A Poetics of the Link
By Jeff Parker

“…some kind of actual space behind the screen. Some place that you can’t see but know is there.” –William Gibson

 

David Lynch refers to the continuous thick hum inhabiting Eraserhead as “the sound that you hear when there’s silence, in between words or sentences”—also known as “presence” or “room tone.” A similar kind of presence exists in hypertext, between its words and sentences, in the seemingly silent activation of the link. This presence, a kind of implicit association made (or not) in the reader’s mind, becomes a vital yet silent component of a hypermedia. This stands in contrast to the meaningless page turning—the navigational mode—of a print text.
     This presence is one of the aspects of hypertext that makes the reading of it a completely different experience from the reading of print. A link in hypertext is, from the reader’s perspective, a whole new literary joy, and, from the writer’s perspective, an aspect of form and craft to be used along with other stylistic and formal tools.
      When readers turn the pages of a book, they are getting from point A to point B. It is meaningless, merely a function of the distribution device that is the book, therefore on the whole invisible.  On this basis, Espen Aarseth makes the case for “ergodic” literature in the venerable Cybertext. Ergodic  literature as he defines it, requires non-trivial effort for the reader to navigate. The activation of a hypertext link, in his definition, is non-trivial. He does not take into account a reader’s more than trivial purview of his joy at languishing through the smell and sensation of pages in some traditional old book, or the difficulty with which some hardback covers must be creased and bent in order to get at those evasive sentences trailing off the inside margins. The turning of pages to some is a physical addiction akin to the Marlboro sufferer’s oral fixation. He must put something in his mouth. He must turn pages. But we’ll consider these readers old fashioned for the duration of this essay.
      Because Aarseth hits on something with this. The "inmates of the Eastgate school" of hypertext—those who’ve dominated the infant genre in both theoretical and artistic modes—have long discussed the link as merely a connector, a glorified page to turn, the <a href=“”>. A great disservice has thus been done to the potential literary application of the link by limiting it to the static, associative kind found in many of the early Storyspace writings. Links can be much more than this though; already we’re seeing dynamic linking situations, links which send queries to databases, links that do all kinds of things the early critiques do not envision or allow for them to do. Yet whatever a link might do behind the scenes, computationally, there will be some method of turning pages in hypertext/hypermedia, some method of saying I’m ready to wander further into this landscape.
      In setting up his discussion of a Cybertext’s navigation, the very trait that makes it ergodic for him, Aarseth writes, “During the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of reading do not account for.”
      Of course he does not really mean clicking some series of links incidentally conjures into existence some living beast beside the computer—though certainly one day, perhaps to illustrate this very point, there will doubtlessly be some program that does just that. Rather this presents a spatial way of looking at hypertextual navigation. Instead of thinking of the link as the connector between two nodes, consider it a space one has to cross and fill to get to the next node, an empty node between two already full nodes. This idea is touched on in Harpold’s The Contingencies of the Hypertext Link, when he writes, “What you see is the link as link, but what you miss is the link as gap.”

I would be committing the same sin as those before me by limiting the scope of the link to an underlined blue word—or a word whose underline appears when a certain elusive key is mashed. So I’ll try and put this in broad, inclusive terms. When a reader clicks/interacts with a hypertext and thus moves through that landscape, that reader, if only for a second, is forced to consider his teleportation. This is in part because all hypertexts are different, and every time a reader comes to a new one, he must learn how to read it. This is a unique position for both reader and writer, reader is looking for clues on how to read the thing, writer is looking for clues on how to write the thing.
      The navigation of these gaps is one of the first aspects the reader may begin to interrogate in a hypertext. One cannot go too far in a book without figuring out how to turn the pages, and part of figuring out how to turn the pages in a hypertext results in attributing meaning to that movement, in deciphering how the movement was effected.  This is far more nuanced than attributing some mere association to the connection of two nodes.  One could say that by traversing the gap that is the link, the gap is filled with meaning. It becomes a part of the text.
      As Gibson says, it is the space behind the screen—in this case, filled-in space or space to be filled in—a place that you can’t see but know is there. It might be a silence or a kind of white noise, a room tone. It is the link of the thing, much less than a physical construction, a less tangible component like story or plot, but still there. Call it linkage.

What exactly am I talking about here? It’s a good question. The linking schema, or, as I’m lovingly calling it, linkage, makes the hypertext. I use an introductory exercise on the first day of my beginning hypertext courses to make this point. Sampling from the closely intertwined short story collection Jesus’ Son  by Denis Johnson, I take about ten paragraphs and put them on separate webpages. I then link them together based on imagery, a kind of visual trope. For instance the word “blood” in one sentence will link to a node with a sentence with the word “mosquito” in it which links to a node with a sentence and the word “syringe” in it, and so on. We then read together the print text and the hypertext version and discuss the differences.
      Of course events transpire in a different order, but there is something more than simply that to this difference. Different elements are emphasized, others obscured. Even when the line-by-line text weights sentences or fragments differently via one or another stylistic device, the link can counter or reinforce such devices partially because of the way in which—on the Web at least—a link literally emphasizes text physically, but more so because of the missing information between the two nodes that is supplied by the reader when the link is activated and becomes part of the story. Readers are paying attention to different things based on where they've been. My students' assignment is to come up with their own linking schema for a ten-node hypertext version of the same Johnson text. Nothing fancy per se, just a rearranged version with some rationale (or anti-rationale) for the linkage.
      The next class we end up with as many different hypertexts as there are students. Some base links off people’s names or other image relationships, similar moments in different stories, even repetitions of grammatical structures—each text therefore emphasizes certain aspects, creating a different kind of linking presence, which becomes a part of the story.

