Resistance Through Hypertext: ACTing UP in the Electronic Classroom
Resistance Through Hypertext: ACTing UP in the Electronic Classroom
Laura Sullivan and her students explore webwriting
and content provision as activist tools.
Rosemary Hennessy challenges progressive academics “to return cultural studies to the fundamental category of capital” (83). To do so will mean going against the dominant tendencies within a discipline which often “produces ways of understanding that exile meaning-making and identity in the realm of culture, sheltered from any link to capital or class” and thus “reiterate[s] a cultural logic that has been one of capitalism’s most potent ideological forms” (83). My work in the electronic classroom has tried to avoid the kind of cultural studies that Hennessy describes, even if many of her charges apply to dominant trends within electronic pedagogy. To use the Web and hypertext as sites of resistance, I believe, necessitates a critical look at the field of computers and writing. Most discussions of cyberpedagogy are not only celebratory; they also naively replicate the logic of contemporary capitalism. For example, as Hennessy notes, “knowledges that promote…neoliberalism” include “the advocacy of entrepreneurial initiative and individualism - in the form of self-help, volunteerism, or morality rooted in free will and personal responsibility” (78). One way that this neoliberal logic comes through in the discourses about electronic classroom experiences is in the emphasis upon the “empowerment” of students through, for instance, hypertext authoring and navigating, as if mapping one’s hypertext writing processes or choosing which paths to view were themselves inherently liberatory activities.
Michael Joyce, for example, often echoes this type of logic. Writing about Storyspace, a software program that enables hypertextual writing different from that on the World Wide Web, Joyce celebrates hypertext as a form for many of the same unmaterialist reasons as other teachers of electronic writing. Storyspace is a text-oriented writing software program developed by Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce, and John B. Smith and marketed by Eastgate Systems (Douglas 175). Storyspace differs from the form of hypertext on the World Wide Web in the following ways:
*Readers of Storyspace documents can add elements to the text.*Storyspace pages are connected in a myriad of ways, producing a textual arrangement that is exceptionally web-like.*Storyspace provides a graphic image of the “map” of the space as the reader has so far traversed it.*Storyspace “readings” change every time; the linked pages are not arranged in a fixed way/order.*Storyspace writings can contain “guardfields” - conditional links that specify that a reader must view a particular page or series of pages before the specified page or series will be available.There have been some complaints about the density of connections within Storyspace documents, for example, about some hypertext fictions that were created with this software and that contain hundreds, or even 1-2,000, links. For lucid, interesting explications of many such narratives, see Jane Douglas’s The End of Books.My point in this section is not to collapse Storyspace hypertexts and more traditional World Wide Web forms of hypertext into one, but rather to note that the politically problematic celebratory logic that is so common in discussions about the uses of hypertext operates in relation to both types of hypertext. It is also worth noting that Joyce rarely distinguishes between Storyspace and other forms of hypertext in Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics; in his book, Storyspace hypertext is the only form of hypertext.We should also note that many of the elements valorized by teachers in electronic classrooms also replicate the logic of distance education advocates. He reveres the way that hypertext creation enables reciprocity and the overturning of hierarchy. He asserts that “constructive hypertext,” because it “requires a capability to create, change, and recover particular encounters within a developing body of knowledge or writing process,” counters the presently “consumerist” nature of hypertext (101).
Yet, exactly how is Joyce using the concepts of “production” and “consumption”? Both occur at the level of the hypertext’s creation and reception; blurring these processes and making them collective is what makes hypertext progressive in the eyes of critics such as Joyce. While students do gain both knowledge and confidence in the act of hypertextual production, however, production in the wider sense is likely to be lost on them. The “consumer culture” that Joyce critiques involves more than just the passivity of typical hypertext reception which he contrasts to Storyspace’s capacity that allows readers to contribute additional input to hypertexts; its logic obscures the site of exploitation in capitalism: production and the extraction of surplus value. In the popular discourses about hypertext’s potential, class, as related to the structure of exploitative labor relations, is nowhere in the picture. Resistance takes place only at the level of signs, without their connection to the structures that produce both them and subjects.
Writing through Media
In this essay, I describe my experiences teaching a series of Writing through Media courses in the University of Florida’s Networked Writing Environment. The demographics of both student and teacher are important to keep in mind. My current students at the University of Florida, the third-largest institution of higher learning in the U.S. with over 45,000 students, are generally of middle- and working-class backgrounds, predominantly but not exclusively white, with typically bourgeois ideologies and pretensions. They are almost always between 18 and 22 years old. In introductory level courses such as the one under examination here, I have never had what can be considered an “untraditional” student, a student who is older than her mid-twenties, or who is returning to school after raising a family, for example. Different configurations of student demographics would necessarily lead to a rethinking of the design of this course, which is an attempt to reach the students where they are at, so to speak.
Moreover, at this juncture, I am still a student myself - albeit at an institutional level different from that of my students, as a doctoral student in a challenging graduate program. Nonetheless, I do believe that my own student status helps me more successfully teach this course. For one thing, I emphasize the common position of my students and me even while I acknowledge the differences. Also, my experience as a long-time activist in the academic labor movement, locally as co-chair of the organizing committee of our union, Graduate Assistants United (GAU), and nationally as 1998 president of the Graduate Student Caucus of the MLA (GSC-MLA), have served me well in the creation and realization of this course. In fact, one of the incidents pivotal to my understanding of this course and of the relationships between undergraduate students and academic labor occurred during a GAU Speak-Out on the Coalition of Graduate Employees Unions’ National Day of Action in February 1997. I was giving a speech, and many of the students in the first incarnation of the Media Activism course were sitting in the grass of the university plaza listening. When I looked at them, I found myself articulating the position that students’ work is labor and must be articulated as such in activist efforts. It was initially the realization that I cared deeply about these students that led me to continue developing this course and helped me to consider making the political economy of higher education its central topical focus.The point is not that one need be a graduate student to teach a course such as this with success, but rather that the subjective positions of both students and teacher come into play in the very design of the course. Furthermore, electronic pedagogues who occupy other positions than that of graduate student can still emphasize how they, as well as their students, are caught up in an exploitative institutional situation, even if differently affected. Drawing upon the teaching strategies developed by media theorist Gregory Ulmer, I use a series of media texts - both verbal and visual - as relays (or models) for designing another text. Focusing on political activism and mass media, students in my class examine such activist media texts as the videos of Paper Tiger Television; websites, letters, and stories of the Zapatistas in Mexico; media campaigns produced by the AIDS activist group, ACT UP; protest art, as exemplified in the book Decade of Protest: Political Posters from the United States, Viet Nam, and Cuba 1965-1975; public art activism, such as the National Clothesline Project; media campaigns related to the garment industry as detailed in the book No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers; and activist autobiographies, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row. The class reads and views these texts and collectively extrapolates their hidden and unintentional “instructions” for our final projects, in which we design and invent a new form - the activist hypertext. Our relays suggest that, like the activists we study, students must bring to their hypertextual production both personal passion and information gleaned from research on their topics.
The course is centered around the political economy of higher education, as this topic is centrally connected to the material conditions of students’ lives, and as the hypertexts combine autobiography with activism. I want students to critique capitalism and its dominant ideological messages and to think through the ways that their personal beliefs and daily interactions are related to the socioeconomic structure. I require that their activist texts be concerned with some arena of higher education. In Freirian fashion, the content of the course and of student work is directly linked to the material conditions that influence students’ daily experiences (McLaren 143). However, while I create courses and assignments that encourage students to draw upon their personal experiences and that emphasize changes in student consciousness, I work to avoid the depoliticized version of Freirian pedagogy described by Peter McLaren:
Where Freire was implacably prosocialist, critical pedagogy - his stepchild - has become (at least in classrooms throughout the United States) little more than liberalism refurbished with some lexical help from Freire (as in words like `praxis’ and `dialogue’) and basically is used to camouflage existing capitalist social relations under a plethora of eirenic proclamations and classroom strategies (xxv).
