14.0683 function follows form into argument

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Tue Feb 20 2001 - 04:30:45 EST

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "14.0684 politics and ethics of cyberspace"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 683.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance) (53)
             Subject: Re: 14.0681 function follows form, or not

       [2] From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA> (133)
             Subject: 14.0681 function follows form, or not

       [3] From: aimeefreak <ahm@ualberta.ca> (37)
             Subject: Re: 14.0676 function follows form?

             Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 08:33:03 +0000
             From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
             Subject: Re: 14.0681 function follows form, or not


    > As the 3 respondents in that issue of Humanist remind us, picking apart the
    > relationship between medium and message, tool and result, is very
    > difficult.

    There is a tendency in casting the question with hendiadys to miss

    > random page. How might an author respond to the navigational needs of the
    > online reader in the former circumstance?

    Okay so this navigation question taken from the point of generating a text
    is not exactly the same question as constructing an argument or
    deciphering the prose of suasion. Argument construction and reconstruction
    is a cognitive activity on either side of navigation. The one activity is
    akin to the collection of premises and conclusions into an articulated
    (i.e. logically linked whole), the other activity (critical navigation) is
    one of traversing the connections possible wholes or parts that can be
    generated. To use a technological example, to recognize/produce an
    argument is like pointing to a mass of working parts and joining the
    gesture to a speech act : "this is an engine"; to critically take apart
    the paths taken/not taken is like stopping the engine and tinkering with
    its components (with or without accompanying speech acts).

    How does your example of recognizing an allusion and choosing to look up
    explicit references differ from the activity of choosing to interrupt the
    flow of reading to look up an unfamiliar word? The essence of
    interruption is not in the medium. It comes comes from the choices made by

    > reference. What happens in a medium in which references must turn into
    > links, or not, with nothing in between?

    What happens in a _genre_ in the same medium which insists on intermediary
    nodes to guide navigation? A link is not a node. While Web browsing, users
    can operate more than one browser application and text may be copied from
    one node in one browser application into a search engine in other browser
    application. This is de facto a link and not unlike a reader stopping to
    look up a word in a dictionary --- especially a reader who has a notepad
    handy to record the results or even a pencil to mark the dictionary page
    reference in the margin of the text they are perusing. It seems very odd
    to compare a "detooled" reader of print to the computer user. Well,
    perhaps not so odd considering the old political economy that created a
    literacy divide between readers and writers and considering the struggle
    to design information exchange architectures that give as much bandwidth
    to uploading as to downloading (a kind of digital divide between surfers
    and digeratti).

    > thing, just that we cannot pry them apart, ever. Is this not the old
    > mind/body problem?
    No, see comment on hendiadys above. I read not only with my eyes but also
    with my fingers whether I'm reading on or off screen.

    > Yours,

    Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
    Member of the Evelyn Letters Project

    --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 08:31:44 +0000 From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA> Subject: 14.0681 function follows form, or not

    I wonder whether it might help us to shift for a moment from the perspective of composing and delivering an argument into the perspective of reading and assessing someone else's argument.

    In the former (i.e., composing) perspective, I'll admit, we live within an academic tradition that Adrian Miles correctly describes as privileging the term "singular linearity" for argumentation. Within this (composing) perspective, some of us admittedly have a tendency to want to foist upon our readers an absolutely singular and linear argumentative structure which structure is the standard format of the critical essay. And we tend to consider it of the utmost importance for our students to be able to master that format and compose in that way, and so we foist it upon them as well. Can hypertext change this? Perhaps, in that it invites us to break out of this rigid structure by actively enabling different readers to find different pathways through our own composition, including some that we cannot even predict as we are composing it. Granted. But, as I see it, the question being asked by Willard and so-far discussed here is whether the advent of hypertext either invalidates the former type of structured argument-delivery, or renders it obsolete, or both, or neither. And perhaps also whether hypertext can even really escape it, or wants to?

