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Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing

Author: Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Publisher: Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1997
Review Published: January 1999

 REVIEW 1: Joe Wilferth

Since Vannevar Bush's memex and Theodor Nelson's definition of hypertext in the 1960s, conversations surrounding hypertext and hypermedia as a mode of communication have been as diverse as they have been enlightening. Theorists and online practitioners such as Stephen Bernhardt and Patricia Sullivan have explicated the "shape of texts to come" while others have critiqued hypertext as a new medium.

Specifically, Jay David Bolter has argued that the computer provides a new writing space. Along similar lines, Myron Tuman has argued that we must not merely promote the old technology of print-based writing with the new technology made available by computers. And John M. Slatin has argued that hypertext is, in fact, a new medium which requires a reconceptualization of our traditional definitions of writing in terms of order and coherence. Most recently, however, Johndan Johnson-Eilola has addressed the ideas behind old uses for a new technology in his Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing as the author calls us to rethink hypertext as a medium unlike its close relative, print-based text.

Nostalgic Angels successfully speaks to both the initiated and the uninitiated on the articulation and rearticulation of one mode of communication in cyberculture, hypertext. It is a refreshing and reassuring book that blends postmodern and composition theory. It is not a book about that old binary (print = repression / hypertext = liberation); as the author tells us, "It is not that simple." Nor is it a book whose author argues for a celebration or rejection of the powers of the all mighty computer. Nostalgic Angels calls for our "reunderstanding of our relations to and within technologies."

In the early pages of his book, Johnson-Eilola takes time to define writing and composition as "not only traditional argumentation and prose style, but also the writing and reading of online documentation, the construction and use of vast online databases, and the electronic messages sent back and forth between participants in electronic discussions on bulletin boards, local area networks, and the Internet." In this sense, Johnson-Eilola not only offers a broader sense of what it is to write, but he also provides a broader study of literacy in this late age of print.

From this definition in the opening chapter, "Border Times: Writing and Being Written in Hypertext," Johnson-Eilola explains why this redefining of composition must include hypertext: "Hypertext provides vivid examples of the ways in which the activities of writing and reading are transformed and appropriated by widely divergent communities, each of which reconstructs general characteristics of hypertext in relationship to that community's goals. Hypertext, like every other text and technology is a social technology." In this discussion of hypertext (as a social technology) and its role in redefining electronic literacy, the author also repeatedly reminds us of past borders and boundaries we have constructed with and within composition and computer technology.

In addressing these historical borders (which were/are constructed in such a way that they have political and cultural implications) the author calls us to rethink hypertext writing in an attempt to reestablish borders or to do away with them all together. For these are the borders -- whether between author and reader, product and process, nature and technology, or literacy and orality -- that isolate and marginalize. Borders allow us to establish the "other" as something separate and perhaps less credible. "Those 'other' texts," the author writes, "the ones we allow to pass without critical attention because we think they are purely functional or lacking in imagination, may in fact be our ways of leveraging broad social changes." Considering social change as possibility, Johnson-Eilola writes, "Unless we are able to rearticulate our definitions of writing -- both to ourselves and to the world at large -- we risk increased marginalization in a world already moving beyond conventional, print-based textuality."

The second chapter, "From Postmodernism to Cultural Studies: Approaches to Critical Literacies of Hypertext," consists of the author's mapping of hypertext theory and practice as it has been and continues to be influenced by postmodernism. Johnson-Eilola's historical tracing of this relationship includes individuals and theorists from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson to Lyotard and The Postmodern Condition. The author's use of the term "hypertext" is that which was set forth by George Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Critical Theory and Technology -- hypertexts offering environments which stress the loss of context control, which make assertions of individuality, and which take part in social constructs.

Gracefully making his transition into the history of hypertext as a technology of the "little machine," Johnson-Eilola's third chapter discusses some hypertexts as they have been modeled after the print-based, linear book. This articulation of hypertext, as a natural evolution of or the "technological heir" to the print book, is "deceptively simple" according to the author. Johnson-Eilola calls us to rearticulate this idea of hypertext -- as the technically efficient form of the book -- in an attempt to see the political and social possibilities of hypertext.

In chapters four and five, "Economies of Hypertext: Digital Colonies and Markets" and "X-Ray Vision and Perpetual Motion: Hypertext as Postmodern Space" respectively, the author addresses space as a commodity, a space of/for print and a space of/for information. As the author points out, "colonizing" this space clearly has political and cultural implications. This space, however, may be thought of as geographical or geometrical space in which hypertext blurs the lines between reader and writer. "[R]eaders are no longer reliant on the writer to lead them temporally from border to border in the span of a tale; readers walk around, deconstruct and build, move over and under, exterior and interior."

Finally, in "Angels in Rehab: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing," his sixth and final chapter, Johnson-Eilola suggests, in light of the previous chapters, a potential "openness" hypertext might allow in which previously constructed lines of power can be questioned and de/reconstructed. The author's argument for the political and social implications are clear. It is also in this final chapter that the author addresses hypertext in composition instruction and technology in pedagogy as the catalyst for learning. "[W]e must ... remember that we are changed, that new potentials do exist, and that our use of hypertext in writing classes and elsewhere can be used to help students think about their writing and reading as social and political activities."

As readers and writers of hypertext, then, whether initiated or uninitiated, we might recall Myron Tuman and others who have stated, "There are many old uses for a new technology." Johndan Johnson-Eilola gets at the heart of this idea as he calls us to rethink and reconstruct new technologies minus the baggage of historical definitions of text, restricting definitions of hypertext, and the borders we have constructed with and within these technologies. But if we devilishly "allow our nostalgia to channel new possibilities into old pathways," how does one account for such an angelic title? "In hypertext," the author explains, "we are like angels without maps, suddenly gifted with wings discovering not only that we cannot find heaven, but also that walking made us less dizzy, that our new wings snag telephone wires and catch in door frames." Walking, then, is easy as it is the convention or the tradition. Let us not easily fall back into old modes of "walking" though. Let us rearticulate and reconstruct writing technologies in an attempt to find a critical literacy of computer technology, a critical literacy which might allow us "to not merely interrogate technologies as isolated mechanical objects, but also to critique (and reform) technologies as condensations or constructions of social and political forces in and across particular situations." Johnson-Eilola calls us to re-understand our relationships to and within technologies all the while keeping our wings intact though we fear falling and though we want desperately to get our feet back on the ground.

Joe Wilferth:
Joe Wilferth is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of English and Philosophy at State University of West Georgia. Currently teaching composition in a computer-assisted writing environment, his interests include computer technology and relationships between online authorship, literacy, and rhetorical theory. 

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