In keeping with Freire’s activism core, I situate the course within a Marxist understanding of the central role of the organization of labor under capitalism. The contradictions of capitalism are especially evident in the educational system, not least in the daily frustrations experienced by our students. To try to help students connect these two realms, socioeconomic structure and daily experience, I provide them with information and with thoughtfully and collaboratively designed (hyper)textual experiments. I contextualize our own participation in a high-tech environment and share concrete information about the state of higher education, especially as relates to changes in the political economy. I lay out an explicitly systemic, i.e., Marxist, framework for making sense of this information. I design experimental electronic projects that enable students to explore - both analytically and emotionally - how deeply this exploitative system influences their daily lives.
Context for the Course
One of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism is that it does not - in fact, cannot - meet most people’s basic needs, either physical or affective. As a result, capitalism needs the production of ideologies that counter this fundamental aspect of this economic structure, or that, at the very least, rationalize the existence of what Evan Watkins calls the “throwaways” of society, “whole groups of the population who are being identified…as obsolete” (14). As Hennessy explains, “the success of neoliberalism is directly related to the triumph of ways of knowing and forms of consciousness that obscure its enabling conditions” (78). One popular strategy for concealing the effects of higher education’s increasing privatization originated in the 1990s and promoted a picture of the university as the unholy site that houses leagues of “tenured radicals,” to quote the title of Roger Kimball’s 1990 book. Hennessy describes how universities are depicted from this perspective: “as unorganized bastions of progressivism. Often represented as the last shelter of the fragmented left, universities have been linked in the public imagination with `politically correct’ challenges to traditional values” (78). This picture is not only highly distorted and inaccurate (Hennessy 78); it also prevents critiques of other political dynamics. For example, as Carol Stabile demonstrates, this focus on “political correctness” diverted the public’s attention away from the egregious actions of the Bush administration in the undertaking of first the Gulf War (“Another Brick”).
Administrators and politicians who design and implement the policies that govern institutions of higher education employ another currently popular neoliberal ideological strategy to deal with the changing role of such institutions. They capitalize upon the cultural valorization of the logic of individualism, the social Darwinist thinking that permeates political rhetoric and the mass media these days. Contemporary students often enter universities with the liberal belief that they can “get ahead” economically if they just “work hard” and apply themselves. They are rudely awakened, right away, at schools like mine, obscenely large research universities that routinely rush students through an ever-more-technically focused education. However, they are without any framework through which to interpret the discrepancy between their expectations and experiences. My course seeks to address this discrepancy and to provide students with explanatory models and ideas. I find the electronic classroom environment, and the hypertextual form in particular, to be especially helpful in achieving these pedagogical goals.
A course that asks students to investigate the political and economic dynamics of higher education needs to be based in an acute awareness of the positions within capitalism that college students currently occupy and needs to foreground these elements within the course itself. Students are caught up in the intensified squeeze on public services (including the tightening of budgets for public education), the increased downsizing and outsourcing, the global restructuring that involves the relocation of labor to the South and to the East, and the continually rising rates of unemployment. College students are positioned as both commodities and consumers. Universities increasingly view students as “inputs” and as “products” in an overtly corporatized model of how institutions of higher learning should function (Rhoades and Slaughter 39). Student credit hours become income generators, helping to secure more state funding, for example. While students are wooed as “customers” of the educational experience, with glossy brochures and resort-style preview tours, they are also viewed in objectified fashion as commodities themselves, as the shiny products of the rationalized learning experience. At the same time, students are viewed by capitalist corporations as a crucial, burgeoning market, as evidenced in the plethora of advertisements directed at young adults, aged 18-25. Commodities are offered as substitutes for agency - “freedom” is equivalent to the “freedom” to buy and the “freedom” of commodified style. (Reflecting this naturalized equivalency, one youth-oriented Tommy Hilfiger cologne is called simply “Freedom.”) Credit card companies barrage college students with their advertisements and “pre-approved” applications. I discuss these developments with students and ask them to consider their place within this picture.
This media activism course is also situated within the larger picture of resistance efforts that focus on higher education. Most models of academic labor activism neglect to consider the important role of undergraduate students in our struggles. Because our students are, like all of us, victimized by the slashing of funds to higher education in the U. S. and by the radical restructuring of the academy into an ever-more technically focused R&D arm for the corporate sector, they make excellent allies in our academic labor efforts. To build an effective movement that cuts across all levels of labor at the university level, we must also include those whose labor is mostly invisible and unrewarded: our students. I designed this course - and the activist hypertext project that is the course’s central assignment - with these connections in mind.
I begin by reminding students of the social and economic context that forms the backdrop for our meeting in the electronic classroom. For the oppressive roles of technologies of cyberspace cannot be forgotten by progressive pedagogues who hope to utilize these technologies for ends more liberatory than those envisioned by transnational capital. A materialist electronic pedagogy should avoid technological determinism in both positive and negative senses, recognizing, as Jesse Drew points out, that new media technologies are always contested sites where there is a struggle between private and public interests. Cyberspace is such a site at this point in time, and the Web in particular is the place where commercial and public entities vie for control. Thus, using the Web for progressive projects does not occur in a vacuum, but rather occurs within the context of this larger arena of contestation. At a very basic level, dynamics of capital come into play in the very classrooms in which we teach, in the very fact of the access we have to technology that enables us to create and view hypertexts.
Computers are used in education to reinforce a cognitive psychological model and the logic of consumerism. Monty Neill explains that, “Cognitive psychology is more useful [than behaviorism] to today’s system, which needs workers to think for the system and to think differently, manipulating abstract symbols” (189). Writing in 1995, Neill predicts that computers will not be used by educational institutions to help students become adept at critical thinking, but will, instead, “produce the human as puzzle-solver” (192). He explains:
The McDonald’s level of familiarity with technology requires no actual knowledge of computers or much thought. Data-entry (with the computer monitoring your speed) and similar work does not require higher-order thinking. Schools will train students to sit in front of computers and do routine work in direct preparation for their jobs. For them, this will be their real-world learning connection (188).
My students read Neill and other critics who document the ways that capitalism is using computers in education and labor in order to maximize profits, so that in our course we do not replicate a naively utopian logic that promotes new media technology as a panacea for world problems. As with all contested technologies, there are uses of computers that are potentially progressive. In her trenchant analysis of the problematic nature of both technophobic and technophilic feminisms, Stabile reminds us that technology’s liberatory potential is historical; that is, such potential depends on how technology is situated within a social structure and towards what purpose it is employed (Feminism). I am interested in the way that technologies of cyberspace - particularly hypertext and the World Wide Web - can be used as tools to enable people to critique the existing society more effectively.
The course addresses a central problem with which recent Marxist theory has been concerned: the role of subjectivity in exploitation and in superstructural mediations of the inequality engendered by the conditions of production under capitalism. From Louis Althusser to Fredric Jameson, Marxist thinkers work to articulate how oppressed subjects can act to change the world - the question of agency. Employing theories from both cultural studies and media studies, we problematize the mass media’s role in the ideological side of social control and investigate possibilities for resistance. Students study the media’s techniques of persuasion and manipulation, as well as activist attempts to use the media’s own conventions (such as those in advertising) for subversive ends.
Course assignments build upon one another throughout the semester and all assignments contribute elements to the creation of the final project hypertexts. The course is structured so that we address its two threads - higher education and media activism - throughout the term and then weave them together in the final hypertexts. I ask students to think critically and aesthetically at the same time, which requires a classroom environment that functions both as a seminar and as a kind of art studio where we bounce around ideas for textual design strategies as much as we consider the specifics of the activist causes that we study, including academic labor activism. I believe that encouraging each other to cultivate both our intellectual and creative capabilities, and our confidence in them, is crucial to any activist project. The assignments in this course - “Fragments of a Student’s Discourse,” advertisement analyses, research papers, and the culminating final project hypertexts - provide students with just such encouragement.