    I would suggest that putting ourselves at the receiving end of someone else's argument for a moment can help us clarify a few things. For the reader/receiver/user, the first task is always to determine whether you are even faced with an argument at all. Not everything that claims to be an argument really is; many things that claim not to be arguments, are. One might even agree with Jo Tarvers that "everthing is an argument, even web pages", in so far as (most) everything "out there" is out there in order to get somebody to do something. But consider the following imaginary case:

    I assign my students the task of assessing Descartes' "argument" for God's existence; and let's assume that I don't give them any text-references; they have to find it for themselves. They don't even know if there is such an argument, but they probably assume that there is, because I told them to assess it. Well, after a bit of searching around, they might go straight to a well-known, singular, linear chain of argument in the Meditations. But is that "the" argument? Did Descartes offer other versions? Did he qualify this one in later years? Did he perhaps tailor this particular version to a particular audience (say, the Dean and Doctors of Paris?), which he alters elsewhere for another audience? Off to other texts. Was he responding to any specific opponents, when he constructed this argument? Should I look at what they were saying? What did Descartes actually "mean" by "God"? Off to other texts. And how does that strange argument of his really work, anyway, now that we've identified it? Did he write his own summary, commentary or guide? Did others do so? Off to other texts. What do the professional philosophers have to say about it? The theologians? The historians? The ecofeminists? Off to other texts (including a visual tour of Renaissance France on cd, and a cool simulated visual overflight of Paris in 1650, from an imaginary balloon-cam). And finally: "Oh Darn! Why did I get a 'D'? What, you mean the key section was that convoluted, annoying section of the text? I skipped over that I just couldn't stand that section. Gave me a headache. Jeez, I hate Descartes!!"

    Now, my point is that, try as we might, we can't avoid these strategies when we try to make sense of anyone's argument, and neither could Descartes himself in composing it. He knew we would be using these sorts of strategies, though some of them he could never have predicted at the time he composed it. It is ultimately the readers who construct "the author's" argument, not the author. The author is just choosing means (i.e., tools) at his or her disposal to assist the reader in constructing ("the author's") argument in a certain desirable way. Those tools may or may not be effective, and the author never knows who all his or her readers will be, and whether they will be able to use those tools effectively. Standard critical essay format and standard footnotes are there for the sake of control, no doubt. But that's because what they are communicating (in this case, an argument) is difficult, and requires a sustained and skilled effort from both the reader and the author to avoid going awry, into dissolute ineffectiveness. These tools make it easier. But authors have never been able to control the process completely. Readers have always been able to read hypertextually (including using other tools than the ones recommended by the author) and have often, maybe always, done so (both for better and for worse). It is worth noting that what I just called "dissolute ineffectiveness" might turn out to be of benfit to the reader in a way that the author could not anticipate, which might be gratifying to the author but is none the less ineffective at communicating his or her argument.

    Highly skilled authors have always been able to compose multilinear texts, even multilinear arguments, without the assistance of computers. Plato is a good example. Depending on the reader, he or she will get an entertaining narrative (i.e., a story), an engaging plot, a sophisticated myth, or one or more arguments. To say that only one of these paths (the "main" argument) is all the dialogue is about has never been justified, despite the sustained efforts by generations of academic philosophers. Plato somehow manages to intertwine all of these strands effectively, opening his text to various types of readers with different meanings (but, in the end, very similar effects) for all of them. I don't see how today's hypertext really changes this at all, except perhaps by giving those of us with less meteoric talents access to these methods. But this success of Plato's required consummate skill; can we expect less of ourselves?

