Hypertext Rhetorical Forms

Although hypertext has been used for information retrieval for some time, argument in hypertext is largely a new rhetorical function. Many have speculated on what rhetorical forms might arise to meet this function.

Stuart Moulthrop suggests that a rhetoric of hypertext might be based on the metaphor of "contour" rather than "line":

A rhetorical theory of the contour--augmented, perhaps, by a practical technique of contour representation and navigation--could yield an important shift in our understanding of hypertext. It could allow us to move beyond the concept of the text as a fixed hierarchy (a transformation which collaborative, multi-user hypertexts will demand) while at the same time retaining a sense of the text as an articulated process or object-event. It could give us an important new way of understanding the text as what Roland Barthes called "the social space of writing.".
"Shadow of an Informand", "Contour and Line" node)

Unfortunately he does not explain very clearly what such a rhetoric might look like, though we can guess by reading his own work.

Being more interested in literary criticism and commentary than in argument, George Landow concentrates his discussion on ways in which hypertexts can link central texts to a halo of commentary, contextualization and background. When considering what a reader might use to get a handle on a fragmented text itself, he offers the following:

As long as thematic or other culturally coherent means of ordering is available to the reader, the fragmentation of the hypertext document does not imply the kind of entropy that such fragmentation would have in the world of print. Capacities such as full-text searching, automatic linking, agents, and conceptual filtering potentially have the power to retain the benefits of hypertextuality while insulating the reader from the ill effects of abandoning linearity.
(Hypertext 57)

The idea of "thematic" means of ordering is extremely useful. Nodes of material are linked in ways that are "culturally significant": in other words, that can be assumed to have some probable purpose for some reader, this assumption being based on what the author knows about the purposes and expectations of people in his culture.

In "Living in Hypertext," John December gives a general list of what he calls hypertext "characteristics and qualities," which include being "distributed, non-hierarchical," "porous," "interactive" and "dynamic." But these are still little more than general classifications of how hypertext works rather than of what specific forms it might take that guide the reader's expectations the way a fairly settled print genre might be expected to do.

In "Socrates in the Labyrinth," David Kolb presents what I would argue is one of the fullest discussions of the various forms that could be used in what he calls "philosophical hypertext," from the conservative "caterpillar text" that retains a basic linear form with single nodes branching off to provide commentary and references, to much more radical forms that dissolve linear structure completely.

However, these speculations are still mostly guesses in the dark because hypertext as argument is still such an immature area, despite the appearance of several hypertext journals and Eastgate's recent forays into nonfiction publishing. Many WWWeb sites are little more than cool sites to surf, with little form or function in the sense that I've discussing here.

Because hypertext rhetoric is so speculative, it doesn't tell us much about how to help our students enter the discourse communities of the electronic age. About all we seem to be sure of right now is that a rhetoric of hypertext will be a rhetoric more of questions than of answers.

If we agree with Bazerman that we must understand rhetorical genres in order to empower both students and practitioners of those genres, this uncertainty about what hypertext genres might look like and how to describe them is deeply disturbing. It is, on the other hand, possible that argumentative hypertext will never catch on because the medium is simply unfriendly to argumentative rhetoric.

Can we afford to wait and see?


Hypertext Rhetorical Functions A discussion of how hypertext forms grow out of different hypertext functions.
Moulthrop on Contour and Line A link into "Shadow of an Informand."
Decemb er on HT Characteristics and Qualities A list from December's "Living in Hypertext."
Kolb's List of Hypertext Forms A list from Kolb's "Socrates in the Labyrynth."
Eastgate Publications A digressive link out to Eastgate for readers who want to see what hypertext forms are offered by the leading hypertext commercial publisher.
Bazerman on Rhetorical Analyses of Genres An extended quotation from Bazerman.
Is Hypertext Friendly to Argumentative Rhetoric? The crux of my argument about the rhetoric of hypertext.

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