30 October 2008

[thesis decisions] multimedia, or traditional?

I'm about 63% decided that I'm going to do my thesis as some kind of multimedia web-based essay. The biggest reason? This thing is damn hard for me to write linearly.

Normally when I sit down to write about a topic I know pretty well, the ideas just kind of . . fall into place. Quotes know where they want to be, sections know where they want to be divided, and thoughts follow a natural progression. If this isn't happening for me, I know it's time to step back and learn a little more about the topic.

Yet, I know my thesis topic -- I've presented it at least four times -- and still, the ideas aren't falling into place. I've spent two weeks writing seven pages, a glacial pace even for me. I'm starting to think my problem is the topic itself. All the thinkers or poems I'm writing on are networked in weird ways -- for instance, Harsdörffer, Caramuel and Kuhlmann are all interested in Kabbalism, but there's no direct connection, no straight path from A to B, between them. Do I spend a few pages describing Kabbalism in the first section, then simply refer back to it? Or do I slowly unfold the tenants of Kabbalism as they become relevant?

I also want to pull in large chunks of text from other work (like some of Italo Calvino's novels), and do some close reading of unrelated artwork from the period. But . . how?

The case for doing something digital: I can pull together disparate but topically related elements together without explicitly making connections between them. Brueghel's Tower of Babel beside a description of Schottel's Adamic linguistic theories; a chunk of Leibniz's thesis describing the Denckring, beside Harsdörffer's own description of it. In this way, I can also connect close readings of digital poetry to some of the text generators, without making stupid analogies or overstating my case ("look, they both generate text, they're the same!"). I could maybe even pull in some video clips of digital poets talking about their work, alongside my own close reading of a seventeenth-century proteic poem. Lots of possibilities.

In my head, I see the screen split into two halves, almost like the leaves of an open book. Different links embedded within the text change one or the other side of the screen.

I think one of the best arguments for doing my thesis like this is that it enacts the same kind of relationship to language as the work I'm analyzing. In other words, I could take the idea of ars combinatoria seriously, breaking my thesis down into a collection of different "topics" that can be permuted (placed side by side, combined with different elements) to generate new meaning.

The downside? I won't have a good traditional writing sample for the (very traditional) PhD programs I'm applying to. But why should I care about that? I've got to live with this thing for another eight months; grad school apps will be done in December.

Okay, I may have just talked myself into this. At least, I'm up to about 85%.

29 October 2008

HyperStudio Digital Humanities Workshop, 11/7

HyperStudio is holding its first Digital Humanities workshop on the morning of Friday, November 7. Our keynote speaker will be Elli Mylonas, previously the Managing Editor of the Perseus Project and now Associate Director for Projects and Research at the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown. Different projects that I've talked about here will be presented, including the Comédie-Française Registers Project, and we'll be discussing what the future of Digital Humanities might look like over lunch. If you're in the area, drop by.

26 October 2008

mapping the territory of the page: Martin Opitz's "Aristarchus"

One of the first texts I look at in my thesis is "Aristarchus, sive de contemptu linguae Teutonicae" ("Aristarchus, or on the neglect of the German language," 1617/1618), by Martin Opitz. Opitz is one of the more well-known poets of the German Baroque, sometimes described as the founding father of German poetry, but "Aristarchus" is rarely discussed at length in the literature. After a quick nod at Opitz's first published work and a little snark over the irony of defending German in Latin, most scholars move on to more "sophisticated" texts -- namely, Opitz's Buch von der deutschen Poeterey, published around six years later in 1624.

Fair enough. It's not Opitz's masterpiece. But, when properly contextualized -- that is, when not seen as a mere road bump on the way to Buch -- it might be one of his most fascinating.

Crash course in the political history of central Europe during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (historians, skip!): The Holy Roman Empire is a mess. Every Hans, Georg and Günther rules his own fiefdom -- around three hundred altogether, all grouped under the central governance of a Habsburg Emperor. Foreign leaders hold land within the Burgundian circle, German rulers hold foreign territories -- hell, even Emperor Charles V himself rules the Spanish realms of Castile and Aragon, causing some of the princes he supposedly rules over to cement alternative alliances with France, enemy to the Habsburgs.

