Reading Notes: L’hypertext et Latour d’ANT (part 1)

Finding common ground in this week’s disparate readings was difficult. More precisely, Latour’s introduction to actor-network-theory (ANT) had almost nothing to do with reading from Joyce and Johnson-Eilola, other than the fact that hypertext as object might be an instantiated mediator within a collective. More precisely, the hypertext itself may function as a trace of the collective, with actors including codewriters, narrative writers, software, hardware, network connections, and other elements required to read and interact with a hypertextual “document.”

With little common ground to try to synthesize, I’ll opt this week to omit summary and focus on key concepts, quotes, and course connections. Who knows, I might surprise myself by writing into something else, too!

What bothered my about readings by Joyce (1995, 2001) and Johnson-Eilola (1997) were how dated they felt. Hypertext theory interested me in the nascent moments of the World Wide Web (but never in its software-bound forms like Hypercard), and I admit to being among those who unproblematically accepted the coming glory of reader-as-author perusing a unique user-generated text with each browsing session. That said, I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane as a reminder of how far we’ve come — and, in some troubling ways, how little of hypertext’s socially active potential we’ve tapped. (I’m self-censoring based on reading Latour and concerned about using the word “social” ever again.)

Of Two Minds

In Joyce’s (1995) Of Two Minds I enjoyed this blast from my thesis past:

“At each stage of the developing consensus about these shifts [in conceptualizing hypertexts], new and sometimes contradictory definitions of hypertext have been advanced. Even so, a remarkably consistent line of thinking holds that hypertext in some sense represents the workings of the human mind…. [S]cholars continue to suggest forebearers of hypertext ranging from the Greeks to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and beyond…” (p. 22)

book cover

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

I am indebted to those scholars who saw in Tristram Shandy a forebearer of hypertext. In my master’s thesis, I advocated Tristram Shandy as a non-linear prototype of hypertext that responded directly to Locke’s aversion to “association of ideas” (non-rational thinking) as presented in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1998 when I wrote my thesis, I was intrigued by the potential of hypertext as both a pedagogical tool and a representation of human thought. My thesis in fact addresses some of the aspects of reader-as-author of hypertext narrative, although only superficially. In my abstract, I present the claim this way:

“I review Tristram’s self-expression by focusing on techniques of non-linear narration and conclude by examining hypermedia as an alternative model for narrating consciousness that emphasizes the reader, comparing hypermedia’s reader to Tristram Shandy’s narrator.” (Hocutt 1998, n.p., emphasis added)

“Narrating consciousness” was surely a bit much, but I found useful parallels using Tristram Shandy’s narrator as my object of study in application of hypermedia theory.

I’m marveling at a recommendation Dr. Dan Richards made during last Friday’s “Curating Online Identity” workshop focused on LinkedIn and He recommended including older, even incomplete, lines of inquiry and scholarship among papers and presentations we uploaded to because one never knows how a chance encounter in previous research may come back around through the social network of scholarly collaboration. And then on Friday night I read Joyce’s words above. Serendipity. Or the instantiation of an ANT collective that included actors Dr. Richards, Tristram Shandy and Tristram Shandy, a dead Laurence Sterne, members of the RSODU attending the workshop, Webex, and the computer terminals and network hardware and software than enabled my presence from a distance. Either way, I’m sold. The thesis gets a place in my profile.

In the same chapter of Of Two Minds, I recognized what I termed “an interestingly prescient moment” in my professional life. Joyce writes of early warnings posted about the potential for hypertext to be co-opted by commercial interests if scholars did not problematize its exaggerated claim to renegotiate the definition of author:

“While not rejecting this promise [of hypertext as destroyer of the objective either/or paradigm], Stuart Moulthrop, in a prolific series of essays… has argued that hypertext could be pre-empted by the “military infotainment establishment” or offered as a diversion to a dissatisfied society in lieu of real access or power.” (p. 26)

I wrote this note to myself after reading that statement: “An interesting prescient moment? My professional role [as Web Manager] is to convert what was once considered an egalitarian tool for social change into a diversion provided by the infotainment industry. Well, maybe not that bad, but it’s an uncomfortable parallel.” It is uncomfortable. One important result of reading this week on a tool with which I am intimately familiar is to make me uncomfortable with unproblematically making one hypermediated page after another in a fairly large, fairly comprehensive website. What agencies do I too readily take for myself that should be left to the visitor? More to the point, what visitor agencies do my creative efforts omit or deem meaningless or powerless as I design information architectures and implement wayfinding options? What political boundaries and/or economic realities am I activating or exacerbating, for better or for worse, in my professional role? These are questions that I’m beginning to ask of myself, my tools, and my job.

