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Being and Text

Texts have been physical entities for a very long time. For centuries the written word has been physically represented on a surface, something to hold the text that the reader then interacts with to gather meaning from the words. Michael Witmore, in “Text: A Massively Addressable Object,” addresses—no pun intended—the sea change in textual representation that digitizing has ushered into the world and this change’s effect on textual “ontological status” (Witmore 1).

The “massive flexibility in levels of address” is an intriguing way to look at texts and the codes of language that allow for this “provisional unity” of the argument (1). Down to single letters, and as large as entire genre’s, these unities, give texts this “susceptibility to varying levels of address” at the heart of Witmore’s concept (1). In other words, digitization has brought new thought toward the reader’s function and the process of textual engagement, and whether or not that reader is human seems to be beside the point.

As we’ve written about previously in this blog, the human brain functions astonishingly during the act of reading: the speed of what Witmore terms the “continual redisposition of levels of address” as well as the mind’s imaginative force (1). Witmore writes of utilizing the computer’s ability to parse, to divide, to “address” texts by what they are programmed to recognize, and, in turn, uses this to study textual and linguistic structure. One aspect of language is its malleability. Conceptually, the composition and creation of physical texts can be understood in mathematic terms, much in the way a computer understands one or a thousand texts, or words or letters and numbers for that matter. But, how can we benefit from more than just pattern recognition and text mining? How can we pose ontological questions to texts and to ourselves as human beings seeing text in much the same ways only on smaller scales? Thought experiments involving text are one of digitizing’s byproducts that may be the future of the humanities.

Works Cited

Witmore, Michael. “Text: A Massively Addressable Object.” Print.

*image courtesy of successimg.com

Early English Class

The Princeton Prosody Archive is an ongoing digitization of works studying verse and language that houses pedagogical materials from as early as the middle of the sixteenth-century. With titles such as John Hart’s An orthographie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or paint thimage of mannes voice, most like to the life or nature. or Robert Robinson’s The art of pronuntiation this archiving endeavor provides access to a part of the English language’s history that could easily be lost or overlooked. The science of how we speak and write has been a part of publication for five centuries and this collection holds some form of the study of prosodic systems, metrical laws, versification, and grammar from all five.Princeton Prosody Archive

*image courtesy of lib.udel.com

In Defense of Critical Neutrality

Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of fact to Matters of Concern” juggles the human need to place certain phenomena above others—favorite books, films, songs, areas of research—perhaps in an attempt to find some signal point of comfort or control in a large, sometimes extremely cold existence. As Latour points out, this choosing of or fixating upon these objects, examined under certain auspices, is problematic.

Latour questions the difference, or total lack thereof, between beliefs held for emotional reasons and the critical mind’s analyzing structures, (i.e. sciences and other reason-based theoretical views of the natural world) those passionately adhered to by their practitioners. He leans heavily on perspective in explaining the blind favoring of one stance over another in spite of factual experience. “To fact position, to the fairy position, why not add a third position, a fair position?” argues Latour, in requesting some form of new critical thought, some mode that doesn’t discriminate by keeping its own interests sacred or working from a point of subjective certainty (Latour 243).

Latour’s insight possesses an aspect of Eastern spirituality, specifically the Zen Buddhist belief in the destructive force that is human desire. Psychiatric study has long understood the power of confirmation  bias as human motivation and its ability to shape belief, as everyone can relate, in one form or another, to the human minds ability to preconceive. Latour uses the  political and economic equivocal suspicion of hard evidence on climate change to underscore this desire to shape facts to fit theory, to demand that they fall in line with an agenda.

Is Latour conceptualizing a multi-purpose scholar, beholden to not only no particular discipline, but to no “fixed point” as in the quote form Archemides, father of the round Earth? Are facts far too perspective-driven, or even arbitrary?
Latour requests a return to the pragmatism of William James, using the dire state of the planet as a beacon. At this point, in the Anthropocene era, cam man afford to theorize on anything other than what is directly in front of our eyes? Is it the responsibility of a critic to be “not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles” in this era of our crumbling ecosystem (246).

Works Cited
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248. Print.