“Fragments of a Student’s Discourse”
The first assignment is itself the product of a heuretic method. As described in TextBook, an innovative composition and literature text authored by Nancy Comley, Robert Scholes, and Gregory L. Ulmer, we borrow the techniques used by Roland Barthes in his Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse to design something called “Fragments of a Student’s Discourse” (211-219). This exercise demonstrates in miniature how to use a text as a “relay.” We take the textual form of Barthes - his use of numbered paragraphs for each “figure” and his interweaving of personal reflections and experiences with references from cultural texts - and apply it to the realm of higher education and to the experience of being college students. The “Fragments” get us started towards one of the goals for the course and the final project hypertexts, to explore “how psychic investments are socially produced” (Hennessy 87). Student figures in these fragments’ assignment include such topics as “confusion,” “procrastination,” “insomnia,” “escape(ing).”
I also require students to put their “Fragments” on the Web, primarily so as to demystify hypertext and Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) at the onset of the term. Students typically enjoy writing these fragments, probably because these texts describe their own personal experiences and because they employ narrative and creative styles of writing. They also gain valuable confidence in their own abilities as creators of documents that employ HTML and are featured on the Web. Although these fragments are written individually, students view each other’s work on the Web, and, as a result, the documents come to be a kind of collective statement about the way that students’ experiences are not isolated or divorced from institutional organization. I want the students to begin to think that their struggles with school are not “just about me” - that they might be interpreted through frames other than that of personal inadequacy.
Advertisement Analysis and Reworking
The next assignment focuses on one of the primary types of media texts studied in this course, advertising. Young adult students are sophisticated analysts of advertisements, having been surrounded by such texts all their lives. Moreover, the dynamics of advertising are central to the ideological workings of contemporary capital and as such must be critiqued. At the same time, there are gaps within these texts that can be mined for more liberatory, perhaps even revolutionary, thinking. Finally, the logic of advertising is similar to the logic of hypertext in that it incorporates an emotional, imaginative, experiential dimension. We follow the practices of our activist inspirations by becoming skilled enough at decoding the conventions of media texts such as advertisements so that we can use these same conventions in a more subversive manner.
Doris Louise-Haineault and Yves Roy characterize advertising as a two-move endeavor, one in which the first move opens up possibility and the second move contains that possibility, redirecting it towards the only action possible in this discourse: consumption. So, to use Louise-Haineault and Roy’s psychoanalytic paradigm, if advertisements first stimulate desire, present problems, open up threatening “drives” and “phantasms,” appeal to the defenses of drives, and evoke subversive possibilities, they then contain and redirect desire, present solutions (in the form of consumption), contain threatening drives, comfort the viewer, and undercut any subversive possibilities suggested by other elements within them. I want students to study how this one-two strategy of advertising works; this assignment aids them in that task.
Stuart Ewen further articulates the nature of the “containment” performed by advertising. He explains that “the marketing of style, in its images, surfaces, and scents” promotes “not only a dream of public identity, but it also plumbs the wells of inner identity ” (106, original emphases). Along these lines, “Advertising…also contribute[s] to a restructured perception of the resources and alternatives [that] are available to people in their everyday lives” (Ewen 41). That is, in providing “a symbolic politics of transcendence,” the marketing of style “invest[s] purchasable commodities with connotations of action” such that
having vies with doing in the available lexicon of self-realization. Acting upon the world gives way to the possession of objects/images that suggest the qualities of active personhood…As a surrogate for action we are invoked to consume the symbols of action (106).
In other words, the commodity logic of contemporary advertising discourages people from acting to change social inequality; these days, consumers buy t-shirts that feature the red star of communism, as seen on western fashion runways, rather than organize for revolutionary struggle (Marasco).
In our culture, these hegemonic ideas and practices are offered especially to young adults and college students. Young adult students enter college already steeped in the ideology that style indicates identity and that the acquisition of material goods is the highest goal to which they should aspire. As students report that advertisements that address product quality (i.e., use value) are distant memories, hazy images from their early childhoods - in other words, given that my students only know exchange value, that they consider the equation of image and brand to be normal, I want them to consider the ways that these exchange values are set up through the semiotics of advertisements that are specifically directed at them. They are savvy at unlocking the media’s techniques of persuasion and at using them to different ends. For this purpose, we study the techniques and texts of the group Adbusters. The Adbusters magazine and website feature conceptual and graphic critiques of contemporary advertising. Students are required to explore the adbusters.org Web site and to pay close attention to the design of the fake advertisements highlighted on this site in the “spoof ads,” “uncommercials,” and “culture jammers’ gallery” links. For example, one Adbusters creation employs the formal conventions of the Calvin Klein advertisements for Obsession cologne, but juxtaposes the product title and slogan “Obsession” and the beige and white imagery of the original ads with an image of a young woman leaning over a toilet. This image is simultaneously familiar and shocking, evoking the all-too-common problem of eating disorders amongst young adult women in industrialized countries and at the same time commenting upon the way that advertising and hyper-consumption contribute to distorted self-images and “obsession”-based diseases such as bulimia.
In this second assignment, students are asked to combine the critical insights of Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson’s book on contemporary advertising practices, Sign Wars, with the creative and conceptual designs of Adbusters. This assignment is also showcased on the Web, as the medium’s capability for displaying images comes in handy. As Sut Jhally documents, the design of advertising texts has changed. Jhally notes that advertisements of the twentieth century have undergone “two significant parallel developments”: “the shift from explicit statements of value to implicit values and lifestyle images” and “a decline in textual material with a correlative increase in `visualized images of well-being’ ” (22). This increased visualization lends itself well to an examination in an image-rich format such as hypertext.
This advertisement analysis assignment involves first a deconstruction of an advertisement’s ideology and, second, a reworking of the ad in the style of Adbusters. Students are asked to choose magazine advertisements that target college-aged readers. They describe the ad’s textual and ideological strategies. Their deconstructions investigate how their advertisement’s ideology both opens up progressive possibility and recuperates it at the same time. They critique the stereotypes promoted in their ad and also refute the stereotypes by drawing upon personal experience (and that of their college student friends). Finally, they produce some new version of their advertisement, one that provides an indirect and aesthetic critique that supplements their more straightforward deconstruction. Their insights in both aspects of this assignment are always quite impressive.
Many advertisements directed at college students rely upon the stereotype of the party-crazed, nightlife-hungry college student. Student Tim Oates deconstructs the stereotypical logic of his Balance Bar advertisement whose bold, large caption says, “The Energy for an All-Night Rave without the Embarrassing Jail Time for Possession.” As Tim notes, this ad presumes that students love raves, do illegal drugs, and risk being put in jail when they enjoy such activities. Tim’s reworked advertisement changes the product from a Balance Bar to a bag of crack; the caption now reads “The False Energy for an All-Night Rave without the Troublesome Money in Your Wallet.” His reconfigured ad spits in the face of the original ad’s designers, mocking the way that they use the logic of selling illegal drugs to appeal to a young adult consumer to entice her to buy their energy bar. The advertisement analyzed by student Jennifer Beck similarly uses the glamour of club culture to attract a college-aged viewer. The advertisement for Dolce & Gabbana cologne depicts an image of a scantily clad young woman and man dancing, sweat pouring down their bodies. Jennifer analyzes the sexism, heterosexism, and other ideological strategies of the advertisement. Her reworked ad cuts through the idealized romanticization of casual sex promoted in the original advertisement; over the image of the two dancers, Jennifer has pasted text which reads, “According to the World Health Center 100 million acts of sexual intercourse occur each day. Do you really think that either of these models needs this perfume to help them out? Of course not, but you can still waste your money trying to emulate them.”
