On McGann (and a little bit on Weinberg)

I had some help in de-constructing the McGann text a bit as I was not familiar with the various methodologies/typologies of editing presented in “The Rationale of Hypertext”, and their significance to scholarship. So I will begin by presenting that as a background through which to discuss the direction of academic writing and our work as students and educators.

There are various types of editions, each serving a different purpose in the publishing world (See http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic453618.files/Central/editions/edition_types.html#diplomatic_edition and http://www.ualberta.ca/~sreimer/ms-course/course/editns.htm):

  1. Diplomatic editions
  2. Eclectic Editions.
  3. Facsimile Editions
  4. Critical Editions.
  5. Parallel Text Editions.
  6. Hyper-text Editions.

The basic premise of these different editions is how the editor/publisher seeks to present the author’s work alongside the process of editing and alteration that it goes through over time. These different types of editions are mechanisms of reading that reflect the interest, concerns and needs of a literary readership. Or as McGann explains, “[s]cholarly editions comprise the most fundamental tools in literary studies. Their development came in response to the complexity of literary works, especially those that have evolved through a long historical process.” A critical edition for example, will try to present the most “authentic” or close edition to the author’s original intent through comparing various editions and pieces of information and collating together to present something that most resembles the author’s original work. Parallel text editions on the other hand will provide multiple versions/iterations of the work alongside one another. What McGann is most concerned with in this text is highlighting the limitations of the various types of editions embedded in codex form (books), and focusing on the capacity of the hypertextuality to subsume all the practices of the codex editions (1 through 6), and open up scholarship to more possibility than can be allowed or possible in book form. In essence, what he asserts is that hyper-text/hyper-editing is a vastly different “set of schoalrly tools” that can offer a different way of doing scholarship. In other words, he argues that the technology of the book is antiquated (in certain spheres and cases), and argues for a different type of textuality that is layered, complex, multi-modal, dynamic and responsive.

I was put off a bit by this rather strict denouncement of book/codex technology (how quickly we condemn “old” technology when a newer and hotter thing comes along). Nevertheless, as I read both his piece and a critical reception of his piece (http://www.jpwalter.com/cyber-rhetoric/archives/449), I found validity in the claims he makes; ie. that we can leverage hypertext (as opposed to codex) textuality in developing and evolving different forms of scholarship (and writing, reading, researching and learning). However, the transition from one technology to another is not so smooth and not so simple. A lot of rhetoric around education and technology has hastened the process, and in that process, has cheated students and educators out of the real potential for technological change in how learning and scholarship can happen. What Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has to tell us is that these quantum leaps in techno-scientific inventions  (or revolutions) is to push society not forward in some linear trajectory of “progress” but out of one epistemic paradigm into another. The mental model by which we come to know the world, in a sense, is radically different. As such, simply copy-pasting your five paragraph essay into a WordPress blog does not a Digital Humanities project make. What McGann was trying to get across, from what I can gather, is that hypertextuality is a different technology rooted in the capacity for a different form of scholarship that is divorced from the logic of codex technology. What this may look like is something that I am personally still in the process of exploring and grappling with in my own thinking and work. As students and scholars conducting research and writing essays, I am very interested in your thoughts on how we could leverage hypertextuality in teaching and learning?

On the Weinberg piece that we almost read, I see a lot of potential for teaching historical thinking through hypertextuality. In the Spring 2015 I piloted a course on the Great Migration that utilized counter-narratives as a critical lens through which to understand contemporary issues and experiences viz-a-viz exploring the conditions that the black community faced at the abolishment of slavery. Specifically, examining the mental framework of the South as blacks and whites alike tried to navigate the social, cultural, economic and political/legal implications of a newly-freed population became the focus of reading historical narratives. The counter-ness of the counter-narrative came from juxtaposing popular stereotypes and issues in contemporary society with developments in race relations during the 60-year movement. In addition, the question of historical texts and narratives was breaded throughout our class discussions. We talked about what we read, but we also talked about coming to this information for the first time (for the majority of the class who were youth of color), we talked about how history was taught in their personal experiences at school, and we talked about the ways that narratives shape our worldview. What also emerged was musing on the concept of a leaderless movements, and an African-American/Black History that did not include the major figures (MLK, Malcon X) etc, but rather focused in the daily experiences of regular folk as they grappled with whether to stay or leave, and navigated a world that offered both potential for progress and more fear. Hypertextuality offers a way of writing about experiences that could potentially braid in several narratives (in a similar way to parallel text), offer a critical annotation through a close and reflexive process of historical reading/thinking, and to embed beneath the text more and more information and ideas, as though the practice of reading, writing and research involves mining iterations of the truth and layers of voices that provide a more complex, nuanced and probably messy “text”. My second provocation the is how does historical thinking matter to you, and in what ways can you see hypertextuality playing a role in your work.

To re-cap: Two provocations-

  1. As students and scholars conducting research and writing essays, I am very interested in your thoughts on how we could leverage hypertextuality in teaching and learning?
  2. How does historical thinking matter to you, and in what ways can you see hypertextuality playing a role in your work.

4 thoughts on “On McGann (and a little bit on Weinberg)

  1. Teresa Ober

    Thank you, Sakina for generating prompts this week! I was especially interested in this chapter by McGann as it relates to the construction of a database. McGann notes that it has been difficult to get away from the “bookishness” of literature, yet compelling shows the reader how information can be stored in hypertext through various linkages. In many ways, I feel that hypertext media more accurately reflects the process of knowledge construction; that is we, do not always learn information in a linear fashion, but rather make connections to existing knowledge in a more sporadic, sometimes unpredictable or uncontrollable way. By placing a wealth of information within a hypertext medium, readers can exercise basic critical thinking, including analysis processes related to comparing and contrasting different texts of media, and evaluating different sources of rich information to make original and insightful conclusions about the relationships between and within texts.

