So, if you’ve caught some of my passing (albeit BLATANT) references in recent weeks: I’ve been thinking a lot about hypertext these days. And, I swear, I’m not trying to be abstruse or in any way condescending when I use the (admittedly specific) word “hypertext.” Think about the presence of the “hyper” prefix in the word “hyperlink” and you’ll realize you know what I’m talking about.
These past few weeks – months, maybe – I’ve noticed that I’ve progressively engaged in fewer parenthetical digressions, while I’ve come to rely more and more, in all of my online writing, on hyperlinks. I’ve grown concerned because I’m not sure hyperlinking/hypertexting my writing is particularly inclusive. On the one hand, it helps readers experience my digressions in a different way: by seeing exactly the cultural and intellectual references/concepts affecting my thought process at very precise moments in my writing. On the other hand, how hard is it, really, to just explain some of this stuff? Would it actually kill me to demonstrate to my audience that I understand what I’m talking about well enough to explain it?
And anyway, I’ve gone from assuming that my readers already know who someone like Roland Barthes is, to assuming that they have the time and gumption to read “The Death of the Author” in its entirety to understand a single brief reference I make in an article about writing. Problematic maybe.
This is why I’ve been thinking about hypertext.
Hypertext, at its most basic, is a style of layered annotation that Wikipedia figures might find an early example in the Talmud (citation pending, ironically). My impressions, though, have led me to believe that hypertexting deals with absences. It becomes an obsessive/excessive process of amplification, of trying to fill in the gaps between what I’m saying/writing and what I’m thinking.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is an oft-cited example of hypertext fiction, crammed as it is with allusions and clashes of form and content that force words to mean more than what they are, to be several things at once. An easier example might be the pun – a highly self-contained hypertextual mode of communicating, often asking a single word to enclose a contradiction or absurd juxtaposition. Either way, a single pun and all of Ulysses, compact as they might seem, unfold into meaning. One word explodes into several. (And now I’m wondering about the dictionary…)
I use hypertext in a way that I believe to be relatively direct, but I worry when I see its tortuous potential and history. In Adam Shatz’s recent review of Derrida: A Biography:
“[Derrida’s] wildest book, Glas (1964), was a hypertext avant la lettre featuring two columns of text: on the left an essay on Hegel’s family; on the right, a breathless, relentlessly punning homage to his friend Jean Genet, dilating on his treatment of flowers, crime, and hard-ons. The objective was to produce ‘a contamination of a great philosophical discourse by a literary text that is reputedly scandalous.'”
Here’s the thing, this is an awesome idea/project, but Derrida doesn’t give a damn about his readers. In fact, he rejoices in obscurity. I do care about my readers. I’m writing on the Internet, srsly! So, now I’m worried that, while hypertexting has made me a more rigorous and self-aware thinker, it has also made me a lazier writer.