Sunday, February 13, 2011

Text, Context and Hypertext, or In which I Ramble on about Something which might have been Interesting without Really Saying much in the End

To what extent, or in what ways, do embedded links in articles and writing on the internet in general, become part of the text, become part of the context, and influence the writer’s concept of the text he is producing?

It is understood that a text has a context, without which it has no meaning, and the knowledge of which allows the text to be properly understood. A text creates its own context, both by what it contains, and by the way in which it explicitly refers to what is outside it, and it also has a context which comes from its accidental relations to the world outside it, over which it has little or no control (where it appears, who reads it, what has been drawn to their attention that morning, how they react to the size and colour of the print, what cultural baggage their upbringing and interests have left them with).

Any number of factors contribute to the context, and therefore to the ways in which they contribute to the resulting interpretation of the text. Full analysis of even a very simple text in this way is probably impossible, but it keeps cultural theorists in a job, and is, when approached properly, an instructive, and to some extent a necessary exercise.

At the simplest level, awareness of the role of context means knowing your audience. Any writer, or anyone at all who attempts to communicate successfully, has to put himself in the position of the listener or reader and get some idea of how what he is saying will be received. At the absolutely basic level, of code and medium, everyone knows this; no one would try to communicate with someone who had a white stick and a Labrador purely by gesture,* and no one would attempt to use Swahili to order a cheese sandwich in Minsk.**

The problem a writer has is that he doesn’t know much about his audience. He is unlikely to have much of a clue about who they are, and still less about the cultural and personal contexts that they will bring to their reading. Yet some attempt must be made to encode meaning in a way that can be more or less understood at least by the general type of reader he expects to have, and the writer will make some attempt to control from within the text the influence of external contexts.

Commercial writers, such as journalists and popular novelists, are also trying to create a certain type of audience; to a degree, the people who read the text are not only known, but they are chosen, by the text itself. Academic writers are almost exclusively concerned with being understood unambiguously by other experts in the field; the communicative context of journal articles is well understood and the language reflects this. For a literary writer, the most important audience is himself.

So it is with journalists and bloggers that we need be concerned, those who communicate information and comment on areas of interest life for a potentially large and unpredictable audience. And the real question I want to ask is, is the content of other texts linked to by hypertext part of the context of the article? And if so, is this sufficiently considered by the people who write the articles?

Having asked the question, I now wonder what the point of it is, and how I can attempt to answer it. Does the writer assume that the reader will click the link, and therefore incorporate the linked text into the reader’s context for the article? Or is the writer imagining it to be background, to be read later if the reader is so inclined, unless the writer specifically tells the reader to click through? Is the writer including the link casually, because you do, without even reading it, perhaps, then immediately forgetting he’s done it? This leads to the possibility, not only of the reader interpreting the context in a completely different way from the writer, or having rather more information than the writer, which can happen in any communication, but to the more extreme case in which the writer hasn’t read what he cites as background (this is common in journalism, and sometimes happens in academia), but the reader has, because he has just been asked to, and so the reader knows that the writer is talking nonsense.

I have been thinking about this for several days, and the only conclusion I’ve reached is that I don’t know how to answer the question, beyond these basic remarks. I’ll post it anyway. It might be improved upon, by me or someone else.

*Although most people don’t stop using body language to accompany speech, even then, in the same way that we don’t keep our hands and faces still when we speak on the phone

**There is, however, a certain kind of Englishman who thinks that waiters have a peculiar ability to understand anything if it’s spoken loudly enough


Vincent said...

I sometimes find the embedded link, in someone's blog, say, is more interesting than the text within which it is embedded.

Contrariwise, if the primary text interests me, more often than not I will stay with it and ignore the embedded link. As for anything on YouTube, I am most reluctant to go there. I come to read, not put up with someone's idea of a video.

Vincent said...

As for cultural theorists talking about texts and contexts, I don't know if there is any value to the world in their having a job. Cleaning windscreens at traffic-lights is of more benefit to society.

PS, you are not a cultural theorist, I hope? Oh, how can I apologise enough? I'll come and clean your windscreen, at least.

CIngram said...

PS, you are not a cultural theorist, I hope?

Heaven forbid. For professional reasons I've had to deal with the witterings of many such people and thus have learnt to distinguish twaddle from scholarship. Most of the people who do cultural studies/critical theory/pomo analysis are not clever enough to do real academic work, even in the humanities, and are reduced to finding a hundred different ways of saying 'men are bastards', or whatever their particular prejudice is. They don't bother with rational, logical thought*, they simply spew out random garbage and interject their predetermined result into the soup from time to time to remind us who it is they hate.

The study of context and its role in communication is interesting and important, but not when done by idiots, as it so often is.

*Feminist thinking is meant to be circular because 'that's how women think'. So I was told by a female professor of Eng Lit a few years ago.