19 December 2008

thesis prototype is up! feedback?

As promised: a taste of what my thesis will be like. (Psst -- please view in Mozilla or Safari; I haven't fully vetted it with IE yet. If you notice wonkiness, though, please let me know.) Think of it as a kind of prototype, maybe even a thesis chapter that will morph and get moved around once I write more. It deals specifically with Georg Philipp Harsdörffer's Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache (a favorite that I've mentioned here before), and doesn't incorporate any of the research I've done on proteus poems, pattern poetry or digital poetry. All that will come.

As I've mentioned here before, my thesis explores seventeenth-century poetry generators as both writing implements, and as texts that attempt to mirror (and in doing so construct) language as a combinatory -- as an algorithm, a code. One of my goals, though, is to use these seventeenth-century mechanisms to historicize digital poetry and more generally identify a symbiotic relationship between linguistic theory (that is, how humans conceptualize and relate to written language) and poetic practice.

A note on the design: the idea is that a link embedded on one side will open up an essay related to that topic on the other side. So, for instance, say you're reading about the different parts of the Denckring on the left side of the screen -- and it starts to sound a lot like Stammwörter theory. A link embedded in the discussion will open up an essay on Stammwörter theory on the right side of the screen, so that you can swing over there, read as much as you want, then swing back to the Denckring -- or onto another topic. In other words, each essay acts as a discrete element which may stand on its own or be combined (and thereby (re-)contextualized) with(in) a new intellectual, historical or cultural milieu, exposing dimensions otherwise hidden in the traditional linear format. In the same way, by permuting the different elements, the reader can connect written texts to the culture in which they were produced, or the past and the present, without reducing one to a mere reflection of the other. Thus ars combinatoria becomes not only the subject of my thesis but a metaphor for historical, ethnographic and literary scholarship itself.

Also, I aim in part to show how digital technologies may be used to bring literary historians closer to the objects they study, so you may notice that quotes are presented (when possible) in the original language, with a hover-over translation. Clicking on the translated text opens a Thickbox containing a high quality facsimile of the quote in its original context -- a functionality available (at minimum) for all seventeenth-century texts. In addition to making my own research processes more transparent, showing the quotes on a page facsimile gives, I hope, a sense of the visual aesthetic of baroque poetry and book design, an important aspect of proteic poems that don't exist outside the combinatory potential of their mechanisms.

Finally, I want to point out that while I am Digital Humanities enthusiast and love projects that allow readers to comment on or edit an author's work (as Chris Kelty and Noah Wardrip-Fruin have done with great success), this is not my goal. Actually, I want to do something rather quaint: I want to see if I can exploit the affordances of web technology to augment traditional scholarly writing. In particular, I'm interested in returning to the notion of hypertext and hyperlinking -- once a very fashionable topic that now, like the common example of Vannevar Bush's "Memex," has lost currency before realizing its full potential. Instead of "drilling into" a text vertically (as early hypertext theorists imagined), we now skim over multiple texts simultaneously and horizontally by opening tabs across the top of our browser windows. Which is all well and good -- I do it too. But how has that changed the notion of hypertext? In other words, how can the idea of ars combinatoria create a space that reframes hypertext in a way that is meaningful for today's web?
The commentary resembles endlessly that which it is commenting upon and which it can never express; just as the knowledge of nature constantly finds new signs for resemblance because resemblance cannot be known in itself, even though the signs can never be anything but similitudes. And just as this infinite play within nature finds its link, its form, and its limitation in the relation of the microcosm to the macrocosm, so does the infinite task of commentary derive its strength from the promise of an effectively written text which interpretation will one day reveal in its entirety. (Foucault, The Order of Things, 41-2)
I get a number of lovely emails from this blog, which always makes me wonder how people have found my address. Well, I can wonder no longer -- I've added it to the top left corner of the page. I am trettien at mit.edu. If you don't feel comfortable leaving a comment, please send me an email with your feedback. I am by no means a programmer or a web designer, so in addition to the typical advice on resources, research, etc., advice on these fronts is very greatly appreciated.

Now for some spiced wine and snow frolicking!


Moria said...

This is unbelievably cool. (I just said to my partner, at the kitchen table over coffee, "I wish I was this cool.")

It's so cool, in fact, that I have yet to be able to digest the actual content (you know, the wordy bits) -- I so wholeheartedly endorse your project to "exploit the affordances of web technology to augment traditional scholarly writing," and I'm so glad that you're doing it. It makes me want to learn design so that I can do it, too.

And I do think such projects can bring us closer to the things we study - the things, I mean. I like your translation tactic, and your images. But I also like the jumpy nature of your text -- my worst nightmare about academic writing is that it asks for the four-dimensional in linear form. You have multi-dimensionality working in your favor. It's fantastic.

I'll comment back, maybe, when I've gotten over how effing cool this is, on the content.

Whitney said...

Hey Moria! Thanks so much for the positive vibes! I'm encouraged that other scholars might find this useful.

I've had the conversation about 4d in 1d a bajillion times over the last week, as colleagues are wrapping up papers, etc. It's a difficult thing to squash a thought flat while retaining its intensively networked, multidimensional nature. Maybe taking a class in paper engineering would help?

btw on a related note, I've shared your "papered" post, which is also a conversation I've had a bajillion times over the last week. SO TRUE.

peacay said...

-This is unbelievably cool.-

My immediate criticisms (that's not quite the right word and is only meant as feedback and not, you know, criticism, per se) are:

-You know the (kind of) pop-ups that darken the rest of the page? Well I reckon the website as a whole needs a full screen one of those as a kind of landing page to give a brief practical 'how to' use the site. In it I would also have..
-Discrete link appearance parameters it would help enormously. By this I mean that bibliography links should be, say, pink background etc etc to distinguish between the types of action that will face a person clicking: also saves a person having to look at the status bar to work out what will happen and where it will go.
-I become quickly disorientated and look for a 'home' link. Is there one?
-I didn't know the letters up top were links at first and again, once I click on any, it's bewildering in a 'space and time' orientation. I'm not saying what you have there is confusing, rather, that as a casual interloper I didn't know where I was, where I was going or how to get 'back', so to speak.

These are minor things and perhaps I'm preempting your future ideas anyway. But really: what Moira said. Me likey!

(having encountered Harsdorffer a little in the past, perhaps disorientating a visitor is a feature, not a bug, yeah? ;- )

peacay said...

{Also, I'm a slack and lazy bastard and should have read to the end of your blog post. And yes, like most blokes, I open the package and start trying to use the device without reading the instructions and then complain when it doesn't do what I want/expect!)

Whitney said...

Yes, thank you! Great points, all. I agree I need to figure out an overall framing structure that orients the reader. I'm having a screen real estate problem -- using the Thickbox to give instructions to first-time visitors is a great idea, though.