The Protestant Reformation only makes things worse, eventually leading to a policy of cuius regio, eius religio: that is, whatever religion the leader of any state or city within the Empire chooses to follow, all his subjects must follow, too. Sounds good on paper, but it actually ends up cementing religious divisions through a policy mutual hatred and intolerance, destroying any lingering sense of unity among the scattered states. C. V. Wedgwood, in her classic book on the Thirty Years' War, points out (very smartly, I think) that the whole cuius regio, eius religio thing was doomed from the start, since Protestant rulers "were demanding from the Emperor what they refused to their own people" -- i.e., religious freedom. In fact, anyone who didn't convert to his or her ruler's religion was forced to move, leading to mass migrations that only further destabilized the region.

So 1618 rolls around, and someone gets the bright idea of electing Ferdinand II, a Habsburg and a staunch Catholic, to be King of the largely Protestant state of Bohemia. The Protestant nobility wouldn't have it and threw Ferdinand's representatives out a window, right onto a big stinking pile of manure. This rebellious act, known as the Second Defenestration of Prague (yep, there's a first -- the people of Prague love to defenestrate), started the long, messy Thirty Years' War.

Okay, the (brief and reductive) history lesson's over. Now, just as Ferdinand's imperial governors are falling -- quite luckily, I would say -- onto a pile of manure in Prague, Opitz was making his way up the Oder to Frankfurt an der Oder, where he would publish "Aristarchus."* "Whenever I think about our native German ancestors, strong men and indeed invincible," Opitz begins his essay, "I am knocked down by a certain quiet religiousness and a powerful reverent awe"; for the German tongue is "a charming tongue, a decent tongue, a serious tongue" well-suited to alexandrine and Neoclassical verse. Of course, Opitz does all this praising in Latin, which he describes as a "corrupt" language, the language of Catholicism; but he does use German when quoting his own poetry as an example of how German can be used for expressive purposes. When he switches to German, the text also switches from clean, justified rows of Roman typeface, like this --

-- into a curling Gothic font that playfully defies the neat justification of Latin. Like this:

The text tries but cannot contain these little Gothic outbursts that threaten to destroy the forced unity, the imposed aesthetic harmony of the Roman columns. Is it too much to read these pages in the context of the Holy Roman Empire -- in the context of a state desperately trying to maintain central control, even as its own bad policies cause it to crumble, to fracture? Is it too much to read it in the context of diaspora and dissent? Just look at these pages again:

It's almost like the exiled, dispossessed native tongue is attempting to reclaim, even to re-colonize the page. In fact, on this page Latin is quite literally pushed to the edge, squashed between the enclosing ranks of German. Thus not only does the text reflect the kind of political battles being fought at the time, it actually becomes a soldier in the war, re-drawing territorial boundaries. Seen from this angle, "Aristarchus" doesn't ironically reinforce the need to use Latin but actually undermines it, forcing Latin toward the margins as German stakes a claim to its own space. The verses may be Neoclassical in form, but, as Opitz makes clear, they belong to German.

(All images from the WDB.)

* It was composed at least a year earlier, perhaps even published a year earlier -- I've read conflicting accounts. It doesn't matter much.

20 October 2008

mining (con)texts

(Just another cross-post; this time from HASTAC. Also, I realize that this is my second pessimistic digital humanities post in one week. As a former Governor once said to me, "You're just a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian." Guilty as charged. I promise tomorrow I'll unpack my pom-poms and go back to cheering that old MIT cheer. Goooooo Technology!)

John Unsworth gave a talk at Harvard tonight teasingly titled "How Not to Read a Million Books: Text Mining, and Reading the Unreadable." He spoke mostly about the MONK project, a Mellon-funded collaboration which applies text mining techniques and visualizations to discover new dimensions to literary and historical texts.

Unsworth described the work of several scholars already using the MONK toolkit in their work. For instance, Tanya Clement, a PhD candidate in English Literature and Digital Studies, has successfully applied MONK to her research on Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, as she described in a recent article for Literary and Linguistic Computing:
The particular reading difficulties engendered by the complicated patterns of repetition in The Making of Americans mirror those a reader might face attempting to read a large collection of like texts at once without getting lost—likewise, it is almost impossible to read this text in a traditional, linear manner. However, by visualizing certain patterns and looking at the text ‘from a distance’ through textual analytics and visualizations, we are enabled to make readings that were formerly inhibited. Franco Moretti has argued that the solution to truly incorporating a more global perspective in our critical literary practices is not to read more of the vast amounts of literature available to us, but to read it differently by employing 'distant reading'. 'We know how to read texts', he writes, ‘now let's learn how not to read them' (Moretti, 2000Go, p. 57). Similarly, by learning to read texts that have been misread 'at a distance', we are reading differently and we value different readings.
Sara Steger, a PhD candidate in English at University of George, is similarly using MONK in her study of sentimentalism in nineteenth-century novels. Not only could she train the program to recognize sentimental scenes, she then was able to mine a collection of texts for over-represented words in, for instance, Victorian deathbed scenes:



And, then, under-represented words in those same scenes:




Her results invite new research into the absence of formal expressions of mourning ("holy," "country," "lord"), and the presence of physical and emotional closeness ("pillow," "cheek," "breath").