As seen in these examples, students are often especially skilled in their reconfiguring of advertisements. They take the logic of advertisements, which involves the transfer of meaning from one sign system to another in a decontextualized fashion (Goldman and Papson 15-17; 24), and turn it on its head. To underscore to students the violence enacted by these slippery transfers of signs, I show students the documentary film, In Whose Honor: American Indian Mascots in Sports (Jay Rosenstein, 1996). The documentary is a useful catalyst for a discussion of the way that stereotypes are embedded in our cultural symbols and are centrally related to economic concerns such as the drive for profits. Students understand that the conflict between American Indian activists, who view the sports symbols that feature Indians as oppressive, and university students and administrators, who view these symbols as harmless and “respectful,” as more than a difference in perspective. The latter groups of people do not acknowledge what the Indians contend: namely, that the taking of spiritual symbols and practices from their sacred, traditional contexts does violence to Indians in a deep way. In a similar fashion, the stereotypes about college students are pervasive in youth-directed ads, and students are often incensed by the blatant and obnoxious fashion in which they are objectified in these texts. In both cases, oppressive imagery is used to commodify experience and to help increase profits for the companies that market commodities that are seen to represent and to enhance a specific experience, i.e., the attendance of sporting events and life at college.
In the spirit of the Guerrilla Girls (whose images are relays for our final projects), students incorporate hard-hitting statistics into their ad analysis hypertexts. Often, encouraged by me to consider class in terms of labor, production, and profits, students cite information about a company’s profit margins and/or labor practices, in addition to pointing out the false promises promoted in the image-brand relationship that implies how the product will affect the life of the intended viewer of the ad. For example, student Amanda Norley analyzes an advertisement for Pringles’ Potato Chips. In addition to deconstructing the photograph and text of the ad, Amanda provides an asterisked “Pringles’ Ad Fact”: “With more than 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in its annual budget, Proctor & Gamble (the maker of Pringles) is the biggest advertiser on the planet.” Another link informs us about the dangers of Olestra, the primary ingredient included in Pringles’ “fat-free” chips, including its potential to cause cancer.
Stuart Ewen notes that “commodified symbols of the good life” lead to a “tightening snare of credit and debt,” a world in which “all connection to society, or to social responsibility, is forsworn in favor of individual acquisition and display” (70). An increasingly prevalent development in what David Harvey terms the “regime of flexible accumulation” has been the rise in consumer debt - the ever-increasing encouragement to spend and consume in order to offset potential capitalist overproduction. In this context, credit card advertisements, as I mentioned previously, are ubiquitous in arenas both textual and physical that college students frequently visit, so it is not surprising that a number of students choose to deconstruct advertisements that offer credit cards. Student Katie Edwards, for instance, analyzes an advertisement for the CapitalOne Buxx credit card that features an image of a smiling, blond, young adult woman, and the caption, “TELL SANTA: `All I want for Christmas is a card.’” The ad continues, explaining to the parent(s) it addresses that the credit card is controlled through a parent’s bank account but available to students. Katie notes how the advertisement relies upon the rhetoric of pseudoindividualism and attempts to lure college student viewers to persuade their parents to get this card for them. Katie recontextualizes the ad’s ideology by placing a large block of text over the entire ad in her reworked version that says, “Nearly one-fifth of students that carry a credit card have accumulated $10,000 in debt.” This shocking statistic jolts the viewer from her attraction to the jocular tone and breezy, conversational style of the original ad and informs the viewer about the economic realities behind student credit card use.
The Research Paper
In this experimental class that provides such experientially focused assignments, we do not neglect the critical-conceptual level of thinking. Rather, we integrate critique, particularly in the final activist hypertext projects, with other ways of understanding (emotional, unconscious, associative). In researching and writing their papers, students become investigative reporters of a sort, a useful stance and experience for activist efforts of any kind. They uncover pertinent empirical information, which they will later interweave with their personal experiences and other impressionistic writings in their hypertexts. For example, student Dara Moreno, whose group project is focused on parking at the University of Florida, discovered that our institution makes over $1 million in parking tickets a year - over $600,000 of which is cleared as profit. Statistics such as these will help support the argumentative aspect of her group’s hypertext.
The particular research paper assignment that I give involves students writing for a fictitious academic journal called The Journal of Media Studies. The JMS has asked them to write an article that compares and contrasts “mainstream” and “alternative” media coverage of their topic related to higher education. I work to counter the more liberal version of cultural studies which operates through the combination of presenting cultural texts and teaching students how to “deconstruct” them immanently, or through setting side by side different readings as so many different choices in a consumerist model. Hennessy drove home this point at a recent conference, the annual conference of our graduate student Marxist Reading Group here at the University of Florida (28-30 March 2001). During the discussion following a panel on pedagogy and cultural studies, Hennessy made it clear that we have to emphasize to students the importance of weighing different readings and their consequences in materialist terms. In these types of cultural studies teaching, so popular on this side of the Atlantic especially, teachers neglect to point out the implications of different readings. The position that Hennessy articulates offers a useful way out of this dematerialized approach. It is important to get students to think through the differences in different ways of reading, in terms of the consequences of the way that needs are met or not met. In order to implement this pedagogical strategy, again, we must have a Marxist sense of class. I tell students that in order to assess the degree to which the media sources they investigate are “mainstream” or “alternative,” “liberal,” “conservative,” or “radical,” they should ask: What are the assumptions of this text? Whose needs are being promoted? Who will benefit and who will be hurt if the policies promoted by this text and its ideology are implemented? The research papers provide students with practice in thinking critically, a skill I never want to neglect to nurture, even while I believe the electronic environment provides a space for us to indulge in the production of other kinds of knowledges in politically salient ways, too.
I lead students in an experiment in inventing a materialist type of electronic writing, one that combines postmodern deconstructive strategies with a Marxist consideration of conditions of production and the place of education in evolving divisions of labor. In proposing this synthesis of postmodernism and Marxism, I work to avoid the blind spots of some orthodox versions of these theoretical positions. Linda Hutcheon explains that the postmodern study of representations is “an exploration of the way in which narratives and images structure how we see ourselves” (7). Yet postmodernism often ignores the economic dimension of experience, just as Marxism has struggled to theorize adequately the role of subjectivity in perpetuating capitalism. Jameson’s concept of “cognitive maps” is useful to overcome these theoretical gaps; a “cognitive map” is “that mental map of the social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms” (“Cognitive Mapping,” 353). Stuart Moulthrop believes that we can use hypertexts to create cognitive maps to “begin to teach ourselves where we stand in the networks of transnational power” (par. 38). He points out that such an endeavor will involve
reading and reworking the hegemonic messages of the mass media, such as the news. We require not only a sensitivity to the complex textuality of power but an ability to intercept and manipulate that text - an advanced creative paranoia. This must ultimately be a human skill, independent of technological “utterance”; but the secondary literacy fostered by hypertext could help us at least to begin the enormous task of drawing our own cognitive maps. (par. 38)
Moulthrop explains that this “secondary literacy” that hypertext enables is a return to print - in another form, an awareness of “the way texts-below-the-texts constitute another order behind the visible” (par. 36). I believe that such secondary literacy is promoted when students are the creators of their own hypertexts, especially when these hypertexts centrally feature an investigation of dominant ideology and its subjective internalization. In other words, we might think of the “cognitive maps” that hypertext helps us make as “another order behind the visible,” too. The activist hypertext projects require students to deconstruct ideological messages in dominant texts about higher education; such texts include entertainment narratives about the lives of college students (films such as Higher Learning and television shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Felicity, and The Real World); advertisements directed at college-aged young adults; and news stories and articles about the changes in the structure of higher education at the turn of the twentieth century. I have found that focusing the students’ research and hypertexts on the arena of higher education makes it much easier for them to make connections among their own experiences and struggles, the ideological messages of the mass media, and the economic exploitation that undergirds the now overtly corporatized university system. These are the kinds of “cognitive maps” that I hope to see students uncover through the processes of research and hypertextual production.
