Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | References


Renaissance Mnemonics, Poststructuralism, and the Rhetoric of Hypertext Composition

by Richard Smyth, Ph.D.

Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen's latest collaboration, Imagologies: Media Philosophy, is symptomatic of the effect that the electronic technologies have had upon scholarly compositional practices. Like J. Hillis Miller's Illustration, it calls itself a "non-book," but Imagologies comes much closer to the possibilities of such a phenomenon than Illustration does. One has a table of contents providing page locations to the beginnings of chapters, the other has a list of topics with no page references to facilitate location; one has consecutively counted pages, the other only numbers the pages of each topic, so that one must know the title of the "chapter" and the page number to locate a quote; one has page after page of uniformly sized text set in the text-blocks standardized by the print apparatus, broken occasionally by an illustration; the other employs multiple fonts in variable sizes, maximizes the amount of white space on the page, in short fully engages the potential that the computer offers compositional practice.

Imagology, as Taylor and Saarinen theorize it, presents an electronic rhetoric that is similar in many ways to the theory of rhizography I have offered in chapter five. Both recognize the significance of the surface as the tropic focus of the poststructural, the new mandate of speed that promises to change the way we think about thinking, and the need to wander through information as though a tourist. The synchronicity of my work with that of the very recently published Imagologies points to the convergence of these issues at this transitional moment, when the apparatus of print is giving way to the apparatus of electronic media.

As a way of negotiating this current shift, I have pointed to a prior transitional moment in the sixteenth century, when the effects of the printing press were beginning to bear upon the pedagogical practices and textuality of the time. Studying Edmund Spenser as a case in point, I show him to be a writer in the midst of a shift in the apparatus, a shift from manuscript culture to print culture, during which methods of mnemonic storage and retrieval changed dramatically. My study of Spenser offers no illuminating insights into Spenser's textuality; it merely attempts to situate him within a particular period of historical change that has frequently been compared to our own as a way of better understanding our own moment. His poems straddle the divide between the oral mnemonics of the memory palace and the literate mnemonics of prosopopoeia, and his ambivalent embrace of the latter mirrors our own hesitancy to enter the electronic era as quickly as it has come upon the scene of scholarship and pedagogy in the 1990's.

From Spenser's adoption of prosopopoeia as the primary trope of literacy, I extrapolate the need to discover a primary trope of computeracy that will organize the experience of writing within the electronic apparatus. The trope that I propose will provide this is metalepsis, a trope of forgetting. Contrasting the paradigm of print literacy to the emergent paradigm of computer literacy helps to understand the differences between prosopopoeia as a trope of mourning which monumentalizes inscription, making it permanent, and metalepsis as a trope of joy, of a playfulness which makes inscription fluid and impermanent. The investment in an ideology of depth, which marks the gravity and seriousness of academic discourse, is giving way to an ideology of the surface, of the superficial, which allows for the play of the signifier and the predominance of the pun. Poststructuralism, in particular the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and his work with Felix Guattari, provides the theoretical justification for these emphases on the surface, on anti-memory, on a philosophy of joy, giving my choice of metalepsis as the trope of computeracy its necessary philosophical foundation.

Aside from this schematic comparison of prosopopoeia and metalepsis and of print literacy and computer literacy, which grows out of my analysis of Spenser's method of fully exploiting the potential of print in all of its characteristics, I have derived a model for employing the memory palace as a way of organizing information from the House of Alma episode in FQ II.10, which allegorizes the body as a memory palace in which information is stored. Recall that the heroes Guyon and Arthur tour the House of Alma, starting at the bowels, moving to the heart, and ending at the brain, where they discover the mythical histories recounting the succession stories of Britain and Faery Land in the chamber of Eumnestes (which translates as "Good Memory"). As I have pointed out in chapter three, the storage of books containing information within a chamber, a memory "cell," invokes the Art of Memory tradition, which instructs one to locate imagines agentes within pre-established loci or memory places as a way of storing information in the mind. Spenser's method of allegorizing the body as a castle or memory palace suggests a similar practice for organizing a hypertext document: finding in the body a means of arranging its textual elements in a sensible fashion.