I want to underscore that I think these tools do offer incredible, never-before-possible ways of looking at texts. But: I wonder about how slippery the word "text" becomes in the phrase "text mining." MONK and similar projects focus narrowly on "text" as a string of letters than can plucked from any material context, plopped into another and manipulated, "mined," for meaning. Let's assume for a second that the OCR software always works perfectly (it doesn't), and that the scans of our target book have picked up all the paratexts, including the copyright page, advertisements, promotional blurbs, even page numbers. Then take that nice, neat group of letters and drop it into a text file. What are you left with? What so-called "accidentals," what context, has been lost in translation?

I'm reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith's book Day, in which he re-typed one day's New York Times word for word, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, including page numbers and any text in advertisements. The resulting book -- a thick tome that essentially levels the dynamic space of the newspaper -- might have been the newspaper . . . but definitely was not the newspaper.

These questions become relevant particularly for Victorian novels, many of them stuffed with advertising and illustrations, or published serially in magazines alongside political cartoons or recipes. The Wordles created from deathbed scenes are fascinating and very exciting to me; but unless they're paired with some old-school bibliographic analysis, I worry that more has been elided from the text than it's worth. I also wonder (given my own interests) how text mining would work for early modern books, many of which may ascribe meaning and significance to "accidentals" like italics, capitalization and typographic variation. Unsworth acknowledged that text mining should only be one tool in the researcher's toolkit. What, then, would a combination of MONK-like text mining and bibliography would look like? How can we apply "distant reading" to texts-as-strings-of-letters, while simultaneously doing a "close reading" of texts-as-material-objects?

computer bookplates, + more early visualizations

Catching up on some of my favorite blogs this morning, and found two posts worth mentioning.

Over at Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie -- a must-read for book enthusiasts -- Alex Allan's bookplate is posted. I love, love, love this image, from 1982 (first time a computer shows up in a bookplate?). Lots to unpack.

Allan -- a self-proclaimed deadhead with apparently quirky tastes -- is the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in Britain. The artist of the bookplate is Anne Jope.

Over at BibliOdyssey, another must-read for book lovers, some early nineteenth-century visualizations are posted. This one depicts the "Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers of The World":

This one shows the "Distribution of Vegatables and Snow Line + Comparative Lengths of Rivers":

Of course, these prints remind me of those early twentieth-century visualizations comparing the length of ships to skyscrapers. Check out BibliOdyssey for more.

17 October 2008

Rethinking Interactivity in the Digital Archive

(Cross-posted on the brand-spankin' new HyperStudio blog! It's being integrated into HyperStudio's new site; more on that soon.)

As I've discussed at length elsewhere, I'm currently researching moving parts in books for my thesis on seventeenth-century volvelles, or spinning paper discs used to generate language. Unfortunately, digital archives have not been helpful in either identifying or studying these objects. Looking at images like this one --



-- only reminds me how different these pages were in person, when I could use my thumbnail to gently turn the wheels against each other, or wiggle the surprisingly sturdy thread contraption holding it all together.

I don't mean to fetishize the book. But, as our research increasingly relies on facsimiles -- from fac simile, literally "to make similar" -- it's worth asking: what gets lost in the digital archive? What is flattened on the screen?

Despite persistent beliefs about so-called "print culture", paper is not two-dimensional, and the codex does more than merely store and transmit text. Books are tactile objects, small sculptures designed to be folded, touched, torn, and written on, from the Old English writan, meaning to score a surface the way a stylus marks clay or papyrus. The most playful and imaginative authors understand this and exploit the expressive power of their medium, using the book to teach anatomy with paper flaps:

[From Thomas Gemini's English language version of Vesalius's anatomy (1543); various layers of flaps lift up to reveal different views of human anatomy.]