Postmodernism and Activism
How do our activist hypertexts draw upon the conventions of postmodernism without becoming incapacitated politically? We have to reinvest postmodern theory and artistic practice with its original subversive edge. Linda Hutcheon describes the “mode” of postmodern texts as “complicitous critique” (2); what distinguishes the consciousness of postmodernism from the challenges to authority issued by the activist groups in the social movements of the 1960s is postmodernism’s acknowledgment of its own complicity with structures of power (10). Moreover, according to Hutcheon, the postmodern position is less oppositional and less idealistic than the predominant perspective in the 1960s (10). Hutcheon notes that “postmodernism is…doubly ambivalent, doubly encoded as both complicity and critique, so that it can be (and has been) recuperated by both the left and the right, each ignoring half of that double coding” (168). I wonder: can’t we acknowledge complicity with an oppressive social structure and at the same time still be quite oppositional towards that same structure? I resist the legacy of a more cynical postmodernism, one that views the “idealism” and “oppositional consciousness” of the 1960s as naive and as ultimately ineffective. Why not add the understanding of complicity rather than replace opposition in our activist efforts? I approach hypertext design and pedagogy with the idea of recovering this “double coding” that Hutcheon documents as integral to a politicized postmodernism. I encourage in the work of my students and me a simultaneous questioning of the dominant institutional power structures of the capitalist system and of the way that one is complicit with this same system. Holding critique and self-examination in tension is a productive way to illuminate the contradictions within the system as well as the contradictions within which we all live on a daily basis. Such an endeavor requires that we move beyond a postmodern view that has given up on agency - a view that understands activism as incongruent with the acknowledgment that subjectivity is socially constructed. Hypertext as a form enables these kinds of simultaneous investigations and the revelation of (often unresolved) contradictions.
Towards this end, I draw upon what Teresa Ebert calls “resistance postmodernism” in the way I design my courses and hypertext projects. Ebert laments the way that the postmodernism that has been embraced by the academy is typically a ludic one that “dematerializes” the sign (175) and that equates subjectivity with a Foucauldian idea of “the body” (234). Recognizing this ludic tendency within the U.S. academic left, Hennessy calls for us to reconnect “culture” with “capital.” This effort will require us to theorize about the way that subjective experience and identity are related to systemic dynamics.
Hypertext and “Consent”
Inspired by Ulmer’s description of the process of writing chorographically in Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, I help students come to understand the ways that their own thinking and beliefs are shaped from outside of them, and this understanding comes through the process of creating their activist hypertexts. As Ulmer explains, what guides the research of the creator of such a text
is the desire to discover this place or chora of my own premises, the diegesis within which I have been thinking, presuming, the setting that has gone without saying but that has provided the logic of all my work. I want to write the diegesis within which my own grounding presuppositions might come into appearance. Then I will be able to write judgment rather than only feel it or think it. (49)
Ulmer recognizes that one’s premises are, in this sense, socially formed, and that we need a new way of writing to help get at this socially grounded constraint on our way of viewing and experiencing the world. Ulmer’s “premises” and Jameson’s “cognitive maps” are elements of the social control by consent that Antonio Gramsci contrasts to social control by coercion. As Gramsci argues, in capitalism, “Coercion has…to be ingeniously combined with persuasion and consent” (310). How do we participate in our own oppression and exploitation? Rationally based theories only get us so far in answering this question; we need methods of textual production that help us uncover the role of emotions and intuition in our consent to social control.
Ulmer outlines how we can use electronic technology to invent methods of textual production that involve “the guidance of analysis by intuition,” which, “in contrast to analysis…may not be abstracted from the body and emotions” (141). Ulmer reminds us that intuition in this sense is social (141). Yet in bringing emotions and intuition back into the epistemological picture, we need to reconnect them explicitly to the economic realm. While Ulmer’s method is designed to reveal the way that what is “outside” of us is also “inside,” McLaren investigates the causes for the way that “our external and internal worlds seem to have been split apart” (xxv) from a more explicitly materialist perspective, underscoring the relationship between the contemporary configuration of capitalism and dominant emotional states. This understanding is useful to incorporate into my pedagogy, because I want to extend the Ulmerian goal of a method that draws upon intuition by helping my students create texts that contribute to transformations not only in subjectivity, but also in how we think about - and act towards producing - revolutionary social change. McLaren points out that “We live in unhappy times, in the midst of global hegemony based on fraud, when our feelings of unhappiness do not appear to be connected to the depredations of capitalist exploitation occurring within the external world” (xxv). Certainly, I find that my students are generally stressed out and unhappy, and, typically, they do not interpret these feelings and conditions beyond the framework of individualism that views the difficulties of college students as the result of personal shortcomings and failures. (As a graduate student in a greatly depressed labor market, I can relate to these feelings.) What are we to do with these feelings of despair and the corresponding feelings of fear and shame? The popular, depoliticized postmodern theory that has gained caché in the academy and in the capitalist mass media offer us similarly hollow answers - in McLaren’s words, “Our feelings are attched to the shimmering surface effects of signs and simulations and the dull radiance that illuminates the spectacles of the everyday”(xxv). I create courses and electronic assignments that encourage my students to view their emotions in a less superficial light. Thus drawing upon affective realms neglected by traditional pedagogy and research, we work to produce knowledge that comprises both the conceptual and the emotional/experiential - a task for which hypertext is especially well suited. In discussing how I implement a repoliticized postmodernism through the design of this course’s electronic projects, I will focus upon three of the dominant features of hypertext as a form: the combination of text and images, its linking capability, and its reliance on associative logic.
Text + Image - Juxtaposition and the Recontextualization of Signs
Hypertext supports writing with the language of advertising, for example with its combination of text and image - including words, graphics, and visuals, and with its use of color that helps to evoke a sense of “mood.” Many of the activists we study appropriate the graphic conventions of advertising and the mass media. ACT UP, for example, creates thought-provoking collages of text and image in its posters and fliers. Here is one powerful example. In one poster, the image of the staff and serpent, the symbol of the medical profession called a caduceus, is featured below the declaration, “ALL PEOPLE WITH AIDS ARE INNOCENT” (Crimp 54). I discuss with students the connotations of this image: officialness, professionalism, credentialed power, safety, trustworthiness, honor, correct knowledge, and the like. Then we note how these connotations are undercut by the accompanying caption, which indicts the medical establishment for its judgmental and shortsighted response to AIDS. This text exemplifies the textual strategy of Barbara Kruger, as described by Kate Linder: “Seduce, then intercept” (17), which involves the disruption of stereotypes. The seduction comes through appealing to familiar stereotypes; the interception comes through a suspension of “the identification afforded by the gratification of the image” (Linder 29). In other words, viewers are initially drawn into the text by the familiarity of stereotypes, but unlike in mass media texts and images, particularly those of advertising, this identification is not used to encourage consumption, but is instead disrupted through a reworking and commentary on the stereotype(s) presented. We incorporate this Krugeresque strategy into our hypertextual advertisement analyses, as described above, and into our activist hypertexts as well.
Another primary technique of textual design that we appropriate from activists and progressive artists is the recontextualization of signs. For example, Kruger riffs on the Cartesian mantra in an image that features a hand holding a placard that reads, “I shop, therefore I am” (Linder 65). The AIDS activist group ACT UP created what Douglas Crimp calls “a Foucauldian twist” on Kruger’s text when they produced stickers and t-shirts with an image of a man’s hand holding a sign saying “I am out, therefore I am” (102-103). For ACT UP, this image serves to “turn […] the confession of sexual identity into a declaration of sexual politics” (Crimp 102). Reworking familiar sayings and advertising slogans is one way we entice viewers while communicating more politicized messages at the same time.
Hal Foster contends that complicity is a necessary component for deconstructive texts, arguing that the evocation of viewer complicity is especially crucial for certain feminist artworks: “If this work elicits our desire for an image of woman, truth, certainty, closure, it does so only to draw it out from its conventional captures, (e.g., voyeurism, narcissism, scopophilia, fetishism), to reflect back the (masculine) gaze to the point of self-consciousness” (8). Student Tiffany Tift employs this feminist-inspired seduction based upon stereotypes with its own undoing, in a brilliant recontextualization of a very familiar semiotic landscape: the women’s fashion magazine cover. Tiffany appropriates the conventions and connotations of this medium to implicate the discourse of romance and fashion in larger social trends of sexism; as Tiffany explains, she “created a Glamour magazine cover that `glamorized’ rape” (2). Simultaneously, Tiffany reveals and critiques the dominant responses to rape in our culture (including rape on college campuses, the subject of her hypertext), such as the “What was she wearing?” angle. Her cover seduces the reader with its typical-looking headlines and layout, the magazine title boldly printed across the top of the page, and a large picture of a scantily-clad female covering the background. The headlines look typical, but the content “intercepts” the reader’s initial comfort at seeing the familiar form:
Ask Yourself This: Do You Look Like a Victim Yet?
