It’s rough to get a glimpse of how confusing you must look to other people. My cultural foundations class is doing this to me big-time; apparently I’m “intuitively poststructural,” but never having really read anything else poststructural, my boundary-blurring ends up spewing out in horribly sign-posted spaghetti. I dismantle things, but have no language to talk about that dismantlement, so I leave the mess on the floor.
Now I am reading things by people who are better at me at dismantlement — and better at signposting (they have to be, or their stuff would be utterly incoherent). Here’s how to take something apart and leave it apart, but put little flags on toothpicks in the pile so that it becomes somewhat coherent to others taking the time to sift through it. (I say “somewhat” coherent, because our first reading assingment was the entirety of Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition,” which had supposedly been translated from French to English. I know that what I was reading wasn’t French. But I’m not convinced that it was English.)
This is swimming in a different world. How do I navigate between a language of dismantlement and a language that other human beings, particularly those who value comfortingly-assembled thoughts (hello, discipline of engineering!) can and will want to understand? Is there a tradeoff – should this be somewhat confusing, do I lose the point of being poststructural if I put everything back in order for my readers? What creative strategies can be used?
I found one in Dani Cavallaro’s book “Critical and Cultural Theory.” Basically, Cavallaro makes the nonlinearity both explicit and optional, which is the key; my mistake with my Readiness Assessment was to make the nonlinearity mandatory. To summarize in a way that’s stealable by future-doctor-Mel:
- Make nonlinearity explicit and optional.
- Point out that the order-of-printing is one order that the text can be read in, and provide a concrete example of another route that could be taken through the content.
- Provide “hyperlinks” within the sections of the text to help readers see how each part might connect to others that are not immediately beside it in print; this gives them paths to walk between the nodes, so they don’t need to make such giant jumps across. If possible, let your example in #2 also show how to use those hyperlinks for navigation.
- Invite people to make their own orders, but emphasize (again) that they don’t have to.
- Stop explaining and start the dang book. I (Mel) have a bad habit of too much meta-annotation up-front. Sometimes I need to focus on making a short good map (part of my longwindedness is compensation for not having good maps to give; put that time into making a short good map instead), then give that map to my reader and just tell them go.
In the example of Cavallaro, she does this in her introduction (pages xii-xv, if you really want to follow along). It says up-front that the book can be read in order, but it specifically notes it can also be read out of order. To scaffold that choose-your-own adventureness, each section contains links and call-outs to other sections, like hyperlinks that help you jump between them and preserve their relatedness.
Then Cavallaro gives an example of a nonlinear route through the topics; the table of contents has already given us one, but she gives us a second by writing out a few paragraphs that weave the topic headings (in all caps) into the text. For instance, page xiv: “Neither the MIND nor the BODY are in a position to supply incontrovertible proof of the world’s existence… Mind and body give us the coordinates — most notably SPACE and TIME — within which we may map out our experiences.” The all-cap words are section headers, but that’s not the order they are in within the book; it’s an example of how to weave through them in a different order, but that weaving-out-of-order is up to you and you can read it straight through and it will (supposedly) make sense.
And then she says “I’ve given you two routes, see? You could make a third, or a fourth, or…”
The non-linear route outlined above is by no means the only possible way of reading this book across its three Parts, rather than sequentially, chapter by chapter. In fact, it is intended to supply just one example (as limited as an eample of this kind is bound to be) of the potentially limitless number of journeys which a reader may take through the kaleidoscopic worlds of critical and cultural theory. Ultimately, the book wishes to emphaisze that several disciplines influenced by critical and cultural theory have proposed stimulating variations on a wide range of themes and, more importantly, to suggest that any moderately curious reader may move on to formulate his or her own variations. (page xv)
So, that’s in academic prose still. If I were to translate it into Mel-style English for my own work (after disclaimers that the book can be read linearly or nonlinearly, and an example of how it could be read nonlinearly):
The example I’ve just given isn’t the only way you could read this book; there are an infinite number of journeys you could take from section to section. One journey, of course, is to read this as “normal book,” going straight through the chapters in the sequence they’ve been printed. That’s perfectly all right. But if you’re feeling curious today, you can choose your own adventure and read the sections in any order you’d like, as in the example. There’s no “right” way to read this; it’s meant to be an invitation to playfulness and exploration.
…eh. I feel like I am still struggling to write that, but perhaps I’ll wait until I want to apply this to something specific that I’d like to make navigable. At the very least, it is good for me to think about such things — signposting is something I want to become very, very good at, because it will expand the range of (intellectual — and other?) places I can take others through.