-- or calculate the position of the stars with spinning paper discs:

[From Peter Apian's absolutely gorgeous Astronomicon Caesareum (1540); these layered volvelles and threads calculate positions of planets and stars]

-- or simply depict certain beliefs about language, as Georg Philipp Harsdörffer does in his Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache (1651, pictured above), used to automatically generate German words. We see digital archives, faceted browsing and visualizations as having a certain depth -- you can zoom in, we say, or drill down -- yet, ironically, depth is precisely what is lost when we re-frame the printed page as a digital image. We should interrogate how the digital archive is mediating our relationship to the objects we study with as much vigorousness as we argue over how writing transformed oral culture, or how print transformed scribal culture.

Will the digital archive reinforce our often misguided notions about the fixity of print, or the flatness of the page? What would the study of volvelles or book flaps look like in a digital space?

Last year, HyperStudio sponsored an talk entitled "Harlequin Meets The Sims," by Jaqueline Reid-Walsh. Reid-Walsh has done fascinating research on the history of children's interactive narrative media, digging up paper doll games, puzzles, and flap books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because the materials she works with are fragile and little-known, she's turned to digital humanities labs like HyperStudio to digitize and display the materials.

The only problem: no one has come up with a good digital solution for capturing what it feels like to cut out and play with paper dolls, or flip the page of a pop-up book to reveal a small paper universe. And, of course, we never will. The British Library's Turning Pages technology is neat, but paper is not a screen, and a screen is not paper. Instead of trying to "recreate" these experiences in a virtual space, thereby pretending there's a one-to-one correspondence between the two technologies, we should build on the digital archive's strengths (broader access to rare materials, smart searches, the ability to manipulate and annotate the facsimile without destroying the original), and be honest about its possible weaknesses -- what it elides, and how it frames the book.

16 October 2008

Darnton's awesome new e-book

Robert Darnton is speaking at today's CMS Colloquium, and just mentioned he's working on a new "e-book" on the history of the book in the 18th-century. His work will allow readers to annotate or respond to the text, possibly through some kind of some "wiki-like functionality," so that the text itself becomes part of the debate.

Sweet!

Deep Thoughts, with Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt talked at MIT this week, where he argued that cultures are "constantly in motion." Instead of seeing diasporas as isolated moments, then, we should see "exile, transformation and movement as the norm."

I like that.

But then, he also compared the notion of "anti-agency" to "getting an erection at the beach," so . . .

(I'll post a link when the podcast is up.)

12 October 2008

the body as book, and the book as body

I've come upon so many references to the book as a body, or the body as a book, recently. The book is a corpus bound along its spine; the index points readers in the right direction (indicat), like an index finger; the appendix is both an organ and a text, each supplemental in its own way. To 'articulate' means both to unite limbs at the joints and to join separate utterances -- but, as Michel de Certeau argues, "printing represents this articulation of the text on the body through writing." In fact, according to de Certeau the very tools of writing are connected to the tools of surgery:
The flesh that has been cut out or added to, putrefied or put back together tells the story of the high deeds of all these tools, these incorruptible heroes... Instruments are thus distinguished by the action they perform: cutting, tearing out, extracting, removing, etc., or else inserting, installing, attaching, covering up, assembling, sewing together, articulating, etc. -- without mentioning those substituted for missing or deteriorated organs, such as heart valves and regulators, prosthetic joints, pins implanted in the femur, artificial irises, substitute ear bones . . (de Certeau 139, 141)
I can't help but think again of the Dictionary of the Khazars and the Marx brothers, with their images of the body that writes itself into being on its own flesh. Add to that list now The Comedy of Errors, in which Dromia the slave says to his master Antipholus, "If the skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink / Your own handwriting would tell you what I think . . ."

Even the word 'book' -- from the Old English boc, a relative of 'beech', the material from which writing tablets were made -- may share its woody roots (pun intended) with 'body', or, in Old English, bodig, meaning the 'trunk' of a man.

