TOWARDS A GRAMMAR OF HYPERLINKS
Morphs the Media 99
Introduction: "flickering signifiers"
To the extent that hypertext blurs artificial,
institutional boundaries, it enables a kind of writing which
... chokes and laughs and wriggles its ears, one which from
moment to moment is more and less consciously theoretical,
whimsical, practical, lyrical, parodical, and what-have
you-that is, one in which these terms oscillate as what Kate
Hayles (1993: 71) calls "flickering signifiers". (Joyce
I'm attempting to develop a non-fictional hypertext which
has something of these qualities. It's called "Monstrous
Angels: A Hypertext Supplement to Troubling the Angels:
Women Living with HIV/AIDS". A paper about it is to be
presented at Hypertext 99. Here's the abstract:
In recent years poststructuralist feminist
researchers in the social sciences have questioned the norms
of mainstream research epistemology, methodologies and
writing. They have therefore sought alternative forms of
text work to enact their concerns about the politics of
researching and reporting on, for and with others. (A most
radical example of this is Lather and Smithies, Troubling
the Angels: Women Living with HIV/AIDS. ) Yet despite
such congruneces between feminism and poststructuralism and
between hypertext theory and poststructuralism, there have
been no examples to date, in theory or practice, of
convergence between post feminist research in the social
sciences and a poststructuralist hypertextuality. This paper
describes such a hypertextual experiment, a reinscription of
Troubling the Angels with additional materials. The point of
this experiment is to inquire into the conditions of such
writing and reading, and therefore to set an agenda for a
future poetics of a poststructuralist feminist research
hypertextuality. The paper explores such issues as
associative linking, intertextual and intratextual
juxtapositions, the unfixing of textual hierarchies in a
"rhizomatic" text, non-sequential polylogic, multigeneric
collage, and the role of the reader as textual agent.
As I've been (re)creating this hypertext, a number of
issues have become salient for me, none more so than the
nature of links in relation to that "poetics". We often see
links as merely the device that shuttles us from one bit of
information to the next. I want instead to shift focus in
this discussion, to see "not connection as conceptual
negative space, but connection itself being a figure against
the ground of writing" (Guyer and Petry, 1991).
In the kind of non-fictional hypertextual work I'm
experimenting with, I've come to concur fully with Burbules
(1997: 105), when he writes: "the use and placement of links
is one of the vital ways in which the tacit assumptions and
values of the designer/author are manifested in a
hypertext-yet they are rarely considered as such."As both a
hypertext reader and writer I want to understand how that
tacitness can be made to speak through the links. ...
In what follows, I'll first assemble some propositions I
think have bearing on the question, and use these as the
basis for attempting to categorise the kinds of links I've
been using in my writing and/or encountering in my reading.
As we know, hyperlinks:
- don't necessarily exist in the linguistic code
- are nevertheless necessary to reading, and create
- activate the staging of a text (its performance in
any one reading)
- create connections between discourse units (nodes)
and their constituent ideas
- but are also a device for disjunction and breakdown
- as interruptions need a sense of structure to work
- activate readers' desire to make sense, even across
- yet work against predictability, despite our
inferring a prospective significance
- are meaningful retrospectively, as we shuttle between
present and prior nodes
- create granularity in apparently continuous prose
- bring a shifting positionality (a sense of "nextness"
that is both temporal and spatial)
- therefore may encourage aspects of stance (i.e.
involve readers in making aesthetic / logical appraisal)
Two possible categories of links
I justify my use of grammatical or rhetorical terms on
Jean Clement's contention (as quoted in Landow 1997: 215),
that "hypertexts produce-at the level of narrative
syntax-the same 'upheaval' as poems produce at the level of
Systemic functional grammar (Halliday 1985) categorises
conjunctions into five groups. It may be that by taking
these terms we could account for links in terms of their
a) Conjunctive functionality
- causal "therefore", "because" etc.
- category "for instance"(marking a shift from a
statement of abstract principle to an instance of it)
- argumentative "on the other hand", "nevertheless"
- associative "and", "also" etc....
This category however, cannot accommodate the other
function of hypertextual works, as "structures for breakdown
in semantic space" (Moulthrop 1997:???). So perhaps we need
another set of terms, drawn from rhetorical analysis, to
account for such incoherence:
b) Disjunctive dys/functionality
- a sentence begins one way, ends in another
- speech is broken off abruptly and the sentence
- a word or phrase is misapplied, especially in
- a word or phrase is omitted to achieve a more compact
- one idea is expressed through two terms ("darkness
- a word or phrase is put into a sentence which is
grammatically complete without it
Thinking about these very provisional sets of link types,
and trying to identify them in what I'm reading and writing,
has raised a number of questions for which I don't yet have
- Can a particular link can be assigned to a type with
any certainty, in reading?
- Do these categories apply equally to fiction and
non-fiction (as multigeneric collage)?
- How useful would these categories be for a
narratological analysis of the "pivots" of hyperfiction?
-- or for the argumentative turns of a non fictional
hypertext of a poststructuralist kind? (That is, an
"ergodics"-"a situation in which a chain of events (a
path, a sequence of actions etc.) has been produced by
the nontrivial efforts of one or more individuals or
mechanisms": Aarseth 1997: 94.)
- How useful would they be for writers of such
non-fictional hypertext, in more deliberately
diversifying the nature of the links they set up and in
thinking about the work such links can do?
- Would such a set of analytical tools help us get at
the tacit assumptions and values that structure any
- Is this, after all, a perverse, structuralist attempt
to tidy into categorical boxes what of its nature evades
In this last regard, I'm mindful of what Ted Nelson's
(1987: 31) warning: "Hierarchical and sequential structures,
especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and
artificial. Intertwingularity is not generally
acknowledged-people keep pretending they can make things
hierarchical, categorisable and sequential when they
Perhaps what I've got here is a "menagerie"-an
illustrative array-rather than a Noah's ark?
I don't expect to arrive at answers to all (or indeed
fully to any) of these questions within the workshop. But I
would be glad to have feedback on
- whether the categories seem to have some
(provisional) utility for hypertext readers and writers
- what other types or factors need to be taken into
- what other questions need to be asked
- most fruitful further directions for exploration....
Aarseth, E. (1997) Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic
Literature. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press.
Burbules, N. (1997) "Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading
and Critical Literacy". In I. Snyder (ed.) Page to
Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. Sydney:
Allen and Unwin, pp. 102-22.
Guyer, C., and Petry, M. (1991) "Notes for Izme Pass
Expose". Writing at the Edge 2.2.
Halliday, M. (1985) An Introduction to Functional
Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.
Joyce, M. (1997) "New Stories for New Readers: Contour,
Coherence and Constructive Hypertext". In I. Snyder (ed.)
Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic
Era. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, pp. 163-82.
Landow, G. (1997) Hypertext 2.0..: The Convergence of
Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Moulthrop, S. (1997) "Pushing Back: Living and Writing in
Broken Space". Modern Fiction Studies 43, 3: 598-630.