Hypertextual reading: What's the difference?

David S. Miall

Department of English, University of Alberta

Paper presented at the VIth Biannual IGEL Conference, Utrecht, August 26-29, 1998

© 1998 David S. Miall


A increasing chorus of voices in the last few years has been telling us that the book is dead, and that hypertext and hypermedia will bring about fundamental changes in reading and writing. Also in prospect are radical changes in learning: the introduction of the computer will force teachers to rethink their practices, while students will be empowered to learn in new ways. Although this perspective is now common, it may also be misleading. The issue should perhaps be framed differently: given what we know about reading and writing, and the psychological processes that support them, how effectively does hypertext electronically embody those processes? To what extent does hypertext change these processes, or promote some component process to a more prominent role? Put this way, the issue moves away from the implications of facilitating a technological development that has come to seem inevitable, however desirable that development may turn out to be. Instead the question is how well do we currently understand those underlying processes. Until we have some convincing answers to this question the impact of hypertext on reading or writing must be unpredictable: we cannot be sure whether we are supercharging the process or throwing a monkey-wrench into it. In this discussion I will focus on three specific aspects of the problem: (1) an assessment of the commitment to the topographical nature of the medium emphasised by most hypertext proponents (Bolter, Moulthrop, etc.); (2) the rhetoric of empowerment in the light of current hypertext design, particularly hypertext fiction; and (3) discontinuities between hypertext models of reading and much previous understanding of reading.


1. Reading and hypertext

Over the last ten years we have frequently heard the claim that hypertext offers a challenge to existing practices of reading. In particular, hypertext has been used to polarize differences between two kinds of reading: a constrained, linear form determined by the nature of print text, and a decentered, participatory form supposed to be liberated by hypertext. The repressive effect of the book is based on its tangible appearance: as a recent commentator explains, "the physical, stable presence of the text works to deny the intangible, psychological text the reader attempts to construct" (Johnson-Eilola, 1997, p. 145). As a result, "books are machines for transmitting authority and disseminations of cultural capital" (p. 136). In contrast, the standard vision of hypertext is that it "obviously creates empowered readers, ones who have more power relative both to the texts they read and to the authors of these texts." Hypertext increases individual freedom, because "users are entirely free to follow links wherever they please" (Landow, 1992, p. 169).

In other words, the book is dead or dying; hypertext and hypermedia are ensuring fundamental changes in reading and writing. Similarly, radical changes are in prospect for learning: the introduction of the computer will force teachers to rethink their practices, while students will be empowered to learn in new ways. Although this is an attractive and in certain respects appropriate picture, I will argue in this paper that in other ways it is also misleading. The embrace of hypertext is possible only for those who have paid little attention to the nature of reading. So the issue should perhaps be framed differently: given what we know about reading and writing, and the psychological processes that support them, how effectively does hypertext facilitate or extend those processes? To what extent does hypertext change the nature of reading, or promote some component process to a more prominent role?

Such questions, however, are not legitimate in the view of hypertext theorists such as Landow. For them, the textual medium determines the nature of response. Not only is the concrete form of the book supposed to drive how we read it; so too the features of hypertext are said to drive its function. To understand hypertext fiction, says Landow, "involves deducing its qualities from the defining characteristics of hypertext" (Landow, p. 103). Similarly, Stuart Moulthrop (1993) points to what he calls the hypotext, the underlying structures and specifications of a hypertext: this part, he says, is "arguably the most important" (p. 86). The structural differences said to exist between book and hypertext lead to a more general claim: a hierarchical model of text deriving from the prestructured nature of the book is opposed to the so-called topographical model found in hypertext. Since hypertext is non-linear, says Bolter (1992), "In place of hierarchy, we have a writing that is not only topical: we might also call it 'topographic.' . . . Electronic writing is both a visual and verbal description. It is not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realized topics" (p. 25). In this view, compared with the book, hypertext more naturally embraces graphic representations, such as a tree or network diagram, or an image map, and can make them available to interactive linking just like a passage of text. Thus hypertext advocates are drawn to promote the visual over the verbal or abstract order of the book.

