Web Literacy: Theory and Practice of Reading and Writing Hypertext

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Excerpted from Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy

Nicholas C. Burbules
Department of Educational Studies


What are some different types of links?


"School is jail"
The term "metaphor" is potentially confusing, because it is sometimes used to refer to tropes and figurative language generally, and sometimes to one particular type of trope. In the narrower sense, metaphor is a comparison, an equation, between apparently dissimilar objects, inviting the listener or reader to see points of similarity between them while also inviting a change in the originally related concepts by "carrying over" previously unrelated characteristics from one to the other. Like simile, metaphor asks us to see one thing as another: "my beloved is a rose," "the city is a cesspool," "school is jail." Note that, like Web links, these relations tend to be predominantly unidirectional, though the second term is changed to some degree by the relation as well.

Web links can be read as metaphors when apparently unrelated textual points are associated: a link from a page listing Political Organizations to a page on the Catholic Church might cause a sense of puzzlement, or outrage, or insight - or it might be taken for granted unreflectively - but considered as a metaphor it might make a reader think about politics and religion in a different way.


Examples: http://www.suck.com/daily/2001/01/30/1.html


" Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet"
A second trope, often paired with metaphor as comprising the two overarching forms of figuration, is metonymy: an association not by similarity, but by contiguity, relations in practice. Baseball and football have affinities by both being sports; baseball and hot dogs have a metonymic affinity only because in American culture they often appear together (it would be possible to imagine that, say, hamburgers would be the food typically eaten at baseball games instead).

A Web link, almost by definition, has the potential to become metonymic, with repetition. Most users do not have to have it explained any longer that clicking on a pentagon-shaped icon will take them "home," that is to the index or entry-page of a set of interlinked pages. The icon could be, for example, a pyramid shape just as easily, and the language of return would be less domestic, and more vertically connotative. A page labeled "Vacation Spots" may take one to information about "How to Avoid Pickpockets." On a broader scale, the increase of clickable icons sponsored by private companies, crowding the screens of pages that have nothing to do with their product, creates a metonymic space that continually reminds the user that the Web is for sale, and that commercial interests (the fastest-growing category of Web page producers, by far) underwrite more and more of what is presented there.

Example: link to msn from slate http://slate.msn.com/ 
links to sub-topics on slashdot http://slashdot.org/ 


The mustache came to the bar.
Other tropes have a more specific, narrowly defined function: synecdoche involves figurations where part of something is used as a shorthand for the thing as a whole or, more rarely, vice versa: "the mustache came back to the bar and asked for another beer; he already had a six-pack inside of him." In the context of Web links, this trope is particularly influential in identifying, or suggesting, relations of categorical inclusion: a list of "Human Rights Violations" may include links to pages dealing with corporal punishment in schools, or vice versa.

This relating of categorical wholes to particular instances, or of parts to wholes, is a matter of key importance. The power to register superordinate categories to which particulars are subsumed is a special way in which conceptual and normative leverage is exercised over how people think. Because different categorical wholes are always possible, clustering and organizing available instances in different ways, and because identifying and adjudicating particulars as instances is a way of regulating them, such determinations need to be recognized as such and brought into question. Links make such associations, but do so in a way that often is not made problematic: yet because such categorical links are often the gateway through which access to that information is controlled, clustering and relating items in one way rather than another is more than a matter of convenience or heuristic - it becomes a method of shaping and restricting how people think about a subject.








my office was flooded with mail
One of the more familiar forms of figuration may be hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of tropic emphasis (or its opposite, understatement for the same effect): "my office was flooded with mail" (or, for the opposite, "it was a little warm in Egypt when we visited"). Anyone who spends much time browsing Web sites will recognize these as part of the basic vocabulary by which designer/authors seek to attract attention to their handiwork. But beyond this, and at a more subtle level, the dynamics of the World Wide Web are essentially hyperbolic (starting with its name): there is a tacit implication with each collection, each archive, each search engine, of a degree of comprehensiveness beyond its actual scope. For all its wealth and complexity, the Web comprises only a fraction of culture, society, and politics, world wide; its omissions are often quite glaring, but nothing in its self-descriptions, or its link attributes - "Movie Guide," "Dining in San Francisco," and so on - suggest that what is not included may be more important than what is.

Dining in San Francisco via Google http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&q=dining+in+san+francisco yields to http://www.bayinsider.com/restaurants/ 


whenever I fly in an airplane I feel trapped, as if I were a fly in a bottle

A less-familiar trope involves the repetition of a word - the "same" word - in a different or contrasting context ("whenever I fly in an airplane I feel trapped, as if I were a fly in a bottle"). Many Web links work in this way: using a particular word or phrase as a pivot point from one context to a very different one. Key-word search engines are based almost entirely on this principle. For example, in reading an on-line article describing someone's vacation to San Francisco, the term "North Beach" might be linked to a page of information about Italian Restaurants, on another to strip bars, and on another to the Beat Poets from the 1960s; the "same" North Beach in one sense, but in another sense very different ones, separated in time and spirit. The effect of such links, especially when the differences in context and significance are not made explicit, is to put all phenomena within the same semic space, eliding time, space, and discursive context, making all these information points simply grist for the contemporary reader.

