin, David M. Saint-Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. "Structure & Text: Writing Space & STORYSPACE." Computers and Composition 9.2 (1992): 95-129.

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

Malinowitz, Harriet. Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discourse Communities. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995

Morton, Donald, ed. The Material Queer: A LesBiGay Studies Reader. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.