In his book Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Jay David Bolter discusses the encyclopedia as one of man’s earliest attempts to create a hyper textual document. As a compendium of the essence of all subjects and phenomena, the encyclopedia was hypertextual in the way that a reader created the work through the process of reading it and making specific choices of which entries to read. In this fashion, the encyclopedia was a different work every time it was read.
The encyclopedia is also an interesting concept when looked at through the philosophy of Kenneth Burke. In his work, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke suggests an order of terms that proceeds from positive, to dialectical, to ultimate. Positive terms are those which stand for what they are and can be clearly defined. Burke uses the example of a “house” as the type of term we can look upin Webster’s and use that definition without having to consider it much more deeply than that. Positive terms are at the level of “stuff,” concrete things that can be pointed at and identified. Dialectical terms are those which are not easily defined, for example post structuralism, or new criticism. They are terms that refer to ideas that do not have a positive referent. Burke demonstrates the difference in these two types of terms by pointing out that, while we can locate a positive referent for the term “house,” we cannot likewise locate a positive referent for the term “principals of positivism.”
As my above example of structuralism and new criticism demonstrates, terms of the dialectal order are often at odds with one another. Hence rhetoric that takes place using terms of dialectical order most often involves a certain amount of disagreement. This is rhetoric as most people understand it: two or more parties trying to convince each other that the concept signified by their dialectic term is the correct one. This generally leads to one of three outcomes. Either one side capitulates, or both sides remain antithetical to one another, or a certain amount of “horse trading” occurs and each side gets a certain amount of what they want. As Burke points out, this can be seen regularly occurring in congressional debates or, as Burke says in a more general manner, “the parliamentary wrangle.”
In an effort to get beyond the parliamentary wrangle, most poignantly exemplified in Burke’s time by the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, Burke proposed that there is another level in the order of terms. He termed this level “ultimate” and defined it as transcending the wrangle of the dialectical order. In the ultimate order, explained Burke, terms from the dialectic order can be seen as occurring in a hierarchy or sequence. In this fashion, ideas that are apparently conflicting can actually be made to agree with one another in the sense that they are both successive stops on the way to a more ultimate concept, like small town train stations one stops at on the way into a large city. In the ultimate order, every smaller part of the hierarchy can be seen as representing “…[I]n its limited way, the principle or perfection of the ultimate design, then each tiny act shares in the absolute meaning of the total act” (195).
My point, and I do have one, is that at this point in Burke’s philosophy or rhetoric we can see a fairly obvious similarity to Bolter’s concept of hypertext. In a truly hypertextual document, the reader creates the work on an equal footing with the author in the sense that the reader assembles it by choosing which of the individual sections of a document (much like Burke’s individual dialectic concepts or individual train stops) will be brought together to make the ultimate document. Also, we can see a similarity in the way that the smaller parts (either individual dialectical terms or individual entries in, for example, a digitized encyclopedia in which related entries are linked through hypertext) behave. Because a reader creates the document using hypertext, each individual entry in the document can be said to share the absolute meaning of the document as a whole.
It is somewhat early in the evolution of hypertext to tell what the ultimate result might be. However, it seems possible that, given the implications inherent in hypertext, that we may find that people who grew up with hypertext as an immersive part of their lives can more readily accept and conceptualize a sense of rhetoric that goes beyond mere parliamentary name calling to a more inclusive “ultimate” rhetoric that is more easily able to see the stops along the way.