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Kairos Critique: A Justification

The Harsh Facts
No matter how how perfectly a hypertext illustrates the literary theories of Bakhtin or Derrida -- regardless of the care the author put into crafting the inner documents -- most readers will scan the first page and weigh it against their desire to hit the "go back" button.
Wired put it this way: online rhetoric grows sloppier and blunter.
The Questions
What will happen to argument, to elegance, to wit, in a world of sloppy and blunt electronic texts?
What is to be lost, and what is to be gained, if we write scannable, brief, jargon-free hypertexts? 
Are we, as scholars and teachers and students and ordinary people who use hypertext, writing for ideal readers, instead of each other? Should we be?
Birkerts laments the fact that electronic literacy involves 
  • more scanning than reading,
  • more sampling than digesting, and
  • more reaction than reflection. 
Do we toss up our hands and mutter about kids today? Or do we identify and build upon the peculiar strengths of this mode of reading?
Hypertext and the Ideal Reader
Landow's Hypertext continues to influence the way humanities scholars think about the subject; but the Internet has grown and changed so rapidly that Landow's approach (founded upon antiquated or obscure hypertext architectures such as HyperCard and StorySpace) does not, even in the 1997 edition, accurately reflect mainstream significance of hypertext.

The Internet caught everyone by surprise, so we can hardly blame Landow (or anyone else).  Nevertheless, Landow investigates hypertext by conjuring an ideal reader, who

  • studies each screen of text
  • thrills at the opportunity to co-author a unique nonlinear text (i.e., by selecting this sequence of links instead of that one)
  • enjoys watching themes and texts approaching the center and receding into the margins
  • accepts responsibility for becoming disoriented, and even welcomes it at times
Are you an ideal hypertext reader?
  • When was the last time you enjoyed wandering through an unfamiliar web site?
  • When was the last time you bailed out of a site you couldn't stand? <!-- click! -->

Literary Hypertext Theories Age in Dog-years
Hypertext Exists in Time
Is There an Ideal Reader in the House?

Dennis G. Jerz
First posted Feb. 29, 2000
Last modified Mar. 21, 2000

While hypertext specialists have a right to stretch their intellectual muscles just like everyone else, they should present the results of their experiments in readable, usable web sites.  While the Fall, 1999 redesign is a step in the right direction, the over-designed Kairos web site still perpetuates the myth that online rhetoric is a complex and arcane pursuit, best left either to brilliant but soulless code-crunchers, or to gnostic theorists who have discovered a medium that affirms their pre-existing ideas about textuality.

When viewed through the eyes of a busy student, frequently at 4am, just hours before an assignment is due -- or a busy assistant professor at a teaching university, trying to grab a few hours of research in between grading stacks of paper -- high-concept web sites that expect the reader to learn how to use them do a disservice to a wide readership.  Sites take on the appearance of an impenetrable labyrinth when they force users to think too hard about navigating.  If information wants to be free, then perhaps in the age of information overload, natural selection favors selective readers who bail out of web sites at the first sign of trouble.

George Landow published Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology in 1991, shortly before Tim Berners-Lee invented hypertext transfer protocol (the ubiquitous "http").  Once the World Wide Web suddenly "happened," Landow's book  (or references to it in other sources) was the avenue by which most humanities academics encountered hypertext.

Before anyone fully understood the impact that the Internet was shortly to have, Landow's 1991 edition praised hypertext for its de-centering ability, for its disruption of the traditional relationship between author and reader.

Sulu:  Captain!  Sensors are detecting a pocket of irony, dead ahead!
Spock: Confirmed.  Crude, but recognizable.
Kirk:  Shields up!
This glorification of hypertext struck chords in the hearts of other literary critics, precisely at a time when the job market for newly-minted English Ph.D.s crashed through the floor.  In those dark times, hypertext seemed made-to-order for the purpose of embodying, enacting, or otherwise realizing the trendiest and most publishable of literary ideas. Discovery of connections, ambling down trails, clicking out of curiosity -- these are the features that make hypertext exciting, eye-opening, and empowering. No longer need the reader be trapped by an author's linear tyranny.

Trendy post-structural and semiotic literary theorists had already been thinking of "texts" in terms of "links" "networks" "webs" and "paths". Barthes described the ideal text in terms of chunks or "lexias" that were connected by a pattern of links; "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" (S/Z, 1970, tr. 1974).