Nostalgic Angels

dust jacket image

Trickster in Contemporary Film by Helena Bassil-Morozow

In Johnson-Eilola’s (1997) Nostalgic Angels I found interesting connections to another scholarly interest, the trickster in culture. One aspect of what Helena Basil-Morozov (2012) calls the “trickster principle” is its occupation of border areas, or liminal spaces. Trickster inhabits liminal space, breaking through boundaries established by culture and ritual in order to activate or introduce change and creation. “The activity of questioning and remaking borders in relation to real cultural conditions” (Johnson-Eilola, 1997. p. 16) sounds a good deal like trickster work, and hypertext has most assuredly served a trickster function of breaking through boundaries and ushering in change. Johnson-Eilola’s descriptions of boundary crossing, while quite tricksterish, also resonates with Bazerman’s (2004) activity systems and Popham’s (2005) boundary genre:

“What a hypertextual structure and process can bring to this discussion is the ability to cross discursive boundaries in an attempt to articulate the discrete, largely isolated and invisible activities of using a functional document to learn a system with the intersubjective activities of discussion and group critique.” (Johnson-Eilola, 1997, p. 227)

Crossing discursive boundaries requires genre tracing (a la Spinuzzi, 2003) through an activity system and understanding the unique aspects of boundary genres that enable understanding of disparate discourses. Hypertextual structure (by which I’d suggest Johnson-Eilola was defining what is now known as a group-sourced wiki) encompasses these several theoretical models as a boundary genre.


I found Joyce’s (2001) Othermindedness a little, well, otherminded. The text lacked a certain scholarly tone, but the result was accessible, if dated and difficult to resolve with the author of Of Two Minds. However, I found this prescient nugget in which Joyce predicts what we now know to be true: that the ability to navigate search in the digital age is far more important than the ability to recall facts and data.

“The value of what we collect [knowledge] is not as much embodied in what it is as in how we found it and why we keep it.” (Joyce, 2001, p. 73, emphasis added)

When I make the decision to use Google as my search engine of choice, what mediating choices have I made about what’s available to me and how? When I add a citation to my research collection using Zotero, what information have I included about how and why I conducted the search and why the source is important in the context of that search? These have become questions that are more important to me, especially in the early stages of research, than what the source actually says. Being able to recreate the search is vital to scholars and to those who follow our research; documenting the terms and scope of the search (and the political and social mediating decisions made along the way) are becoming of utmost importance to me as a digital scholar.

Reassembling the Social

Latour (2005) owes a debt of gratitude to Foucault, among others, whose ideas are clearly represented in ANT. “Trace” is one of the main Foucaultian concepts that Latour repeats regularly, and I believe he uses trace in the same way as Foucault to represent what’s left from a discursive formation. Here, Latour refers to group formation leaving traces, although I’d suggest these group formations have many similarities to Foucault’s discursive formations:

“Group formations leave many more traces in their wake than already established connections which, by definition, might remain mute and invisible.” (Latour, 2005, p. 31)

These group formations must be active to leave traces, and such activity matches Foucault’s insistence that discursive formations be systems of division or dispersion among statements (Foucault, 2010/1972, p. 38).

Another similarity to Foucault is Latour’s unwillingness to allow social science a “real” or typical society (to which all others are considered inferior or unreal).

“[E]verything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists “out there” one type that is real, whereas the other sets are all really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial.” (Latour, 2005, p. 28)

In this statement I recognize Foucault’s unwillingness to allow the history of ideas to consider either some original ideal from which all ideas are descended or some ultimate idea to which all ideas ascend. Both Foucault and Latour engage in relativistic understandings of ideas and societies, in which meaning is found in differentiated relationships among statements (Foucault) or among groups (Latour). 


Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2010). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1972)

Hocutt, D. (1998). “A tolerable straight line”: Non-linear narrative in Tristram Shandy [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Richmond, VA: University of Richmond.

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

Joyce, M. T. (2001). Othermindedness: The emergence of network culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 67-106. 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

Bassil-Morozow, H. (2012). The trickster in contemporary film. East Sussex, UK: Routledge.

Popham, S. L. (2005). Forms as boundary genres in medicine, science, and business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 279-303. doi:10.1177/1050651905275624

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[Image, top of page. Leaf Cutter Ants, Butterfly World, Chiswell Green, Near St Albans, Herts. Image from Flickr user Stuart Spicer. Ants (and rope and leaves) are the actors in this ANT visualization.]

4 thoughts on “Reading Notes: L’hypertext et Latour d’ANT (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Mindmap #7: Latour d’ANT | Ponderings

  2. I’m now having an “ah ha” moment of “why was Daniel so frustrated in class during hypertext night?”
    I feel bad you trying to smash together Latour w/Joyce & J-E. However, I like some of the connections you made (including not wanting to use “social” ever again). I also think you have both the history and professional experience to really critically engage with the hypertext readings. One thing that they always get me thinking about is the difference between theory and practice as well as theory and time/history. Keep up the hard work; we appreciate you hanging in on weeks that don’t jive.

  3. Nice interpretation and strong reading. Nostalgic Angels was written before the web, so my revision just prior to publication was a struggle to re-interpret the text as a historical document, with mixed success. So, yeah, dated, but glad you gleaned something from it.

    • Thanks for the comment and for responding to the post. The concept of hypertextual structure retains the intriguing potential of engaging students and teachers in discursive dialog and feedback. I’m working now with a colleague on ways Google Drive, and particularly Google Docs, affords collaborative work and feedback opportunities in a web-based environment. Without early work on the discursive affordances of hypertext for composition and rhetoric, I am not sure this potential would have been captured and tapped.

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