Performativity

In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, and Performativity, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick argues that “a particular intimacy exists between textures and emotions” (17). Borrowing British philosopher of language J. L. Austin’s term “performativity,” Sedgewick draws correlations among the word, the reader’s impression, and his or her relation of that word to a real experience, in essence, the basis of written communication and a fundamental, if not the fundamental building block of fictive writing. Freud and Foucalt are referred to for their attempt to place the human condition within the confines of language, both contributing thought to Sedgewick’s area of interest, human sexuality. Sedgewick relates “texture and affect,” to the phenomenology, or the real experience, of touching and feeling something in the real world, what every writer picking up a pen or approaching a keyboard wishes to impart to the reader (18).

One of the more interesting parts of Sedgewick’s opening to Touching Feeling, is her look at the performativity of prepositions. She stops to focus upon ‘beside,’ for example. How often do our eyes scan the page, building abstractions from an author’s phrasing, without pausing to contemplate the smallest components of language and their true meanings? Sedgewick stops at ‘beside’ to ponder its literal meaning. She claims the word possesses “an irreducibly spatial positionality,” while evoking metaphysical planes of immanence (8).  In other words, words and phrases perform, a thought that writers and speakers benefit from contemplating if not keeping at the forefront of their analytical and creative minds.

Works Cited

Sedgewick. Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, and Performativity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

*image courtesy of pinterest.com

Can The Hunger Games series be considered literature? How about Harry Potter or Stephanie Meyers’ teenage vampire saga? How about The Lord of the Rings? In an era of not declining, but lost readership, can teachers of literature afford to draw these lines of distinction, and hasn’t literature always consisted of what the people of that specific time period agree to acquire and read? Elaine Showalter, in Teaching Literature, attempts to answer this question, not by drawing lines between what is traditionally understood to be literature and what others refuse to accept as such, but through referring to the primary objectives reached while teaching students how to pull apart a text.

“[L]iteral and metaphoric meaning…cultural assumptions…[and]…cultural references” and the ability to “think creatively” Showalter lists as the benefits of teaching an objective-based literature course focusing on Robert Scholes’ “craft of reading” pedagogical philosophy (26). While Showalter covers the many teaching philosophies, from Conflict to Teacher-and Student-Centered, she fails to mention the brain conditioning that reading accomplishes, the simple placing together of words and phrases to create abstract meaning that is the basis of the human animal’s reading ability. The need to continually hone this skill has the tendency to become lost in the debate as to how and why we read the work of other human beings from other eras.

One must not be fooled into believing, even with the decline in interest in the humanities, that the debate over why one teaches literature is new. And, as humans are such political animals, always ready to dissect what is in front of them, whether consciously or not, teaching from political and intellectual standpoints will always spark interest and possible controversy. Teaching literature, if not to a classroom full of future literature professors, will always on some level be about fostering the ability to grow an open mind, an objective without a clear blueprint.

Works Cited
Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Print.

The Home for All Things Darwin

The Darwin Correspondence Project, sponsored by the University of Cambridge, places the 15, 000 letters written by Charles Darwin in an interestingly human light. Each of Darwin’s correspondents receives a full biographical treatment, as each of his many research interests is also covered as thoroughly as one could imagine. The interactive version of Darwin’s Emotion Experiment is especially entertaining, and the sheer prolific nature of Charles Darwin’s research and writing habits provides fertile ground for digital archiving.  The Darwin Project breaks down the evolutionist’s research as well as his professional and personal correspondents, publishers and illustrators. For anyone wanting to truly appreciate Darwin’s role in the history of human advancement, The Darwin Project catalogs and maps each facet of the visionary evolutionist’s life.

The Posthuman Tree

The need to map out power structures and similar connections ties directly into the human need to understand our universe. Manuel Lima’s The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge traces this human urge to understand the world and our utilization of natural structures in building visual representations of information. Lima begins by reminding us, the human being with a lifespan of one hundred years, at best, of the tree’s status as oldest living thing on planet Earth, before segueing into Aristotle and other originators of thought and their use of tree structures. The use of a “hierarchical mechanism” to order a vast world while connecting all to “an immutable essence in everything” is Aristotle’s contribution to the metaphoric model (Lima 44). The tree, representing power and importance at its base, before branching into less structurally necessary, yet crucial limbs, is not only a perfect fit for science and philosophy but also a naturally occurring non-human example of this idea of inherent order. The tree summarizes the world: the birth, growth, and eventual end of all things.