And if we want to get molecular, we are all -- humans, trees, animals, insects -- just a kind of "spectacular information technology" preserving the archival material of DNA; we are each a chemical copyist, re-writing the original text. Richard Dawkins discusses this very thoughtfully in The Blind Watchmaker, a book this body has been reading bit by bit.
DNA's performance as an archival medium is spectacular. In its capacity to preserve a message it far outdoes tablets of stone. Cows and pea plants (and, indeed, all the rest of us) have an almost identical gene called the histone H4 gene. The DNA text is 306 characters long. ... Cows and peas differ from each other in only two characters out of these 306. (Dawkins 174-5)

[From Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams (Amsterdam, 1690); if it looks familiar, you may have seen William Cowper's 1698 edition, The Anatomy Of Humane Bodies, With Figures Drawn After The Life By some Of The Best Masters in Europe. Cowper bought the plates from Bidloo, translated the text and sold it as his own without giving Bidloo credit -- in other words, he plagiarized it. link]

09 October 2008

"A marginal group has now become a silent majority."

I just recalled a copy of Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life from the MIT library, and can't stop reading it -- not so much because of what de Certeau is saying (as interesting as that is) but because of the little moments of marginalia-induced irony on every page. Like this one:

Or this one:

Or, a subtle one, but perhaps my favorite:

Although the introduction is heavily marked up, the notes peter off toward the end of the book. By the time you get to Chapter 12, "Reading as Poaching," they've disappeared completely.

05 October 2008

Harlot, a new online journal

This looks pretty neat: Harlot, a new web journal. The descrip:
Harlot is a digital magazine and web forum dedicated to provoking playful and serious conversations about rhetoric — from reality television to public monuments, religion to pop music, and everything in between. As a netroots campaign in rhetorical literacy, Harlot promotes critical response to the endless streams of subtly persuasive communication that surround us every day. We at Harlot believe rhetorical analysis and production can help us to better understand and more effectively and ethically influence our communities and world. And so we offer a space for your relevant, accessible criticism and collaborative meaning-making.
The inaugural issue contains a few teasing titles, such as "'phonesex : a digital collage'
and 'dis|orientation : a straight closet'
", as well as "Playing Heads or Tails with My Diaphragm: Drinking Lattés with Hélène Cixous." We need more open-access journals, and academics that can speak to a broader audience. Unfortunately, though, the white on black text is killing my eyes.

levinas and textual communities

wood s lot, one of those rare, wonderful blogs that makes me want to know more, recently posted a link to this essay: "Textual Communities: Nancy, Blanchot, Derrida," by Kuisma Korhonen. There are some glowing gems in here; like this one:
By reading, we are already confronting something that is necessarily on the limits of the living presence of other humans: language as such is both the living energy of living human beings and more or less inhuman structures that can be stored, reproduced and even generated by machines. What we ultimately encounter in literature is not the author (the author is, by definition, no longer present) or the world full of different beings (they are, after all, only textual constructions, although we cannot help but imagine some kind of existence for them in our reading experience), but the very materiality of language, the ‘il y a’ or the ‘murmur of the world’ (Lingis, 1994), the white noise of being that we hear when all meanings have been stripped from words.
I love that phrase, "the white noise of being." Gadji beri bimba. A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah, air, är, are, arh, arre, arrgh, ars, aude. A Babette of electrons and photons.

And I love that I discovered an essay on readerly communities by, well, being part of one. "We read each other," Korhonen writes, "in a chiasmatic but unsymmetrical exchange of positions and identities." He's talking about himself and the text, but the sentence might be even more meaningfully applied to the relationship between his work and the web.
In every textual encounter, the other in the text is in some way transformed from a sheer object or machine to something that carries marks of subjectivity; the text becomes a prosopopoeia, a personification of the other.
At times, it seems that Korhonen's essay is too crowded with personality, with the individual, whether in the form of the reader or this other in the text. I'm not sure we need to anthromorphize media objects as voices from the dead or speaking texts in order to make the concept of community meaningful to the solitary act of reading. Everytime a reader opens a book -- really just a code word for "big, bound bundle of social and legal protocols" -- she enters an institutional context that includes a preexistent community of shared interests. The very form of the object prescribes how it will (or should) be used. No "virtual groups" or sense of "the Other" necessary.

