Editing Modernism in Canada


August 31, 2010

Fumbling for what we do not yet know

I recently finished reading Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (2001), a text that documents McGann’s co-creation of The Rossetti Archive, a digital archive begun in 1993 and supported by The University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH).  The first thing that struck me as incredible was that, although published nearly ten years ago, many of McGann’s concerns still remain of utmost concern for digital humanities today.

While the warning cries of downfall of the book that he documents as present back in 1993 are today echoed in heated debates surrounding e-readers and Google Books, McGann soothes these worries and asserts that the digital age will not bring about the death of the book but instead allow us a chance for critical reflection on the technology of the book.  He asserts that a digital environment exponentially expands the critical possibilities of editorial projects such as The Rossetti Archive.  “When we use books to study books,” he notes, “or hard copy texts to analyze other hard copy texts, the scale of the tools seriously limits the possible results” (55).  That is, he sees traditional textual forms as “static and linear” in nature and digital forms as “open and interactive” and therefore able to move beyond the media of the primary text being studied in order to critically reflect with a broader and more elastic perspective. (25)

If we agree with McGann’s formulation of the static/linear versus open/interactive dichotomy of text and digital forms (Do we agree?  Dichotomies are scary.) then what I want to start envisioning are editorial and critical projects that really do go beyond the formal limitations of the book.  Here are some questions I’ve been throwing around:

1)    What are the formal limitations of the book?  Are these limitations truly dictated by the physicality of the book and all the ways we interact with it or are there psychological / social limitations that we have placed upon it?  What are our reactions, to use a radical (but is it?) example, to an editorial method based around book burning.  It seems abhorrent because of the social history of book burning but what possible textual illuminations (ha!) could such an editorial method produce?  Maybe that’s a weird example, but what I want to start teasing out are the possible divisions between physical and social “limitations” of the technology of the book.

2)    How can a digital environment help us to start such a project?  How can studying the changes in text between these media broaden our understanding of the book?  What would such studies look like?  What sort of studies are already out there that attempt this?

3)    Can we even start to project how such studies would then change the way we make and receive texts in both media?  Do you believe McGann when he states that digital technologies allow for “interpretive moments” where not only do we discover “what we didn’t know we knew, we are also led into imaginations of what we hadn’t known at all” (129).

One Response to “Fumbling for what we do not yet know”

  1. Kristine Smitka says:

    Your first question made me think of the work of new media studies scholar Lisa Gitleman, who argues that media are ““socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation” (Always Already New 7). Henry Jenkins builds on her work, defining a medium as both a technology that enables communication and the social practices that surround this technology (Convergence Culture 13). For these scholars, the medium is a socialized form; the book is imbedded in a social practice. This scholarship, perhaps, mirrors the metaphor of the double helix put forward by McGann (and Bornstein) where bibliographic and linguistic codes (and for Borstein contextual codes) intertwine. While I see both McGann and Bortstein turn to the potential of the virtual, I simultaneously hear a reiteration of the impossibility of extracting the potential of the medium from its imbedded social location. I read your desire to tease the physical from the social limitations of the book to be engaged with this same tension. Is there an editorial practice that can sever the double helix of formal limitation and social expectation?

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