How to Meet or Make Your Man the Rapist of Your Steamiest Dreams
Help Fix Your Every Couple Catastrophe
Really Special Section
Get Raped This May!
Question: Did You Ask For It?
OF COURSE! See Page 69
What He’s Thinking When He Rapes You
(Yes, the Details)
69 Date Rape Looks
including Rape-Worthy Lips & Violating Hair How-tos
Bonus! His & Her Rape Poll Results
These headlines change the reader’s initial perception of the image, make her question the norms of the discourses of both women’s magazines and those surrounding rape, as well as point to the relationship between the media’s ideologies and gendered behavior.
Another provocative text that we examine to discern in order to adopt its poetics is an ACT UP graphic that relies on a provocative juxtaposition for its power and was included in the group’s indicting parody of The New York Times, appropriately titled The New York Crimes. In this simulated newspaper advertisement, an image of a gloved hand holding a syringe over a petri dish forms the background. The top of the image includes a quote attributed to Patrick Gage, president of the pharmaceutical company, Hoffman-La Roche, Inc.: “One million [People with AIDS] isn’t a market that’s exciting. Sure it’s growing, but it’s not asthma” (95). In case the reader-viewer misses the point, a caption along the bottom of the image reads, “THIS IS TO ENRAGE YOU” (95). This example demonstrates another “instruction” frequently found in the relay texts that we use for the course: find obnoxious quotes made by people in power that reveal the oppressive ideology and exploitative goals of capitalist institutions and let them speak for themselves. For even though ACT UP instructs the viewer as to the emotions the group hopes to arouse, the quote from the drug company executive is not combined with analysis or argument. I tell students what I have discovered through my own study of activist efforts and through my own research into the workings of the cosmetics industry: people invested in the incessant accumulation of profits - people who run corporations and countries - often are unabashed in their articulation of the exploitation at the heart of what they (are paid to) do.
This type of discourse is especially prevalent in what I call “industry literature,” the textual sites in which members of an industry speak to each other, rather than to the public per se. In the world of cosmetics, these texts include Inside Cosmetics and Cosmetics World News. In advertising, publications such as Advertising Age reveal the goals and strategies of corporations and the advertising agencies that design their campaigns. What are the equivalent texts in higher education? Students are instructed to find out, and to discover how politicians and the people who run colleges and universities frequently lay bare the oppressive logic behind their policies, including their utter disregard for students, viewing them primarily as bodies to be moved in and out of school as soon as possible. Student Brooke Lebel did not have any trouble finding an exemplary quote from the then-president of the University of Florida, John Lombardi, when she produced her hypertext about rape on college campuses. On one page of her hypertext Brooke tells us that Lombardi said to the members of campus NOW, “I have money for a rape center - I just don’t want to give it to you” (“Suppression”). The reader is led through this quote to see the oppressive stubbornness that drives our university’s attitude towards rape on our campus and is thus incited to share Brooke’s anger at this situation.
How can hypertext further the effects of hard-hitting graphics such as those created by ACT UP? For one thing, we take advantage of the unique spatial and temporal qualities of hypertext, particularly its linking ability. We use linking to expand upon Kruger’s method, the “Seduce, then intercept” process (Linder 17). The two ACT UP images described above provide useful examples of how linking can help us to reconceptualize this technique. Fragmenting these texts, so that an initial screen shows only the image - of the medical profession or of the petri dish scientist, and then a link jumps to a second screen that contains the same image with the juxtaposed quotes, might lead the viewer to first experience the innocence of interpreting the images stereotypically, and then to have to rethink that interpretation upon viewing the next link.
Creatively using hypertext’s flexibility in terms of the order and arrangement of links can also add to the power of our activist hypertexts. Academic arguments, as well as print texts in general, are organized linearly. Contrary to many theorists of hypertexts who argue that hypertext is organized nonlinearly, George Landow points out that the primary characteristic of hypertext arrangement is its capacity for multilinearity (4). I have found that there is something especially dynamic and powerful in the interplay between linearity and multilinearity in hypertext. That is, the creator(s) of the hypertext has more control over the order in which the reader-viewer experiences the “pages” of the hypertext (and also, therefore, over the degree of linearity and/or multilinearity of a particular hypertext or path of a hypertext). At times, this control can be exploited for communicative purposes - for example, in my first media activism course, one of the student groups chose to focus their hypertext project on the intelligence and I.Q. debates, involving views such as those expressed in The Bell Curve (Herrnstein). Their research revealed that the debate can essentially be boiled down to two sides: a “heredity” model - “people of color are biologically less intelligent than white people,” or an “environmental” model - social factors influence people’s intelligence levels, particularly economic factors, and given the correlation between social class and race in this society, the prevalence of lower I.Q.s amongst people of color can be explained by such a social analysis. In an academic paper, the preceding point would be articulated in linear, rational fashion, with an argument for the side being promoted built up through the accumulation of evidence. However, in the creation of their hypertext, these students took advantage of the spatial flexibility of the form, and they visually created the experience of these two sides to give their point of view through a spatial manipulation. They first lead the reader-viewer down a linear path, representing the “heredity” argument, with quotes from proponents of this argument and some historical background information. The reader-viewer has only one choice of a link on each “page,” if s/he wants to continue viewing the hypertext. On the first “page,” there is a brick in the background. With each succeeding page, the number of bricks increases, until the reader-viewer comes to a screen that depicts an entire brick wall, demonstrating these students’ opinion that the “heredity” view is a literal dead-end. Then another path opens up, the “environmental” view, and here a multilinear arrangement is deployed, in part illustrating the way that this view is much less restrictive and encouraging the reader-viewer’s own open-mindedness in relation to the issue at hand.
“Multi-” Is Not Necessarily Liberatory
Joyce proclaims that “the reciprocal power of the electronic book,” i.e., hypertext, means that we are “[f]reed from hierarchy to multiplicity” and therefore “might possess properties that we were only once the property of” (96). Not only does this view ignore the structural underpinnings of unequal, hierarchical social positionalities, it also obscures the way that the current formation of capitalism can tolerate, perhaps even needs, “multiplicity” and “reciprocity” of the type that Joyce celebrates. When Joyce remarks that “Hypertext links” are “a conversation with structure” (94), he means the structure of the text, not social structure, as I am arguing for here. Although he is particularly interested in overturning traditional ideas of authorship, and in “empowering” student writers through practices of hypertext writing that blurs the boundaries between teacher and student as much as it does those between “author” and “reader,” the problematic nature of the class politics behind his formulations is nonetheless clear. After Joyce asserts that writing with hypertext might enable us to “possess processes that we were only once the property of,” he continues, “The groundskeepers might enjoy the landlord’s (or lady’s) favors, so to speak” (96). There is more than a little irony that this person who has become widely famous for his hypertext fictions and other writings compares himself in this passage to a ‘groundskeeper’ – in many circles, he is treated as if he is ‘the lord’ of hypertext. Moreover, the use of the figure of the landlord is ironic in that Joyce is one of the inventors of the Storyspace software program, marketed, like his hypertext fictions, by Eastgate systems. Storyspace is quite expensive (the cost prohibits many university computers and writing programs, including the Networked Writing Environment at the University of Florida, from employing it in their networks). Eastgate, as represented particularly by its president, Mark Bernstein, is a firm advocate of copyright of all things electronic, while there are many left digital artists and writers who vehemently oppose all forms of copyright.
