Presentation Form: A Mosaic Approach in Native Hypertext



With a media intensive research subject, the online Xenaverse, this dissertation raises interesting questions about what material shape its final product should take. The data consist of multiple media strung across a web of links. As I collect and analyze it, it goes into an electronic database created in FileMaker Pro. The shape of the dissertation content, both my own description and analysis and the heteroglossic voices of the people who live in my data, is primarily non-hierarchical, decentering, marginal, polyvocal, and multithreaded. In short, this dissertation is hypertextual. This should not seem revolutionary, as scholars have been theorizing about and studying hypertext for some time, going back to the 1945 with Vannevar Bush's proposed Memex machine and the 1960s with Ted Nelson's coining the term "hypertext" for his proposed " Xanadu." Since then theorists and practitioners have written numerous books (Landow, Hypertext 2.0, Bolter, Writing Space, Joyce, Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics to name a few) and have started electronic and print journals in disciplines from Computers and Composition and Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC), to Information Technology and Library Science. Many conferences have also been organized around hypertext as a central topic since the early 1990s.



Marshall McLuhan opens The Gutenberg Galaxy by stating: "We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographical and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience" (McLuhan 1). That these confusions and indecisions are affecting me in the late 1990s, thirty six years after McLuhan published his book, seems most remarkable. How do I effectively report back on my research? How much hypertextual knowledge and understanding would be lost in the translation from webbed text to linear print text? In considering these questions, I made a choice to match the form of my dissertation to the webbed environment of the Xenaverse as the best way to report back on my research, in order not to lose the hypertextual knowledge and understanding that could perhaps be gained from associational linking and dialogic interactions between frames and windows.


L3 Thirty six years ago McLuhan presented The Gutenberg Galaxy as a "mosaic or field approach to its problems," certainly a risky venture at the time. And one must wonder how successful a mosaic or field approach can be in a bound paper text. For McLuhan, it was the "only practical means of revealing causal operations in history." My goal here is to move outside of the standard, linear, centered form for a dissertation argument;my purpose to enact a discourse that more directly mirrors the form of my subject- the hypertextually webbed world of the online Xenaverse. To do that I have devised an alternative, perhaps more expansive, form for my persuasion in hypertext. The hypertextual performance of this dissertation is merely one step toward testing whether nonlinear arguments can be made in hypertext, a challenge put forth by David Kolb in "Socrates in the Labyrinth" and "Discourse Across Links." I do this in the hope that hypertext will add something more to the traditional form of a dissertation by reflecting hypertextual contexts of the Xenaverse in a space that is expressive and exploratory, a place where meanings can be multiple and voices combine, agree, dissent.





L4 If closure doesn't always happen down a predetermined route, how do I judge, how does my committee judge, whether I have successfully completed and defended a dissertation that exists in native hypertextual, multimedia form? Perhaps what I am making is more of a hypertextual creative work of considerable substance, a performance, a representation of a dissertation in experimental form, to attempt to demonstrate or illustrate how persuasion can happen in these spaces.


If I pretend to make a linear argument in hypertextual spaces, to be judged according to the standards of linear argument, my committee and I will only encounter more "confusions and indecisions." Conventional academic arguments are usually linearly structured, as David Kolb points out in "Socrates in the Labyrinth." These conventions are based on argumentative premises which build on the premises that came before, all in a prescribed sequential order. According to Kolb, there is an "expository convenience" which does allow that "the parts of an argument may come in any order in the text, but the argument will be present only when the underlying linear, abstract structure is indicated in some manner" (327). In looking at how arguments are often based on linearity, Kolb notes that "the conclusion is that philosophy's line cannot be dissolved in the way some have dreamed of dissolving the narrative line." Conventional academic arguments do not seem to be open enough to admit to hypertextual ways of knowing, to hypertextual knowledge-making. If I abide by this "essentialist" definition of argument, my hypertext would fail before it had even started.

L5a Still, there is much that can be gained by certain aspects of linearity, even if applied in a limited fashion within a larger hypertextual context. In prose a narrative line can be a driving force, propelling a reader forward. In an argument, there are certain elements which are subject to sequential order. As Kolb points out, even though "some arguments have multiple beginnings and branches that jointly support conclusions or diverge from premises, ...these still arrange into a unidirectional abstract structure with beginnings, middles, and ends" (327). In an effective argument, some points are going to depend on the point that came before. In this dissertation, there will be times when I will want to draw on the strengths of linearity as well as nonlinearity. Some elements of this dissertation may be best served when placed in the context of a "unidirectional" structure, benefitting from sequence as well as a coherence that can be drawn on within larger textual nodes, even if I employ strategies of nonlinearity between nodes and associational hot links within those nodes. With limited uses of linearity within the larger windows of this interface, however, I still cannot call this hypertextual performance an argument as defined by Kolb, referring specifically to philosophy. He writes:

Can hypertext webs provide new possibilities for writing something that might be less linear or nonlinear and yet still do philosophical work? If the above considerations [about beginnings, middles, and ends unidirectionally sequenced] are accepted, it would appear that philosophy is constituted by the presence of the line. But even if the line is required, it may not necessarily be the single controlling element in philosophical writing. Not all paths follow the line.