The question, then, is how these claims fare in the light of what we know about reading. I will first assess the claim that hypertext is a topographical medium; then consider the rhetoric of empowerment in the light of current hypertext design, particularly hypertext fiction. The course of the discussion will largely be critical: I will draw attention to discontinuities between hypertext models of reading and much previous understanding of reading. At the same time, my discussion should not be construed as a blanket dismissal of hypertext as a tool for reading and learning; my aim, rather, is to show that some current claims about hypertext are misleading. What hypertext is good for is another issue, one that I cannot address in this paper.

The emphasis on topography in hypertext, or, in Bolter's words, a writing with spaces, really consists of two separate claims: first, it proposes the equivalence of visual and textual information as screen images; second, it requires the connection of separate images within a linked structure available to the reader. The first of these claims is the less familiar one, and I now examine it critically, particularly in the writing of Richard Lanham.


2. Thinking with images

Imagery, or the iconic, forms a constant thread in Lanham's presentation, as it does in the writing of several other authors such as Jay David Bolter (1992) or John Tolva (1998). Lanham suggests that electronic writing changes the balance between alphabet and icon. Whereas in print culture the icon was suppressed, computer-based writing allows us to restore it to the position it held in pre-print texts, such as illuminated manuscripts (or in the work of writers such as Blake or William Morris, who are rare counter-examples from the age of print). Historically, Lanham notes:

When the rich vocal and gestural language of oral rhetoric was constricted into writing and then print, the effort to preserve it was concentrated into something classical rhetoricians called ecphrasis, dynamic speaking-pictures in words. Through the infinite resources of digital image recall and manipulation, ecphrasis is once again coming into its own, and the pictures and sounds suppressed into verbal rhetorical figures are now reassuming their native places in the human sensorium. (p. 34)

Thus, says Lanham, "The graphical and typographical tricks to which the electronic surface lends itself make us self-conscious again about our own apparatus of vision." Print has impoverished our understanding, inviting us to look through it to the conceptual universe it addresses, but electronic text with its visual tricks "makes us self-conscious about the bag of neural tricks that create our own vision . . . The perceptual field of the 'reader' becomes considerably richer and more complex in electronic display" (p. 73).

This shift towards the visual is also part of a larger argument that Lanham wishes to make about the cultural forms of the future. Based on his conception of rhetoric, and his suggestion that electronic media mark a return to a rhetorical framework of communication and understanding that print culture suppressed, Lanham sees the "art of persuasion" dominating the information economy now emerging. Thus, "Whatever we choose to call it . . . the construction and allocation of attention-structures will be a vital activity in our information society" (p. 227). Attention-shaping techniques are already apparent, for example, in Futurism or, more recently, in Pop Art. Lanham claims, for example, that "Robert Irwin's minimalist painting and environments are all calculated to bring human visual attention to acute self-consciousness" (p. 228).

The changes in contemporary media towards a visual mode of attention that Lanham points out are undeniable. But the inferences he draws, especially as he attempts to reconfigure our educational curricula to bring them into line, are troubling. His arguments can be criticised on two main grounds: first, that he misinterprets the role of self-consciousness, and second, that he fails to understand the role of imagery in reading.

Perhaps the most highly developed technology of imagery, both visual and aural, is to be found in television advertising. When Pop artists such as Warhol or Lichtenstein set out to exploit the icons of advertising, they did so by defamiliarizing it, placing it in unexpected frames or grossly distorted in size. This, as Lanham remarks correctly, evokes an acute self-consciousness in the viewer (until you become accustomed to these visual tricks, that is). The aim of the native iconic television advertisement, however, is quite different. It does indeed draw upon a bag of visual tricks to obtain and fix the attention of the viewer: currently these include deliberately jerky and degraded film sequences, "in your face" proximity of a target image, rapid jump-cutting, and contexts in which products become figurative. But attention is evoked through these means for a quite different end: not the self-consciousness of the viewer, which would destroy the purpose of the advertisement, but to evoke feelings that alter the self-concept of the viewer in ways that are largely subliminal, out of awareness.

