The Lyrical Quality of Links

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Hypertext 99 Darmstadt Germany.
Copyright ACM 1999. 1-58113-064-3/99/2…$5.00]

This paper argues that hypertext might be a lyric rather that a narrative form. It proposes the close examination of explicit links as the starting point for a study of hyperfiction rhetoric.

KEYWORDS: Link, lyrical text, hypertext fiction.

It is a common experience for readers of hypertext to feel disoriented. While creators of non-fiction hypertexts struggle to keep their readers oriented and conscious of the paths they are following, hyperfiction writers seem to look for disorientation as a creative value. This has been noted of hyperfictions such as afternoon (2) or Hegirascope (6). None of the hyperfictions with which I am familiar make a concerted effort to orient the reader. They rather suggest a general (but undefined) sense of place. It is not that all hyperfictions systematically get readers lost so that they don´t understand anything. If the links are well done the reader should find a reward/sense (even if it´s surprising) in the next text space. Hypertext is about exploring the unknown. For a reader, it is less important to know where she is than to understand why she got there.

The structural importance of links is now clearly acknowledged in hypertext criticism. Mark Bernstein has proposed a classification of hypertextual structures based on the combination of space and language:

"Hypertext structure does not reside exclusively in the topology of links nor in the language of individual nodes, and so we must work toward a pattern language through both topological and rhetorical observation" (1)

He describes patterns such as cycle, counterpoint, mirrorworld, tangle, etc. that are very useful for the understanding of large hypertexts and the technology that makes them possible. Bernstein pays attention to the movement of the text in big architectonic schemes.

I would like to have a look at links on a smaller scale, to treat them as the bridges between one text space and the next. This bridge metaphor is apt to show the triple semantic nature of links. A bridge has its foundations in two shores just as the link is related to the text of departure and the text of arrival. The third dimension would be the bridge, the link, itself (what connotations it has).

What the link is (a word, some words, an image...) is not so important as the connotations it carries, that can range between the specific and the surrealistic. Some links are like headlines, but most are words that promise thematical continuity (Michael Joyce´s "words that yield"), which sometimes is also temporal continuity. For example, in the story "Firewheel", in the hypertext Samplers by Deena Larsen (5), links are words in the text with a special suggestive power (here in bold):

"Only a foreigner would live on this hill. Too many ghosts surround the place. Too many things to watch out for. And besides, the stairs are too dangerous. More than ancient. This is what they say when they think I am not listening."

If you click "they" at the end, you get a text space that starts: "They are the shopkeepers who greet me daily, laughing at my attempts at their language." The text space goes on, exploring what it means to be a foreigner. If we had clicked "ghosts", we would have gone to a different space talking about old traditions and an odd encounter which is later possible to follow almost linearly if you pick the right link... Samplers is also an example of the use of structures with an aesthetic end, as the patterns (that we can see with the Storyspace map) give clues about the meanings that each story explores. Another interesting feature of this hypertext is the poetic use of the "Links" dialogue box, as it contains path descriptions for each link that form poems on their own. This "independent" lyrical quality of links (considered apart from the departure/arrival texts) could also be exploited in the kind of link-destination preview mechanism described in Zellweger et al. (8). Zellweger´s article and Landow´s treatment of departure and arrival (3) insist on the necessity to help readers "discover what the relationship between the source and destination material is" (8), so that they can decide if it´s relevant to follow that particular link. They both refer to non-fiction hypertext in their analysis, but I think disorientation has a different (creative/positive) value when talking about hyperfiction.

Links are at the same time part of the departure text, where they are perfectly integrated, and an anticipatory glimpse of the arrival text. They define the relationship between the two text spaces. The contrast between what one imagines and what one finds can be rewarding because it is what one had expected (or because it isn´t!), but it should never leave the impression that the two spaces have nothing to do with each other. Links are semantic devices which convey a meaning themselves but also suggest another meaning, a development of the text that we have to imagine before seeing it whole. Links force us to think associatively and to anticipate meaning, when we click them we are connecting ideas, making meaning. The link is thus the measure of the reader´s expectations and the point where meaning shifts to form greater patterns like the ones observed by Bernstein.

We could look at links the same way Pilkington looks at poetic text. After him, poetic texts encourage readers to explore context in the search for an interpretation, rewarding them with the accessing of a wide range of implicatures. Instead of suffering with all this work, readers enjoy the process, this is "an integral part of the aesthetic experience that poems can offer" (7). Couldn´t we say the same about the way links work?

The lyric quality of links is not the only poetical feature of hyperfiction. There are a few other traits that can also be found in certain printed literature but are certainly distinguishing for hyperfiction:
- High level of textual consciousness for writer/reader
- Constant suggestion to lead associative movement
- Brevity of each individual text space
- An invitation to explore context following suggestion

All these characteristics point to a poetical quality of hypertext fiction that has been noticed before. George Landow writes in Hypertext 2.0: "Coover has expressed the idea that hypertext might turn out to be more a poetic than a narrative form, and many of the webs at which we have already looked, particularly those by Guyer and Joyce, suggest that such might be the case."(4)

Narrative form seems to be very appropriate for the printed page, be it to follow a linear organization of the text or to try to break the line with all sorts of structural procedures. It is not that it cannot be made in hypertext too, but to merely copy the printed page and do no more we don´t need hypertext, books are a pretty good tool as they are.

I see hyperfiction as a new form between poetic prose and poetry. It combines relatively long texts in complex organization with poetical structures and figures. We need a study of the relationship between links and the classical figures of speech, because links also imply different kinds of movements of meaning that could be classified like we do with metaphor, metonymy... The ability of hyperfiction to combine mental jumps with physical ones conveys a new poetical dimension that should be studied in relation to choice as another way of exploring context.

The close examination of explicit links could be the starting point for a study of hyperfiction rhetoric. This approach should take into account linguistic and literary categories, never forgetting the communicational point of view. The reader´s interaction is absolutely vital to our understanding of hypertext because readers choose to follow links. How do links work is a major question, and I think poetry can help us find an answer.

This paper is the starting point of a larger frame investigation on hypertext rhetoric financed by the Spanish Culture Ministry (DGES), project # PB97-0266.

1. Bernstein, Mark. "Patterns of hypertext", in Shipman/Mylonas/Groenback (eds.), Proceedings of Hypertext´98, ACM, New York, 1998.
2. Joyce, Michael. Afternoon. Eastgate Systems, Watertown, 1996 (1987).
3. Landow, George P. "Relationally Encoded Links and the Rhetoric of Hypertext". In HT87 Proceedings, Chapel Hill, NC, 1987.
4. Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1997. (p.215)
5. Larsen Deena. Samplers. Eastgate Systems, Watertown, 1997-98.
6. Moulthrop, Stuart. Hegirascope. 1995
7. Pilkington, Adrian. "Poetic effects" En Lingua n.87, 29-51. North Holland. 1992. (p.49)
8. Zellweger, Polle T./ Chang, Bay-Wey/ Mackinlay, Jack D. "Fluid links for Informed and Incremental Link Transitions" En HT98 Proceedings, N.Y: A.C.M., 1998.

To quote from this paper you have to use the following information:
- Tosca, Susana P. "The Lyrical Quality of Links", Hypertext 99 Proceedings, N.Y., Association for Computer Machinery, 1999.