VOLVELLES AND OTHER INDETERMINACIES.

The idea of the indeterminate text is associated with postmodernism (e.g.: “the modernism of Eliot has been identified with the autonomy of the text [...] and the determinacy of its meaning, the postmodern text is ‘open’ and its meaning is indeterminate”), but there’s nothing new about it. To quote the introduction to a very interesting book I recently got, Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally:

The commodification of literature induced a certain anxiety of authorship among Russia’s elite, for the printing press threatened to drown the originality they associated with literature in a potentially infinite reproduction of texts. Earlier the German Romantics of the circle had also perceived this threat and conceived in response an ideal modern genre that could hold formally diverse parts together in a state of irresolution. This dynamic structure resisted the ossification of reproduction as its resolution into a whole varied with each individual reader.

With that prologue, I introduce you to Whitney Anne Trettien, a PhD student at Duke who’s thinking far more interesting thoughts than I was as a PhD student over 30 years ago (though, to be fair, my department pretty much discouraged interesting thoughts). Her CV starts by giving her research interests as, among other things, the relationship between technology, language and literature; intellectual history; medieval and baroque automata; and digital poetry and literature, and she has combined much of that into her master’s thesis, “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” which exists primarily as a website with a navigation system that forces you to find your own way through it, so that its resolution into a whole varies with each individual reader. (The first thing I learned from her was the word volvelle; it’s the kind of word one can enjoy quite apart from its meaning, and I can imagine its being given as a name by the kind of parent who gives kids weird names.) She writes in her introduction:

After spending months researching combinatory reading and writing practices — practices that are radically Other to us, so far from (to return to Chartier) “the genealogy of our own contemporary manner of reading” — I could not, in both theory and reality, write a narrative history. The institutional conventions of scholarly reading, writing and publication seek to familiarize and contain, conceptualizing the production of knowledge and text itself as a process of illumination, literally “bringing to light”; yet, as the combinatory practices I was researching underscore, there is nothing “natural” to these institutions. In fact, their very familiarity is partly a byproduct of the assumptions I hoped to challenge — assumptions that have perpetuated totalizing arguments about “print” and “the book.” How could I defamiliarize a history of reading and writing within such a prosaic academic literacy?
Thus instead of a linear text, I’ve produced a digital mechanism that, like the objects of my study, forces the reader to participate in the process of making meaning. On the one hand, this medium allows me to present a comparative history without compromising specificity or reducing the complexity of one moment to a mere reflection of another; yet it still strives for thematic cohesion by using our digital present quite literally as a map for exploring programmatic epistemologies in our past. Like our current media ecology, this map can be, in the words of many of my test users, “disorienting,” a Borgesian textual labyrinth. I sympathize with these frustrations. As students and scholars, we are not primed to participate in reading texts as any more than “critical interpreters” who absorb and repurpose language, and writing is still presented as an act of “originality.” In other words, the practice of cutting up and combining texts — that is, manipulating language materially — is almost entirely absent from our current conceptual model of literacy. Yet such forms of reading and writing are one facet to the infinitely complex history of both the book and (if the recent avalanche of literature on new media literacies is any indication) the book-to-come. By both presenting and enacting the very mechanisms I theorize, I hope to put a neglected past in conversation with our present while still waving “goodbye to much that is familiar.”

She uses more jargon than I’m usually comfortable with, but hell, that’s part of being a grad student, and she has such interesting bits of history and text to present that I can’t say I mind. And her blog is worth a look, too; this post, for example, discusses her work on Pepys’ Diary, specifically “buried references to the Diary [that] crop up throughout the eighteenth century, indicating the work was not entirely unknown until Smith’s transcription.” In the course of her work she finds “two facsimiles of a pre-Smith plan to transcribe the Diary” via Google Books:

Here’s where the story get sticky, though. Thinking my work was done, I finished up the essay without ever consulting the physical book (don’t judge me, we all do it), even took a screenshot of the facsimiles from the biography, now out of print, and dropped them in as figures for the essay. The time for permissions rolls around, and we realize the scans are too low resolution for publication. So I order the dusty 1904 tome be dragged up from Duke’s storage facilities; open it up to scan the figures myself; and find this: [image]
What I thought were scratches from the scanner, or — honestly, I don’t know what I thought they were; my intuitive curiosity as a literary historian and digital humanist failed me — turned out to be full pages. The dunce that scanned the text for Google Books didn’t bother to unfold the paper; and, since Google Books doesn’t have any mechanism for indicating moving parts and fold-outs on their flattened scans, whatever was tucked between the folds was lost to the database.
I’ve talked about interactivity in the digital archive here before; this incident brought the issue home for me. Like all media, tools like Google Books inevitably (re-)frame our research, opening exciting new possibilities; but in doing so, other potentials are foreclosed. Beyond the dampening effect on research into the codex as a form, the digital archive’s absences produce an image of “print culture” that slides frustratingly toward the very reductive models that many book historians have challenged in recent years. We need to start thinking seriously about what aspects of the book are elided by the screen; how a text’s materiality is mediated by scans; and how the structure of databases disallow us from documenting these bookish anomalies.

