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Author: Lewis Call
Title: Hypertext and the Postmodern Pedagogy of the Enlightenment
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 1998

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Source: Hypertext and the Postmodern Pedagogy of the Enlightenment
Lewis Call

vol. 1, no. 1, June 1998
Article Type: Work in Progress
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Hypertext and the Postmodern Pedagogy of the Enlightenment

Lewis Call

California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo

The World Wide Web makes use of a revolutionary new kind of writing known as hypertext. In hypertext, ordinary text is supplemented by electronic "links" which, when activated by the reader, access a different part of the electronic text, or often a different text altogether. Hypertext thus radically emphasizes intertextuality, i.e. the relationships between texts. The advent of hypertext has been trumpeted as a pedagogical gold mine by a number of literature instructors. [1] However, the instructional merits of hypertext have been conspicuously ignored by many other academics, including many of my colleagues in the historical profession. [2] I suspect that this is due in part to the perception that hypertext challenges some of the structures of power which are fundamental to the university. Many instructors consequently see in hypertext an implicit threat to their professorial authority. I intend to argue against this attitude by showing that hypertext can be a very valuable tool for college instructors. In 1996 I taught a course on the intellectual history of the European Enlightenment. My class met in a computer lab at the University of California, Irvine; during class meetings, students viewed lecture outlines, maps, images, and so forth on a Web page which I had written for the course. I would argue, on the basis of this teaching experience, that the World Wide Web represents an important new pedagogical resource, especially for those who teach the Enlightenment.

The presence of the World Wide Web in the classroom offers an instructor the opportunity to situate the ideas of the Enlightenment firmly within their historical context. This approach encourages students to view the concepts of the Enlightenment as historical ideas, as objects of inquiry rather than as universal truths. This strategy is meant to address one of the central problems faced by anyone who teaches the Enlightenment, namely that so many of the Enlightenment's ideas have become such a basic, fundamental part of our culture that it is often very difficult for students to understand that these ideas have a history. I will focus on two examples here, both from Descartes. Cartesian philosophy includes a concept of human subjectivity and an idea of space which have been so influential in Western culture that many students simply accept these ideas as truths. The presence of hypertext in the classroom, however, makes it harder for students to view Cartesian thought in this way. Hypertext presents students with ways of thinking about subjectivity and space which are radically different from anything Descartes ever considered; this helps students to understand that the Cartesian world view is a historical construction, not a universal truth. Hypertext thus enables what I call a postmodern pedagogy of the Enlightenment.

At the same time as hypertext radically emphasizes the historical contingency of the Enlightenment tradition, however, it also carries with it an emancipatory project, a project of human liberation which is very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment. This could be construed as an inherent limitation to the postmodern pedagogical approach I mentioned above. But I do not believe that this limitation is fatal. Jean-François Lyotard characterizes the postmodern condition as an "incredulity towards metanarratives," i.e. a refusal to accept the grand stories of the Western intellectual tradition, including those of the Enlightenment, as universally true (xxiv). Yet we must recall that the Enlightenment was not only about metanarratives. As Robert Darnton and others have pointed out, it was also about what we might call "micronarratives." Hypertext, which frequently operates on the level of small-scale practices (or what Michel Foucault calls "the micropolitical"), may enable an emancipatory project which is purely tactical and which does not rely for its sense of legitimacy upon suspect metanarratives.

It would obviously be problematic for me to structure my discussion as a "paper" in the conventional sense. If I were to do so, I would face the danger that (as Marshall McLuhan might say) my medium could disagree with my message. I have therefore elected to present each of my main points as a hypertextual node. I offer these nodes to you in what writers of HTML refer to as an "unnumbered list," that is, a list in which the sequence of the elements is not considered to be significant. I invite my readers to investigate these nodes in whatever order they wish. In this way I hope to take what is, I admit, a very tentative step towards escaping from the linearity of my own narrative.


1. See, for example, George P. Landow, "Hypertext in Literary Education, Criticism and Scholarship," Computers and the Humanities 23 (1989): p. 173-198. See also Seth R. Katz, "Current Uses of Hypertext in Teaching Literature," Computers and the Humanities 30 (1996): p. 139-148.

2. For an exception to this generalization, see Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier, "Historians and Hypertext: Is It More than Hype?," AHA Perspectives (March 1994): p. 3-6. The authors describe how they created and published a historical hypertext entitled Who Built America? Interestingly, however, even Rosenzweig and Brier seem reluctant to embrace the full possibilities of hypertext; they emphasize that in Who Built America? they "tried to retain some of the traditional features of a printed book" (p. 5).

