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 Booktheir
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 worksuntil,
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 discussionindeed, 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 disciplinesnow, 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
|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 agoI am writing this
sentence in late February 2000the 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
itin every sensehas 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 periodpre-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
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 heardthe
metaphor is deliberately mixedthe first premonition of the famous
proverb that would define the coming of the digital age a century later:
the medium is the message.
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 historyideas 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).
Recall that even before we began creating formal systems of visual signssystems
that generate this very sentence-object you are now readingthe 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 spacethe specialized space
of this reading-text, for examplesince 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.
Computational systems are not designed like the first sentence of the
previous paragraph. They are designed to negotiate disambiguated, fully
commensurable signifying structures.
"Indeed! And so why should machines of that kind hold any positive interest
for humanities scholars, whose attention is always focused on human ambiguities
"Indeed! But why not also ask: How shall these machines be made
to operate in a world that functions through such ambiguities and incommensurables?"
Both of those questions have set the terms for the work of this book.
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 submicroscopicindeed, 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
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.
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.
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 kindas 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 environmenta digital
one. Finally, it is only a modelone model. We propose to
build it in the hope that it may stimulate others to develop and build
more adequate critical tools.
Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Romanticism and Contemporary Culture / Jerome McGann, "Preface to Radiant Textuality: Literary Studies After the World Wide Web"