Philosophy's line finds itself constantly surrounded by supplements which it both desires and rejects: marginalia (as in medieval manuscripts), parallel columns of text (as in Kant's antinomies), parenthetical (and footnote) remarks that provide self-critical comments, ampliative material, methodological reflections, objections and replies, ironic juxtapositions, historical precedents and deviations, references to other texts, and so on. (329)



L6 If I set my sights on hypertext cultural contexts for rhetorical persuasion, outside of the realm of standard linear arguments yet make limited use of linearity within nodes, I believe this project has promise as part of a basic premise of cultural rhetoric, as framed by Stephen Mailloux as considering "the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture" (Rhetorical Power xii). From the standpoint of rhetoric, Kolb suggests that hypertext can be a viable form of persuasion,

. . . an accumulation of words and images and considerations that persuade the reader to adopt an attitude or a course of action, but this persuasive effect would not be controlled by a line that provides a route for criticism and rational evaluation in terms of the goal of truth rather than the goal of persuasion. (328)

How better to situate such a study than in the hypertextual, Internet-based cultural contexts in which it appears? As a creative performance of how one can (re)create a cultural space for ethos and persuasion in these spaces, I can attempt to use other techniques, such as McLuhan's mosaic approach, and parataxis, defined by Richard Lanham as "placing side by side," or "clauses or phrases [or lexias] arranged independently (a coordinate, rather than a subordinate, construction), sometimes without... the customary connectives" (108). I can attempt to build my case through "seepage," a kind of creeping realization of a persuasive point reiterated over and over until the sense of it breaks through. I can employ the kinds of supplements to the line which Kolb lists above, perhaps giving them a more central role.







L7 Why should I go to all this trouble for a dissertation that could be reduced to a group of themes reiterated through rich and various data? Why should I create this dissertation in hypertext when a conservative argument is all that is required? Part of my answer to that question is philosophical and part is personal. McLuhan quotes William Blake in the long poem "Jerusalem," "The Seven Nations fled before him: they became what they beheld" (265). In my methodology section I make a case for critical research practice, a practice guided by the assumption that I should not engage in data collection methods that contradict the theoretical positions I take in my arguments: in this case, the tenets of radical democracy. In my research I don't want to reenact the power imbalances and colonizing influences that I am working against. By the same token, if in this dissertation I am trying to make a case on behalf of the power shift and democratizing influences seemingly affected by parataxic hypertextual structures, if I am working to show that hypertextual, nonlinear, non-hierarchical, dialogic forms of rhetoric can be empowering for certain types of social movements and groups, and if I make that argument in a primarily linear, monologic, acceptably conservative dissertation form, I would run the risk that my very practice would work against and undermine my own theoretical argument. I would be caught in my own contradiction, a contradiction born of the "confusions and indecisions" of "living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of society and experience" (McLuhan 1). Instead, with this dissertation, I would like to enter into a new world of digital, hypertextual forms of persuasion.




L8 On the personal side, if I pretended that a linear argument were the last word in knowledge-making, I would be deliberately turning a blind eye toward other ways of knowing I have experienced. These personal ways of knowing in hypertext itself, in the realm of visual rhetoric as a photographer and a multimedia designer, in the expressivist realm as a poet while working intensely on my MFA, and as a woman from a matriarchal extended family of fluent nonlinear thinkers who experience the world in native hypertext. For me linearity is an elaborate and often frustrating form of code-switching, of translation. I love a good argument, but by my orientation the best arguments are dialogic and interactive, not monologic and linear. As Belenky et al. in Women's Ways of Knowing and the same authors in Knowledge, Difference, and Power point out, there are several "ways of knowing," not just for women, that often fall outside of the patriarchal culture's privileging of "separate knowing." According to the authors, "separate knowing. . . is characterized by a distanced, skeptical, and impersonal stance toward that which one is trying to know (a reasoning against)" (Goldberger et al. 5). Or, as Clinchy put it, "In separate knowing one takes an adversarial stance toward new ideas, even when the ideas seem intuitively appealing; the typical mode of discourse is argument" (207). Opening this dissertation to forms of "connected knowing" and "constructed knowing" as well as "separate knowing" is my goal here.