From Spenser's model, then, I derived a structure for a hypertext that I composed entitled "Genetis: A Rhizography."1 The title suggests the structural metaphor of genetics, the "natural" medium for information storage,2 and suggests something of its contents, which proposes on one level genetics as a metaphor for generic invention. The use of genetic principles and structures to conceptualize the organization of a hypertext environment draws upon a twentieth-century understanding of the body in the same way that Spenser drew upon sixteenth-century physiology in his allegorized body.3 Since the current biological term "cell" comes from the Latin word cella meaning "store-room," having a hypertext composed of "cella" or store-rooms modeled after the cells of the body made sense (if only at the level of the signifier). Jay Bolter's use of "cell" to describe the fundamental elements of the Storyspace hypertext program and his equation of hypertext as a dungeon, as I have pointed out in chapter four, also support this conflation of the memory palace with genetics.

Choosing DNA as a specific aspect of cellular composition offers a number of advantages. First, it provides a three-dimensional model for the problem of structuration, thereby offering one solution to a new compositional problematic posed by the three-dimensional status of the hypertext environment. The writers of one essay advise composers of electronic texts to look to the sciences for ways to visually communicate information, which is precisely the problem that writing a hypertext presents to the writer, and mention DNA as one model:

Nevertheless, a more formalized "rhetoric" of visual communication already exists in advanced science. While "graphic" equivalences for mathematical formulae have been standard ancillary forms of expression, some fields of science can only be comprehended in pictorial form: the twisting, paired strands of DNA, brain maps, flight dynamics, and fluid-flow computations. Surely, given the tremendous interest in scientific visualization and data-driven graphics, the notion of text-driven abstractions can't be far behind. (Carlson and Gonzalez 26)
Carlson and Gonzalez recognize the value of scientific strategies of visualizing information as potential metaphors of hypertext architectures, and such recognition supports the assertions by theorists like Landow that hypertext will foster not only interdisciplinary collaboration but also inter-disciplinary cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. For my hypertext, DNA, with its helical structure and its linked pairs of purines and pyrimidines structured in a plateau or ladder-like fashion, furnishes a visual schema for the deployment of information in a three-dimensional writing space.

Second, DNA provides an allegorical model for invention. DNA, as the basis for the generation of new life, supplies the guidelines for inventing hybrid forms or mutations of pre-existing entities, be they animal species or literary forms. Such is one goal of grammatology: the invention of new genres that emerge from the characteristics of the electronic media. Ulmer's work in Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video and Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, in which he creates the genre of "mystory" for videography and "chorography" for hypermedia composition, provides two exemplars of such inventive practice. Such generic invention stems from the close etymological association of genre and genetics and suggests a general model of procedure in the electronic realm, especially during the embryonic formation of electronic genres. I subtitle my hypertext "A Rhizography" to indicate the variant genre defined in chapter five, the principles of which guided my compositional strategy.

Finally, DNA provides a conceptual model for organizing information in a three-dimensional space as well. This conceptual model is derived from the spatially organized feature of DNA molecular structures. These structures have four levels of organization:

Primary structure is the linear sequence of amino acids in a polypeptide. Secondary structure refers to certain repeating conformation patterns. . . . Tertiary structure refers to the over-all polypeptide conformation. No clear distinction can be made between secondary and tertiary structure. Quaternary structure refers to the spatial relationships between subunits in proteins that consist of two or more polypeptides. (Wood et al. 75)
The emphasis on patterns and on the "spatial relationships between subunits" here is significant insofar as electronic rhetoric will be a three-dimensional rhetoric of patterns.4 Readers will need to become adept at detecting patterns encoded within the information to fully realize the potential inherent in visual representations of knowledge: "Features (patterns of meaning and characteristics of content) can be extracted at a glance, once the reader becomes attuned to the new 'rhetoric' and the new definition of 'sight' reading" (Carlson and Gonzalez 30). And composers of three-dimensional texts will have to consider this visual potential for the conveyance of meaning.

