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Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Preface to Radiant Textuality: Literary Studies After the World Wide Web

Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

"Knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world."

—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium

  1. In one sense the story running through this book is a very old story. We sometimes see it as the story of Faust and Margaret, and it comes again as Beauty and the Beast or as any of that wondrous fairy tale's mutations. A hundred years ago Henry Adams recognized its emergence in a historical tension he named the Dynamo and the Virgin.

  2. The Computer and the Book—their relation has much in common with those three legends. For the book was once upon a time the very emblem of Faustian power. As late as 1870 Emily Dickinson could think that "There is no Frigate like a book." The thought charms us now precisely in its quaintness, since current imaginative voyagings are everywhere traversing digital space. And so bibliographical lamentations begin to arise, "Ou sont les livres d'antan?"

  3. This book is a commentary on that question, and the commentary is organized around two ideas about humanities-based digital instruments. The first is that understanding the structure of digital space requires a disciplined aesthetic intelligence. Because our most developed models for that kind of intelligence are textual models, we would be foolish indeed not to study those models in the closest possible ways. Our minds think in textual codes. Because the most advanced forms of textual codings are what we call "poetical," the study and application of digital codings summons us to new investigations into our textual inheritance.

  4. To date that summons has been slow to develop, which brings me to the second idea that organizes this book. Digital technology used by humanities scholars has focused almost exclusively on methods of sorting, accessing, and disseminating large bodies of materials, and on a certain specialized problems in computational stylistics and linguistics. In this respect the work rarely engages those questions about interpretation and self-aware reflection that are the central concerns for most humanities scholars and educators. Digital technology has remained instrumental in serving the technical and pre-critical occupations of librarians and archivists and editors. But the general field of humanities education and scholarship will not take the use of digital technology seriously until one demonstrates how its tools improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works—until, that is, they expand our interpretational procedures.

  5. A close genetic relation holds between the book and computer. For textual and digital forms alike, however, this historical continuity has brought questions and problems that have not been studied at all well precisely because the genetic relation between the two media has been too much taken for granted, as if it were simple to see and understand. The situation is emblemized in the dichotomy of enthusiasm and skepticism that marks so much of the current discussion—indeed, that organizes the discussion along two sides.

  6. We have to break away from questions like "Will the computer replace the book?" So much more interesting are the intellectual opportunities that open at a revelatory historical moment such as we are passing through. These opportunities come with special privileges for certain key disciplines—now, for engineering, for the sciences, for certain areas of philosophy (studies in logic), and the social sciences (cognitive modeling). But unapparent as it may at first seem, scholarship devoted to aesthetic materials has never been more needed than at this historical moment.

  7. That necessity leaped to one's attention in 1993 with the coming of the World Wide Web (W3). Until that epochal moment, digital technology had moved at the margins of literary and humanistic studies. The tools were taken up largely by some linguists and form-critical scholars, and by specialists interested in problems of storing and archiving scholarly (textual) materials. Even word-processing tools came slowly into the hands of humanities scholars. We forget that ten years ago—I am writing this sentence in late February 2000—the number of humanities scholars who used any computerized tools at all was relatively small.

  8. A discontinuous historical event occurred during those ten years, and in the course of its unfolding emerged W3, the digital environment that organizes and commands the subjects of this book. To the speed and ubiquity of digital intercourse and transaction have been added interface and multi-media, and that, as the poet said, "has made all the difference." Our sense of language will never be the same.

  9. Or rather, perhaps, our sense of it—in every sense—has been renewed, restored to something like the richness that it possessed in the Middle Ages, and that is still available in the works descending to us from that remarkable period—pre-eminently in its greatest invention, the medieval church and cathedral. From Santa Sophia to St. Mark's to Monreale, and across all of Europe and England, the doors of human perception were flung open in those amazing multimedia environments. And not only in Europe. Scattered across the globe from China to New Guinea to Egypt to the Nazca desert in Peru are the remains of human inventions of similar and even more amazing complexity. Next to them, even our most recent and advanced virtual reality tools and constructions seem primitive indeed.

  10. However toddling they appear, contemporary instruments of hyper and multimedia constitute a profane resurrection of those once-sacred models of communication. To get a clear grasp of their historical emergence one would have to return to the middle and late nineteenth century, when so much of what is apparent today was being forecast: in mathematics and physics, in logic, in the emergence of photography. My own special field of interest, textuality, underwent a great renewal at the same moment. In England, the work of John Ruskin, D. G. Rossetti, and William Morris catalyzed a complex set of historical forces into the Arts and Crafts movement and, more particularly, into the Renaissance of the Book. In the rediscovered "Grotesque" art of the Middle Ages was heard—the metaphor is deliberately mixed—the first premonition of the famous proverb that would define the coming of the digital age a century later: the medium is the message.

