Pursuing a Hypertextual Argument with ‘No Reservations’

by brandontlocke

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how, exactly, I want to arrange the navigation of my digital MA thesis. I’m creating a digital project that examines the depictions of masculinity and gender in a corpus of media created by the US military. I feel as though a digital medium is the best medium for this project because it allows me to fully integrate the media (movies, posters, comics, and potentially radio presentations) in their complete form. Because my analysis of the visual aspects of these pieces drives my project, I want these sources to be central to the reader, and fully integrated within my argument. I’ve given a lot of thought to the kind of navigational structure that allows for a clear and cohesive argument, while also taking advantage of the free navigation and hypertextual benefits the web facilitates.

During this same time, I’ve been burning through all of the episodes of ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’ on Netflix. A large part of his appeal comes from the way he travels — he makes a concerted effort to avoid the typical tourist attractions and tourist foods, gets advice from local people, and generally plays it by ear. Although I doubt the show is as relaxed as impromptu as it appears, he does seem to follow the paths that he comes across and is interested in, not just the prearranged places marked on a visitor’s map or the stops on a bus tour. Rather than adhering to a premade itinerary, he’s (seemingly) free to explore whatever interests him at the moment. The ability to freely interact with his surroundings and have a tactile experience with a culture is irreplaceable. I began to think more about the ways n which I could allow my readers to have the same freedom of choice and facilitate this kind of immersion.

This isn’t the strongest metaphor, I admit, but the show got me thinking about the process of immersion into new environments. I think that many scholarly arguments, especially those dealing with cultural history and/or significant archives could benefit greatly from this free-form scholarly navigation. If the linear monograph is the carefully guided and structured bus tour, I’m hoping that my thesis will be the Anothony Bourdain experience. My ultimate goal is to lay out an argumentative landscape, provide the reader with a map and compass, and allow them to explore the argument in his or her own way. I think this method can allow the reader to immerse themselves in the argument and sources and branch off in a way a guided tour (to continue the metaphor) could not afford.

The ability to experience digital projects through different lenses or views have fascinated me for some time. My own department chair, Will Thomas, has employed them in his “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” project, and my former mentor Doug Seefeldt has long been a proponent of malleability of digital scholarship. I’m also fairly well versed in the literature on hyperlinks in historical texts, including works from Jerome McGann, Johanna Drucker, and many other leaders in digital scholarship. While the potential for hyperargument is clear, its implementation remains unclear to me.

Last Fall, I was floored by Jentery Sayers‘s Nebraska Digital Workshop presentation on his in-progress project using the Scalar platform. Scalar is a platform currently under development that allows users to choose different preset pathways through the project that shed light on the topic from different angles. I was so impressed with Scalar, in fact, that in the Fall 2011 Readings in Digital Humanities class, I gave a presentation on the future of my field (20th c. American cultural history) and I more or less just pointed to Scalar. I was really excited because, as Jentery illustrated, Scalar allows for numerous interweaving views and keeps a wide variety of media as the focal point of the argument. [Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “We Are All Children of Algeria” is a great example of Scalar in use]

My goal for my thesis is to dispatch with these ‘views’ or premade paths (at least partially) and allow for a freeform experience in an argumentative landscape. Of course, this landscape offers its own set of challenges and porential failures. Without proper guidance, the reader can easily get lost or wander in ciricles. There’s always the chance that important “landmarks” and context can be missed, or that one’s scholarly journey will be repeitive or circular (I call this the Rockbottom Brewery Effect, and it can be incredibly frustrating, as my AHA Chicago collegues can attest). To avoid this, one must create functional design that allows for a clear flow throughout the landscape — this seems simple and clearcut…until the HTML editor is open. I’m currently employing a pyramid structure (inspired by, but differing significantly from Robert Darnton’s 1999 “layered pyramid” premise), where I will lay out a few central premises from the start, and allow readers to flow deeper into the argument and explore the details of my argument. This way, I can use clear and simple visual clues (go to bottom of page, click on one of many branches) that allow the reader to have some semblance of location within the project.

I’m beginning to form a more solid idea of what this project will look like and how things will flow, but I would certainly appreciate feedback or recommendations. Are there any dangers I have not recognized? Are there projects out there that succeed at this? Any that try and fail? Is there a Guy Fieri method that I should follow instead?