Thus much advertising is designed to associate the product with an elevation in social status for the viewer, to tap latent feelings of dissatisfaction that would point towards superior sexual potency, social effectiveness, or heroic empowerment -- but only when the appropriate product is being used (whether shampoo, telephone service, or car). This is rather obvious. The use of such iconic media in advertising is, of course, representative of a larger ideological purpose apparent in almost all television programming from the apparently neutral news story to the latest soap episode: the invitation to acquiesce in and identify with the cultural forms that serve the interests of the current commercial world view. What is disturbing about Lanham's conflation of artistic and media iconicism is that it effaces the critical role of the artistic. Moreover, it is print artistry that has until now offered the best prophylactic against the ideological pressures of the market place, precisely because it employs words and avoids explicit images.

I would suggest that words on the printed page remain the most potent resource for critical self-reflection. While this might involve self-consciousness as one phase of a broader response process, self-consciousness as Lanham refers to it is quite different from self-reflection. Lanham biases his understanding of art towards the self-conscious, towards art about art, or to reception processes that theorize art. I would oppose to this self-reflection, a process in which a reader experiences a potentially self-transforming interaction with a literary text. It is in this process that the commitments of the self can be reorganised: away, perhaps, from the absorption with the narcissistic emphasis on sexual potency or social rank that advertising culture promotes, towards a broader and more resilient sense of the self and its inherent values.

In arguing for the image in reconfiguring literary texts for the computer, Lanham promotes a fundamental shift in the way this new medium will transmit texts for future generations. Just as the experience of seeing a film made from a novel that we have previously read is nearly always slightly disappointing, because the director's images (however excellent in themselves) fail to coincide with our own as readers, so the computer imagery that Lanham envisages will displace the imagery we normally create during reading. It is this imagery that forms an important component of the self-reflective process. Reading (say) a novel is a highly constructive process: as we encounter each character, each new setting, our own resources of imagery are drawn upon to give inner reality to the unfolding story and its feelings and values. Our images are not neutral. I surmise that they are selected during the response process, with no intervention of the conscious will, because they symbolize our most personal, most deeply felt values. Most of the time during reading we are hardly aware of this process, yet it is what gives us that sense of engagement during reading, the feeling that something of individual significance is at stake.

Having exposed our individual images to the powers of the literary text, however, the devices of the text can in turn act on those images to recontextualize them. The values they hold for us can be modified or extended in various ways as we watch a particular character's story unfold. We can gain insight in this way into the meaning of our value system and the feelings through which it is expressed and acted on. This is perhaps the most important process that literary texts can perform, and it is critically dependent on making available our own, personal images.

The new system for making literary reading into a multimedia exercise proposed by Lanham would effectively disable this personal level of response. Moreover, it replicates in a new and dangerously attractive form the imperatives of the standard textbook approach to literary reading with its multiple-choice questions, comprehension pop quizzes, or cloze tests, because through the use of another's imagery it imposes a set of limited, standardized meanings on the text. Far from democratizing literary reading, then, Lanham's proposed system tyrannizes over it, doing so the more dangerously because the visual medium itself has a powerful attractiveness (unlike the conventional school textbooks derided by Lanham, p. 9). It makes gratifyingly immediate what for the book reader forms the beginning of a long-term evolutionary process as a given image grows or is modified over time (including those times when we are not reading: cf. Birkerts's "shadow-life of reading": 1994, p. 95).

