Conferences Modern Language Association ACH Sessions

ACH Sessions at the 1999 MLA Convention

The Association for Computers and the Humanities is sponsoring two sessions at the 1999 convention of the Modern Language Association, in Chicago from 27 through 30 December.

We also offer a guide to all computer-related sessions at the convention.

Although the 1999 convention is now in the past, this information will remain available, as a record of what went on. Similar information for many other years is available via the main page on ACH MLA sessions.

The Impact of Technology

Presiding: Julia H. Flanders, Brown University

Session 101, Monday, 27 December 1999, 7:00 to 8:15 p.m., Haymarket Room, Hyatt Regency Chicago

In general terms, the impact of technology on academic work has become a familiar topic, with frequent emphasis placed on the effects of improved access to research materials, the ability to work collaboratively, and the potential for new forms of discourse. This session takes a look at some of the less explored ramifications of technology in the academy: its transformation of discursive forms into forms of data, its impact on theories of labor, and its alteration of even mundane or routine discursive spaces such as classroom discussion.

  • “Digital Alchemy and the Three R’s of XML (Research, Writing, and Rendition): a report on a pilot application and implementation of Electronic Dissertations at the University of Iowa”, John Robert Gardner, University of Iowa

    This paper discusses the potential impact of XML on humanities research and writing, an impact likely to be far greater than that of SGML and HTML. First situating XML within the temporal and narrative structures of writing, the author describes XML’s representation of text: the guiding principles of the specification, the significance of its separation of content and rendition, and the question of its treatment of linearity. The author then presents the University of Iowa’s work on developing protocols for electronic theses and dissertations, and the impact this may have on academic research and its presentation.

  • “School-to-Work”, Michelle Glaros, Dakota State University

    This paper raises one of the major issues arising from the emergence of technology in the academy: the increasing vocationalization of the liberal arts. With the convergence of technology and literary study, literature departments are now often reshaped into vocational centers where students learn how to communicate in the digital world. The author addresses the question of pedagogical responsibility and of the implicit anti-intellectualism of the vocational model of curricular planning, in which a skills-based pedagogy supersedes a theory-driven approach to computer composition.

  • “The Inscriptive Community: Networks and Subjects in the Classroom”, Thomas Akbari, Rutgers University

    This paper describes the challenges and effects of using a listserv as a writing and discussion space in literature courses. The author explores both the shifting intellectual dynamic of the class, and also the subtle alteration of the students’ subject positions, in response to the change in discursive space. Situating these issues in relation to the work of theorists like Stanley Fish, Katherine Hayles, and Sherry Turkle, the author cautiously assesses the usefulness of these models for understanding the pedagogical impact of creating a digital writing community.

The `New’ Computer-Assisted Literary Criticism: What Does it Look Like? What Will it Look Like?

Presiding: Raymond G. Siemens, Malaspina University-College

Session 296, Tuesday, 28 December 1999, 1:45 to 3:00 p.m., Field Room, Hyatt Regency Chicago

  • “Electric Theory (Truth, Use, and Method)”, Tamise J. Van Pelt, Idaho State University

    First Wave critics of the electronic environment—especially those critics who discuss hypertext in the late ’80s and early ’90s—make an interesting discovery about theory and computing: electronic literacy confirms post/structural theories of reading and writing. Given a computer environment, theory finds that its principles are indeed true.

    Defining semiosis as the reading of codes and the writing of signs, J. David Bolter (1991) argues that “the theory of semiotics becomes obvious, almost trivially true, in the computer medium” (196). Similarly, George P. Landow (1992) extends Bolter’s claim to encompass the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Bakhtin, and Derrida, pointing to the bilocation of ideas of textual openness, of the network, of polyvocality, and of decenteredness both in post-structural theory and computerized hypertextual writing. Thus, Landow concludes: “something that Derrida and other critical theorists describe as part of a seemingly extravagant claim about language turns out precisely to describe the new economy of reading and writing with electronic virtual, rather than physical, forms” (8). Even the hypertext novel can be an exemplar of literary criticism; for instance, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon embodies both the content and the practice of psychoanalytic theory, using resistance as a literal compositional principle and placing desire at the center of the novel’s reader-text interface.