Hypertext and the Critique of Cartesian Subjectivity


Any course on the intellectual history of the European Enlightenment is likely to include a discussion of Cartesian subjectivity, i.e. Descartes's idea that humans are rational, autonomous individuals. Working in a hypertextual classroom can give students a unique historical perspective on this concept. Specifically, the hypertextual environment situates students outside of Cartesian subjectivity. Hypertext demonstrates to students that they live in a world where Descartes's claim to have discovered the true essence of human subjectivity is now suspect. This makes it much easier for an instructor to talk about the Cartesian subject historically, i.e. as a concept which has a history, and whose history may now be approaching its end.

Jay David Bolter suggests that "philosophers who deny the individual ego special powers as the author of its thoughts are questioning the foundations of Cartesian philosophy. They are also exploring positions appropriate to the electronic writing space. . .Such a philosophy may be nothing less than the end of the ego, the end of the Cartesian self as the defining quality of humanity" (221). One would not necessarily want to try to explain to an undergraduate class how electronic writing and hypertext challenge the Cartesian subject-position's claim of universal validity. But on the other hand, students can begin to grasp this point even if the instructor does not explicitly emphasize it. Indeed, I suspect that students develop an understanding of post-Cartesian subjectivity every time they click on a hypertextual link. This is, after all, one of the most interesting functions of hypertext. George Landow argues that "as readers move through a web or network of texts, they continually shift the center—and hence the focus or organizing principle—of their investigation and experience. Hypertext, in other words, provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader" (11). The experience of hypertextual reading challenges the dominance of the Cartesian subject in a radical way.

Anyone who has spent much time on the Web would probably agree that it becomes increasingly difficult for Web surfers to think of themselves as rational, autonomous Cartesian subjects. Web users readily recognize the terminals they use as nodes on a network; these surfers also accept with surprising ease the seemingly radical claim that they themselves might constitute part of this network. The mouse which moves the cursor, the hand which moves the mouse, and the brain which moves the hand all seem to be part of the same postmodern creature, a cybernetic organism or "cyborg." Many Web surfers routinely encounter cyborgs in the pages of novels by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and other authors of "cyberpunk" science fiction. As Donna Haraway points out, however, the cyborg is "a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction" (191). Web users are cyborgs, in the sense that they are part of an immensely complex bio-electronic network. Students who make extensive use of the Web may therefore find it difficult to think of themselves as centered, stable Cartesian subjects. They are more likely to become "lost in cyberspace"; i.e., they are likely to experience their own subjectivity as de-centered, multiple, cybernetic and, dare I say it? postmodern. This experience encourages students to think about the Cartesian subject position not as something that is "true" in an absolute sense but as something which has a history.

Cyberspace versus Cartesian Space

Cartesian Vortices

The hypertextual classroom emphasizes the historically contingent nature of Cartesian ideas about space. Certainly Cartesian space and the Cartesian cosmology in general have been assaulted on any number of scientific fronts in the past several hundred years. Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian physics, quantum theory and chaos theory have reduced Descartes's cosmology to little more than a historical oddity, at least in the eyes of modern scientists. But undergraduate students are not accomplished Einsteinian physicists or chaos theorists, and many students still cling tenaciously to certain Cartesian scientific ideas as "truths." Most students are happy to denounce some principles of Cartesian physics as absurd: the idea that the universe is full of celestial fluid, or that it contains an infinite number of strange vortices, are easily dismissed by any student with a modicum of modern scientific knowledge. [1] And yet, perhaps surprisingly, many students still hold an essentially Cartesian concept of space. Most college students learned to manipulate Cartesian X, Y and Z coordinates in their high school geometry classes; this is one obvious way in which Descartes's ideas about space have remained sacrosanct. Students too often view this Cartesian co-ordinate system not as a mathematical idea which has a history, but as something which is simply "true."

The instructor in a hypertextual classroom has a rare opportunity to challenge this attitude by situating Cartesian space firmly within its historical context. Since the 1960s, media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida have been talking about changes in our ideas of space. Computer technology radicalizes these changes in a way which seems destined to place the Cartesian universe firmly into the (Web) pages of history. McLuhan suggested in 1964 that "today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned" (3). McLuhan was speaking of the changes brought about by media such as television, but he could easily have been writing about the Internet. Derrida argued in Of Grammatology that "the end of linear writing is indeed the end of the book. . .that is why, beginning to write without the line, one begins also to reread past writing according to a different organization of space" (86). Derrida wrote these words in 1974, when the Internet was still nothing more than an electronic bomb shelter, a byproduct of the Pentagon's desire for a computer network that could survive a nuclear war. Yet the postmodern voice has a strange prescience here, for hypertext does seem to portend the end of linear writing. Hypertext, after all, is writing which can be read nonsequentially, in an infinite variety of ways. And as Derrida suggests, this type of writing implies a new idea of space. The point which both Derrida and McLuhan seem to raise is that new kinds of writing and the growth of mass media make it hard to accept the Cartesian concept of space as a universal truth. If this was a valid point to make in 1964 or 1974, it is surely even more valid today. Today's Web surfer probably has a good intuitive understanding of "writing without the line." And the Net seems to model McLuhan's worldwide central nervous system almost perfectly. Web users are only a mouse click away from servers in Finland or Australia. Indeed, as long as the transatlantic fiber optic cables are functioning properly, the physical location of a Web server is almost entirely irrelevant to the postmodern surfer. Physical space is reduced to a two-letter abbreviation, the ".fi" or ".au" at the end of a server address.