In my hypertext, I attempted to incorporate such structures into the disposition of my Storyspace boxes by establishing five plateaus, each of which had its own primary structure of a strictly linear narrative [taking the cellular phenomenon of "H-bonds," in that they are "linear and therefore maximally stable" (Wood et al. 75), as a parallel to the maximal stability that linear narrative provides and has provided in both oral and literate cultures]. I then tried to incorporate secondary/tertiary structures of patterns by repeating themes and motifs in each plateau rather than having each plateau deal with only one subject. I also conceived of a helical spire twisting downward through the plateaus, similar to the strands connecting the base pairs constituting the DNA molecule. While this was not an actual structure within the three-dimensional authoring environment of Storyspace, working with such a visual conception allowed me to organize some of the cells in an alternative pathway that amounts to a tour of the text. DNA, therefore, came to provide both a literal as well as a metaphoric model for organizing my hypertext.

This dissertation has worked in part to furnish the hypertext composer with a three-dimensional mnemonic strategy, found in the pre-Ramist art of the memory palace, as a basic organizational device for situating the cells of a Storyspace document. The above discussion of the structure of "Genetis" offers one example of how knowledge of Spenser's specific use of this tradition helped me in negotiating the problem of hypertext dispositio. As an attempt to answer the question concerning how our educational institu-tions will write in hypertext, therefore, this work is a first step in the direction of the "New Rhetoric" that Barthes and Barilli call for in their writing of the history of rhetoric, an electronic rhetoric of the image as well as the word, of the three-dimensional writing spaces that electronic media provide.

The memory palace is not the only feature of Medieval and Renaissance culture that offers viable strategies for compositional practice in hypertext, however. For additional instruction on how to fully exploit the potential for writing with images that the computer offers, I suggest that further research be carried out in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, a time when writers quite naturally fused image and text. One such area of potential exploration, as Tom Conley has suggested, should be typography:

The delight we sense in contact with the materiality of early modern writing can be used to open a dialectic between our grasp of the sixteenth century and that of our own historical moment. I would like to suggest that typographical form may provide one avenue of appeal. (2-3)
Conley identifies the ways in which Early Modern writing manifests a concern for the visual aspect of letters, a concern inherited from the period prior to the advent of the printing press. During that time, composers of illuminated manuscripts artistically rendered letters according to what their forms indicated, in a manner reminiscent of hieroglyphics or runes.5 Given the current revolution in "desktop typography," a revolution which indicates how the computer has resurrected a hieroglyphic sensibility among graphic designers who create new fonts based on their visual appeal and allegorical possibilities, such study could be fruitful.

A second area of potential exploration should be the emblem book, with its use of images (sometimes repeated in variable contexts) chastened by words. As writers begin to write visually, a fusion of writing and image reminiscent of the emblem book will come about, and the kinds of practices engaged in by emblem book readers and writers will become more frequent. Images from one context will be appropriated and used in different contexts, their meanings determined by the surrounding text. Daniel Russell illuminates such emblem book practices:

But however an emblem is constructed, any emblem picture taken alone could accommodate other texts that would, effectively, turn it into a different emblem according to the will of an active, interpreting viewer, be he the author of another emblem book or simply the reader who changes the text he has just read or who physically attaches the picture to another text, perhaps in another book, as was done from time to time. (174)
Such a description reminds one of the postmodern artistic practices of appropriation and collage in that "the emblematic processing of traditional materials" consists of "the fragmentation of well-known allegorical works or traditional sign systems and the subsequent recombination of fragmented elements of them into new and striking signifying units" (Russell 164). In this "age of electronic reproduction," in which some individuals now have laser printers and scanners in their homes as well as the capacity to manipulate video imagery in desktop editing programs, the kind of appropriation once confined to clipping images from an emblem book becomes digitized, and the kind of active reading inaugurated in the sixteenth century becomes the norm.6

