Meaning of "The Archive"

Developing another site using Drupal has gotten me thinking about how the sophisticated integration systems of all kinds of content could be put to use in the Proust archive. Image galleries that can be searched by caption or tagged content, or sorted by different categories. Dynamic flash slideshows based on user input or browsing behavior, or that pull images externally based on these. Searches that mix text -- say passages, comments, forum topics -- with images in unforseen yet meaningful ways (as opposed to the relatively static array currently in place). It would be very easy to do, and like most new technology the impulse is to try it all out to see what happens.

But what new ways of understanding "Proust" or narrative or "church" or motif would emerge from that? In what ways does the Machine's reading of the archive's content intersect with my own? Where does the Machine end and the archive begin?

While questions like these can be asked of the new media without blinking, it's important to remember that this digital resource is a supplement to a book, a novel. Without an archival methodology that makes its end in the understanding of the novel's properties, it will spin into a form more germane to contemporary media. Therefore, one major area of the study of the Recherche will have to consider the question of genre. To what extent is this archive really a reading of a book? Even in its current relatively static form, this archive is probably "about" itself more than anything else, though Proust's novel is ultimately the generating influence. The trick is to figure out how.

Taxonomic / Folksonomic Organization

While considering a taxonomic versus a folksonomic labeling of passages in the archive, it occurred to me that there are benefits to having both in the search engine and search results.

The taxonomic approach would be a codified and rigorous -- and therefore arbitrarily limited -- categorization of narrative elements a priori. As a search functionality it would constrain the method in such a way that the selection of narrative elements would form a cohesive set of criteria on which to assess the passages. As a results parameter it would allow the researcher to view the other narrative elements with which a given one coincides and, using analytical tools, to articulate the large- and small-scale patterns in which the church motif operates.

In that respect the archive would function like a moving S/Z, staking the narrative grounds on which to assess the operation of the narrative and following them to their fullest conclusion.

However, what is valuable in the Associations as they currently stand is their haphazard, a posteriori formulation, generated during the act of reading. The richness of threads that continually and unexpectedly enter the mind during reading should definitely be archived as part of the critical response to the text, as an adjunct to the blog and forum.

The folksonomic approach, therefore, would incorporate a tool that enables readers of the archive to annotate passages with their own Associations, contributing another dimension to the architecture of the search engine, the richness of results, and the quality of critical discourse. The folksonomic approach would hybridize the narratological method with a sort of reader-response mechanism, allowing a comparison of both as part of the long-term evolution of the study of the Recherche.

Ideally the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive would become a micro institution, functioning like a cross between an academic periodical and a book with multiple contributors. What form(s) will the full-length study(ies) ultimately take?

Proust-Interpreting Videos

I was originally going to post a handful of videos derived somehow from Proust's work but ended up finding much more -- and of better quality -- than expected. For now, I'll post a few musical interpretations. What's interesting is that almost all of them involve a prominent visual component that constitutes its own narrative. Much of the video out there either parodies, idolizes, or has nothing to do with Proust.

The Synthetic Spirit of the Modern Novel

A post by Valter at a blog called Surreal Documents: Doctrines, Fine Arts, Ethnography, Variety got me thinking about Proust in the context of modernist novels in general:

[Proust] thus likened the work of a writer to a architect, organizing the least parts of the text into an interdependent whole. Both Proust's text and the cathedral are the products of a synthetic spirit, binding together diverse domains of knowledge into a coherent edifice. Panofsky: "The classical cathedral, in its imagery, seeks to embody the totality of Christian knowledge, theological, natural, and historical, by putting everything in its place and by suppressing whatever no longer found a place". For Proust, the cathedrals of France were not only the most beautiful monuments of French art, but also the only works of art which still lived a life of completeness ("...leur vie intégrale...").

What Proust's novel shares with many others of its generation is precisely what Valter calls a "synthetic spirit." Modernist prose is often fragmentary in style, which might give the surface impression of an analytic spirit. But the poetic structuring of those fragments forms a new kind of synthesis that many modernist writers were trying to discover.