Clearly, hypertextual networks provide us with a ready example of postmodern, non-Euclidean "space." The basic structure of these networks is very similar to what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus as a "rhizome" (7). [2] Deleuze and Guattari suggest that any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be; they offer this unique structure as an alternative or antidote to the binary logic-tree which, they argue, has dominated Western thought and precluded a true understanding of multiplicity. Since hypertext can theoretically connect any point in a network to any other, I suggest that the Web functions as a Deleuzean rhizome. This in turn implies that the Web can easily be used to contextualize Cartesian space, removing that concept of space from the lofty pedestal of absolute truth and situating it firmly within a historical framework.

By the time they enroll in college, most students today have already heard the Internet described as a physical space by their friends, their parents and Vice President Al Gore. One speaks of "cyberspace," the "info highway," and so on. The Web itself is usually described in newspaper articles as an "area" of the Internet, as if one might take a certain "off ramp" from the "infobahn" and find oneself in this colorful electronic neighborhood. Yet as J. Hillis Miller notes, "the Internet is not a 'space,' if one means by that a Euclidean manifold in which each thing is in one place and has identifiable relations by coordinates to all other things and to the borders that define regions within the volume" (31). So here is the problematic situation which students confront in a hypertextual classroom. They "know" that space means Cartesian coordinates, points in an X-Y-Z volume. Yet at the same time, they have at their fingertips a different world, a world in which space is not something physical at all. Students are bound to find this somewhat disconcerting, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, this sensation of postmodern vertigo, this feeling of disorientation, is the first sign that students have begun to move beyond what they are sure they "know" about Cartesian space. They are perhaps now ready to think about Cartesian space in a historical way.


1. For a good description of Cartesian cosmology, see Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: an Intellectual Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

2. See also Rob Shields, "Introduction: Virtual Spaces," in Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Ed. Rob Shields. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996, p. 9.

The Democratization of Information and the Implosion of Power

Encyclopedia Frontispiece

George Landow contends that "the history of information technology from writing to hypertext reveals an increasing democratization or dissemination of power" (174). If this is true, then the texts of the Enlightenment and the hypertexts of the postmodern age can be seen as related moments in the historical liberation of information. Dan Nguyen and Jon Alexander refer to the Internet as "an enormously liberating force working against hierarchies of all kinds. This is the democracy citizens in advanced nations always dreamed of. What people are creating on the Internet is a conversational, demassified, non-representational democracy that transcends the nation-state" (111). It can be quite interesting to explore this development with students. With their great Encyclopedia, Diderot and other Enlightened philosophes dreamed of distributing knowledge throughout the world—or at least, throughout that part of the world which could afford the Encyclopedia's prohibitive subscription costs. In principle, the Net would seem to bring us closer to this Enlightened dream of free, universal information. For one thing, the Net evades the material cost of book production. After all, it costs nothing to copy a computer file. Theoretically, the Net could therefore serve as an Encyclopedia of greater size and scope than anything Diderot ever imagined.

Despite the lofty ideals of the philosophes, of course, the texts of the Enlightenment were hardly available to everyone. These texts were read by a literate minority with the money to purchase books. Similarly, despite the claims of Landow and others that hypertext necessarily leads to democratization, the postmodern philosophes of today are often stymied by a commodification of information which is in many ways quite similar to what went on during the Enlightenment. As Mark Poster points out, "the system of private enterprise does not easily surrender to the liberatory potentials of historical circumstances. Every effort is made to commodify information, regardless of how inappropriate, unlikely, ludicrous, or inequitable are the consequences" (75). Frequent Web surfers know that many Web sites require a credit card number for access, and even "free" sites are often supported by advertising. Michael Joyce argues that this commodification of information extends into the university as well: "we ration hours [of computer time] among our students, and allot technological upgrades to our colleagues, accounting hours and upgrades alike as actual capital within an intellectual economy" (93). During the Enlightenment, social distinctions were drawn between those who could afford books and those who could not. Distinctions today exist between those who can afford a computer powerful enough to run Netscape Navigator 4.0 and those who cannot. It would appear that the electronic age has its own well-developed class structure.