Robert Coover, one of the first literary critics to write about hypertext fiction, rhapsodized about empowering the reader: hypertext deconstructs the act of authorship, putting more power in the hands (or the mouse) of the reader. By choosing which path to follow, the reader shares in the authorship of a particular linear progression of lexias, and the narrative is released by "the allure of the blank spaces of these fabulous networks, these green-limned gardens of multiply forking paths... and turn the story loose in a space where whatever is possible is necessary" (qtd. in Landow 185).

It is precisely the ephemeral, fluid nature of electronic text that disturbs book-lovers like Sven Birkerts: "Writing [on computers, as opposed to paper] tends to be seen not so much as an objective realization as an expressive instance. A version. Looking from the larger historical vantage, it almost appears as if we are returning to the verbal orientation that preceded the triumph of print" (The Gutenberg Elegies 160).  Picking up the torch, as it were, Landow cites Socrates, who found the written word to be an "anonymous, impersonal denaturing of living speech" (27), and John Henry Cardinal Newman, who feared that mass-produced books would inflict cookie-cutter intellects upon the vast majority of the population (denied the benefit of  an Oxford education).  A recent article in Wired put it another way: online rhetoric grows ever sloppier and blunter.  Landow notes that the book itself is a machine; if society moves away from books and towards something else, we are merely replacing older (more familiar) technology with newer (less familiar) technology.

Just as the first automobiles were, literally, horseless carriages (after the model of the Victorian stage coach, the driver was isolated outside the passenger compartment), many of the first humanities hypertexts documents were mostly paragraphs of ordinary academic prose, livened up by some inline graphics and a textual hotspots.  Throughout his book, Landow relies (perhaps subconsciously) upon this image of hypertext.  That line of thinking provided a launching point for quite a few MFA creative writing projects from English grad students trained by the academy to think of hypertext in Landow's terms.  In this context, post-modern, post-structuralist authors proceeded to produce heavily literary hypertexts, in which later analysts would find support for additional hypertext readings of the same figures (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and now Landow) who had given rise to the literary hypertexts in the first place.

Case in point: Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl, a $19.99 computer diskette, dating from before the days of the World Wide Web.  The content embodied in Patchwork Girl is as valid as ever, but the text is wedded to a pre-jurassic interface that looks silly when compared to web browsers.  The unfamiliar, clunky interface overpowers the text. Further, even the Windows version forces me to think like a Mac user.

Despite the calm e-mailed reassurances of the publisher, I couldn't get Patchwork Girl to run on WindowsNT, which runs on all the computer labs at my school.  I found myself resenting the chunky Windows 3.1 interface that the diskette required me to use (on a Windows 98 machine, borrowed specifically to test drive Patchwork Girl). (For a much more sympathetic view of Jackson, see Robert Coover's "The Passing of the Golden Age" -- an elegy to the heady days of pioneering hypertext literary criticism.)

Hypertext exists in time, perhaps more so than any other medium.  A hypertext may change internally, if its author keeps working on its components; but even if it stands still, it changes externally, as the texts to which it links grow and change (or as the technologies which underlie the medium develop or atrophy).  If scholars don't take advantage of precisely this fluid, conversational nature of electronic text (and the corresponding opportunity for finely-tuned interaction between hypertext author and hypertext reader) we are better off using traditional methods of communication.

Should we be writing for ideal readers, or for each other?

"One should feel threatened by hypertext," according to Landow, "just as writers of romances and epics should have felt threatened by the novel... Descendants, after all, offer continuity with the past but only at the cost of replacing it" (182).  He posits that hypertext is intrinsically feminist (206), in its tendency to de-center the dominant, to subvert the abstract and linear, to personalize the margins.

The allure of the empty spaces which so captivated the pioneering hypertext author are not nearly as attractive to the average hypertext user. I realize that it is the prerogative of theory to posit an ideal text (as perceived by an ideal user). But our texts are not ideal.  We are not ideal readers, and we do not teach in ideal conditions.  Our students do not have unlimited time to wander through endlessly forking paths; neither can we tend those endless paths with endless care.

See: Old Kairos: Intrusive design smothers content

Works Cited
Dennis G. Jerz

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