The Shapes of WOE

Jay David Bolter

There are many directions that we can take in exploring WOE. Indeed, the mandala that confronts us upon opening WOE presents no fewer than forty-eight paths. I offer here a few thoughts on the structure of the choices presented.

In any hypertext the patterns of places and links, the ways in which places are connected by the links, constitute verbal gestures. A "footnote" link is one such gesture: it is cyclic, moving the reader from text in one place to a note in another and then back to the first. This movement creates a certain range of expectations: that the second place will explain, elaborate, validate, or perhaps contradict the first. A round trip completes the gesture and compels us to construe one or more such relationships between the two places visited. In a Storyspace document, such as WOE, we not only experience these gestures as the text moves before our eyes, but we can also see their shape in the display window as a pattern of boxes linked by arrows. Each verbal shape is also a visual shape and is therefore both literally and figuratively a schema.

There are at least three such shapes that I can identify in WOE: the primary one (both because it appears first and because we keep returning to it) is the mandala that confronts the reader when he or she first opens the hypertext. The first text that we see is the hub of the wheel, and we can then move to one of five places that define the rim. Each of these places in turn contains a subsidiary structure into which we can descend. Each subsidiary structure consists of a short, linear narrative of about half a dozen places. Now the hub of the wheel is in fact very richly connected: we can branch from it directly to almost any of these subsidiary cells. (Is there perhaps a verbal-visual pun here? Except for the open place, every text is part of the rim or edge of the mandala, so that the reader is always reading and hypertextually writing on the edge.) We can also move directly back from most of these cells to the hub. I believe that in Hindu and Buddhist practice the mandala as a source of meditative power can be centrifugal or centripetal: the lines of force can move from the central image to the periphery or the reverse. The mandala in WOE is both.

Within the mandala lie the two structures of the line and the circle. The lines are defined by the linear fragments within each place on the rim. The circles, large and small, are circuits that the reader describes by moving from and back to the hub of the mandala. These circuits are more complicated than the simple footnote link; they function more like the "ring composition" of early narrative literature from the ancient world and elsewhere. That is, they make the circuit appear to be a digression that returns us to the same place; however, both we and the text are changed by the experience of following the circuit. Some of these circuits involve many cells, and we sometimes find ourselves heading out in a new direction only to be switched back to a familiar series of places that always end in the hub.

For example, clicking on the place called As_if... takes me to a scene in which a woman asks about somehow obtaining the memory of a child she has never had. If I then simply page through by hitting the return key again and again, I travel a long circuit that begins with memories of a child. My journey crosses back through some of the same places more than once. But I find that I diverge again from familiar paths, because my new path is determined in part by the places already visited. After a sweep of at least twenty places, I return to the hub, and by now the return seems almost magical—or at least the product of the text's artificial intelligence, which one of the places has already informed me does not exist.

Such circuits that redefine themselves in the act of traversal are examples of the kind of structural writing that can only happen in a hypertext. A writer in print can incorporate a structure of allusions into his or her text, but only in the electronic medium can such structures be operational properties of the text. Storyspace embodies these structures as distinctive shapes; they are the rhetorical shapes or figures of electronic writing. A word for shape in Greek is schema, and this is also the word that Greek rhetoricians used for a figure of thought and diction. The point, once again, is that we can actually see these figures in WOE: the arrows that lead out from the hub, the crooked paths that connect the subsidiary places within each station on the rim, and the arrows that move down and away from these places and eventually back to the hub.

The mandala, the circle and the line are the schemata of WOE, and in an appropriately Joycean fashion the lines are contained within and merge with the circles. These figures of thought make WOE an important extension of Joyce's first hypertext, afternoon, where the schemata were much less regularized. (This hypertext clearly reaches out to afternoon in a number of ways. Voices seem to recur from afternoon, and yet the voices of WOE also seem detached from the nexus of characters and their relationships that belong to afternoon.) WOE is, among other things, an experiment in the formal schemata of electronic writing. As such, it is an extremely useful and timely experiment, because one task that confronts us as writers in the new medium is precisely to discover effective new figures. Such figures will go far in helping to define the rhetoric of hypertext that we are all seeking.

[Back to the Writing on the Edge special section, 1991 index.]