Multimedia Textuality; or, an Oxymoron for the Present

Multimedia Textuality; or, an Oxymoron for the Present

Katherine Acheson
Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web.
Jerome McGann
New York, NY; Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Katherine Acheson’s free-standing hypertext demonstrates how design
can reinforce what’s said, offer a counterpoint, and, occasionally,
convey a critique of the critic.

Lori Emerson:

Earlier work by McGann has been discussed in ebr by Matt Kirshenbaum, formly his student at the University of Virgina.

Lori Emerson:

Acheson’s multimedia version of this plaintext version can effectively comment on it - reinforcing, critiquing, contradicting what is said by what is seen. McMurry makes a similar point in his introduction to Acheson’s review when he notes that “effective integration of text and image is not yet possible on the web, which requires the segregation of text from image if text is to be made available as text.”


A multimedia version of this essay is available here.

Radiant Textuality collects Jerome McGann’s work about digital technology and literary studies written (and published) between 1993 and 2001. The chapters are episodes in the history of McGann’s engagement with the intellectual opportunities offered by the interaction between computer power, digital technology and literary studies. The earliest are preoccupied with defining the impact of computer tools on literary studies, particularly historical and editorial work. The middle section reverses the question: what can the objects of literary studies - recursive, cumulative, difference-generating, perpetual motion machines - teach digital technology?

The concluding section imagines a convergence of the previous two: how can computer technology be used to create generative and multiplicitous space within which to exercise critical intelligence - within which to instantiate the imaginative energy existing between works of art, other works of art, their audiences and creators, and the many cultures in which they are manifest?

These essays have been widely available on the web for several years, and most everyone who needs to read them will already have read them. The collection is nonetheless valuable and interesting. As an intellectual autobiography (for much of the discursive mode is personal, literally self-centred) it crafts an image of the productivity of failure, at least when experienced by a mind as nimble and a body as energetic as McGann’s. As a record of the period between the epiphanic moment at which the importance of digital technology to literary scholarship was perceived, and the end of the first decade of the implementation of the mechanics of that epiphany, it is of great anthropological and historical value, and will remain so for many years. Most of all, however, as with all of McGann’s work, these essays point to the shape of the decades to come for our profession. More so than any other single critic or scholar in the last twenty years (at least for me), McGann’s work - from A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism right through to his present work on NINES and the Ivanhoe Game (more on those in a minute) - has pointed to the future of work in the discipline of literary studies. What he says (ah, and what he does not say) in Radiant Textuality are important starting points for all of us committed to that discipline and its future vigour.

Take, for example, McGann’s understanding of the centrality - and the deficiencies - of text-tagging, and of the standardization represented by the Text Encoding Initiative. While he exaggerates when he implies that tagging will be as much the fulcrum of our practice as reading, say, or writing (see 68), he is right to suggest that tagged-texts, and the interrelations between texts, other texts, and contexts established by tags, will provide the research base for most of what goes on in literary scholarship for the forseeable future. And he is right that tagged text and the tools we can use to analyze it have the potential to transform our practice, although not only in a positive way. As he writes, because TEI “treats the humanities corpus - typically, works of imagination - as informational structure, it ipso facto violates some of the most basic reading practices of the humanities community, scholarly as well as popular” (139), it has the very real possibility of flattening and stripping texts and their relational fields: “The recursive patterns that constitute an essential - probably the essential - feature of poetry and imaginative works in general cannot be marked, least of all captured, by SGML and its offspring” (172). It will never be necessary for all scholars to tag texts - but it will be necessary for all critics to understand how tagging works, what its limitations are. And it will be fitting for us each to have an informed opinion on how those limitations affect what we know and how we know it.

Equally important to our future is McGann’s work on the development of a concept and a tool for the tagging or annotating of images. While his own work on this topic has been stimulated by the problems presented by the multi-modal texts included in the Rosetti Archive, and by the bibliographer’s perception that all texts have material and aesthetic qualities best represented through densely inscribed images, its importance will be felt across the scholarly community in the future, as images and their relations with text come to predominate not only in our research base, but in the form our research takes in dissemination. Inote - the image-tagging tool developed by McGann’s IATH team - will not solve these problems. What would it make, for instance, of the use of Rosetti’s work that I have made in the multimedia version of this review? And how to account for the effect of the images in relation to the text which is itself part of the layout of the ‘pages’? - but again, it is one leaf in the book that we will all be working on in the future, whether we want to or not. As with text-tagging, the shortcomings of Inote (“Our work with Inote shows how far one might go - and it is pretty far, after all - to integrate an SGML approach to picture markup and analysis. But the limitations of such an approach are also painfully clear” (97)) are as important to our future work as are its capabilities, and McGann makes sure that we understand their significance.

But there is something missing in McGann’s invention of the future, the multimedia version of this review is intended to be a small offering to the questions that are peripheral to his vision but must be central to the oncoming of digital scholarship. McGann mentions the importance of design to the future of digital scholarship several times in the course of this book: he says, for example, that “the next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing text” (RT 19). He has played with Photoshop - once, at a friend’s house (97) - and mentions this several times in the course of the book, giving credit to the program’s filters for stimulating the idea of deformation as a fundamental critical manoeuvre. But he has no evident design capability, and little interest in the creative and semiotic potential of multimedia in scholarship and interpretation.

The most signal failure that the book notes is the re-design of the Rossetti Archive interface, a problem that remains unsolved as I write. To be sure, the intransigence of this problem is a symptom of the clash between the complexity of the materials the archive contains, and the deceptive, even dubious, simplicity we expect from web-based information. But teams of technicians and the brain power of top computer scientists haunt the wings of McGann’s productions, while there is no mention of a professional designer, or even of the kind of aesthetic and technical training and the tools which are needed to produce both the usability and the graphic quality such projects require. The proposal for the Rossetti re-design, like the Ivanhoe game website, McGann’s own site, and the NINES site, were clearly designed by well-intentioned but under-trained and inexperienced amateurs. And despite the fact that Johanna Drucker once introduced an image to the Ivanhoe gamespace to show that it could be done, all of the imaginative play that McGann so gloriously shows is possible within digital space and using digital tools is starkly verbal and relentlessly textual. Even the cover of Radiant Textuality is just that - radiant text, a rendition of fragments of the book’s text, tagged. One hopes that the future in McGann’s thinking includes the extraordinary, n-dimensional, ‘pataphysical challenges of multimedia scholarship and dissemination, something beyond a statement that the interface is important and Photoshop is cool. One’s impression is that he is stretched as far as a person can be, balancing the spinning plates of several disciplines at once, and this is not a request that he become a designer. But it would be good for the future he heralds for McGann to invite scholar-designers into the nucleus of the invention of the brave new world we inhabit.

Works Cited

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York, NY; Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

—. “Culture and Technology: The Way We Live Now, What Is To Be Done?” Paper delivered at the University of Chicago, April 23, 2004. Dec. 27, 2004.