But, then, I do love me some Levinas. Not only did he pen the most memorable line I've ever read in a philosophical text -- "Harsh reality (this sounds like a pleonasm!)" -- but he is sorely under-quoted in my field(s). Much to his credit, Korhonen skillfully sketches out the ways Levinas's thought might contribute to the study of literature.
In the background of this discussion has been the conviction, shared more or less by all the authors mentioned above but expressed perhaps most memorably by Levinas, that human subjects come into being only in relation to the Other. Singularities may gain their subjectivity only by facing the other or the multiplicity of others; before one can construct any immanent self-hood, one has already been called into question by the existence of others.
I wonder if this sentiment isn't more fruitfully applied to the kind of online readerly community that led me to this essay in the first place. In any case, much to pursue here (and a lot that's relevant to my thesis!)

the phony 'nu-cu-ler' hubbub

Yes, Palin's folksy affectations are obnoxious, and possibly even offensive. But guys: 'nuclear' can, in fact, be pronounced 'nuke-u-ler'. It's called metathesis, and we do it with lots of English words that have an awkward consonant combination. Like 'comfortable' or, in some vernaculars, 'ask'. I don't see anyone running around screaming, "Obama can't pronounce COM-FORT-ABLE!"(although I bet we'd hear about it if he ever said 'aks' . .).

It is ridiculous, and maybe a tad elitist in a bad way, to make fun of metathesis, because you're essentially saying: anyone who doesn't speak absolute dictionary-standard English isn't one of us. For whatever reason, we don't value vernaculars as a rich part of our language; we make fun of them. This is sad, and has gotten us into a lot of trouble in education.

So if I flip next time someone makes fun of 'nuculer' -- you've been warned.

03 October 2008

note taking, hybridity and selfhood

Earlier this summer, a professor here at MIT -- say, Professor Q -- gave me a copy of his notes on an important scholarly text that relates directly to my thesis, but which is published in a language I can't read. Written in the form of a quasi-stream-of-conscious Word document, these notes are, frankly, intimidating. For two months now I've kept them tucked in my notebook of "articles to read," occasionally pulling them out to browse . . only to put them away after I find myself re-reading the first sentence over, and over, and over again.

It's not that this professor's notes aren't interesting, or insightful, or even useful -- because what I've managed to read has been that and more. They just seem . . private. Reading them is a bit like plugging into his brain, scanning his thoughts as he scans something else, this other text which is publicly available, yet strangely inaccessible to me. For instance, when Professor Q types out, "This is wrong: there is one theory of inventio and dispositio valid for every field and discourse," is he saying that the author thinks this statement is wrong? Or does Professor Q think the author is wrong? Do they both agree?

This topic of note taking -- of using the hand to record, cut, copy and paste text into (or onto) other media -- has been on my mind a lot lately, especially as I learn more about writing tools used during the English renaissance. Again, Ann Blair has done some interesting work here. In "Note Taking as an Art of Transmission," Blair outlines what the study of notes might mean to scholarship:
At the deepest level, then, note taking presents some consistent features that are identifiable across many differences of time and place. The long continuities that undergird the Western tradition of note taking and that can be explained in part by cultural inertia also invite comparison with the methods of working in other text-based traditions (for example, Chinese or Islamic), suggesting their very broad applicability. At the other extreme, note taking is of course very personal, dependent on the judgment and commitments peculiar to each individual note taker that are not necessarily shared with others. Indeed, Michel Foucault reportedly expressed a desire to study copybooks of quotations because they seemed to him to be "works of the self, not imposed on the individual"; they promised to give quasi-psychoanalytic insight into the thinking of the individual reader free to choose what was worthy of attention.
Another way to think about note taking is through the concept of hybridity. Mikhail Bahktin writes of the "hybrid" utterance in novels, those moments when two or more sociolects merge without markers to indicate a new speaker. Similarly in linguistics, a hybrid utterance is a form of code-switching that polyglots use every day. When reading someone else's notes, though, heteroglossia confronts you in the strangest way. The silence of the original text competes with the noise of the note-taker's thoughts, his own cognitive schemas, and all the prior knowledge he brings to the process of reading. As a result, this hybridity doesn't clarify the author's tone -- as it might in, say, a parodic novel -- but actually confuscates it. I literally cannot know what Prof. Q means when he writes "This is wrong," even as I am, supposedly, reading a document that tells me just that.

At the CMS colloquium last night, Stefan Helmreich (an anthropologist here at MIT doing incredible work on cyborgs) talked about taking pages and pages of handwritten notes while doing fieldwork -- only to find later, while cross-checking them against film of the event, that many of his notes were wrong. Factually wrong. This is, to me, an incredible thing -- at once more simple and much more profound than either Foucault's "works of the self" or Bahktin's heteroglossia. For if we can't trust our own recorded memories, how can they offer "quasi-psychoanalytic insight"? And how can one begin to disambiguate the various ideas woven into someone else's notes without some "original" text to anchor them to?