Blog Post

Traversing Digital Boundaries (without looking back)

About four months ago -- back when my ramblings about ars combinatoria and digital poetry and text-generating volvelles from the seventeenth century amounted to little more than a messy KeyNote file -- I decided to write my Masters thesis for the web. Here's how I described it at the time on my research blog:

I'm about 63% decided that I'm going to do my thesis as some kind of multimedia web-based essay. The biggest reason? This thing is damn hard for me to write linearly.

Normally when I sit down to write about a topic I know pretty well, the ideas just kind of . . fall into place. Quotes know where they want to be, sections know where they want to be divided, and thoughts follow a natural progression. If this isn't happening for me, I know it's time to step back and learn a little more about the topic.

Yet, I know my thesis topic -- I've presented it at least four times -- and still, the ideas aren't falling into place. I've spent two weeks writing seven pages, a glacial pace even for me. I'm starting to think my problem is the topic itself. All the thinkers or poems I'm writing on are networked in weird ways [...] I also want to pull in large chunks of text from other work (like some of Italo Calvino's novels), and do some close reading of unrelated artwork from the period. But . . how?

But by the end of the post, I had talked myself into it.

The case for doing something digital: I can pull together disparate but topically related elements together without explicitly making connections between them. [...] In this way, I can also connect close readings of digital poetry to some of the text generators, without making stupid analogies or overstating my case ("look, they both generate text, they're the same!"). I could maybe even pull in some video clips of digital poets talking about their work, alongside my own close reading of a seventeenth-century proteic poem. Lots of possibilities.

In my head, I see the screen split into two halves, almost like the leaves of an open book. Different links embedded within the text change one or the other side of the screen.

I think one of the best arguments for doing my thesis like this is that it enacts the same kind of relationship to language as the work I'm analyzing. In other words, I could take the idea of ars combinatoria seriously, breaking my thesis down into a collection of different "topics" that can be permuted (placed side by side, combined with different elements) to generate new meaning.

Now, four months later, I've traversed the digital boundary, and stepped knee-deep in a hot sloppy mess of PHP, CSS files and reconstitued jQuery code. What (I often ask myself, as I stare at yet another incomprehensible tutorial) is a bookworm lit major with minimal programming experience doing here?

I've always been fascinated by experimental scholarly writing. When I first encountered Marshall McLuhan, particularly The Gutenberg Galaxy, I was taken with how he composed his ideas, weaving together disparate fragments of texts. Who cares (I thought) if his arguments are reductive or deterministic? His form brilliantly insulates his content from all criticism. In fact, his cryptic style -- the very thing that his opponents despise -- is also the very thing that makes him relevant today, and is perhaps why we still force media studies 101 students to wrestle with his writing.

Love him or hate him, McLuhan understood what most scholars today still don't: that the medium we use to convey our thoughts bear as much, if not more, weight than the thoughts themselves. While nearly universal for undergraduate English course, the twenty-page, 12-point double-spaced essay (written in Times-New-Roman with 1.25" margins, of course) is not always conducive to literary interpretation; nor is a 70-page thesis (three chapters, intro, conclusion, we're told) the best way to convey the results of a years' worth of research on any and all topics. In fact, for most projects, it just plain sucks. Colleagues in my program are writing on games and television shows; how will the journey from the screen, to another screen, to a printed page transform the evidence they pull from the text? Or (another way of asking the same question) how will the limitations of the medium they're writing in constrain what they choose to discuss about video games or television shows? Maybe so much work on digital media deals with cultural or historical aspects (rather than textual interpretation) because it's just too difficult to do a close reading of a video game in a printed essay.

So, here I am, trying to write something on the relationship between seventeenth-century experimental poetry, text generation, cabbalism, linguistic theory, moving parts in early modern books, cut-up methods, dadaism, digital literature -- in short, something on ars combinatoria across the ages. I could either cut that list in half, confining my work to, say, seventeenth-century experimental poetry; or I could let it explode in as many directions as it wants to go, in the same way Tristan Tzara chopped up tightly-bound books into a confetti of words that flew from his hat. As I mention above, I chose to let it explode.

Once that decision was made, it became painfully clear I couldn't do three chapters, an intro and conclusion. So I started working on a website design.Here was the first, inspired in part by a book spread:

[flickr-photo:id=3310864276]

Each side of the screen contains a short essay on one topic, such as cabbalism. Links embedded in each essay open related essays on the opposite side of the screen, while letters (variables) at the top of the screen open a random text. In this way, the reader can swing back and forth between different ideas, "combining" them even as they read about the art of combination.

This design works well in some respects; it utterly fails in others. So I created a new one that employs four blocks (instead of 2), with each block containing links that branch off to its two neighboring blocks. Unlike the previous design, this one does not allow scrolling within the blocks, so that only around 150 words can be read at a time before the reader is forced to click something or quit reading. This is the basic template (the small gray bars representing where the links would be):

[flickr-photo:id=3310864300]

In other words, I'm quite literally writing my thesis 150 words at a time -- and I've never written more quickly. I can shape one concept into a neat little paragraph and move onto the next one without worrying about how to make disparate ideas flow together smoothly, since the links will do the talking (the "combining") for me. And while I realize that artifical transitions, summaries and synthesizing are a big part of the Scholarly Writing Process, it doesn't have to be. Why do we privilege the (often unnecessary) sweat that goes into picking the right place for a "therefore" or the perfect introductory sentence? What is our obsession with appropriate segues? It's 2009, we have access to Twitter and blogs and CSS tutorials -- in other words, we don't have to write like that anymore if we don't want to. In fact, most of the time it rubs against how we think.

It takes just as much mental manipulation to pick the right links to connect my separate paragraphs -- it just doesn't feel as forced or contrived. Instead, it's actually kind of (dare I say it) . . fun!?

Obviously, this design works in part because it intimately reflects the content of my work. Digital media just makes it easy to do. 

... Which isn't to say traversing digital boundaries has been easy. Libraries haven't yet developed ways to archive student work that isn't printed out on an 8.5"x11" sheets of paper; and, while I tell myself that my classmates still will struggle with unwieldy printers or formatting in Word, the truth is I've spent significantly more time designing and programming the technical component than I would have if I chose to go the traditional route. I also hoped to have something publishable come out of my thesis, but now that will only be possible on the few journals that accept web essays. In short, I may have crossed some kind of boundary, but I'm still expected to play by the rules on the other side. At least for now.

HASTAC III.  ?Traversing Digital Boundaries.?
This blog is part of a series of blogs leading up to the third annual HASTAC conference, which will be held April 19-21, 2009, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under the theme ?Traversing Digital Boundaries.? As the theme suggests, the gathering will focus on the exploration of new territory and on work that crosses, manipulates, or simply ignores traditional boundaries. The conference program will include presentations of research, performances, technology demonstrations, posters, panel discussions, and ?virtual? participation via telepresence technology.  For more information, visit http://www.chass.uiuc.edu/Index/Entries/2009/1/26_HASTAC_III.html or contact HASTAC3@ncsa.uiuc.edu.

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1 comment

Can't wait to see the end product. Sounds fascinating!

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