However, man’s reverence for the tree predates philosophic thought. Lima provides illustrations of Akkadian and Assyrian reliefs that display early civilization’s belief the “celestial and religious power” of the tree (16). Trees and fruit, both metaphoric and literal, abound in the Christian Bible, the Qu’ran, and other texts and tales considered sacred. The tree as fertile, sanctuary-providing, and near-immortal being is an indelible part of human spirituality.

Lima focuses the latter section of his work on informatics and mapping information in the twenty-first century using this same structure, if at times inverted and geometrically influenced. Like the tree, our need to map knowledge, to push that knowledge and the mapping process into new areas, ones we cannot even envision at this date, continues to grow. This prehuman structure has secured a place in the digital, posthuman world.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Lima’s work is this ethereal connection between spiritual belief and the structuring of knowledge. It may be pure speculation to suggest a deeper meaning, one deeper than man’s use of an available structure, in noticing this connection. Still, Lima notes the “primordial, symbiotic relationship with the tree [that] can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic model for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge classification systems” (26).

Works Cited
Lima, Manuel. The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014. Print.

*image courtesy of quantummagazine.org

Brain Power and Your Personal Cast

 

The imagination. The fabric upon which the novelist and the poet create not only their livelihoods and masterpieces but also our research subjects. But, how often do we, as readers and scholars, pause to examine this ‘lifesblood’ of our careers? Nineteenth-century American philosopher William James wrote about the amazing speed with which the brain processes written text. Peter Mendelsund’s “What We See When We Read?” explores a similar, yet vastly different ability of our grey matter by asking the question: How do what we label our imaginations create visual representations of this same text?

I know that I’m not the only reader who finds him or herself indulging in the more-than-frustrating bad habit of visualizing film actors in starring roles while reading. For instance, Clive Owen will always be Orwell’s Winston Smith and the actor who portrayed 1920’s gangster Arnold Rothstien on Boardwalk Empire is forever Evelyn Waugh’s Anthony Blanche. And I think we all know how film adaptations, as Mendelsund advises to see only after careful consideration, can affect the mind’s eye forever in regard to beloved literary characters.

Mendelsund argues, “it is precisely what the text does not elucidate that becomes an invitation to our imaginations,” and it is this power of collaborative imagining that makes reading, by way of this tie between you and the author, a humanizing endeavor. I like to understand these gaps in character description as mine to interpret, and it is this “cognitive dissonance” makes of reading an interactive experience (Mendelsund 1).

Works Cited

Medelsund, Peter. “What We See When We Read?” The Paris Review. 2014, Print.

*image courtesy of Pinterest

The Future of the Field

It is easy to perceive the current Digital Humanities trend as playful or supplementary to true study. It is also easy to see interactive maps and archives, as well as some of the more imaginative projects, as not having applicable value in our wage-driven culture. E Leigh Bonds’ “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy” relates the current trend in the growing opportunities for employment of humanities graduates who have experience and knowledge in DH areas that complement their degrees. The correlation Bonds establishes is one between the collaborative undergraduate classroom and the much-maligned humanities’ job market, especially those of the “semi-academic and para-academic” fields (Bonds 148). Many take for granted that libraries and other archives exist in strictly public or academic contexts. When, in truth, legal firms, hedge funds, banks, and other large sectors of the professional world hire humanities graduates for their ability to read and comprehend at the level of an expert.

 

Many academic writers are placing this trend within the context of pedagogy. Bonds’ consults Digital Humanists like Paul Fyfe and Stephen Brier and uses phrases like “making and doing” and “tinker-centric experimentation” (150-1). All of these references are reducible to one fact, the fact that “inquiry, problem solving, and collaboration remain consistent” within the respective fields of the humanities (152). Even in light of the growing requisite experience in text-coding that many foresee as becoming a part of the complete Digital Humanist’s skillset, the ability to roll with new developments and changes in cultural climates and modes of thought is the humanities area of expertise.

 

But, how does this relate to pedagogy, digital or otherwise? Other than financial gains, such as the Mellon Foundation grant Bonds mentions, which do bring needed research opportunities to colleges and universities, Bonds cites the changes happening at the classroom level. Students are, in a sense, building their own educations through new pedagogic methodology, some still undefined in traditional terms. Simply put, Digital Humanities and pedagogy go hand-in-hand. DH projects and their collaborative natures possess the potential to erase the lines between abstract idea and concrete reality, a method that drives innovation and growth in any profession.

 

Works Cited

Bonds, E. Leigh. “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76.2 (2014): 147-157. Print.

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