    Arguably, this art of textual presentation is not something new, yet appears to have an establish historical basis. The words, “text” and “textile” share a similar etymological origin. “Pre Pre-Raphaelites,” such as those worked in print shops, also learned to market fabric patterns. Early 19th century textile designers, such as William Morris, also became active in working with writing, translating, and working with texts. This idea of “weaving” text and different forms media exists as sort of a metaphor that perhaps reflects a mental process of thinking about literature, and other informational sources, as it should be examined.

  2. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

    When I read this McGann piece, it seems that his call for hypertextuality is not just in relation to all books–that is, creating a digital/analog divide–but rather just to books that he deems “scientific.” When he mentions in the first section, “My remarks here apply only to textual works that are instruments of scientific knowledge,” although this was a little confusing (we’ve shifted a bunch of genres in this class, which is great, but ‘scientific’ is one of those words that really does seem to vary across the disciplines) he’s referring to the critical edition, which, according to its history of practice in literary studies, rests on “scientific” (super scare quotes there) knowledge. And by that, I mean the theory of genealogy, cladistics, and general hierarchical relationships that governed traditional textual scholarship in producing a critical edition that attempts to reconstruct authorial intention or original textual states, rather than the diplomatic or facsimile edition which selects one copy as its text. In this relationship, for McGann, books should not be used to assess other books because they lack the mechanisms to represent difference in an identical meaning–so for him, the solution is hypertext.

    Elsewhere, McGann has said that his best shot at preserving the Rosetti Archive is to print it out, so from external knowledge I’ve gathered that McGann does not necessarily advocate a totalizing shift to the digital (as the power grid question above wisely foretells!). However, even if it is the case, his solution to critical editions in the medium of hypertext does raise a few questions–I remain uncertain whether there really can be no base text or privileged text in an electronic edition, although he is convinced that hypertext does in fact have this capacity. Something must show up on a screen as an entry point (unless you style it with game theory, and do something random, which my classmate this semester, Joseph Pentangelo, has suggested). Even with database, which our course readings have cast in an oppositional and liberatory, at times, role to narrative, do we really read databases or require them to be rendered in some way to understand? We’re back at the question of what shows up first on the screen as base navigation, and what rhetorical moves that makes and ideological structures it privileges.

    As a roundabout way of addressing Sakina’s question of how I see hypertexuality dovetailing with my own research and teaching interests–I think one of the main questions I’m negotiating is the fact that markup and hypertextuality remain hierarchical systems by their very coding systems–nested tags–and that this tends to require, in current modes, a base text that acts as authority and space for links that may link out with auras and authority of their own, but are nevertheless nested in a singular curated space. These aren’t REALLY rhizomes, which according to Deleuze and Guattari do not have hierarchy, but they’re hierarchies just like the good old cladistic methods of textual criticism. So for me, the question is, how do we really achieve non-hierarchical polyvocality in online spaces? How can we negotiate hypertext, which is a hierarchy that relies on markup and html, to some extent, which are hierarchized, only tagged for certain things, and still often privilege a singular author or project leader instead of community consciousness? And, (you can tell I’m on a textuality kick), how do we leverage the capacities of online spaces to truly refashion the relationships between database, narrative, and multimedia, rather than replicate existing forms of hierarchy and power?

    1. Jojo Karlin

      I am also confronting the question of how hypertextuality fits into my own work, particularly as it pertains to issues of multiplicity. I spend less time thinking about how to transmit historical fact than how to represent or model the multiplicity of temporality (usually in terms of memory — experiencing present and present at once). The issue of underlying hierarchy of digital texts complicates attempts to express this simultaneity much as it complicates the polyvocality Mary Catherine posits.

      In terms of how hypertext impacts teaching and writing practices — things get really tricky. I keep coming back to that notion of “flow” between anxiety and boredom from Xin Bai’s presentation. In the case of hypertext, how much linking is too much? When does the multiplicity enabled disperse our attention so that we can read with any forward motion? If MCK’s classmate’s game theory styling could work, you might still have the difficulty of how to refer to the same moment in the text (I’m thinking of a coarser version of this dilemma when I did a show in which one of the actors used a different translation from the rest of the company and our Hedda Gabler could not count on consistent cue lines from performance to performance)? How do we teach from hypertext if our targets are moving? Must we accept some functional foundational hierarchy however imperfect?

  3. tperson

    I also had a really strong reaction to MCGann’s assertion that the codex is outmoded as a technology. I am more in favor of hybridization in technology especially as it relates to learning we should be looking to use as often as we can, classical and emergent technologies. In Western society there is a tendency to become fascinated only with that which is new. I am really excited by the possibilities that technology brings to editing and research as well as presentation, but I also think there is danger in pushing exclusively that which is virtual. In the absence of a power grid, the virtual world becomes non existent. All digital work in that scenario would be lost. With a candle, a book can still be a viable option for learning and researching.

    An examination of Wineberg brings home the point that history can be analyzed by those who have not lived it, but whether or not it can be understood is a different matter. In some ways, I believe that MCGann pushes against the historicity of relying on the codex as a mode of obtaining and engaging with information as though only hypertext allows us to truly manipulate the information. Both modes are valid, some are more satisfying than others to different people for different reasons. I say this as one who both edits, and stores things digitally. There are those times though when the FEEL of an old book is a sensory luxury, as well as a repository of information.

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