    This amazing convergence between post/structural theory and the computing medium suggests that hypertext’s ability to stage the principles informing diverse (and even contradictory) literary theories defines a property of the electronic medium itself. Since the computer environment offers theory a self-validating medium, the question that once determined the authority of a theory—can its principles help the reader discover the truth of a text?—seems futile to ask. If Dillon is right and our technologies are actually embodiments of our theories (in Rouet, 8, emphasis mine), then this self-validating function of electrified theory undermines, by inevitable affirmation, the critical position of the reader-theorist. Because the electronic medium reconfigures the relation between the reader and the text, it literalizes the way that the reader brings theory to the text: In a medium where “the text is a stage and reading is direction” (Douglas, title), the very agency of the “reader” tends to strip away rather than develop critical distance. Thus, Espen Aarseth replaces the idea of the “reader” with the more ambivalent term “user” to describe the person who interacts with the electronic medium. User, Aarseth writes, “suggest[s] both active participation and dependency, a figure under the influence of some kind of pleasure-giving system” (Cybertext 174). Since a user-theorist of e-text operating under the print assumptions connecting theory to authoritative truth finds in electric theory the headiness of addiction to confirmation, electric theory necessitates attention to use itself.

    To better define issues of user dependency and control in the convergence of theory with the electronic medium, I will examine two very different methods of computerized theoretical study that solve the problem of literalness: Earl Jackson, Jr.’s semiotics and psychoanalysis website and Havholm & Stewart’s computer modeled structural narratology. Both methods arise from the computing environment and would be impossible without it. Whereas the former site places the user of electric theory in a webbed environment of emergent meanings and open-ended exploration, the latter practice programs theoretical principles in order to radically constrain theoretical outcomes. Either method’s willingness to replace truth-value with use-value provides a way out of the self-confirming impasse created by the encounter between First Wave theoretical assumptions and the computer medium.

  • “French Neo-Structuralist Schools and Industrial Text Analysis”, William Glen Winder, University of British Columbia

    Parallel to, and to some degree in reaction to French post-structuralist theorization (as championed by Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan, among others) is a French “neo” structuralism built directly on the achievements of structuralism using electronic means. We will begin this talk by examining some exemplary approaches to text analysis in this neo-structuralist vein that have appeared over the past 10 years.

    Some of these approaches have specific “deliverables” and are promising because of the well-defined focus of their research: Sator’s topoi dictionary, E. Brunet’s statistical software, and E. Brill’s grammatical tagger will serve to illustrate projects of this type. Other research is more theoretical in nature and represents over-arching models of (electronic) textual study. Two examples we will consider are Jean-Claude Gardin’s expert systems approach and François Rastier’s interpretative semantics.

    These practical and theoretical approaches have in common a fundamental hypothesis: archives of natural language texts are a valuable and as yet untapped resource for any project to formalise human understanding, whether that project be industrial or traditionally humanistic in nature. (Thus, for example, the Brill tagger the uses the Frantext literary database to generate the rule base for the tagger.) In a very real and practical sense, authors are painstaking programmers. They formalise meaning and create, through their writing, databases of expertise in various domains, which range from how we use language to how we perceive the world and exchange information about it. That expertise is precisely what computers must acquire if they are to perform the more advanced tasks increasingly asked of them, whether in the context of humanities research or in an industrial setting.

    Textual archives which combine texts and expertise are destined to play an important role in our increasingly electronic society because programmers face an information barrier. Advanced programming projects require that programmers describe real-world objects with exponentially increasing detail and precision. Such massive requirements for description cannot be met by the efforts of any single group of programmers: it may well be that only the mass of textual material, accumulated over the centuries in literary texts and scientific writing, has enough descriptive weight to allow programs to break the information barrier and perform qualitatively more advanced tasks.

    Textual research itself faces the same kind of information barrier. In this paper, we will consider how this “Wissenschaft” accumulation of expertise is related to and complements the neo-structuralist approach. Ultimately, electronic critical studies will be defined by their strategic position at the intersection of the two technologies shaping our society: the new information processing technology of computers and the representational techniques that have accumulated for centuries in written texts. Understanding how these two information management paradigms complement each other is a key issue for the humanities, for computer science, and vital to industry, even beyond the narrow domain of the language industries. It will be the contention of this paper that the direction of critical studies, a small planet long orbiting in only rarefied academic circles, will be radically altered by the sheer size of the economic stakes implied by industrial text analysis.

