Word Circuits


Forepaper by Wendy Morgan
for Messenger 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 1997: 175)

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.

Some propositions:

As we know, hyperlinks:

  • don't necessarily exist in the linguistic code
  • are nevertheless necessary to reading, and create meaning
  • 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 against
  • activate readers' desire to make sense, even across chasms
  • 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 phrasal syntax".

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 cohesiveness:

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" etc.
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 remains unfinished
a word or phrase is misapplied, especially in metaphor
a word or phrase is omitted to achieve a more compact expression
one idea is expressed through two terms ("darkness and gloom")
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 answers:

  • 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 hypertext?
  • Is this, after all, a perverse, structuralist attempt to tidy into categorical boxes what of its nature evades such neatness?

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 can't...."

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 account
  • 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.



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