  11. This book is a report on some early attempts to understand how that proverb might be read by people interested in humanities education. It is based in certain ideas about language and semiotic systems that recur throughout history—ideas that may seem not to match with many common formulations. In my view, however, the problem here lies in the formulations, not in the actual fact of the matter (so to speak).

  12. Recall that even before we began creating formal systems of visual signs—systems that generate this very sentence-object you are now reading—the language we use is woven from audible and visible elements. And as the syntax of that last sentence is designed to suggest, this textual condition of ours is constructed as a play of incommensurable elements, of which temporality is one. Linguistic units are not self-identical, as even the briefest reflective glance at a dictionary will show. Indeed, they don't even occupy fixed positions within a given textual space—the specialized space of this reading-text, for example—since a variety of overlapping and incommensurable planes transact all textual spaces. Textual space and textual time are n-dimensional simply because they locate embodied actions and events.

  13. Computational systems are not designed like the first sentence of the previous paragraph. They are designed to negotiate disambiguated, fully commensurable signifying structures.

  14. "Indeed! And so why should machines of that kind hold any positive interest for humanities scholars, whose attention is always focused on human ambiguities and incommensurables?"

  15. "Indeed! But why not also ask: How shall these machines be made to operate in a world that functions through such ambiguities and incommensurables?"

  16. Both of those questions have set the terms for the work of this book.

  17. Anyone who works with texts in disciplined ways, and especially those interested in their rhetorical and aesthetic properties, understands very well the incommensurability of textual forms. How to gain some clarity and control over our textual condition has been a perpetual human concern, and is a central concern of this book as well. It is organized to show how the work at University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) from 1993-2000 led to the practical implementation of catastrophe and quantum models for the critical investigation of aesthetic forms. Suggestive as the ideas of quantum mechanics have been for many humanities scholars, the scale of quantum effects has seemed far removed from the apparent scale of textual and semiotic phenomena. The latter involve macroscopic events, the former submicroscopic—indeed, quantum effects are, in the view of many, not objective events at all but simply types of measurements and calculations executed for certain practical ends. It was Roger Penrose, I think, who first argued most effectively against this view. He proposes that "the phenomenon of consciousness is something that cannot be understood in entirely classical terms" and that "a quantum world [might] be required so that thinking, perceiving creatures, such as ourselves, can be constructed from its substance" (Penrose 226).

  18. The empirical data of consciousness are texts and semiotic phenomena of all types—"autopoetic" phenomena, in the terms of Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. This book will argue that our "classical" models for investigating such data are less precise than they might be and that quantum dynamical models should be imagined and can be built. The book focuses on the historical circumstances that forced this argument into being. It traces the development of certain experiments with textual materials to their unforeseen but, I would now say, necessary consequences: most importantly, the practical illustrations and proposals for new models of critical and interpretational study.

  19. One final comment may be helpful. This book's commitment to a "quantum poetics" may call to mind, for Modernist scholars at any rate, Daniel Albright's stimulating and elegant study of certain strains of twentieth-century writing, Quantum Poetics. Albright's book investigates "the appropriation of scientific metaphors by poets" (1) whose work emerged at the same time as the great figures of early twentieth-century science. Albright argues that these writers exploited certain scientific figures in their imaginative work. My argument is quite different: that quantum and topological models of analysis are applicable to imaginative writing tout court, that these models are more adequate, more comprehensive, and more enlightening than the traditional models we inherit from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Marx. "Quantum poetics" in this study does not signify certain figures and tropes that stimulated the practices of a certain group of historically located writers. On the contrary, it comprises a set of critical methods and procedures that are meant to be pursued and then applied in a general way to the study of imaginative work.

  20. The final discussion of "The Ivanhoe Game" illustrates the difference very clearly. "The Ivanhoe Game" models a new form of critical method. Its applicability is of a general kind—as much for Yeats and Pound as for Keats and Byron, for Shakespeare or Dante, for Ovid, Lucretius, the Bible. It is a model that we propose to build in a new kind of textual environment—a digital one. Finally, it is only a model—one model. We propose to build it in the hope that it may stimulate others to develop and build more adequate critical tools.

Published @ RC

February 2002