backAmong Johndan's Texts


Originally published on BHD's Medium blog (Nov. 14, 2023)

cover of Nostalgic Angels

In Memory of Dr. Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Bill Hart-Davidson

When you are on a journey with no map, finding your way is sometimes a matter of following where another has gone. As I finished my Masters program in Bowling Green, Ohio, I wanted to spend more time investigating how computers would, could change writing. And almost as much, I wanted to spend LESS time defending why that was a good idea and … just get on with it.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola had recently been appointed a professor at Purdue University and was doing just that: getting on with it. Writing about a new technology called "hypertext." At the dawn of the world wide web, it was a thing full of potential to change literate practice and, as Johndan was so good at seeing, grounded in old dreams and fantasies about texts and what they could become. A nostalgia for a past we'd not yet experienced. How accurate that turned out to be as a way to describe this thing—hypertext! ubiquitous and yet in less than a generation from Tim Berners-Lee inventing http, forgotten. The word, that is. The concept lives and is now essential, of course.

Text, and our lives, have links. Links may in fact be the defining feature of a textuality that always needed them ever since humans started scratching symbols into things. Links join texts with other texts, of course. But this is metonymy. Links connect people. Bits of consciousness with other consciousness.

Johndan's work and his bearing, his mentorship, conveyed something of a melancholy truth to me. Links, these connections, may be all we can claim for intentionality. And in some respects, this makes for an incoherent authority? perhaps. But good enough. And no less genuine or meaningful.

On the internet, people will straight up ask you for a link as part of an argument. Like this:

Person 1: [claim]

Person 2: link?

Wikipedia will challenge you AND your shaky *primary* source claims with: "This article lacks links to secondary source material…"

In the wikiverse, you better be ready to show me where in collective consciousness others have talked about such a thing before I can believe you didn't just make the thing up.

What an idea this was for someone raised with the opposite orientation, as I and we nearly all were, that the really valuable stuff sprang from new connections inside an individual mind! That ideas built from the links that neurons make (or something, we didn't dwell on that) were valuable beyond those made from things others had already written? What it felt like when Johndan asked us to turn that value structure over.

The assignment was to write something. A hypertext. In which every bit of it was another utterance already written. Our act of "writing" amounted to no nodes, all links. Just connecting one thing to another. In this project, we were asked to take Berners-Lee and Stuart Hall literally, together, with no irony. We had to find in the voices of others ideas whose adjacency would articulate our own. And to confront the idea that making links might…might be all we could hope to do.

I followed Johndan to West Lafayette and, later, to upstate New York where he had gone after Purdue. I was not so far up. I was in the Capital District, working in Troy at RPI. He'd found his way back to the North woods where he felt at home in the closest thing you can get to wilderness these days.

Just a short jog from the Canadian border, he worked in Potsdam NY at Clarkson U. A small technical school like Michigan Tech in Houghton, MI, where he studied and dreamed and made links that became a whole new field—computers and writing—along with his mentors, colleagues, and his lifelong friend Stuart.

There is a sign outside Houghton, MI that famously says "End of Earth: 2 Miles, Houghton: 4." In such places as this, on the tip of the Keweenaw or in a remote corner of the Adirondacks, links are maybe just a bit more precious. Three-hundred and fifty miles down the Northway in the East Village or in Times Square, the world is rotten with links. Clickbait, dead ends, spam. Links over top of links in a snarl. Gets people uptight. In a small town in the North. Frigid, crystalline stillness makes every link stand out as a moment of intentional choice.

Johndan's contributions spoke of clouds and angels. Both received in their day with a kind of worldly hesitation. But how quickly they became material, undeniable, almost before anyone whose feathers had been so ruffled could acknowledge their hubris. When he wrote DataCloud, there were, among a few, excited murmurs like this was a message from an oracle in the woods. It was exactly that. Not magic. Not fantasy. But an account of a present day, still loading, that would make our connections to clouds something altogether strange and new, and yet familiar.

I saw how to be the kind of scholar I have been, or that it was a kind of thing that could even be at all, because of my link to Johndan. I am no oracle. But I search for those connections to a past that was perhaps never fully realized as the best indicators of what our future might be, what we might as a culture become. Those indicators are found not in the nodes, but the links.

Nostalgia is linked to heartbreak. It is a reaction to it. And somehow anticipation of it. I am heartbroken today for those linked most closely to Johndan. Carolyn, Stuart, Cindy and Dickie… Each an extraordinary person, they are united in their tremendous capacity to find and share peace with others. Their links, as our links to Johndan, will endure when words fail.

Without his example, my journey would not have begun. I am still without a map. And now without an oracle in the woods. Still, I am linked. That's enough. It will have to be.