And yet as Poster points out, the Net is also one of the few places where meaningful protest can take place today: "the factory site, with its massed, impoverished workers, no longer presents, for so many reasons, the opportunity of revolutionary talk. If contestatory language is to emerge today, it must do so in the context of TV ads and databases, of computers and communications satellites" (80). This suggests that electronic communication may make possible a radical new kind of revolutionary politics. Particularly interesting in this context is the fact that it is possible, on the Net, to speak from a position of perfect anonymity. Surely this helps to explain why so much language on the Net today is not only contestatory but also radical, shocking and bizarre.

Students in a course on the Enlightenment might be pleasantly surprised to learn that anonymity played a similar role in the political culture of eighteenth century France. Robert Darnton points out that some of the most radical printed texts of the Enlightenment had no author. "They were the public discussing. They expressed the on dit, or talk of the town" (Forbidden Bestsellers 80). One can scarcely resist drawing a comparison between the radical, anonymous pamphlets of the Enlightenment and the vibrant, perpetual conversation that takes place throughout the world on Usenet newsgroups today. Certainly Usenet is the public discussing, and this public, like its Enlightened predecessor, frequently says things that are quite scandalous, all from behind the cloak of a comfortable electronic anonymity.

Flag from Blue Ribbon Campaign

Of course, not everyone is delighted by the Net's free-flowing, worldwide conversation. One must consider here the recent attempt by the United States government to limit electronic speech through the so-called Communications Decency Act. Again, this invites comparison with the political culture of the Enlightenment. Net culture, much like the print culture of France during the Enlightenment, challenges the artificial distinctions which government attempts to impose upon it. The CDA claimed to be aimed against pornography—but where does pornography end, and where do politics and philosophy begin? Many feminists expressed justifiable concern, for example, that certain discussions about abortion could be labeled "obscene" under the CDA. Darnton points out that when we examine the turbulent political culture of the Enlightenment, "the seemingly self-evident distinction between pornography and philosophy begins to break down. . . .It no longer seems puzzling that Mirabeau, the embodiment of the spirit of 1789, should have written the rawest pornography and the boldest political tracts of the previous decade" (Forbidden Bestsellers, 21). The distinction between radical politics and pornography was not clear during the French Enlightenment, nor is it clear in today's Net culture. Indeed, Net culture almost obsessively promotes contestatory speech, including the "rawest pornography," and this seems very much in harmony with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Dancing Bear

What is interesting about these brief examples is that they show how the seeds of a postmodern micropolitics are to be found in the political culture of the Enlightenment. As Darnton has pointed out, the lasting political meaning of the Enlightenment may not lie in the supposedly emancipatory metanarrative of Rousseau's Social Contract. Rather, it may lie in the scurrilous scribblings of Darnton's "grub street" hacks (Darnton, Literary Underground). These political pornographers produced a micropolitical discourse which challenged power on capillary levels invisible to a Voltaire or a Diderot. For centuries, this discourse was lost, obscured behind the monolithic texts of the "high enlightenment." Now that the discourse of the "low enlightenment" emerges once again, we see this culture reflected in the networks of the postmodern age. We begin to see that modern power is most effectively challenged not by metanarratives which reinvent and reinscribe power, but rather by electronic micronarratives about ethnicity, sexuality, vegetarianism, Taoism or even the Grateful Dead, to name just a few.

In Place of a Conclusion

A conclusion is more appropriate to a printed text than to a hypertext. Printed text proceeds from introduction to conclusion in a linear fashion; hypertext is an infinite, rhizomic circulation of nodes. Nonetheless, the world of Gutenberg still has a certain resonance for us. Not yet fully cybernetic, we presently inhabit the space between print culture and hypertext. I therefore feel that I should make a few provisional concluding remarks.

Writing in 1979, when the Web was not yet even a glimmer in the eyes of the CERN lab's technicians, Jean-François Lyotard pointed out that "a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmitting established knowledge" (Lyotard 53). Naturally, many faculty members are likely to find this possibility quite threatening. Yet surely the fear that college instructors might be rendered irrelevant by computer technology is exaggerated. After all, as Landow points out, "this technology has the potential to make the teacher more a coach than a lecturer, and more an older, more experienced partner in a collaboration than an authenticated leader" (Landow 123). This transformation of the teacher's role may make possible a very exciting new form of instruction in which the students take a much more active role in their education. We do a tremendous disservice to our students if we close our eyes to new teaching techniques simply because they threaten hierarchies of power which are, in any case, quite suspect.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

—. The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s" in Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. xxiv.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Miller, J. Hillis. "The Ethics of Hypertext." Diacritics 25.3 (Fall 1995).

Nguyen, Dan and Jon Alexander, "The Coming of Cyberspacetime," in Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Ed. Rob Shields. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996.

Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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