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.