In this week’s mindmap, I added nodes for hypertext theory and Bruno Latour’s introduction to Active-Network Theory (ANT), and I connected hypertext as a potential operationalized representation of ANT.
Given the ubiquity of hypertext (or, more accurately, hypermedia) in today’s lived experience, I connected hypertext theory to an operationalized theory and a theorization. I don’t think hypertext has lived up to its theoretical potential, and it’s arguable whether it remains a theoretical position at all. At this point in its development, hypertext on the Web functions as a tool and a framework, not as an operationalized theory. As Dr. Romberger pointed out, hypertext as theorized in its early days was realized in applications like HyperCard, not in the ubiquitous hyperlinks of the Web.
As I wrote in my reading notes for last week’s hypertext readings, I found, in the theorized reversal of author and reader roles idealized (maybe even canonized) in early hypertext theory, connections to my own theoretical stance at the time. I wrote my master’s thesis in 1997-1998 on Tristram Shandy and I concluded the essay by drawing connections between the creation and reading of web-based hypermedia and the reading and narration of the novel. At the time, I theorized that Tristram Shandy’s narrator creates an associational map of his mind in the interwoven stories he tells in a way similar to the way readers of linked hypermedia create an associational map of their interests at that moment. Readers follow links as embedded by Web designers and writers, thus writing their own narratives.Because hypermedia has become more tool than theory, operationalized or otherwise, I aligned hypertext theory with a framework and connection rather than network or node. Of course, hyperlinks are connective tissues that link text or visual nodes to other nodes, but the hyperlinks themselves are not nodes. Interestingly, little agency is afforded the creator of a hyperlinked media; the creator develops a framework within which the potential of activity and connection exists, but only the reader/viewer activates any of these potential connections by following a link. Left unproblematized, this shift of agency from creator to viewer seems to realize the potential of hypertext theory. However, as both Johnson-Eilola (1997) and Joyce (1995) note, postmodern scholars can’t and shouldn’t leave this relationship unproblematized. Hyperlinked media creators continue to have creative, political, and economic agency in the links they include and exclude, in the high-bandwidth designs they develop, and in the external and internal connections they potentialize in their work.
Latour’s introduction to Actor-Network Theory provides a useful lens for examining, even deconstructing hypertext theory. As we seek to problematize hypertext theory, a quick application of Latour’s (2005) first three “areas of uncertainty” (p. 22) offers these deconstructive observations.
- Hypertext is a problematic “grouping”; nearly 20 years after Johnson-Eilola’s (1995) book, it’s difficult to suggest there’s a single hypertext concept. There are hypermedia like Netflix, hypertexts like CNN.com, hyperlinked texts like blogs, and meta-hypertexts like search engines. And there are different types and kinds of each of these hypertexts.
- Action on a hypertext is hardly clear-cut. If a blog contains comments that contain links, are those additions the action of the blog author? Does the blog entry remain a single, active text, or does it split into multiple texts when multiple people contribute? Similar questions can be posed to search engines, search engine optimizers, discussion forum posters, and more.
- Agency of objects and actors is not clear in hypertext. While the creator of a hypertext maintains creative agency, especially over potential connections, the reader retains quite a bit of agency over the results and meaning of the text. The interaction between networking hardware and software, search algorithms, users, and authors, all actors in the ANT sense, is complex and requires problematization.
At the same time, all these actors do function together to create meaning, and, as a system, offer a complex embodiment of an active network.
Meanwhile, Latour’s overall goal in Reassembling the Social, seeking to reclaim or reconstruct the social sciences, is intriguing, and I’m interested to know what my colleagues in social sciences departments might think about Latour. I imagine many find his naming of social scientists as “sociologists of the social” rather than “sociologists of association” distasteful and demeaning.
Johnson-Eilola, J. (1997). Nostalgic angels: Rearticulating hypertext writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 3-28; 135-242. New Directions in Computers and Composition Studies
Joyce, M. T. (1995). Of two minds: Hypertext pedagogy and poetics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 20-29. Studies in Literature and Science
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies