26 February 2016

The end.

This blog has been discontinued.

I've started a new project, a print/digital zine called Pounce!. You can subscribe to and read about that project here: http://zine.whitneyannetrettien.com

Thanks for reading.

04 February 2014

Layouts, Patterns, Networks

The next phase in building my prototype digital edition of a Little Gidding Harmony has led me into document layout analysis and digitization processes. As I move from research to writing, I'd like to use this post to untangle a few preliminary ideas – not really findings so much as speculations.

If you've ever used Adobe Acrobat to process historical documents, you're probably familiar with some form of layout analysis. It's the task of identifying different regions of interest on a scanned image of a document (text, image, graphic), then further labeling their different roles (caption, page number, title), usually in an XML file that's linked to the page image. To give you an example, I uploaded this page from a 1635 edition of the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter to the SCRIBO module, a neat little online tool for layout analysis. Here's the image it spit out:

This book has a somewhat complicated layout by modern standards, and the microfilm scan from EEBO is not great; still, SCRIBO did a moderate job of identifying text blocks and other elements. It does better with more standard layouts, like these facing dedicatory epistles in Robert Greene's Penelopes web (1587).

Extracting this kind of textual description from an image is useful for all sorts of purposes. It helps automate the process of transforming scanned books into clean digital text by removing paratexts that might gunk up the flow of the document, things like running heads or page numbers. It can also facilitate identifying all images within a magazine, or all article titles within a newspaper. Because layout analysis links description to coordinates on the digital image, it provides a way of mediating between the photographic facsimile and the extracted text when working with digitized books and manuscripts.

One of the things that fascinates me about this is its potential to bridge different kinds of book historical research. I tend to take a "material texts" approach to my digital work, grounded in, for instance, Randall McLeod's playful investigations into the deep materialities of printed books, or Johanna Drucker's attendance to design, or more distantly D. F. McKenzie's sociology of texts. But there's also of course a rich tradition of mining, abstracting, and visualizing large corpora of digitized texts, a tradition that might be traced back to the early quantitative book historical work of the Annales school. By drawing attention to the importance of the material text within a macroscale approach, pattern analysis has the potential to bring these two divergent branches – material book and immaterial texts – back together. Here, projects like VisualPage are leading the way by analyzing layout, form, and the use of space in poems printed in the late nineteenth century.

Yet I'm also interested in the limits of these tools, in finding their breaking points; for the point at which something stops working tells us much about the assumptions or aims of its design, as well as the structures (material, ideological) that circumscribe its possible uses. This task is particularly enlightening with tools that digitize books, because of course, as hardware, printed books and manuscripts are very different types of things from digital texts. Asking a machine – especially one that we, they, someone has designed – to "analyze" print's layout helps pinpoint the gap between our (modern) expectations of a book and its (historically specific) material reality.

Here, as in so many things, the Little Gidding Harmonies offer a perfect test case. Here's a page from the King's Harmony (1635), as interpreted by SCRIBO:

Not so great, but honestly, not so terrible either, given this is a web-based tool with a 20MB upload limit, and this page is a complicated mash-up of a variety of printed texts and images. (The archive-quality TIFF files I have for another, simpler Harmony are each around 42MB.) What interests me here is that large text blocks are being identified as images, outlined in orange – possibly because of discoloration, or because the pasting of the cut-up bits and pieces is ever-so-slightly uneven, and we would expect printed lines of text to be perfectly straight. This happens repeatedly when I upload other pages:

So, what does this matter? Well, there's a few obvious points to be made. Even as digitization – defined simply as taking a photograph of a book and disseminating it over digital networks – increases access to rare materials, here we see how the mechanisms that make digitized books legible (searchable, manipulable, visualizable) to researchers continue to reproduce both print biases and modern attitudes toward what a "book" or a "text" is. Though the difference this makes is subtle, it does mildly qualify the point that digitization helps bring rare, inaccessible, and otherwise non-canonical works – objects like the Harmonies – to a wider audience. Taking and posting photographic facsimiles online is one task within a broader array of practices that we might call "digitization"; if our tools for mining and analyzing these books can't read these facsimiles, then the Harmonies and other texts that are not easily machine-readable remain in the position of the unusual, the quirky, the idiosyncratic, unplugged and disengaged from the networks that enable us to study broader cultural trends. In other words, they hold more or less the same marginalized position that they do under scholarly regimes of print, where, unable to be easily anthologized or reproduced, they remain outside the systems through which knowledge circulates, accumulating cultural capital. This small difference may have big consequences for the kinds of stories we can tell about history at scale.

As I mentioned in my recent MLA paper, we see the same issue in image matching tools. Machines are good at – that is, we've designed machines to be good at (what determines what is slippery here) – identifying sameness, matching strings of characters or visual patterns. It's more difficult to trace subtle acts of remediation, whereby a woodcut pattern is copied in Thomas Trevelyon's 1608 manuscript miscellany, then embroidered in blackwork, or used in plasterwork. This is not a point against image matching; rather, it's a simple reminder that scale is determined by not only the capacity but the affordances of the network, by what the computer is capable of seeing and reading, such that more does not eventually lead to "culture" as such.

(The top image is from Geoffrey Whitney's A choice of emblemes (1586), STC 25438; the second is from Thomas Fella's manuscript miscellany, now at the Folger.)

I've (accidentally) described this problem as a criticism, but it's more interesting in the form of a question. Namely, what type tool would be suited to pattern matching in the Harmonies, or across networks of prints and textiles? How would we design it? What are the points of friction, material or structural, in the process of digitization?

As I've been playing around with different programs, I keep returning to the recent discussions I've been having with my colleagues Mary Caton Lingold and Darren Mueller. We're in the midst of collaboratively writing an introduction for an edited collection on digital sound studies, and we keep rubbing up against this problem of medium specificity. The digital experience, however you interpret that phrase, is remarkably textual, not just because we're emailing and tweeting and blogging and texting more, but also because we parse nearly everything in strings of characters. Vestiges of the command-line interface appear in the ubiquitous search box of the web; the metadata that responds to that search is encoded in text. If you want to perform similar search operations on sound, you have to translate it into another medium, either visual (the waveform, the spectrogram) or textual (user tagging). Though the Little Gidding Harmonies are books to be read as text, the task of making them machine readable is more like that of mining sound for semantic content. That is, it's an intermedial process of mapping character strings to their position within a page spread, and then matching these patterns within and across the whole. It requires abstracting from the book without losing the book.

Pattern is a word rich with meaning in the early modern period, especially for Little Gidding. Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the community, describes his friend George Herbert as a "pattern or more for the age he lived in," a phrase Ferrar applied to Little Gidding's lifestyle, too. The Harmonies themselves (note the sonic resonance of the word) are pattern books that marry form and content in the same way as Herbert's "Easter Wings" – a poem whose material history has been traced beautifully by Random Cloud (Randall McLeod) in "FIAT fLUX." The Harmonies also contain echoes of the pattern books used to embroider and knot networks of significance, "networks" of course originally referring to lace webbing. We (I?) can't seem to escape this dense interweaving of text and textiles when talking about transmutation from print to digital books. It's fun to dance in the history of etymologies – but more than that, these webs of signification continue to do cultural work. I'm drawn to the idea of a digital humanities invested in pattern rather than identity.

(From Flickr user crabchick.)

If you want to learn more about layout analysis for historical documents, you can dive into the HisDoc research project or PRiMA. LLC recently published an interesting article on using pattern redundancy analysis in historical printed books, based on work at the Laboratoire d'Informatique de Tours. There are also a few neat open source tools for OCRing text (Optical Character Recognition – the process of pulling text from a scanned image) that come packaged with document analysis, like OCRopus. I would of course love to hear about more digital humanities projects using layout analysis.

19 November 2013

Towards a Prototype of a Digital Harmony

I've been working on a prototype of a digital facsimile "edition" of the earliest extant Little Gidding Harmony. (If you don't know what a Little Gidding Harmony is, see this FAQ I wrote a few months back.) Two pages are currently accessible here. Don't click unless you have a fast connection and are using either Chrome or Safari. As per usual, IE is not recommended.

I put "edition" in quotes above because the Harmony is not really a text one would read today the way one would read, say, Shakespeare's King Lear. Most contemporary readers are interested in the Harmonies as concrete instantiations of a particular compositional process, rather than as textual products. Not only are we interested in process over product, but the product itself doesn't face the problems that so much of textual criticism has been designed to deal with. There are not multiple, variant editions of this Harmony; it's a singular, unique object. Nor is there an audience that requires an "authoritative" edition to read linearly, from start to finish. Even theories of editing that acknowledge the fundamental instability of texts – Jerome McGann and the "textual condition," Randall McLeod's notion of "transformission" – don't really capture what's happening with the books made at Little Gidding.

In fact, one could argue that the Harmonies were designed precisely to counter this instability. Thus the cut-up method is already an editorial intervention. The women of Little Gidding collated multiple printed Bibles with scissors and paste to produce their own uniquely "harmonized" edition. If we see the Harmonies from this perspective, then the task of a contemporary editor is not to pull the text into a coherent whole, but in fact to pull apart the already harmonized text. This decomposed edition would then enable an exploration of the community's cut-up process.

So in beginning to think about an "edition" of a Harmony, I was motivated less by theories of editing and more by visualization and mapping strategies. Rather than generating multiple variant readings of a text, this edition will aim to produce multiple views of the page's landscape, and different mechanisms for manipulating these views. On the one hand, it embodies aspects of my own research on the Harmonies; on the other, it is (or intends to be, eventually) a machine for producing new knowledge.

In designing this first draft of a prototype, I have attended to:
  • openings over individual pages. This is much harder than it sounds in web-based editions. Screen realty is limited and thus valuable; to choose openings (that is, two-page spreads) over individual pages is to trade large, legible facsimile text for a more birds-eye view of the book as a whole. Importantly, you really can't have it both ways. This is a simple yet, I think, not so obvious point. Even with a variable zoom on a full-screen facsimile photograph, you can't ever escape the framing mechanism of the screen itself. As Marie Baxter said in an excellent paper she presented at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference last month, digitized historical objects are a bit like caged animals in a zoo. We think of them as authentic representations, but our perspective is wholly determined by the cage-like screen.
  • topography over text. From the perspective of the contemporary researcher, the pages of a Little Gidding Harmony are more like maps than literary texts, tracing a set of routes and relationships between different points. For this reason, I began this prototype by using the Image Markup Tool, designed at the University of Victoria, to annotate a page image, identifying each individual cut-out piece. Ultimately, I decided I was unhappy with how these annotations appeared in the web view, and scrapped most of the HTML exported by the tool itself. (Some cut-outs are also polygonal shapes, rather than rectangles, meaning that some individual excerpts require two "image annotations" – which produces a mismatch between the visualization of the cut-up and my XML-encoded transcript of the Harmony.) However, starting from this point gave me a set of coordinates, which I was then able to use as the basis for developing my views. Moving forward, I'm looking into other mapping tools. More generally, I'm interested in the question: what happens when we think of the digital edition as a map? Or when we apply GIS technologies to non-geographical image maps? What would a literary edition look like if it were made using Hypercities? I'm inspired by the speculative and conceptual work being done by projects like Z-Axis at the Maker Lab. What happens if we think about these geographical mappings in terms of relationships between elements on the topography of the page?

  • cut-up fragments over coherent paragraphs. The only view that offers legible text is the parsed XML in the textbox on the right side of the screen. I do not like this view. My marked-up transcription contains a good deal of useful information for any researcher of Little Gidding. Unfortunately, none of it is well represented in the utterly dematerialized white-on-gray text you see here. As a next step, I need to rethink how to incorporate the transcription into this "edition." For now, though, I've decided to offer a kind of counterpoint to this plain text: the cut-ups, below. These are generated on the fly from a larger image of the Harmony's page using the coordinates from the source text layers – which means that any page for which we have these coordinates can be pulled apart into the cut-up pieces that compose it. Each piece is draggable. Since I'm interested in putting the Harmonies in conversation with contemporary rhetoric about digital remix, this relationship between the digital facsimile – its layers of paper flattened on the screen – and the code that de-composes it into its constituent parts is conceptually exciting to me; for here digital media re-performs the cut-up method itself, but with a difference. That difference pinpoints the disjunct between paper and code, and is worth a blog post in itself. Conceptual framework aside, though, I'm frankly not sure what to do with this functionality yet. Currently, I'm using it as a kind of sandbox for my own research; I don't know where it's headed, or even if I'll keep it. 

As I mention in my brief description on the page itself, a good chunk of this prototype is held together with duct tape and chewing gum at this point. The code has not been streamlined but is in fact heavy and unwieldy. You'll need a decent computer and a fast connection to access it – and even then, all functionalities won't be available in IE, and probably a few other browsers. Nonetheless, I can see how it could be streamlined, in conjunction with my marked-up transcription. The next step is to begin working toward a cleaner, more robust framework, while tweaking some of the functionalities and thinking a bit more about how to incorporate the drag-and-drop cut-ups.

A big debt of gratitude is owed to Paul Dyck and Ryan Rempel for providing me with the XML of their digital edition of the King's Harmony. This allowed me to use tags that are standard at least across our two sites. It will probably create a headache down the road – but at least now it's a shared headache. Dyck and his collaborators' writings on their digital edition have also been inspiring.

Comments are always welcome.

01 November 2013

Explanatory Notes on Gaffe/Stutter

Earlier this month, punctum books released my project Gaffe/Stutter on its Dead Letter Office imprint, edited by the inimitable Eileen Joy. Taking its name from the US Postal Service's office for undeliverable mail, Dead Letter Office publishes work that remains in a state of suspension – projects that are abandoned or unfinished "yet retain little inkdrops of possibility." In that spirit, Gaffe/Stutter is series of diagrams, sketches, code, and fragments of HTML that, together, comprise the remnants of an uncompleted diagrammatic digital "edition" of Gilles Deleuze's magnificently schematic book, Logic of Sense. It's available as both a printed chapbook and a website. You can also download a PDF of the book for free (though the PDF won't make much sense unless it's bound, and I encourage you to support punctum books). Since the project is admittedly (and intentionally) opaque in its presentation, I want to use this post to give a little context and background.

The title comes from two concepts juxtaposed in Logic of Sense: the gaffe and the stutter. Deleuze introduces them at a moment in the text when he's interested in dualities, particularly (for present purposes) the dual use of the mouth for both eating and speaking. As our primary means for ingesting the nutrition that sustains us as animals, the mouth helps us repurpose corporeal stuff, converting matter into energy; as our speech organ, it produces incorporeal events, acts of verbal communication. Since "sense" is Deleuze's primary concern throughout the book (although we might say he's actually more interested in nonsense), you can see why this dual corporal/incorporal use of mouths interests him.

The relationship between these two uses is foregrounded in the difference between a gaffe and a stutter. A gaffe is when spoken words "go awry, as if they were attracted by the depth of bodies; they may be accompanied by verbal hallucinations," Deleuze points out, "as in the case of maladies where language disorders are accompanied by unrestricted oral behavior." Eating inedible things, grinding one's teeth  this is language brought into the material depth of bodies. The stutter, by contrast, "raise[s] the operation of bodies up to the surface of language":

We bring bodies to the surface, as we deprive them of their former depth, even if we place the entire language through this challenge in a situation of risk. this time the disorders are of the surface; they are lateral and spread out from right to left. Stuttering has replaced the gaffe; the phantasms of the surface have replaced the hallucination of depth; dreams of accelerated gliding replace the painful nightmare of burial and absorption. ("Fourth Series")

I don't want to give the wrong impression: these are relatively minor concepts in Logic of Sense. Neither of the two published exegeses on Logic mention them once, and they make no appearance in the index. Yet, as I was winding my way through the book's tortuous labyrinth of dualities, this juxtaposing of "gaffe" and "stutter" became a guiding light, helping to bring into focus the book's many other concepts. So when I started writing a preface to clarify the abandoned diagrams and code that make up the bulk of my "dead letter" to Deleuze, I kept returning to this potent pairing: body/language, to eat/to speak. For books, too, are objects where materiality meets the seemingly incorporeal process of making sense through language. In Renaissance humanism, reading was imagined as a form of digestion, as readers consumed texts in order to take in their ideas; this metaphor continues whenever we ask ourselves how much we've absorbed the meaning of a text (a phrase in opposition to, say, rote memorization). Even the physical shape of the codex seems to embody a relationship between depth and surface, the thickness of its spine against the flatness of the page. And in the book's gutter, that receding point across which the two pages of an opening reflect each other, is a concrete image for the horizon of sense  what Deleuze describes as sense's "frontier" or, following his reading of Alice in Wonderland, the mirror through which language passes:

To pass to the other side of the mirror is to pass from the relation of denotation to the relation of expression  without pausing at the intermediaries, namely, at manifestation and signification. It is to reach a region where language no longer has any relation to that which it denotes, but only to that which it expresses, that is, to sense.

The book's folds have long been the site for literary imaginings. As Stéphane Mallarmé (premier poet of the gutter) writes in his essay The Book as Spiritual Instrument, "Folding is, with respect to the page printed whole, a quasi-religious indication; the large sheets are less striking than the thick stacks of pages, which offer a tiny tomb for the soul." Blanchot and Derrida extend this meditation in works both titled The Book to Come, as does Deleuze himself in his treatise on Leibniz, Le Pli or The Fold, in which all of being becomes a kind of reading process, endlessly folding and unfolding the pages of the great and total Book of Nature. But we could look elsewhere for theories of the book's gutter  for instance, to George Herbert's famous pattern poem "Easter Wings."

In "Easter Wings," lines take flight, flipping the orientation of the page (or deterritorializing the page, if we want to stay with Deleuze and Guattari's terminology), reconfiguring the relationship between the printed text, its paratexts, the book, and its reader. As Randall McLeod writes, "untied, the wings of the book unfold as an angel in the grasp of the woman to whom the book was given. The diptych is not a merely visual field; it is also tactile and metamorphic." McLeod ends his essay with an image of hands folded in prayer, like the wings of the poem or the bound pages of a book  his own visual metamorphosis of the essay that precedes it.

This is about the point at which Gaffe/Stutter begins to make its own kind of sense. Stuttering and stammering across the surface of the page is a series of diagrams and code, pointing in one direction; pointing in the other is the preface, words that, as written language, spin a kind of meaning not present in the stutter of code. Yet this linguistic depth bumps up against the materiality of the page, as words twist and leap across gaps and the gutter of the book. Although Johanna Drucker's wonderful new pamphlet Diagrammatic Writing wasn't available when I was writing the preface, her work gives a perfect description of what I (with some inspiration from Herbert and McLeod) was attempting: "the associative field within the text creates endless opportunities for branching or breaking the line to follow lines of thought / breaching the code of compositional conduct."

If the chapbook is a dead letter to Deleuze, the website revives the original (and unfulfilled) dream of producing a diagrammatic reading of Logic of Sense  but in such a way that a webtext of the dead letter becomes its fulfillment.

Although Deleuze's terminology (and its deployment in contemporary work) can be alienating, his ideas have, for me, been incredibly productive. My favorite moments with his work are not when it seems to be offering us a new vocabulary for doing the same types of traditional close readings, but rather when, as with McLuhan's or McLeod's work, it presents a kind of schema for making things  for plugging into a set of ideas and rewiring them. In the C for "culture" section of L'Abécédaire, a series of interviews on topics from A to Z, Deleuze tells the story of how, after The Fold was released, he received two curious letters: one from an organization of origami artists, the other from surfers. Both claimed intimate knowledge of folding: "We understand, we completely agree," the surfers said, "because what do we do? We never stop inserting ourselves into the folds of nature."

Quoting Plato, he concludes in the clip above (which starts around 8:19) that philosophers are not writing about abstractions but about concrete things  things in the world, which we all engage with at some level. Gaffe/Stutter is my very small attempt to turn the product of reading  the digestion of knowledge  back into a process, materializing my path to understanding by making something.

04 October 2013

Scattered fragments on crowds, equality

The following are some dispersed reflections on three literary scenes that've been bouncing about my skull lately. This post is an attempt to verbalize their collisions. 

I don't have an argument or an opinion. Proceed at your own risk.

* * *

Toward beginning of Book V of The Faerie Queene – the Book of Justice in Edmund Spenser's sprawling Renaissance epic – the knight Artegall encounters a giant high atop a hill, holding an enormous balance. A crowd has clustered "thicke" around him, as he threatens to "reduce vnto equality" all things, leveling mountains and raising valleys in the most biblical fashion.

The knight Artegall, ever about the status quo, is shocked and disturbed. "Thou that presum'st to weigh the world anew, / And all things to an equall to restore," he chides the giant, "In stead of right me seemes great wrong dost shew"; for of course God has already weighed out the world for us in its perfection. And who are we to want to change it? Stay the course; "heauenly justice" will reveal itself to us foolish mortals in due time.

In one gloriously communistic screed, the giant utterly refuses:

Thou foolishe Elfe (said then the Gyant wroth)
  Seest not, how badly all things present bee,
  And each estate quite out of order go'th?
  The sea it selfe doest thou not plainely see
  Encroch vppon the land there vnder thee;
  And th'earth it selfe how daily its increast,
  By all that dying to it turned be?
  Were it not good that wrong were then surceast,
And from the most, that some were giuen to the least? 
Therefore I will throw downe these mountaines hie,
  And make them leuell with the lowly plaine:
  These towring rocks, which reach vnto the skie,
  I will thrust downe into the deepest maine,
  And as they were, them equalize againe.
  Tyrants that make men subiect to their law,
  I will suppresse, that they no more may raine;
  And Lordings curbe, that commons ouer-aw;
And all the wealth of rich men to the poore will draw.

This is a remarkable pair of stanzas. This won't end well for the giant, we know that much; he's too much of a threat to the political order of the poem. But Artegall tries to debate him nonetheless. "The hils doe not the lowly dales disdaine; / The dales doe not the lofty hils enuy," the knight reasons. God "maketh Kings to sit in souerainty; / He maketh subiects to their powre obay"; who is the giant to try to change natural hierarchies?

A literal weighing of words ensues, but it's too late for the giant. This isn't a war of words, but of wills – more specifically, of who gets the right to have a will. And with one swift shove, Talus, Artegall's iron killing robot, shoulders the giant off the mountain, breaking both his body and his balances. "So was the high aspyring," Spenser concludes, "with huge ruine humbled."

By all logic, the scene should end there. The threat is contained, political order is restored, Artegall and Talus can go on their merry way. But it doesn't. The crowd – that "vulgar" group that had "cluster[ed] thicke" about the giant "like foolish flies about an hony crocke" – revolts:

They gan to gather in tumultuous rout,
And mutining, to stirre vp ciuill faction,
For certaine losse of so great expectation.
For well they hoped to haue got great good,
And wondrous riches by his innouation.
Therefore resoluing to reuenge his blood,
They rose in armes, and all in battell order stood.

Not only do they revolt, but their willingness to stand up for the giant leaves Artegall at a loss. He's a noble knight; he can't fight a "lawless multitude." He sends Talus to inquire.

Which lawlesse multitude him comming too
In warlike wise, when Artegall did vew,
He much was troubled, ne wist what to doo.
For loth he was his noble hands t'embrew
In the base blood of such a rascall crew;
And otherwise, if that he should retire,
He fear'd least they with shame would him pursew.
Therefore he Talus to them sent, t'inquire
The cause of their array, and truce for to desire.

Of course, the killing machine Talus can only "inquire" with brute force. He swats the multitude away like flies:

But soone as they him nigh approching spide,
They gan with all their weapons him assay,
And rudely stroke at him on euery side:
Yet nought they could him hurt, ne ought dismay.
But when at them he with his flaile gan lay,
He like a swarme of flyes them ouerthrew;
Ne any of them durst come in his way,
But here and there before his presence flew,
And hid themselues in holes and bushes from his vew.

Toppling a singularly teetering mass of a giant is easy: one push, and he's over. Rooting out a scattered flock of discrete entities is infinitely harder, indeed nigh on impossible for a knight whose primary m.o. is brute force. Ultimately, the same politics that disdainfully reduces the crowd to a "rascall crew" and a "lawlesse multitude" endows it with its capacity to resist; for in a system that regulates through social hierarchy, there's an immense amount of power in anonymity. Which is to say: ballooning idealism destroys the giant, yes – but it also gives dispersed, unaffiliated peoples a reason to aggregate, to transform themselves into a pack, a "crew." When they return to a state of hidden dispersal at the end of the canto, it's as a newly configured multiplicity, held in relation to each other by the same idealism that destroyed the giant. The world of the poem – the ideas that fuel it – can't fully eradicate them, or contain the threat they present to a political system that turns out to be as dangerously unstable as the giant's idealism.

* * *

* * *

There's another scene I've been thinking about a lot lately, this one from D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. When I first read this novel years ago, I loved it – I thought Lawrence created women characters with a subtly not often found in modernist novels. I've since re-read the book twice and, as so often happens, I think the younger me was clueless; there are few things I like now in any of Lawrence's women. The ones who aren't simpering fools use their own sexual self-importance to manipulate the idiot men who surround them. But, that aside, my copy still holds a paper clip on a page from the chapter "Breadalby," in which a few characters are having a debate about equality.

"If," said Hermione at last, "we could only realise that in the spirit we are all one, all equal in the spirit, all brothers there – the rest wouldn't matter, there would be no more of this carping and envy and this struggle for power, which destroys, only destroys."

After a brief but awkward silence, Birkin, who has a history with Hermione, refutes her brutally:

"It is just the opposite, just the contrary, Hermione. We are all different and unequal in spirit – it is only the social differences that are based on accidental material conditions. We are all abstractly or mathematically equal, if you like. Every man has hunger and thirst, two eyes, one nose and two legs. We're all the same in point of number. But spiritually, there is pure difference and neither equality nor inequality counts. It is upon these two bits of knowledge that you must found a state. Your democracy is an absolute lie –  your brotherhood of man is a pure falsity, if you apply it further than the mathematical abstraction. We all drank milk first, we all eat bread and meat, we all want to ride in motor-cars –  therein lies the beginning and the end of the brotherhood of man. But no equality. 
"But I, myself, who am myself, what have I to do with equality with any other man or woman? In the spirit, I am as separate as one star is from another, as different in quality and quantity. Establish a state on that. One man isn't any better than another, not because they are equal, but because they are intrinsically other, that there is no term of comparison. The minute you begin to compare, one man is seen to be far better than another, all the inequality you can imagine is there by nature. I want every man to have his share in the world's goods, so that I am rid of his importunity, so that I can tell him: 'Now you've got what you want – you've got your fair share of the world's gear. Now, you one-mouthed fool, mind yourself and don't obstruct me.'"

Here, Birkin seems to accuse Hermione of the same mistaken notion of "equality" that gets the leveller giant shouldered off a cliff: namely, she thinks equality is fundamentally quantitative, a matter of balancing the books. But leveling mountains and raising valleys and even distributing wealth doesn't make us "equal," Birkin argues, at least not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, over-emphasizing our quantitative differences oddly short-circuits the narrative of "equality" for Birkin, since it is precisely our otherness from each other that forces us to recognize our "spiritual equality," which is in fact a space of "pure difference" devoid even of the concept of equality.

When we talk about "access" or "transparency" or "building community" in projects of all sorts, I sometimes think about Birkin. Providing all individuals a point of entry – whether through a book, a website, a public meeting, a petition, whatever – is a form of mathematical equality; it doesn't get us to the kind of social connections, human connections, that enable us to look at each other as meaningful because of the insuperable inequality of our various positions. Not only does it not get us there, it isn't even – for Birkin, at least – a step in the right direction. It's a distraction.

* * *

Still, there's that balance-wielding giant. Were it not good that wrong were then surceast, / And from the most, that some were giuen to the least?

It's hard to argue with a question like that, as Artegall found out. It's a question that anticipates the objections of the Birkins of the world, the knights who've got theirs, so what matter the multitude's disenfranchisement? "Heauenly justice" will prevail. The giant himself can't survive – his idealism is quite literally too big for its own good – but, as the multitude's dispersal shows, he can't quite be destroyed, either. In the nameless figures who "hid[e] themselues in holes and bushes," away from the gaze of Talus, his utter rejection of all but the most equivalent of communisms persists, anachronistically taunting Birkin: your "spiritual equality" is only as good as the material inequalities that continue to render it worthless.

* * *

Sometime in July 1648, at the height of what would become known as the Second English Civil War, an anonymous pamphlet entitled The Faerie Leveller began circulating in London. In it, the editor reprints the egalitarian giant episode of The Faerie Queene, prefaced with instructions on how to read Spenser's verse – originally published in 1590 – not only as "altogether Allegoricall," but as foretelling (and perhaps even enacting) future royalist victories over the Levellers.

In other words, the egalitarian giant's communistic screed was reprinted as Royalist propaganda against the a mid-seventeenth century communistic movement that rebelled against the enclosing of the commons. The pamphlet was then circulated as evidence of idealism's false hope. You can try to push mountains all day, it taunts, but the knight always wins.

"They [the Levellers] were discryed long agoe in Queene Elizabeths dayes," the pamphlet notes, "and then graphically described by the Prince of English Poets Edmund Spenser, whose verses then propheticall are now become historicall in our dayes." To prove Spenser's prophecy becomes history, the editor provides a "key" for interpreting the work, casting King Charles as Artegall, the King's forces (or Gregory the Executioner) as Talus, and of course Oliver Cromwell as the giant. Rather than foreclosing possible interpretations, this historical framing tries to elucidate the correct one for its own particular moment, thereby helping in "the undeceiving of simple people, too apt to be induced into an high conceipt and overweening opinion of such Deceivers [the Levellers], and too ready to be seduced by their specious pretences of reducing all to a just equality." Anagrammatic rearrangements of titles – "Oliver Cromwell" as Com' our vil' Leveller; "Parliaments Army" as Paritie mar's al men – participate in this "undeceiving" by revealing the enemy's "true" nature.

By crystallizing the open emblems of Spenser's late-sixteenth-century verse into historically-specific figures, The Faerie Leveller brings the hidden meaning of its source text forth into its own present, even as it calls upon that present – composed of individual readers, embroiled in a war whose chances looked increasingly grim for the royalist cause – to reenact the "propheticall" narratives of England's past.

* * *

Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality. 
// Søren Kierkegaard

* * *

* * *

There's another literary crowd that's been lurking on the edges of my mind lately: the eerie group of crash-gawkers in Ray Bradbury's "The Crowd." The first to the scene of every car accident, they hover around the victim, crowding him, "sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by":

They crowded and jostled and sucked and sucked all the air up from around his gasping face until he tried to tell them to move back, they were making him live in a vacuum. ... It was all a very silly, mad plot. Like every accident. He squealed hysterically at the solid wall of faces. They were all around him, these judges and jurors with the faces he had seen before. Through his pain he counted their faces.

If violence scatters the Faerie Queene's lawless multitude, here it pulls the crowd together like a magnet, drawing dispersed individuals into a tight and eerily threatening knot. It's a strange kind of torture they enact; for, although they aren't responsible for the accident itself, they seem to enable the victim's death by moving his or her body, sucking up all the air with their incessant, prodding opinions. "That crowd always came so fast, so strangely fast," the narrator notes, "to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man's agony by their frank curiosity."