  • “A Theory for Literature (Created for the World Wide Web, E-Mail, Chat Spaces, Databases, and Other Electronic Technologies)”, Dene M. Grigar, Texas Woman’s University

    Beginning with Michael Joyce’s seminal hypertext, afternoon, a story, and moving to the recent webtext by Kathleen Yancey and Michael Spooner, Not (Necessarily) a Cosmic Convergence, Dene Grigar provides examples of the new literary writing generated by electronic non-print technologies, such as World Wide Web, MOOs, databases, and other types of computer-generated media, and discusses the theories that have emerged to explain them. Specifically, she looks at theories of hypertext, posited by Jay David Bolter, George Landow, Johndan Johnson-Eilola; of synchronous or real-time writing, found in MOOs and MUDs, developed by Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik, Mick Doherty, and Sandye Thompson; and of online writing and webtexts, articulated by John Barber, Victor Vitanza, and others.

    Although electronic writing remains at the early stages of development in this late age of print (Bolter 2) and early age of electronic writing (Barber and Grigar 12), it is fast becoming an important medium of literary expression. By bringing these examples and ideas together, the author suggests some guidelines for understanding and discussing electronic writing that will serve as the starting point for the development of an overarching literary theory for these emergent literary texts.

  • “Computer-Mediated Discourse, Reception Theory, and Versioning”, Susan Schreibman, University College Dublin

    This paper will address how computer-mediated discourse provides new opportunities and challenges in two areas of literary criticism, Reception Theory and Versioning. Although extremely different critical modes, they can be viewed as belonging to opposite ends of the space-time continuum, with Versioning taking advantage of the computer’s ability to enhance our understanding of literature through space, and Reception Theory through time.

    Versioning is a relatively new development in the area of textual criticism. Since the end of the Second World War, the basic theory under which most textual critics operated was to provide readers with a text that most closely mirrored authorial intention. This philosophy of editing produced texts which, by and large, never existed in the author’s lifetime. They were eclectic texts: the editor, armed with his intimate of knowledge of the author and the text, assumed the role of author-surrogate to create a text which mirrored final authorial intention. To do this the editor swept away corruption which had entered the text through the publication process by well-meaning editors, compositors, wives, heirs, etc. He also swept away any ambiguity left by the author herself. Thus, in the case of narrative, choosing a bit here from the copy text, a bit there from the first English edition, a sentence there from the second American edition, and a few lines from the original manuscript, that elusive but canonical authorial intention could be restored. In the case of poetry, editors were forced to choose one published version of a text over another, and substantively ignored authorial ambiguity, such as Emily Dickinson’s, who left in many of her poems alternative readings of certain words.

    By the mid-1980s, the monolithic approach to textual editing began to lose favour with a new generation of textual critics, such as Jerome McGann and Peter Shillingsburg, who, responding to new critical discourses, including Reception Theory, viewed the text as a product, not of corruption, but of social interaction between several of any number of agents: author, editor, publisher, compositor, scribe, translator. It was also recognised that authorial intention was often a fluid state, particularly in the case of poetry it was possible to have several “definitive” versions of anyone work which represented the wishes of the poet at a particular point of time.

    One reason, I would argue, that newer theories of textual criticism took so long to be developed was that until the advent of the HTML, the World Wide Web, and the spatial freedom of the Internet, textual critics had no suitable medium to display a fluid concept of authorship. Any attempts to demonstrate anything but a monolithic text which represented final authorial intention was doomed to failure. As early as 1968 William H. Gillman, et al. undertook what was to be a definitive edition of Emerson’s Journals and Notebooks in six volumes. Lewis Mumford writing in the New York Review of Books put paid this editorial method with his review article entitled “Emerson Behind Barbed Wire”:

    The cost of this scholarly donation is painfully dear, even if one puts aside the price in dollars of this heavy make-weight of unreadable print. For the editors have chosen to satisfy their standard of exactitude in transcription by a process of ruthless typographic mutilation.

    In 1984 Hans Walter Gabler’s Synoptic edition of Ulysses encountered the same resistance from both the editing community and the Joyceans. These early efforts at representing the fluidity of authorship were doomed to failure because the two-dimensionality of the printed text. ‘Reading’ such texts as Gillman’s and Gabler’s became impossible for all the arrows, dashes, crosses, single underlining, double underling, footnotes, endnotes and asterisks. I would thus argue that the theoretical stance to present anything but a monolithic text representing someone’s final intention (which was more likely than not the editor’s) was a product as much of the medium as of concurrent theoretical modes, eg New Criticism.