    So, does hypertext undermine an author's act of communicating an argument, or enable it? The answer would appear to be "It all depends on how you use it." People who think of hypertext as ushering in something like a new, democratic age in communications are probably correct, in a way. Certainly, hypertext links provided by an author (editor, publisher, carrier) can lead the reader to information outside the author's control, and even outside the author's intent; this could conceivably have wonderful effects in collapsing double-speak and neutralizing propaganda and advertising strategies. Which is precisely why you'd expect those sorts of authors to be very cautious in deploying hypertext against us. Loose cannons can fire backwards. Well, the same thing goes for any argument. Loose use of hypertext can only encourage one's reader to miss the point (i.e., your argument). And unless your aim is, in fact, something other than to argue, then what's the point of composing such a text in the first place?

    Presumably, the skilled use of hypertext in argument will have a number of purposes, like demonstrating one's openness to criticism by pointing the reader to other sources outside the particular piece (or "page"), or by supplying additional information, or by juxtaposing ideas. But that's what footnotes do, as well as allusions, metaphors, name-dropping, and any number of other textual devices. If by contrasting footnotes with hypertext, we mean to emphasize the ability of hypertext to link the reader to independently created and maintained info sources that are rapidly evolving or otherwise outstripping any author's anticipations in referencing them, then, again, why would you ever use such a device, as an author?

    And as for the skill of being able to compose & deliver arguments: Do we need to be teaching them to our students? You'd better believe it! Because without the ability to separate-out the strands (i.e., singular, linear chains) of logic from this pluralistic hypertextual fabric we all live in, they will either just be drawn along by the strands of others (drawing still others after them), or, even worse, be tugged about in all directions at once, into dissolute ineffectiveness. The liberating effects of hypertext, I suspect, will really only accrue to those logically savvy enough to secure their own opinions in the face of all the snares set by others. Multi-linearity, poly-valence, open-endedness, indeterminacy none of these things is incompatible with the existence of, and the need for, the logical unity and logical linearity of traditional argumentation and the ability to use them effectively in text.

    Steve Robinson


    Dr. Steven Robinson Assistant Professor Philosophy Department Brandon University Brandon, Manitoba R7A 6A9 CANADA

    (204)727-9718 <ROBINSONS@BrandonU.Ca> FAX: (204) 726-0473

    --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 08:33:37 +0000 From: aimeefreak <ahm@ualberta.ca> Subject: Re: 14.0676 function follows form?

    hello willard and humanists;

    here's a snip of willard's email that intrigues me:

    >Our own conditioning is so >strong that even we are apt to see determinisms where they do not exist >outside our own heads. Of course one can swim upstream, but the subtle (or >not so subtle) force of the flowing water is against the swimmer. Is the >Web pushing us in another direction altogether?

    i wonder: what is 'the Web' that it can push 'us' (however we would define this, and i'm not sure if willard means English instructors, computing humanists, or the populace at large)? is this construction not indicative of another sort of determinism? as i understand it, the web is a collection of online digital documents/texts. so far as i can tell, it has no agency.

    this remark of mine does not, i will admit, answer the original question about how to deal with a student who sees web authorship as opposed to 'traditional' argumentation. it does, though, i feel, cut off one means by which we might seek to escape answering the question: by ascribing agency to the Web, by claiming that some of its qualities are 'immanent' within or 'natural' to it (and ironically, this is often done by the same constituency that would have us believe that the Web is anarchic and ungovernable), it becomes too easy to cover over the material histories of use (and the attendant ideological underpinnings) that make such a reading of the web as narrative rather than argumentative possible.

    the next thing i would want to know would be: why is the assignment a web page? is it so that the usually one-way communication of written work between student and teacher is expanded (broadcast medium)? is it to practice building web pages (practical training)? what? if the student understands web pages to function in certain ways, according to her experience, and it is not clear to her how it is meant to function differently in this particular case of the argumentative-paper-web-page, she has good reason for confusion. and these reasons are entirely cultural/intellectual, and not technological, per se.

    thanks. aimee +++++++++++++++++++++++ Aimee Morrison "Things are going to get a lot PhD Program, Dept. of English worse before they get worse." University of Alberta --Lily Tomlin

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