We later learn the recurrent members of the crowd are all dead people who were killed in accidents themselves. It's a detail I wish Bradbury had left for the imagination, as it makes the crowd too explicable, too knowable as ghosts or spirits or posthumous entities; when the thing that attracts me to the image of the crowd is its unknowability, and the power that gives it. If we re-think the crowd as an assemblage of anonymous entities that cluster around an accident, we discover the violent side of the crowd: it gobbles you up like the Blob, replacing individual vitality with the zombie-like death of being a member of a pack. We also discover a bridge between the end of the egalitarian giant episode and Birkin's rant; for Bradbury's crowd seeks the ultimate form of equality – death, the state that levels us all to extreme and profound material sameness.

"And that's the way it's been since time began, when crowds gather. You murder much easier, this way. Your alibi is very simple; you didn't know it was dangerous to move a hurt man. You didn't mean to hurt him."

10 September 2013

A Gentle Critique of DHthis

On the roll-out of DHthis, a new crowdsourced publishing platform based on the Slashdot model:

1) The conversation about developing a kind of Slashdot for digital humanities went on in "public" spaces, i.e. web-based spaces accessible to anyone with a computer and a connection -- Twitter, comments on blogs. Many people participated in these conversations. Yet five individuals decided to take it upon themselves to develop the idea more or less behind closed doors, without consulting others involved in the initial conversation (except, as I understand it, the original JDH authors, who were asked to beta test the site). The project was then rolled out with the kind of suspense-building secret hashtags used by the likes of Apple and Microsoft. Is this our definition of "open" in digital humanities? 

2) DHthis claims to be the "first entirely crowdsourced outlet for digital humanities" -- yet the tabs at the top ("Gender," "Humor," "CFPs," etc.) are static. Who's being left out of this conversation?

3) Relatedly, "DHpoco" is one of the tabs at the top. Given that the five people who developed this site are all involved in DHpoco, this strikes me as blatant kingdom-building. Again, I ask: who's being left out of this conversation? Who isn't let behind those closed doors?

...now, to be painfully clear, I'm being sarcastic in tone, intentionally so. I've stayed silent during the recent DH spats online, because they always seem to be just that -- spats, petty quarrels that ironically end up promoting division in the name of community building. The important parts of the conversation cut across tedious debates about "who's in" and "who's out."

So, first, I wanted to use this post to draw attention to the ways we talk to each other -- how we toss around our accusations, and what warrants kneejerk suspicion. 

But, that being said, I do think DHthis is a step backward in an important conversation. It's worth taking a non-sarcastic look at why:

1) The roll-out appeared self-promoting, in a way that put individuals over a collective. 

2) The design of the site seems to lay stakes in the territory debates, rather than lifting them.

3) But, more generally -- and far, far more importantly -- the problem that Adeline and Roopika originally identified in JDH was its self-presentation as "experimental," and the problems of transparency (or lack thereof) that arise therein. While I gently disagree with how that critique was couched, this ultimately was a gift to our online community, as it started a rich conversation about what constitutes openness -- a concept that everyone seemed to agree needs problematizing in DH. David Golumbia challenged the rampant buzzwordism built into "experimental" journals. Natalia Cecire and Michelle Moravec pointed out the problems inherent in the ostensibly positive concept of "flexibility." Josh Honn -- who has been immensely helpful to me in thinking through these issues, myself -- linked to an interesting article critiquing the concept of "openness. Collective soul-searching about how we want to publish as a community ensued. In fact, it continues in Ernesto Priego's post this morning.

DHthis -- a platform thrust into the world as a solution to the problems of gatekeeping, with little critical sense of how vote-based crowdsourcing actually tends to amplify the problems of minority voices getting lost in the shouting -- seems to be a step backward, both in the pace of the discussion and in terms of identifying tangible solutions.

There is so so so much more to be said about this. I want to be clear that don't ascribe ill intentions to the designers -- not at all. I just don't want the important, ongoing conversation about 'transparency', a conversation whose pace is necessarily slow, to get lost in a tool roll-out.

26 August 2013

Chromoxylographic Coding

While taking Terry Belanger's course on book illustration processes at the Rare Book School this summer, I became enchanted with chromoxylography: the printing process in which a color image is built up from the successive printing of multiple woodblocks, each responsible for a single color. Not only are color wood engravings beautiful but -- as I discuss a bit below -- the process of making them strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for how we code.

So what are chromoxylographs? Although you can find examples of color woodcuts or wood engravings in many centuries, the form peaked in the nineteenth-century as a relatively cost-effective way of reproducing high-volume yet beautifully detailed color illustrations, especially within the burgeoning market for children's literature. The work of Edmund Evans -- who engraved the drawings of  Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and others -- is particularly spectacular.

[Walter Crane, The Baby's Bouquet [1879]. Engravings by Edmund Evans. A scan of every opening is available here and through Project Gutenberg.]