My overall point here is that the metaphors and arguments used to praise hypertext are often politically loaded and, at base, reactionary, belying the priviliged position of the scholars and artists who make these arguments and at the same time their own perpetuation of capitalist ideology. Hennessy reminds us of the specific types of knowledges that the contemporary service-oriented economy desires:
What sort of consciousness is [required of the middle-class fraction of professional-service workers]? What are the qualities demanded of service workers? The answer reveals the degree to which new forms of cognition blur with new affective and physical demands on the laboring body. Service workers are primarily knowledge workers who need to be able to carry out multistep operations, manipulate abstract symbols, command the flow of information, and remain flexible enough to recognize new paradigms. Their work requires new affective and physical responses: habitual mobility, adaptability in every undertaking, the ability to navigate among possible alternatives and spaces, and a cultivation of ambivalence as a structure of feeling. (108)
Hennessy’s description contains many of the same elements that are qualities of hypertexts so unequivocally valorized by most electronic pedagogues. We must recognize that capitalism has plenty of room for flexible, fragmented subjectivities, a multiplicity of viewpoints, and multilinear textual forms. As a result, we must integrate systemic Marxist critiques into our strategies of textual production rather than presume that innovative features of hypertext that encourage these developments - fragmentation, multiplicity, and multilinearity - are already liberatory. I advocate and design hypertexts that juxtapose a myriad of voices - personal narratives, institutional voices such as those of schools or the mass media (Althusser’s “Institutional State Apparatuses”), unconscious voices such as those revealed in dreams, and critical voices that provide explanatory critiques, including critiques from a Marxist perspective. Heteroglossia in itself is not progressive; we need to move beyond positions of liberal pluralism by including Marxist critiques in our classrooms and electronic productions. It is true that hypertext’s fragmented nature, as well as the heterogenous and multilinear possibilities enabled by its linking capacity, can be very useful in the quest to use hypertext to help us reconnect culture and capital. However, in order to draw on the radical potential of these features of hypertext as a form, we must explicitly keep capital, and the critique of its operations, in the picture at all stages.
Associative Logic: Collage, Montage, Simulation
Hypertext is predicated on a logic of association, unlike formal academic writing (particularly in its most revered form, the essay), which requires rationally organized connections that build to a seemingly inevitable argument. As many theorists of hypertext from Vannevar Bush to Ulmer have remarked, hypertext can simulate the way consciousness, or mind, works through a logic of association, mirroring, for example, what Freud calls “dreamwork.” As alluded to earlier, this associative quality of hypertext enables the emotional, experiential, and sensory forms of knowledge which Ulmer associates with the emergent form of writing that can help us “map” the relationship between our personal experiences and identities, and social dynamics. Ideology itself operates through associative logic. Student hypertext producers take advantage of the associative, mind-like qualities of hypertext in three formats (which are often combined): through collage, through montage, and through simulation.
Early on in the semester, I explain three key terms, “juxtaposition,” “collage,” and “montage,” and give students a myriad of examples of artists and activists whose work employs these techniques. Juxtaposition involves combining elements in ways that produce a meaning beyond that of the individual elements. Collages are two-dimensional representations that typically juxtapose text and words. Collages that we study include the ACT UP images described earlier, as well as powerful images produced in the Decade of Protest book, which showcases posters, flyers, and other graphics protesting the Vietnam War. The book focuses on the texts produced in the U. S., Vietnam, and Cuba from 1965-1975. In class, we dissect many of the provocative posters in this book, examining a wide range of effective textual strategies. For example, we might discuss the relationship between text (words) and image, beginning with a poster from Cuba that contains no words at all. This print by the Cuban poster artist Fremez juxtaposes two images, one of a Vietnamese woman and one of an American model (75). The color red stands out from the yellow background, as the Vietnamese woman’s nose is bloody, the same shade as the model’s lipstick. As David Kunzle points out in the essay, “Cuba’s Art of Solidarity,” the contrast in this poster “not only subverts the imagery and strategy of much commercial advertising, but also Pop art, which celebrated the icons of corporate culture” (73). Other prints combine text and image in photocollage format, such as the American poster by Jon Hendricks, Irving Petlin, and Frazier Dougherty that shows a photograph of bloodied, dead Vietnamese people of all ages on a dirt road. The text at the top of the rather graphic image reads, “Q. And babies?” and the bottom text answers with, “A. And babies,” echoing the incredulity of the people who saw the images of the atrocities carried out by U. S. soldiers during the war, including the routine killing of civilians (35). Another powerful (and anonymous) U. S. poster mimics the conventions of print advertising. The text says, “It’s the real thing for S.E. Asia” and the centred image is of the mid-section of a Coca-Cola bottle; the label reads “Napalm” in Coca-Cola-style lettering, “16 FL. OZ.” beneath it. Beside the cola bottle are the words, “TRADE-MARK ® UNITED STATES.” Students cleverly appropriate the techniques of these politicized collages. For example, on one screen student Tiffany Tift imitates an advertisement for a drink special, a form with which college students are very familiar. The “advertisement” says, “buy 2 get 1 free!” and includes an equation: “2X [image of drink] plus [image of Rophynol pill] = RAPE!” This collage graphically echoes the bright colors and cheery typefaces and language of most drink special announcements and at the same time indicts the bar and club culture for its role in college rape situations that so often involve alcohol and drugs, including Rophynol, the “date rape” drug.
The linking quality of hypertext enables another kind of juxtaposition, more closely akin to montage in film. Montage is the technique of combining elements between frames as they linearly progress. The foremost theorist on the art of montage was the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who saw in the technique the possibility of opening up new intellectual and emotional connections previously unexperienced in the spectator. As creators of activist hypertexts, we draw from the kind of montage practices that Eisenstein recommends. For example, in our hypertexts elements are often juxtaposed in “collision” with one another, to borrow a term Eisenstein uses to describe his method of montage in film (37). The form works to produce contrasts, so that previous viewer comfort during scenes (links, frames) that depict dominant ideological positions can be undercut and shown to be complicit. One student group whose activist hypertext focused on the overall financial aspects of the University of Florida chose to foreground the montage potential of hypertext in order to produce contrasting “realities” about the university. They model their hypertext on an opposition: the university’s presentation of itself as a “resort” vs. the students’ experience of the university as a “factory.” The students use the resort metaphor in the part of the hypertext that resembles a promotional brochure put out by the university. In the links of this section, the students use bright colors, including yellow, orange, and blue (the latter two being the school’s colors), and imitate the sappy salespitch that the university gives to potential incoming students: “Our elite resort is a privilege to attend,” “an outstanding opportunity.” The text on the link entitled “Your Own Little Piece of Heaven,” announces, “Prepare to be mesmerized by the pampering and ONE-ON-ONE ATTENTION you are about to receive. Welcome to the University of Florida. Its Great to be a Florida Gator!” The glowing descriptions of university life as that of a luxurious spa experience are accompanied by glossy images of weight rooms and swimming pools.
The “alternative” version of the university likens the student experience to that of a factory, where students are just cogs in the larger assembly-line educational process. In this section of the students’ hypertext, the color scheme has been modified, featuring blacks and grays, and images of gears and wheels. On one link, the “factory” version of the university tour asks prospective students, “Are you a special machine? Something we should nurture? Something that deserves special treatment? What can you do for us?” and emphasizes the university’s desire to make profits through “special machines” such as football players. The implicit message of these university imperatives is spelled out in italics below, “Which side do you belong on? Shall we separate you as you separate yourselves? We watch our products as they develop. They are of the same factory, but all appliances are not compatible.” The word “appliances” links to the next page, where we are told about the racism endemic to college campuses, where “Students disperse into ethnic separation, pawns in a massive chess game. They [administrators] manipulate the black bishop to the corner, the latino rook to the side, while they scoop the white king up into their pocket.”
