Is Hypertext Friendly to Argumentative Rhetoric?

Hypertext has proven itself an excellent medium for information retrieval and is rapidly catching on as a medium for fiction. However, there are relatively few argumentative pieces that truly take advantage of the medium. This may be just a matter of slow adoption, but it may also be that the medium itself just isn't very well adapted to either reading or writing intellectual argument: what some call "philosophy" but which we in the laguage game usually refer to by the broader term "rhetoric."

Traditionally, arguments are highly linear. In the Phaedrus, Plato denounces arguments which can be read backwards as easily as forwards. Not all arguments, of course, need be as tightly structured as a Platonic deductive argument. In rhetoric, arrangement is determined more by the context, the audience, the rhetorical purpose--the cluster of exigencies that rhetoricians refer to as kairos--than by a "logical" progression of propositions. Nonetheless, arguments need to impose an order on material.

The essence of rhetorical argument is control--not intellectual tyranny but the ability to have a predictable effect. Even when the goal is not to foist a point of view on another but simply to create an image of the world as one sees it, the rhetor must be able to ration out the arguments she will make in order to present that point of view. Points of view are expressed in chains of argument in which ideas come first, second, third in order to achieve maximum argumentative weight.

Kolb makes this point well:

The principal argument against nonlinear web writing in philosophy is straightforward: philosophy necessarily involves argument, and argument necessarily involves a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus a truly philosophical text needs a line. This claims more than that works of philosophy should include arguments. It says that any philosophical work should be essentially one large argument. It is through the argumentative line that any piece of philosophical writing does its work.On this view, a philosophical argument (just as a mathematical proof) cannot be a cloud of disjointed statements. Hence the philosophical line cannot be dissolved in the way some have dreamed of dissolving the narrative line. And thus philosophical hypertext will have to respect the line by making arguments the units of presentation, and by maintaining an overall argumentative--hence linear--structure.
(Socrates, "Philosophy is Argument?" node)

Since Kolb is writing in hypertext, he questions this identification of philosophy and "line" in other nodes. But according to my reading, he is not convinced that hypertext is a very good medium for argument as we have come to know it, and neither am I. Though reader-response theory points out that it is always the reader who actually constructs the work, the author of a standard "text," oral or written, provides a preferred "default path" through the text, an essential feature of the writer's ability to contribute a point of view.to the rhetorical conversation. Hypertext--at least, the more ambitious forms that go beyond what Kolb calls "caterpillar text"--removes that default path.

This raises a question. If "good" hypertext has no preset form, no default path for the reader, then has the rhetor any reliable way of presenting her thoughts to others? Do we sacrifice the ability to share others' minds in the labyrinth of the self-constructed, always evolving text?


Plato on the need for order Quotation suggesting that linear order is crucial to argument.
Philosophy and rhetoric, argument and exploration Distinctions among these terms to explore my argument.
Exploratory Rhetoric Backing up on myself: maybe "argument" is too narrow a definition of rhetoric.
Is Hypertext Formless? An elaboration of the importance of form plus some self-criticism of my suggestion that hypertext lacks form because it lacks linearity.
Reading Hypertext An opening move in my darker ponderings, based on some disturbing analogies between hypertext and television.
Writing hypertext Possible negative effects of hypertext on those who write it

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