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?

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