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Markup as a Constitutive Element of Interpretation

Markup as a Constitutive Element of Interpretation

     Usually when I think of markup, I think of annotations in text, including highlighting sentences, taking notes, underlining words, and starring passages. Up until this week, I never really questioned the markup process that occurs in editing and publishing. Authors, editors, publishers, and printers all seem to have varying levels of control over the form and content of text. In order to deliver a cohesive project developed with a particular vision, all four categories of producers would probably need to collaborate on the form of presentation. From font and indentation to book binding and page breaks, there are an incredible number of choices that producers need to make to put together a print edition of any literary work.

     As a tradition of languages for encoding, digital markup appears to be particularly complex and flexible. Leuner in “Markup Theory and Practice with the TEI,” a lecture given at Dartmouth College, describes the different languages and their advantages and disadvantages. While a language such as XML allots one more flexibility in defining tag sets, a language such as HTML is web-enabled and simpler to use. In other words, the grammar of markup itself is up for consideration digitally.

     Consider the U.S. Constitution. As a print document, the founding fathers made a series of choices to present the document in a particular form. From the type of parchment to the ink color to the location of the signatures, each decision was made carefully. Yet, the markup choices probably did not reflect a large concern for mass viewing of the original document by the public because there was no way for that to happen during its inception. In encoding the document’s content digitally, the U.S. Federal Government also had to extensively markup many elements of the piece (here is a link to the Constitution as presented by the U.S. Senate: The coders/publishers had to decide how to divide the content of the piece, which titles to bold, how to display revisions, whether or not to include images, which font to use, how to include explanations, etc. The plethora of choices that went into the presentation of the form is critical in this instance because anyone that seeks a digital copy of the Constitution will have their interpretation mediated through the form chosen by some coders. In this case, it appears the government opted to maximize the accessibility of contemporary explanations and interpretations of the original document by placing the interpretation of each section adjacent to each original section. 


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