To point out some of the ways author’s may use the links as an aspect of literary craft, I’m going to give examples of some rudimentary applications of linking strategies in a hypertext short story of my own, “A Long Wild Smile.” Some of these strategies speak to a kind of aesthetic effected by the linking, others to their function within the structure of the narrative. This is not intended to be a taxonomy of linking strategies, merely a glimpse at my own personal thinking as I craft the links in a story, my considerations of what I want to effect and how I see it effected through the link placement. I may be completely wrong. I'll accept that.
      To make sense of the examples, you may need a short synopsis of the story: The main structural layout of this piece is two texts side by side, both in the first person. One is narrated by the fiance of woman. The other is narrated by the lover of that same woman. The fiance text and the lover text. The latter has a very loose conception of language. The former a very structured one. The fiance, who lives in a different city than his betrothed, discovers the affair, and, being as he is getting his Ph.D. in human communication, decides to blow off the departmental project he’s been working on, the study of meticulously taped recordings of employees working in one office for a particular company. Instead he bugs his fiance’s apartment to "study" and analyze the interaction she has with her lover. The lover is a poet. For the most part each node has at least two links in it, one that links to its partner narrative, another that links within its own narrative. There are some nodes with three links, one of which links to magnetic poetry boards, another element of the narrative.
      Generally speaking, in my strategy, link types can be broken down into two kinds, functional links and those that produce a literary effect. (It is worth pointing out that while all my examples are word-based links, these effects can be achieved by using any range of multimedia textual objects.)

Functional Links

A Blatant Link.

A Filler Link

A Random link. There are any number of reasons authors use random links. In ALWS there are a series of sideways parentheses at the top and bottom of the screen. They alternate between bringing up any of the 40 nodes in each narrator’s text. The reason for their presence is that readers may get stuck in linking loops within the text—repetition also being a natural component of hypertext. The parentheses are there to break readers out of these loops and thus their purpose is solely functional. Of course, from a  reader’s perspective, what may have been purely a random arrangement by the author can develop meaning through any of the following literary effects or any relationship the reader may craft, especially if the reader is unaware she clicked a random link and assumes the teleportation was arranged. 

Of course there will be times the writer wants to instill a certain brand of astonishment and disorientation in her reader. And I think Bernstein is off mark when he says the very presence of the clear, Blatant link makes readers uninterested in following those that lead to astonishment.
      On to those that serve as literary effects—these are more difficult to point out outside the context of the piece, but this is the fun part.
      When discussing links that have literary effect, it’s important to reemphasize that the effect is not necessarily the meaning that comes from the turning of a hypertext page, the enabling of a link. It may not be, exactly, the relationship between the two text nodes that invokes the effect, rather something, this presence that manifests itself because of the relationship. The following descriptions of linking strategies may be subtle, but the effect I'm trying to create is not being handled by the text itself. It's being handled by the link.
      These other kinds of links, while they still perform functional actions, they seem to be serving a greater purpose. They are realizing their place as literary artifact in the text.

Links that Convey Literary Effect:

An Emotive (or Romance) Link.

A Lateral Link.

A Complicating Link.

A Temporal Link.

A Portal Link.

The question raised by all of this, perhaps, is: Would you, as a reader of my story, get it, without first having read this discussion of...this poetics if you will? And I would argue that, in many cases, you would, were you paying attention and were you aware that the link was capable of doing such things and not simply“turning” pages. We’ve got to get away from the strictly navigational  notions of the link. It is a device of navigation by its very nature, but it must be seen as a literary unit if the artistic practice of electronic writing is to advance. It is significant in the equation that equals the piece, whereas pages in a print text are not, as I’ve hopefully shown.
      These ideas about linking are one of the innate features that make hypertext its own genre. In some instances the link may replace tried-and-true literary techniques of craft; in other places it may enhance them or undercut them or work perfectly fine in conjunction with them. As a genre, hypertext cannot emerge from its marginalized place until readers know what they’re reading for and writers understand the language.


Works Cited:

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Noonday Press, 1980.

Bernstein, Mark. “More Than Legible: On Links That Readers Don't Want to Follow.” http://www.markbernstein.org/talks/HT00.html, based on a talk by Mark Bernstein for Hypertext 2000.

Harpold, Terry. “The Contingencies of the Hypertext Link.” http://www.lccc.gatech.edu/~harpold/papers/contingencies/index.html. First published in Writing on the Edge Spring 1991.

Montfort, Nick. "Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star." Electronic Book Review, 11. http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr11/11mon/index.html.

Parker, Jeff. "A Long Wild Smile." The Iowa Review Web. (Appeared alternatively in Drunken Boat and the online anthology Jumpin' at the Diner). http://www.hypertxt.com/parker/magnetic.

Rodley, Chris, ed. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber & Faber, 1997.

Solomon, Larry J. “The Sounds of Silence.” http://www.azstarnet.com/~solo/4min33se.htm , 1998.