Many student projects involve simulations of other experiences or texts and thereby take advantage of the associative dimension of hypertext in the effort to produce a text that reconnects cultural experience with dynamics of capital. Here are two particularly provocative examples. Jason Lam focused his research paper and activist hypertext on the controversial issue of distance education. Jason’s hypertext is a simulation of an online education experience. The title of his fictitious “school” points to the critical nature of his text from the start, “Alienation On-line University” (or, AOU). The first screen of Jason’s hypertext mimics the tone of the distance education celebrants in our country, with a bulleted list of links:
* Take courses at your convenience * Get college credits without leaving home * Choose your own class hours * Interact with students just like you * Interact with a variety of diverse people
In successive links these promises are shown to be hollow. For instance, the link promising interaction forwards the viewer to a page with an image of a lone male student at a computer, accompanied by the caption “Social Interaction.” The “convenience” promised is belied by a lengthy list of very expensive computer equipment required to participate in AOU. Jason particularly targets the desire for profit that drives distance education enterprises such as AOU. One link features a playful yet sickening image of a young man at a computer - with dollar bills sprouting from his neck where his head should be. Jason has also included links to advertisements for corporations such as AT&T and IBM that “sponsor” the school.
Another effective use of the associative capability of hypertext in terms of simulation is the student project on registration. At the time that the hypertext was produced, our university’s registration process was conducted using touch-tone telephones, not using the Web, as is done now. However, this hypertextual simulation not only echoed students’ non-computer registration experiences, but predicted accurately the experience of online registration that students now undergo. The second-person address of this text lends this hypertext intimacy, while its courier font lends it a sense of officialness and credibility. The initial page of this activist hypertext on registration contains a list of assorted classes from both the sciences and humanities. Many of the listed classes (for example, Poetry Writing) link to a page that tells the reader-viewer, “Sorry, no room. Try again later.” Along with the linked pages in which the reader-viewer “student” is denied admittance to any of her chosen classes, there are some successful attempts at registration, too, mostly for classes that are not desired by the student. For example, the link for the Beginning Math class says:
What do you know, you got in here, too! Maybe because the class meets at six a.m. Monday through Thursday, but you’ll be OK. Too bad that this class won’t count towards your major, but those are just details, right? As long as you get that Poetry class, everything will still be fine…
After signing up for classes, the viewer is led through the rest of the simulated freshman’s initial experience. The “Day 1” page finds our freshman student lost and overwhelmed, “everyone seems just as clueless about the college environment as you do…Instructors, students, everybody. When you attended your first composition class, for example, there weren’t enough seats for everyone, and no one knew what to do.” The huge numbers of students in classes are mentioned, not for the last time in this project. As the “Not Enough Seats” page explains, “Yes, at every college and university in the land, a seating shortage exists. You’re lucky to even be enrolled; it’s not uncommon for students to try semester after semester to gain entrance to a class that they need to graduate!”
The experience of waiting in excessively long lines for hours - an all-too-common experience at universities of this size, as I can personally attest - is nicely evoked in this hypertext. The “Academic Advisement” page says, “The first thing you notice is that it looks like the people here have been waiting for a while” and contains a photograph of an anthropologist dusting off the bones of a skeleton, with the caption, “Line Forms at Rear.” A series of linked pages simulates waiting: “So, you decided to stand in line, huh? Well, since this virtual college experience is supposed to be lifelike in every way, you should now stare at a wall for an hour or two.” The shout of the administrator is echoed by the word, “NEXT!” at the bottom of the screen. The following page says, “Nope, not there yet…” and “NEXT!” Then, “Nope, you’re still not there. You have noticed a few inches of forward progress, though, so don’t despair!” and “NEXT!” Finally, “you” are chosen and progress to academic advisement.
Throughout the hypertext, provocative images are combined with clever and revealing text to get across the points of critique and to simulate students’ experience. One page says, “Feeling A Little Like A Piece Of Meat?” in large print across the top and features an image of large steaks. The text continues, “So, classes leaving you cold? Do your instructors know you by your name… or your social security number? Do you feel left out in the cold, like a face in the crowd, like another mumbling member of a great moving herd of college sheep? Well, you’re not alone.” The hypertext progresses to “the end” of the “semester.” Classes are evaluated; for example, the “Political Science” page reveals,
Well, things have been pretty hectic in Professor Smith’s class. Your midterm went well; the class average was a 51% and you got a fifty-three…a C+. You’ve attended every class, but the only thing you’ve taken away so far is that, according to the United States Government, communism is bad. All five hundred members of the class have been having difficulty adjusting to such a large learning environment, but that’s just about the way it goes, right?
This registration hypertext embeds within its simulation a scathing critique of the economics behind the important student issues under examination. The “Large Classes” page reveals that “mega-section” classes are offered because it’s more “cost effective” for universities, “[b]ecause The Administrators can charge the same amount per credit hour, regardless of how much the students learn.” The page called “The Conspiracy: Privatization” describes “privatization” as “the official name for the increasing number of college funding dollars coming from private corporations.” The more descriptive linked pages such as this continue to be accompanied by pages that simulate this “freshman” student’s experience, such as one in which “you,” the viewer-student, receives a letter from your economics professor inviting you to join that major. The balance of creative and critical voices helps to “reveal” the inner workings of the university and to connect these dynamics with student experiences. The “Shifting Funds” page deconstructs the Administration’s argument that “budgets are being cut in every department”: “What they neglect to mention, though, is that the cuts to `financially sound’ majors such as management and finance are more than made up for by grants to those programs from private industries and individuals.” The indictment extends to the government, which “offers funds to potentially profitable studies, including chemistry, engineering, and medicine. Investments in programs such as these yield such bountiful returns as improved chemical weapons, `smarter’ bombs, and advanced biological toxins.” Here, the student creators of this hypertext underscore the connection between military development and government-subsidized university R&D. Finally, the hypertext announces that Business and Economics are not suffering from funding cuts, noting sarcastically, “Yes, this is where privatization works. Business students can’t help but wonder what everyone else is complaining about.”
Despite my many celebratory moves throughout this piece, I do see some problems with this course and its electronic assignments. One difficulty concerns the nature of activism. The course and the activists we study are easily distinguished from the current trend of “service learning” within the U. S. discipline of rhetoric and composition, a trend which to my mind is disconcertingly reminiscent of volunteerism and philanthropy. Some versions of service learning obscure what Jameson calls “the ideological content of philanthropy, which seeks a nonpolitical and individualizing solution to the exploitation which is structurally inherent in the social system, and whose characteristic motifs of cultural improvement and education are only familiar” (Political Unconscious 192). However, service learners are out there participating in community efforts, including activist efforts, and my students are not. In fact, just naming the field as “activist” threatens administrators in a way that “service-learning” does not. The department evaluation of the syllabus for the most recent version of this course specified that “activist” elements, such as attending activist events, could not be required, because doing so would make the course “political.” This response exemplifies a current fad within conservative academic circles: the “accusation” that one is “politicizing” the classroom - as if the classroom is not already always political, and as if even the most formalist pedagogical approaches are somehow apolitical. I do offer extra credit to students who attend activist events and who write up a two-page response that links their experience to issues and debates that have centrally concerned the class. However, with so much reading, writing, and textual production already required for the course, students rarely go to activist talks or meetings. Do any of these students become more involved directly with activist groups and causes after the semester ends, I wonder? I do not know, as I have not tracked any students following the time of the course. Of course, I would like to think that some of them incorporate these ideas in a more substantial way and that some of them later go on to make activism one of their priorities.
Similarly, after teaching several sections of this course, I am still left wondering, Do the hypertexts produce transformations in class consciousness - in the student creators? in the reader-viewers? Students report that taking my class, writing their research papers, and creating these hypertexts causes their thinking to shift profoundly. However, the degree to which they view the world less through bourgeois lenses after these experiences is still unclear. This latter concern is related to the former - without direct contact with and commitment to local activist groups and efforts, how much can student views change during one semester? Nonetheless, I believe that this pedagogical experiment, and the electronic textual design project that is its center, make significant contributions to the efforts to think about how subjective experience, media messages, and socioeconomic structure interrelate, and they particularly move us forward in thinking about the radical potential of the Web and its ever-evolving textual form, hypertext.
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