Interestingly, so many novels of the early 20th Century, especially during and after the Great War, contain Edenic imagery as a cry for unity and integrity in the face of the anxieties and upheavals of the time. Virginia Woolf's The Waves features the house at Elvedon where the children grow up, disperse into the world, and to which they long to return. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury tells the tragic history of the Compson family after the downfall of the Old South; only their African-American maid, Dilsey, is able to transcend the vanity of modernity through singing at church, an activity that connects her to the Old South. Many similar elements can be pointed out in Joyce, namely the close relationship of the Eden and Einstein motif clusters (i.e. the synthesis of time/space in the eventual unity of Shaun/Shem, tree/stone) of Finnegans Wake.

Proust's composing the Recherche like a cathedral fits with the general conception of the novel genre as a synthetic whole -- one whose poetic structure connects disparate parts such as personal/historical past/present in one experience. And it uses all the media available to the novelistic imagination to do so, which correspond to those presented in churches: pictorial images, sculptural images, narrative, music, interior and exterior emplacements, even food.

A search in the archive on the Novel association recalls a passage that metaphorically compares the notions of architecture, churches, the novel, and the sources of modern European life.

It was, this "Guermantes," like the setting of a novel, an imaginary landscape which I could with difficulty picture to myself and longed all the more to discover, set in the midst of real lands and roads which all of a sudden would become alive with heraldic details, within a few miles of a railway station; I recalled the names of the places round it as if they had been situated at the foot of Parnassus or of Helicon, and they seemed precious to me as the physical conditionsâ€â€in the realm of topographical scienceâ€â€required for the production of an unaccountable phenomenon. I saw again the escutcheons blazoned beneath the windows of Combray church; their quarters filled, century after century, with all the fiefs which, by marriage or conquest, this illustrious house had appropriated to itself from all the corners of Germany, Italy and France; vast territories in the North, powerful cities in the South, assembled there to group themselves in Guermantes, and, losing their material quality, to inscribe allegorically their sinople keep or castle triple-towered argent upon its azure field. (3 1 1 7-8)

Unfortunately, I don't have time to expand on this further so I will have to return to it soon.

STS 2007, Part V - Pedagogy and Textual Studies Roundtable

For the last session of the conference, on Saturday 17 March, I attended the Pedagogy and Textual Studies Roundtable. This was a very lively session with smart advice and anecdotes from both the panelists and the audience. It was chaired by Maura Ives of Texas A&M.

  • Dan O'Sullivan (U of Mississippi): "Teaching Pre-print Textuality to Post-print Students" -- Took a group of honors students to the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, after a seminar on medieval material textuality. Recruitment for the seminar and the trip was difficult, but he ended up taking a handful of students to see the manuscripts they had studied during the seminar.
  • Katherine Harris (San Jose State U): "Sneaking it In: Teaching Textual Studies without Teaching Textual Studies" -- Devised a few lessons to teach differences and similarities between authorship and editorial practice. In an introduction to literary criticism course, she addressed copyright law and the concepts of authorship and editorial practices by having her students read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and then Kathy Acker's essay "Plagiarism," which lifts the first paragraph of Dickens' novel. They also get into the lawsuit over The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. She also had her students look at the source code of an online version of Great Expectations, which allowed them to realize that it's a version of a material text and to discuss the role of technology in literature--including print culture. At that point, she brings out her 19th Century cigarette cards of Dickens' characters, making sure her students are able to "touch the stuff" and realize the importance of material culture.
  • John K. Young (Marshall U): "Textual Instability and Undergraduates" -- Assigned different editions of Richard Wright's Native Son and had his students do a comparative activity. It conveyed the notion of authorship as a social process and showed that the author's true intentions are unrecoverable. The uncertainty of the material text reinforces the ways students receive textuality in the rest of their lives.
  • Martha Nell Smith (U of Maryland): "Back to the Future: Teaching Manuscripts to Undergraduates" -- One of her primary teaching questions is 'how did the poem on your page get there?' She then guides them through the processes of the author, editor, and so on, and allows her students to see different states of finished and unfinished works -- both digital and print artifacts.
  • Archie Burnett (Boston U): "Boston University's Editorial Institute, and one of its Courses" -- Related the prehistory, founding, and evolution of Boston University's Editorial Institute and discussed the topics covered by its degree program.

STS 2007, Part IV - New Digital Text Work and the Future of Reading

On Saturday March 17th I attended two afternoon panels, Text Work in the Digital Age, Part 2 and the Pedagogy and Textual Studies Round Table. In Text Work in the Digital Age, Part 2, Alice Gambrell, Sandy Baldwin, and Rita Raley all gave presentations that focused somewhat on the future of textual works. I was struck by the fact that most of these forward-looking textual projects were artistic in nature.