(Sidenote: Evans wrote an autobiography, published by Clarendon Press in 1967 as The
Reminiscences of Edmund Evans. Although Oxford's editor laments the lack of historical information in his otherwise "rambling" prose, the book is full of charming tales of Evans as a young apprentice in the printing industry -- how he once ran some illustration proofs to a somber Dickens, sitting alone in his darkened house; how Thackeray was an asshole to him (Evans hoped to meet the esteemed author in heaven, so he could ask him why he'd been such a jerk); his musings about how excited he was to meet angels, so they could tell him what it was like to live in pre-Christian Rome, and what the heck electricity is. He thought Darwin's theory of evolution was God's gift to England; and he may or may not have been crushing on Kate Greenaway. Rambling or not, it's an informative and delightful short read.)

Its hard for us, accustomed to high-definition of digital photography and today's color screens, to wrap our minds around the difficulty of reproducing a tonal image. I've found it helps to imagine printing as a kind of binary system: either the page is inked, or it isn't. There's no such thing as "gray" when you're printing black on white, only the appearance of gray produced through crosshatching, or with more subtlety through later processes like aquatint etching. So if you want to print a color image, you have to either print every single color separately -- not a very economical choice; beautiful chromolithographs of this sort often went through the press dozens of times -- or devise a way to create the appearance of multiple shades from a few basic colors. This latter method points toward chromoxylography.

So what is the process of producing a color wood engraving? First, the engraver would cut the basic outline of an illustration into the endgrain of a block of wood. This is the key block, responsible for the black (or brown) outline of the image. Then the engraver would pull a proof of this block and send it to the illustrator to be colored by hand. This hand-colored proof becomes the basis for designing and cutting each block of color. Thus a basic outline -- a sense of the entirety of the image, both in shape and color -- must be in place before the engraver translates the polychromatic (analog) painting into a series of single-color (binary) blocks. Once you have your set of blocks, they can be reproduced as metal stereotypes, which would last through many tens of thousands of printings.

[This is a close-up of the bannister in the illustration shown above. Although the image quality is pretty poor, you can make out 4 colors: red, yellow, blue and black (the key block). The different greens are produced from blue and yellow. There's a better quality reproduction of this image in the color plates of Bamber Gascoigne's How to Identify Prints; here, I've reproduced his example by taking a picture of my own copy of The Baby's Bouquet.]

Note that, as a process for reproducing color, this is really not much different from the additive RGB system used in most modern screens. No doubt many interesting things could be said on the relationship between the two, if I knew more about the development of RGB and the 8-bit color system (anyone want to collaborate on an essay?). For now, it's sufficient to note that most of the color we see in reproductive media (in Benjamin's sense of "reproduction") is an illusion produced by combining lots of discrete units of a very limited palette.

[A nice example of color wood engraving. You can see many more lovely examples here.

Aside from the inherent interest of chromoxylography, it strikes me as a concise metaphor for how we code -- especially how we code for web applications. When we want to make a website do something, we start with an illustration, a vision -- in my case, this is usually a sketch drawn in a book I keep for storyboarding ideas.

Then, sitting at my computer with my sketchbook open beside me, I produce a kind of "key block" outlining the basic elements of the site and their functionality in relation to each other. Usually this takes the form of some very basic JavaScript or jQuery attached to blank blocks with bright background colors. Like the printed key block proof, this proof-of-concept draft enables me to begin imagining how to translate my notebook sketch -- a document not constrained by my actual programming skills -- into the limited set of actions available in a given programming (or mark-up) language.

This process of translation is really where the metaphor begins to make sense; for programming is an exercise in magic through constraint. As with chromoxylography, there's something distinctly beautiful in the efficiency of programming -- something that makes the object produced under limitations more curious than the illustration it aims to reproduce. I marvel at how an engraver mentally juggled his knowledge of color and shape -- the interactions of blue and yellow under varying line widths -- in order to produce a delicate, shifting green, in the same way that Donald Knuth, in his famous defense of code as art, marvels at the little bits of trickery discovered in another's source code. Being an expert wood engraver and being a decent programmer both require one to hold continually in mind the Big Picture -- and to do so while seeing that Big Picture as the sum of all its many tiny interlocking parts. It's being able to zoom in and out without changing focus or losing your place in a massive puzzle.

I've been thinking about this metaphor -- chromoxylographic coding, coded chromoxyolography -- as I finish putting together my syllabus for a (creative) writing class I'm teaching on Digital Narratives. The course starts with each student writing a short story, fiction or nonfiction. Then, over the course of a dozen or so weeks, we rewrite our narratives in seven different media: print (i.e. a designed object for print), hypertext, sound, image, game, unfolding in time (a Twitter drama, a blog novel, netprov), and unfolding in space (ARGs, mobile narratives). Each rewriting, or remediation, will be fairly self-contained: our hypertext versions won't use sound or image; our sonic iterations won't have accompanying text. The point is to test the same basic narrative under a variety of fairly strict conditions, seeing what works with what narrative structure, what doesn't, and generally pushing the limits of narration itself.

About halfway through designing the course, it struck me that we're using a type of chromoxylographic process: our initial stories are our key blocks, while each remediation shows the same narrative in a single color. Alone, each color block might only faintly hint at the story of the key block; the final project -- in which students can combine different forms -- then brings all these single color blocks together into a multimedia story. Thus the success of our digital storytelling depends on how well we learn to blend different lines of color, mixing sound with image, the interactivity of clicking with the ludic nature of play. While this stripped-down iterative approach leaves the process of producing actual multimedia narratives until the end of the course, I'm hoping that testing each form under strict conditions will lead to a tighter, more purposeful use of digital media in the final projects.