She’s singin’ my song. And I was also won over by the last words of her CV: “In my spare time, I collect dictionaries.”
(Thanks, peacay!)

Comments

  1. Kári Tulinius says:

    Yeah, the dissertation’s brilliant. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to post it to MetaFilter in a way that does it justice since she put it up on the internet, but haven’t really thought of a proper way of doing it. I may just post anyway, to hell with framing.

  2. Is there a working version of Harsdörffer’s Denckring on the net? This copy of an old site didn’t capture the Perl script.

  3. What does “whoops” mean when I click twice on (14,16), I wonder?

  4. It’s a pleasingly busily labyrinthine song, language hat, but I think your opening remark – that there’s “nothing new” about postmodernity – is apposite. I think there’s “nothing new” about challenging “the assumptions [Trettien] hope[s] to challenge” – and does, interestingly.
    In fact, a history of challenges to those “assumptions” would be copious. It’s not that Trettien’s “challenges” aren’t worth doing, nor that she’s not doing them well, but rather, that her sense of her researches’ unusualness and even novelty are simply inaccurate.
    -
    Plato’s written enactment of conversational drama has two expert examples of “challenges” to totalizing assumptions about understanding “literacy”: the banishment of “poets” (known through oral performance, as Socrates is, but ‘banished’ here in Plato’s writing) in The Republic 595a – 608b (the first half or so of book 10), and the skepticism of writing itself (skepticism spoken by a character who doesn’t write, but itself written) in Phaedrus 274c – 277a (towards the end of the dialogue).
    -
    When Trettien writes that the practice of cutting up and combining texts [...] is almost entirely absent from our current conceptual model of literacy, I don’t understand her.
    “[C]utting up and combining texts” is how we learn to read and how we teach learners to read. Is there really no “current conceptual model” for this attaining of “literacy”?
    “[C]utting up and combining texts” is also an important part of how, for example, Shakespeare composed plays. In fact, if individual words are a kind of “text”, it’s how anybody says or writes anything. It’s also thematized in a big way by numerous Modernist and postmodernist poets and prose writers – in such a big way that the phrasing seems to be a truism of contemporary literature.
    ?
    -
    I think boring, old-fashioned “narratives” are more “postmodern” than they’re supposed to be. Reading “narrative” is always an interactive experience with an unstable text; just because the words of a poem, say, aren’t moving around on the page doesn’t mean that they aren’t moving around in your mind as you read the poem, and moving in and out of the poems (and everything else) that are already ‘in’ and constitute your mind.

  5. After spending months researching combinatory reading and writing practices — practices that are radically Other to us, so far from (to return to Chartier) “the genealogy of our own contemporary manner of reading

    If the PostModernism generator and William S. Burroughs are “radically Other to us”, then the central question is as it so often is “what do you mean ‘us’, kimosabe?”
    Which is to say, what deadgod said.

  6. her sense of her researches’ unusualness and even novelty are simply inaccurate.
    She’s a grad student, for Christ’s sake. If she didn’t have a belief in her research’s unusualness and novelty to compensate her for the hell of grad school, she’d shoot herself or go work in bookstores (I chose the latter course). For that matter, authors’ sense of their own writings’ unusualness and novelty are nearly always inaccurate. Should they therefore wise up and shut up? “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

  7. j. del col says:

    She’s got the pomo patter down pat, that’s for sure.
    What is there to it other than the patter? What does she say that Benjamin didn’t?

  8. But the interesting thing about indeterminacy in a text is that the text is not intentionally indeterminate. Intentionally indeterminate texts are about as interesting as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories.
    Also, in fairness to the postmodernists, they didn’t think that this kind of thing was new. They drew on examples as far back as Plato to make their case. The only new thing they did was focus a lot of attention on it.

  9. I thought that her array of publications and capacities was extraordinary for someone younger than 30. I haven’t dug in further than that, but plenty of people getting their PhDs are happy to have one significant publication, and there are plenty of retiring PhD professors who only have a handful.

  10. Kári Tulinius says:

    Marc: Also, in fairness to the postmodernists, they didn’t think that this kind of thing was new.
    Absolutely. Post-modernism was always about letting back into high art all the things that had been rejected in modernism (e.g. representation in visual arts and strong plots in literature).

  11. shut up?
    Certainly not. (Was I not complimentary enough?)
    But to strengthen one’s discourse by recognizing that the hard, gem-like flames that burn in one are sympathetic kindlings?

  12. [I mean that graduate students shouldn't "shut" their enthusiastic explorations "up".]

  13. there are plenty of retiring PhD professors who only have a handful
    Perhaps they are so retiring that they never got round to publishing their work.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    That pretty much describes me.

  15. Why take screenshots from Googlebooks when you can just download the images? Might even be in a better resolution (not printable, of course), because depending on your settings they could be displayed at <100% size.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    I thought that her array of publications and capacities was extraordinary for someone younger than 30.
    Men hun er 31.

  17. Oh, well then. Not amazing.

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