Readers' intentions

Hypertext theorists tend to oversimplify reader's intentions. Rosenblatt's distinction between "efferent" and "aesthetic" reading (Rosenblatt 1978, is one example of the tendency to picture readers as either wanting to take some definite piece of information away from their reading, or to be absorbed into the structure and movement of the piece as an object of aesthetic contemplation.

Information-seeking is not the only non-aesthetic intention for reading. Besides looking up train times and bus schedules, I might want to be convinced by an argument, or to explore a set of ideas with the intention of applying them elsewhere.

On the artistic side, the notion of "aesthetic contemplation" ties reading too tightly to modernist notions of pure aesthetic experience, which have been under artistic and philosophical attack for many decades now. Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, even modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, are not about providing objects for disinterested contemplation. The idea of a purely contemplative aesthetic experience -- which is a late eighteenth century invention -- denies the long tradition of the moral influence of literature, elides the critical functions of literature, and reduces the reader to a pure ego seeing absorption rather than a real person with complex contexts and projects.

The division between efferent and aesthetic purposes presupposes that I am well defined and unchanging as I come to the text. But I might be seeking a new version of myself, with my outlook or my sensibility, or my conceptual tools, or my purposes transformed by the encounter with the argument or the poem or the religious text. These are not about picking up some information useful for a predefined purpose, nor are they a matter of disinterested contemplation. Texts change readers, even as readers recreate texts.

It would be worthwhile to investigate more carefully the many different kinds of purposes readers might have. Scholarly and argumentative hypertexts provide one kind of examples that do not fit the simplified picture of reader's intentions.