Lanham thus promotes the image to an illegitimate position in the world of the text. This, however, is nothing new except for its location in a new medium. It echoes an argument that occurred across the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Edmund Burke in 1757 objected to theories of poetry influenced by Horace, who claimed that the best poetry was like painting. Burke (1990/1757) argued that the clearness of an image militated against the passion that words can arouse, and that "so far is a clearness of imagery from being absolutely necessary to an influence upon the passions, that they [the passions] may be considerably operated upon without presenting any image at all, by certain sounds adapted to that purpose" (p. 56). Thus imagery would interfere with the feelings evoked by literature. Similarly, both Coleridge and Wordsworth objected in strenuous terms to the contemporary fashion for the picturesque, what Coleridge referred to as "the despotism of the eye" (1983/1817, I.107; cf. Wordsworth, The Prelude, xii.127-31). Coleridge elevated the distinction into a principle: we should, he says, reserve images for those objects that admit of clear conceptions, since "deep feeling has a tendency to combine with obscure ideas, in preference to distinct and clear notions" (1969/1808-09, i.106). He saw deep feeling, in this respect, as the location of our values and as the vehicle of moral growth.

The rhetoric for a computer age that Lanham proposes with its emphasis on the visual, thus dismisses some long standing principles relating to the limits of imagery; and it invites complicity with prevailing forms of media that are antipathetic to the self-reflective powers of literary response. The computer medium will, as Lanham argues, facilitate some powerfully creative new uses for texts and images. But as a medium for "repurposing" (p.131) literary texts from the past, Lanham's account only shows how ill-suited is the graphical interface of the computer to represent what readers do. As a tool for studying literary texts the computer may be all that Lanham proposes; but as a tool for the primary act of reading literature Lanham's computer vision seems reductive and trivializing.


3. Thinking in links

The second implication of the topographical metaphor is the linking of images that is a distinctive property of hypertext. Bolter (1992) points to the key aspect of this:

A hypertext has no canonical order. Every path defines an equally convincing and appropriate reading, and in that simple fact the reader's relationship to the text changes radically. A text as a network has no univocal sense; it is a multiplicity without the imposition of a principle of domination. (p. 25).

It is here that hypertext theory is most problematic. The process of linking was originally conceptualized by Vannevar Bush (1945) in his proposed memex as a means of registering the connections made by an individual thinker as he or she explored and related concepts during the research process. Bush's underlying premise was that the mind worked associatively. Whether or not this is true, the dominant model of hypertext now rests on claims to represent the associative nature of all thinking, thus bringing it closer to the working of the mind for the user. As Dryden (1994) puts it: "In its structure of branching links and nodes, hypertext simulates the mind's associative processes, thereby providing an electronic platform for constructing and recording the reader's literate thinking" (p. 285).

Hence Bolter can claim that each possible pathway is an "appropriate reading," and see this as empowering for the reader, a liberation from the linear rigidity of the printed text. In this respect, however, as Rouet and Levonen (1996) suggest, "ideology has often been substituted for scientific investigation" (p. 160) by hypertext theorists. Rather than using what we already know about reading or the mind, "contemporary hypertext thinking," says Dillon (1996), "seems tied to concepts of association and non-linearity of access even as it distorts them" (p. 27).

In itself the concept of linking is not new. It is often pointed out that hypertext users may be accomplishing in a different medium the non-linear reading that we carry out when consulting an encyclopedia or jumping to a footnote (e.g., Johnson-Eilola, 1994, p. 201). Cross-referenced or annotated structures of information can be built in a computer environment, but it is far from clear whether readers perceive them or can use them in the same way as in a printed text. Readers find it difficult to tell where they are within a group of nodes; they cannot judge whether they have read something essential and tend to give up too early; they find it hard to decide on an appropriate sequence through material (cf. Charney, 1994, p. 249). The physical structure of the printed book may give readers in search of information a better framework for a search or learning strategy. It is true that giving readers more familiarity with a particular hypertext allows them to use it more effectively over time, but differences in design principles between hypertexts make it less likely that learning will generalize from one hypertext to another (this has certainly been my own experience).