Google results for North Beach: http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&q=north+beach+ 

There is a metonymic element at work here as well; as in those encyclopedias or calendar programs that connect together everything that happened on a particular day in history ("September 24: on this day, the President signed the Voting Rights Act into law; the Baltimore Orioles beat the New York Yankees 4-2; the movie 'Singing in the Rain' opened in Los Angeles; a housewife in Akron, Ohio won the Betty Crocker Cookoff with her recipe for Upside-Down Blueberry Cake; in Pakistan government troops used clubs to disperse a crowd of protesters; a panda bear in the Peking zoo became the first to give birth in captivity; etc."). As noted previously, one of the primary effects of the Web is such juxtaposition of apparently unrelated points of information and reduction of all to the same surface level of significance: a bricolage of elements, mixing the momentous and the trivial, the local and the global, the contemporary and the historic; inviting multiple - and frequently untestable - interpretations of significance that can be as personal and idiosyncratic as one wishes. As such points of information all pivot around a common date, or a particular location, or a given word, they are brought into an association that may, from different perspectives, seem arbitrary or trivial, or on the other hand meaningful and explanatory; at the same time, the pivotal word or concept shifts and broadens in significance. Antistasis invites such connections by invoking "the same" in a way that reveals difference.


http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/20011008.html or http://search.eb.com/history/ from EB.com 

or most of Dreaming Arnold (see http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/ioa/arnold/arnoldwebpages/dhaessay.htm


the woman who came into the office this morning is the surgeon who operated on my son last year
It may seem strange to include identity as a trope, but it is useful here to include it as a companion and contrast to antistasis. In associations of identity, the "same" linking point is used to highlight points of commonality, not difference. Where other tropes, such as metaphor or simile, invite comparisons of similarity across different items; identity denies difference and emphasizes equivalence ("the woman who came into the office this morning is the surgeon who operated on my son last year"). Such relations typically depend on realist assumptions about co-referentiality or on logical tautologies; but here I want to emphasize the tropic effect of such assertions in practical contexts, including the Web.

Unlike antistasis, which tends to highlight the ways in which terms or concepts change significance in different contexts, identity tends to hypostasize meanings, to freeze them, by suggesting the resistance of core meaning to changing context. In the context of the Web, such associations tend to draw lines of connection through pages, from different people or institutions, different cultures, or different countries, as if these reference points established a unifying net that spans the surface multiplicity of Web content and contexts. Beneath the particular instantiations of such an association is an underlying figure of interwoven unity and commonality; one image of the Web, but one that excludes and obscures at least as much as it highlights.


see http://slate.msn.com/SummaryJudgment/01-10-02/SummaryJudgment.asp  or EB link to World War I http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=118861&sctn=1#s_top (needs proxy) 

Sequence and cause-and-effect. 
These tropes, too, could be given a very literal and nonfigurative interpretation; that they indicate real relations, not simply allusive ones. But without engaging that dispute here, there is an effect of such associations, whether based on "real" relations or not, that may be indistinguishable from the reader's side. Links that suggest "this and then that" or "this because of that" (for instance, the rock music/drug use example mentioned earlier) do much more than simply associate ideas or information points; they assert, or imply, beliefs about the world outside of the Web.* But because they do not specify or explain such connections, but simply manifest them, they are more difficult to recognize and question; they are simply followed, in many cases, carrying the reader with them to inferences that often could be drawn quite differently, or could be criticized and rejected.



the belly of the river

This trope is in some ways the most interesting of them all. Though sometimes characterized as a "far-fetched" metaphor, or as a strict misuse of language ("the belly of the river," which I just made up at random), catechresis is the recognition that such apparent "misuses" are how many tropes originally begin - and that these novel, strange instances might spark reflections just as revealing and delightful as those one recognizes more readily (if a river can have a mouth, why not a belly? - perhaps the belly of the river rumbled - perhaps it is the point at which the river bends - perhaps it swelled, pregnant with fish). At a deeper level, catechresis is the originary form of changes in language generally: "far-fetched" uses of familiar words in a new context; slang; accidental malapropisms; street patter that purposely uses coded terms to mislead authorities ("horse" for heroin, etc. ) - over time, such uses become familiar and normalized, become "literal" (is "the hands of a clock" metaphorical or literal, today? (see Burbules, Schraw, and Trathen, 1989)).

In the context of the Web, catechresis becomes a trope for the basic working of the link, generally: any two things can be linked, even a raven and a writing desk, and with that link, instantaneously, a process of semic movement begins; the connection becomes part of a public space, a community of discourse, which, as others find and follow that link, creates a new avenue of association - beginning tropically or ironically, perhaps, but gradually taking its own path of development and normalization. It could be that, before long, a new word processing will be called, jokingly, "Raven"; or someone will hand-carve a desk, made with black wood, using bird shapes as a decorative feature; or the word "raven" will be used casually to refer to office furniture in general ("I wish these ravens would fly up here themselves so I didn't have to call the movers"). Far-fetched or not, such developments are indistinguishable from examples that we do not see any longer as "far-fetched" at all. Two key points follow: first, we never can know which uses will become accepted and standardized, so it is impossible to separate in any strict way proper uses from misuses (it may be simply a judgment made from within a particular time frame); second, the Web, because of its global and cross-cultural span, because of its linked architecture, and because it currently requires most pages to be filtered into and through a common language, English, will become (is already becoming) a major new avenue in which malapropisms, slang, and far-fetched associative links will become familiar and, before long, normalized.



And a very interesting essay on the politics of linking can be found at http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/research/whyuna.htm .

(The page at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/08/books/08OROU.html has no links but is a great read, nonetheless.) 



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last updated: 10/08/01 09:48 PM