    Hypertext has the spatial richness to overcome the limitations of the book’s two-dimensionality to present, not only works in progress, but the richness and ambiguity of authorial intention. No longer do editors have to choose between the three Marianne Moore poems entitled “Poetry”, but all three can be accommodated within the hypertextual archive. Furthermore, all of Moore’s revisions can also be displayed. Depending of the skill, expertise and needs of the user, a single monolithic “Poetry” can be displayed (possibly for a secondary school class), two versions, or even all three versions could be viewed (for a Freshman poetry course), or all three version and several of the manuscript drafts (for a graduate-level course on research methods). By utilising a markup language such as SGML, all these texts could be encoded to create a “Ur” version of the poem in which lines across versions can be displayed and compared.

    No longer does space and the cost of publishing images in traditional formats have to guide edited editions. Facsimile versions which were only produced for the most canonical of authors now can be produced and “published” at extremely low cost. Furthermore, languages such as SGML or XML, facilitate the linking of image and text files, annotation, notes, links to other relevant texts, and so on. As with my previous example, all or some of this apparatus can be turned on depending on the needs of the audience.

    The needs of the audience brings me to my second theoretical mode than can find richer expression in digitisation, Reception Theory. Reception Theory seeks to provide present-day readers with a snapshot of a text’s history across time, and how previous generations of reader-response have gone into shaping our conception of the text. It also seeks to make available to present-day audiences the historical, psychological, social and/or semantic codes of the text as it was received at some point in the past. If, meaning of a work is created in the interaction between text and reader, hypermedia has the potential to create a three-legged stool in which present-day readers overhear the dialogue created between past readers and the text.

    As with my previous example, no longer does the cost associated with the production of printed material have to be the prime consideration in constructing a reception theory text. As it is now economically feasible to produce facsimile archives for un-canonical authors, reception theory archives can be constructed across time providing the reader access to objects that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago. For example, take the construction of a reception theory archive of W. B. Yeats’s poetry. No longer does the author of the text have to content herself with providing a one or two black and white reproductions of the first Cuala Press editions of Yeats’s early poetry to demonstrate the semantic codes embedded in those early editions. In a digital edition, it is possible to include full colour shots of these texts, in addition to the Macmillan editions, which, as a standard trade publication, are striped of those codes. Furthermore, the early reception of these poems was no doubt influenced by other objects of the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland and England. These objects, prints, paintings, even wallpaper, could be digitised to create a lexia of non-textual meaning. As with my previous example on Versioning, it is possible to conceive a digital archive that could serve many audiences, with features turned on or off as necessary.

    Hypertext can provide a vehicle for accessing the ways in which readers realised the aesthetic interpretation of the text if those readers left a record of that experience: that trail can be textual: critical (reviews, articles, critical texts), personal (letters, diaries), creative (the re-writing of a creative work). It can also involve other media, a painting or ballet based on a poem, myth or folktale. These acts of interpretation can be presented to present day users in much the same format as we are used to in a two-dimensional article, i.e., a block of text with hyperlinks (rather than footnotes) to relevant primary sources.

    On the other hand, we have not yet realised a form of critical discourse which does not mirror the two-dimensional spaces we have used for the last 500 years to express ideas. Hypertext criticism in future will, no doubt, embody a new form for critical discourse which is shaped by the new medium. Criticism which takes advantage of the three-dimensional space of the computer is so new, that the various paradigms of editorial/authorial intervention has not been fully realised, no less understood by both the creators and users. A case in point is that we still do not have appropriate language do describe these new objects of computer-mediated critical discourse: terms like “article”, “book”, “collection of essays”, “review” etc. have meaning appropriate to the printed word, but possibly not to the digitised one.

    And indeed there are costs associated with this new medium which will govern, to a large extent, the scope and content of archives: copyright costs, the production of machine-readable versions of texts, the cost of digitising images, hardware, software, etc. One’s ideal archive is governed by a balancing of costs, and tradeoffs, such as deeper encoding vs encoding of a greater number of texts, will play a significant part in the creation of resources.

    In addition, the searching, retrieval and display of objects in a digital archive will, by default, reflect the bias of both the editor/author and the system designer. Yet, unlike critical theory presented in a two-dimensional space, much of the bias will be invisible to the user, as it will be buried for example, in SGML or XML encoding, . Thus there will be new challenges in learning to “read” this new model of literary discourse, which will, in turn, no doubt, foster new theoretical modes.

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