Bibliographic entry

L8a The most compelling argument for a hypertextual dissertation comes from my data itself and where it is situated. The World Wide Web is rapidly becoming the phenomenon of our age. Whether the new media technologies will fulfill the utopian promises of its theorists is open for debate, a debate I enter in this dissertation. Social factors will certainly affect media forms and interface constructions. But meanwhile, some scholars and a significant number of regular users claim hypertext is decentering and unsettling to many existing power structures. In this dissertation I look at hypertextual interfaces, as well as the social cultures that form within those interfaces, in an effort to determine if those power structures are actually being undermined, or if more panoptic, dominating, controlling forces will carry the day. The activist goal of this dissertation is to resist those forces of control and domination, and one way I am trying to resist is through the decentralizing and dialogic potential of hypertext. At the same time, I have not gone into nonlinearity completely, and as such, I try to exercise some control over my nodes and links in hopes that the persuasive effect will be reinforced by those structures. My aim is to take a middle position between freedom and control in the hypertextual interface, to strike a balance that will allow a dialogic form of persuasion to happen within more open structures than are traditionally found in dissertations. My hope is that the dialogic, hypertextual form of the dissertation will enter into and become part of the culture it presumes to study, to contribute to and give something back to the Xenaverse community.

L9 We can look at the example of the community of women, Star Trek fan fiction writers, who, prior to the advent of the Internet, transgressed against social and literary conventions in order to tell the stories that they wanted to hear, and to share them with a sympathetic audience, as described in Camille Bacon-Smith's ethnographic study, Enterprising Women. An important precursor to the fan fiction authors online and in the Xenaverse, these women wove a hypertextual web of stories without the electronic mediation to facilitate them. Their means were 'zines, mimeo-machines, and face-to-face conventions for sharing material and meeting others of like mind.


L10 According to Bacon-Smith, these women writers operated from a model of connectedness rather than separation (and thus literary distinction) in their stories. "The fanwriters know their work fits into a structure that includes both the source products and all the fiction that has grown up around them. That structure recapitulates within the body of literature and the blueprint for the structure of the community, and in turn creates that blueprint" (56). Or as Blake would say, "they became what they beheld." Their writing created the community. Bacon-Smith writes:

In the fan community, fiction creates the community. Many writers contribute their work out of social obligation, to add to the discourse, to communicate with others. Creativity lies not in how a writer breaks with the tradition of the community's work but in how she uses the language of the group to shed a brighter light on the truth they work to communicate (57).

 Bibliographic entry

L11 This dissertation circles back into the Xenaverse community in the same way, and many Xenites have been actively participating in this research project. In the Xenaverse, the writing not only creates the culture, it also brings the virtual landscape and its prevailing interface metaphors into being. Camille Bacon-Smith also finds meaning in structural redundancies, a key characteristic of the recursiveness of hypertext. She writes:


From a structural standpoint we can see that the linear story with a single narrative perspective per scene is so alien to this group that they use their fiction to 'correct' the error of linearity in the source products. The fanwriters see life as a sea of potentialities, many of which can be realized simultaneously, many of which spread out like ripples across the lives of others, and all of which must be encompassed in the literature if it is to express any kind of truth (66).

 Bibliographic entry

L13 In the end, my purpose is to attempt a somewhat more creative, performative dissertation, a hybrid between argument and narrative, a hybrid between parataxis and syntaxis. I want to be able to approach the truths that are outside the realms of linear arguments as well as inside of them.

L13a From a navigational standpoint, as I have noted, this dissertation is conservative and often tilts toward the side of linearity, especially when compared to some of the wilder experimentations in literary hyperfiction, such as from the "Eastgate School" and others. In this dissertation, mainscreen nodes can become long and fairly linear, despite embedded hot words within the texts. Still, in this dissertation there are features of hypertextual structure that one does not see on average web sites. Most commercial and noncommercial web sites follow a fairly straightforward outline structure which is often hierarchial, composed of lists and groups of nested menus. They don't often use hot words embedded in a text. The general tendency in web design, in 1998 at least, is to keep clickable menus and textual content separate. I have designed such sites myself. In this project I attempt to go beyond those conventions of contemporary web design. The structure of the dissertation superimposes two navigational systems on top of each other: one system in a map of major nodes, eight in all, and the other system of paths through extended threads, three in all.

L14 The eight major nodes can be found on the Navigational Map. The three threads are represented on the Icon Bar at the foot of this page (the fourth icon, the round Chakram, is the map link). The purpose of this rather complex structure is to anticipate multiple audience paths through the material, whether linear, systematic, associative, or random. My primary concern with this structure is that it have both navigational and content-related clarity.

L15 With a dissertation I can't be as free form and creative as I might be in a fictional piece. I have to find a way to ensure that the major points of my study are communicated through multiple paths and navigational styles. I can do that by building redundancies into my content for a holistic effect, but that is not the only method at my disposal. I can also build recursiveness into the structure, so that patterns of links lead the reader back around and around until unexplored sectors will almost inevitably be reached.

L16 Ultimately, that is the reason for the dual navigational structures and the dialogic frames design. They exist to accommodate multiple audience reading styles, and they exist to effectively cross-link all sectors as thoroughly as possible through the recursive flow of links, and the underlying structure which they conceal.

L17 To learn more about the specific details of the design of this interface, take Xena's Breastplate icon below. To read the story of how I learned about hypertext, take Gabrielle's Staff. To go to a more traditional introduction to the arguments that thread through this dissertation, continue on the path of Xena's Sword. As always, the round Chakram is the link to the Navigational Map.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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