A final area of potential exploration would engage in a sustained treatment of how Medieval and Renaissance definitions and uses of allegory compare to twentieth-century definitions and uses of allegory. One reductive feature of this dissertation involves its conflation of the former with that of the latter, insofar as the allegory in Spenser's texts and in the practice of pre-Ramist mnemonics is unproblematically equated with the allegory of poststructural theorists and poststructural historians of rhetoric. The treatment I am calling for here would consider exactly what features of Medieval and Renaissance allegory could be translated into the allegorical form of writing that the computer encourages.

This "computerate" allegory that promises to emerge also deserves careful study if composers of electronic texts are to take full advantage of the possibilities that writing with images offers. Because the everyday practice of writing will soon incorporate digitized imagery as a standard feature, a return of "picto-ideo-phonographic" writing will occur, "a double-valued Writing, ideographic and phonetic at once, which puts speech back in its place in relation to nonphonetic elements" (Ulmer, Applied Grammatology 98). In providing the potential to fulfill Derrida's desire "to restore to writing the balance between design and symbol it had in hieroglyphics" (Applied Grammatology 46), electronic writing will foster a more allegorical and/or ironic bent.7 If scholars learn to exploit the allegorical potential in typography8 and rebus-writing, then the reading of scholarship might become equivalent to the reading of "literature."


1This has been published in disk form in Perforations 5, a multi-media publication that includes text, computer disks, audio tapes, and video.

2Biochemistry employs the metaphor of language to describe the processes of genetic reproduction. Wood et al. write, for instance, that "most biomolecules are built from 30 small-molecule precursors, sometimes called the alphabet of biochemistry" (7) and that "The genetic code is the relationship between twenty-letter language of the proteins to the four-letter language of the nucleic acids" (462). Lewontin, a leading geneticist, compares the information that DNA provides with words in a language, which require a particular context to determine meaning: "A deep reason for the difficulty in devising causal information from DNA messages is that the same 'words' have different meanings in different contexts and multiple functions in a given context, as in any complex language" (66). Eric Havelock examines this metaphor and derives from it a model of cultural inheritance to explain how an oral culture preserves its identity: "The term 'information' [used by biologist Ernst Mayr in his discussion of genetics] embodies a metaphor borrowed from the idiom of human culture and applied backwards to the genetic process" (55).

3Another possibility, one perhaps more appealing to Renaissance scholars, would be to use sixteenth-century conceptions of physiology as a way of organizing a hypertext about the sixteenth century.

4Ulmer writes, "There are three ways to organize the release of information, which are used across all media: narrative, exposition, and pattern. The three modes are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, all three are present in any work, with one dominant, and the other two subordinate. . . . Narrative is the native form of oral culture, exposition is the native form of alphabetic literacy (in the sense that scientific writing is the privileged discourse of the print apparatus), and collage pattern is the native form of electronics" ("Grammatology in the Stacks" 160, 163).

5For one example of this process, see Viglionese, 377. For further discussion of allegorical letters, with consideration of the ideological suppositions implicit in handwriting practices of the sixteenth century, see Goldberg, Writing Matter, chapter four.

6For a discussion of how this situation has put stress upon the current system of copyright law, see Landow, Hypertext, 198-201.

7On the allegorical nature of hieroglyphic writing and its connection to poststructuralism, see Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse." On the relation of allegory to irony, see Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality."

8Conley writes of the allegorical nature of letters and this awareness as manifest in the sixteenth century: "If perspectival, calligraphic, or hieroglyphic properties of the visible letter were used to structure literature of the time, its decipherment also offered poets and artists other avenues for transcoding meanings. A piece of type could become a landscape, a chimera, it could turn into what it was not--into a monogram, a cipher, a number, a vocable from a foreign tongue--all the while remaining a letter" (12).

Contents | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | References

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