Davida Charney (1994) points to some of the basic problems of reading hypertext: it imposes a greater demand on short-term or working memory; readers may find navigation becomes arbitrary through a lack of cues to the meaning of links between nodes; and hypertext may disable the reader's existing knowledge about how texts are structured and about different text genres. And if we are to depend on hypertext presentations for learning, hypertext information cannot simply be mapped onto long-term memory structures, as Charney points out (p. 243), even if they do have comparable network structures -- but this is, in itself, a contentious proposal. Even in the limited world of hypertexts designed for instruction, readers often become disoriented, which suggests that the topographical metaphor so far represents wishful thinking. Hypertext cannot offer to model the reader's mind. The author's associations are not those of the reader. As Dobrin (1994) puts it, in terms of hypertext linking, "The author's conception of the connection's relevance is not the reader's, and the reader gets lost" (p. 310). Association, in any case, will probably not turn out to be a particularly helpful way of construing the mental processes at play during reading or writing. We have, after all, been this way before: eighteenth-century associationism was challenged by Kant and Coleridge; its twentieth-century version in behaviorism has been challenged by several versions of cognitive theory. It hardly seems a promising basis on which to build a theory of hypertext.

The analysis of Charney is limited to an information processing model of reading and learning, the type of reading which has been most extensively studied and theorized. "I focus," she says, on the application of hypertext for readers "who read to learn, to understand and evaluate the ideas and argument of others, to come to realizations about the subject matter," and to integrate their learning with what they already know. But this, according to Charney, is already a process that will "push hypertext to its logical extreme" (p. 241). If so, the prospect of effective hypertext models for literary reading seems far off (cf. Yellowlees Douglas, 1994). Charney's central and compelling point is that hypertext designers currently work largely in ignorance of what is known about the reading process. She shows that according to Kintsch and Van Dijk, Meyer, and others, the reading and memory processes engaged during learning or information seeking "are both strongly conservative forces" (p. 259). Hypertext systems that are premised on creative and imaginative linking, the type celebrated by Bolter or Lanham, thus conflict with the familiar, systematic processes of reading, and would appear to be inherently ineffective (p. 259).

One conclusion forced by a review of current hypertext theories is that, despite the prior work of influential commentators such as Bolter or Landow, hypertext is still at a pre-paradigmatic stage: that is, we have no accepted theoretical framework in which to locate it, and no settled body of knowledge on either the nature of hypertext or its appropriate applications. The principle cause of this deficiency is the failure to model hypertext on what is known about the process of reading.


4. Postscript: Literary politics

Richard Lanham, whose work I discussed earlier, first declared his faith in the new electronic environment in 1989. The electronic medium, he claimed, "democratizes the world of arts and letters," adding that "the political direction of the technological force is strong and unmistakable; value structures, markets ideological as well as financial and theoretical, will be reassessed." Thus, he insists, in teaching students of literature "we must accommodate literary study to the electronic world in which that world will increasingly deal" (1993, p. 23). This seems a compelling argument, but at the present moment the market forces that are now set to take over and control the electronic world clearly have little interest in literary study. The markets have much bigger goals in prospect: interactive, internet-based television and other high-resolution digitized forms of entertainment. Despite all that Lanham attempts to do in creating a new electronic rhetoric, the reading of literary texts may simply seem rather dull in competition with the multimedia, virtual reality simulations that are now being rushed to market.

The key issue here will not be how far literature can be made to dance to the multimedia tune in order to grab the attention of the internet-surfing audience for electronic entertainment, but how far we can establish the distinctive qualities of the literary experience that makes it a clear and significant alternative to what the commercial interests are willing to provide. The really urgent issue facing literary scholarship now is to understand what is at stake in literary experience before Lanham and his colleagues convince us to change it into something else. "I hope," Lanham remarks, that technology will be seen not as "driving us where we don't want to go" but "as an opportunity to go where we have never been, and to do things no one has done before" (p. 26). I agree, but first we need to know where we are, and on that score the claim of hypertext theorists that conventional reading is restrictive and imprisoning has been a disabling error, bypassing the serious consideration that should be given to the relationship of hypertext and reading.



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Document created September 5th 1998