Alice Gambrell gave a fascinating presentation on the textuality of workplace media and its subversive uses by artists. A prominent example was David Byrne's PowerPoint piece (2001-3). But she also referred to a collaborative project she had done a couple of years ago, the Stolen Time Archive, which shows that an archive is an argument that achieves certain effects. In that way, the role of the archivist is to use the archive as a tool for passing information along to others who will use it in unanticipated -- and subversive -- ways.

Sandy Baldwin had an interesting take on spam, noting that much of it tends toward the literary -- an eliteness (i.e. 1337, or leet / "elite") and a uniqueness that achieves its own erasure as spam. He was referring, as best I can remember, to the kinds of "nonsense" stories and poems that enter our inboxes randomly (or seemingly so) and the pleasure he derives from them. I was pleased to hear someone talking about this experience of textuality at such an important conference because some spam appeals to my sensibility as well as that of others. I think that particular experience of textuality -- the randomness with which it goes to the reader (as opposed to vice versa), the mystery of its apparently automatic origin -- in large part defines our time. One of the most beautiful haiku (sort of) that I've ever read came from a spammer who apparently put something through babelfish several times before disseminating it to probably thousands of individuals:

modern animal
walk appreciate key hoping article
myself black

Rita Raley brought to our attention several new media art projects that seek to improve online reading, develop new reading interfaces, experiment with translation (by machine), and can help us flesh out more fully the history of reading. Her assessment of the projects addressed the following elements.

  • Textual visualization
  • Codex / digital hybrids
  • Alternative interfaces and screens (i.e. cell phones for reading novels)
  • Immersive text environments (i.e. room installations, 3D simulations, the CAVE at Brown University, the allosphere for textual composition)
  • 3D textual environments (projected)

I don't seem to have notes on all the artists she discussed, so I'll do my best to recount the more interesting ones.

William Gillespie's Word Museum is a 3D environment and interface for creating word objects and sculptures. It's about the transition between legibility and illegibility, looking at text as a sculptural object and reading it -- or processing it -- from all sides and angles. -- a site (reminds me of that subversively expresses the hidden structures of a text. In commandeering the physical behavior of the browser, the site calls attention to the binaries of code/surface, source/interface, and depth/surface. The reader is made aware that code is a deep structure that substantiates a surface. Rita also remarked that works which include code with human language in the same space isolate the screen as a surface.

Ted Warnell's code poem Lascaux.Symbol.ic similarly lays bare the conditions of textual production. The background horse from Lascaux (circa 15,000 BCE) calls our attention to the "writing on the wall" and the communicative, expressive, semiotic systems that reside in art. The hand evokes tactility, the interface, and presence/absence. It also looks mounted, meaning the cave wall is not the mounting of the painting/poem, as traditionally, but the background of the picture -- thereby destabilizing the notions of foreground/background (reminds me of Cubism).

She also discussed several pieces by John Cayley, a London-based poet, translator, and book dealer who also works at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and has directed research at Brown University and UC San Diego.

  • "Overboard" - an animated display of a stable text dissembled by algorithms over time. The effect of this contemporary writing experiment is to create a continually moving "language painting" in which the base text occasionally comes into full legibility. Since aspects like word shape are largely preserved as the text changes, the word becomes a lens, a visual threshold.
  • "Translation" - a selection of passages from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past -- both the original French and the English translation by Moncrieff and Kilmartin -- that rotate in 3D movements. This piece, like many others described above, is about the rising and sinking of the surface, though here it is viewed through the lens of Proust and memory. It's basically a narrated video in non-Euclidean geometry and a virtual 3D space.
  • "Imposition" - was a collaborative, networked, textual/multimedia performance. The room featured a main screen with a primary movie. Twelve laptops were distributed to visitors, who were invited to to interact with text. The ensemble then moves to multiple screens to become a networked performance. The driving question of the project is to see how text competes with other types of media in a multimedia ecology.

The overarching theme of these experimental projects is legibility. They approach text as something to be contemplated rather than read. In that way, they're more about processing text in non-traditional, unfamiliar ways.

This was a particularly stimulating panel that precipitated a lively Q&A session. The three presentations had in common a forward-looking attitude that implied -- if it didn't directly address -- the future of reading and textual production. They all focused on issues pertinent to the projects and discussion that happen at the Institute for the Future of the Book, so I suggested that anyone who didn't already know about it should check it out.

In the next post I will review the Pedagogy round table that also proved highly stimulating.

STS 2007, Part III - Digital Edition of the Codex Sinaiticus MS

First, to finish my entry on the Futures of Scholarly Editing II panel of March 16th. Peter Robinson's demonstration of the digitized Codex Sinaiticus Manuscript was incredible. The Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th century manuscript with a four-column layout and impeccable handwriting, is one of the only surviving, complete, Greek bibles. Two goals of the project (among others that I failed to write down) are (a) to make a digital version that is as remarkable as the manuscript itself (it's stunning) and (b) virtually to reunify all its leaves. No scholar has beheld the whole manuscript at once in over 2,000 years. The fragments are currently disbursed among St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt, the British Museum, the University of Leipzig, and the National Library of Russia, all of which are collaborating to produce the digital edition.

In order to make the digital edition as remarkable as the original, the interface is as functional as it is beautiful. A gamma image recognition system was used to link high quality images of the manuscript to the digital transcripts -- down to the individual letter. Images can be floated over the transcripts in order to have a simultaneous supplement to the original. Now readers can search the centuries of corrections made to the manuscript by scholars over a period of 1,500 years, can add their own commentary to the edition, and can import and export their own bits. It is one of the first scholarly digital editions, I think, to incorporate social software into its design in order to enable discussion and collaboration.

All of this is done through a beautiful, beige, AJAX-y interface that one of the German programmers began to develop after he first saw Gmail (the digital MS previously had a highly functional but clunky looking HTML interface). The interface includes elements that can be picked up and dragged around to suit the ergonomic of the reader. And the functions, which allow the interaction between image, text, and other elements, are arrayed in an intuitive and logical manner. I was deeply impressed by the demonstration and left the room buzzing.

I began writing about the panels I attended on the 17th but there was so much to say that I've saved them for the next post.

STS 2007, Part II - Futures of Scholarly Editing

I was only able to attend a morning panel today but it was excellent: Futures of Scholarly Editing II, chaired by T.H. Howard-Hill. The papers synthesized and clarified a number of issues I've been pondering here and there.

Andrew Stauffer layed out the issues that must be tangled with in the future of digital editing. He began by identifying two aspects of the term edition that apply to print. An edition is (1) the textual product of the act of editing as well as (2) a print run of a limited number of copies of a book. In digital editions aspect (2) is lost, which leads to potentially dire consequences.

A limited print run of a book constitutes a relatively stable, known set of errors and variations. Since a digital edition can be silently emended on the fly, changes and corrections are no longer recorded. Errors and variations, which are important markers of the reception history of a work, disappear in the digital realm and prevent textual scholars from knowing the genealogy of a text. This means that certain questions we're used to will no longer be answerable in the future.

I don't think this assessment is completely accurate. After all, wikis automatically save version histories of all changes, so it shouldn't be difficult to apply that principle rigorously in a digital edition. Besides, Karsten Kynde and Kim Ravn of the Soren Kierkegaard Research Center demonstrated a functionality in their digital archive of Kierkegaard's papers that allows readers to see the version history of particular elements. The interface did not seem very intuitive (granted, I did not have a chance to play with it), but at least it allows access to the history of mistakes or to previous versions of the archive. That is helpful, of course, if you quote from it in a certain way and then need to go back to it later after it's been revised. He made the very nice point that we owe future scholars our mistakes.

Andrew ended with a discussion of digital preservation that led naturally to the next talk, by Barbara Bordalejo. Andrew said that it is not possible to preserve all digital editions, archives, and other works. Since they'd have to be backed up on tape or redundant hard drives, access becomes a serious issue. This becomes worse as technologies become outdated and won't be able to red the auto-archived material, meaning that we'd have to be selective about what gets archived. Much would be lost.

Barbara's talk focused largely on preservation, too. She made the very good point that digital formats will eventually become outdated and unreadable by newer machines, so the old machines themselves need to be preserved. This will lead to a situation in which a rare digital book will become even less accessible than the rarest print book.

Peter Robinson gave a fascinating demonstration of an archive he's developing with people at U Birmingham, Münster, St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt, and the British Museum. They're digitizing all the leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus MS. I don't have time to describe it in full, but they've made a beautiful AJAX-y interface that accounts for correction histories and does a number of wonderful things. Will write more on this later.