Friday, December 12, 2008

Machine in the Garden 2.0

So the question I've been presented with is: "How is literary criticism changing as a result of our society's dependence on technology?" In general I'm supposed to address "shifts in society that seem to make culture 'over new.'"

As it turns out, I've just finished up with a class devoted to unique teaching issues related to the computer classroom, so I should have some good answers. We looked at some open-source text analysis programs like Juxta, TextArc, Wordle, Vizlab and TAPoR.

All seem like interesting tools that offer literary scholars innovative ways of seeing and analyzing texts. Many of these programs work by translating linear narratives or arguments into unfamiliar visual patterns in the hopes of inspiring fresh insights into the text's underlying structures and rhetorical strategies. Others allow side by side comparisons of different versions of texts (e.g. comparing drafts to published works of a particular novel), or quick searches within the text itself (e.g. if you need to know how many times and in what context the phrase "They rode on" appears in Blood Meridian).

The utility and the limitiations of these programs for generating data for literary analysis is likely obvious. Several years ago, when Trimalchio. the galley version of The Great Gatsby, was published, I wrote a paper that analyzed the difference between the two versions. The research for this project involved a lot of awkward back-and-forth juggling among the two paperbacks I was reading simultaneously, the notebook into which I recorded any significant differences, and the cup of coffee I required to keep me awake through the rather tedious ordeal (well, actually, as is probably the case with most pathetic souls who have embarked on a glamorous career in academia, I find the meticulous fact-checking sort of fun). Nowadays, as long as I can locate an electronic copy of the texts, the computer will, almost instantly and with a greater degree of comprehensiveness and accuracy, perform all of the painstaking, time-consuming comparison work for me and, in most cases, display any variations in some sort of lively, color-coded interface. What the technology can't do, at least none of the programs I've come across so far, is offer an interpretation that potentially explains the significance of the changes. In that sense, the literary critic should embrace the new technology. It's not a threat, not some cynical techno-scheme to diminish the cultural authority of the literary professions, to replace sacred words with utilitarian numbers. It's just some cool stuff that potentially saves the literary professor (or more likely his beleaguered RA) some rather dull hours in the stacks.

So that's probably the most obvious (and least interesting) way that literary criticism is changing in the digital era: computer technology is co-opting many traditional research procedures.

The more interesting ways in which the changing technological landscape is affecting the practice of literary scholarship has to do with the evolving methods of composition and dissemination available for contemporary literary criticism. The peer-reviewed journal need not maintain its perennial stranglehold on critical publication. Anyone can have a blog these days to which they can post not just finished critical essays but scholastic projects in the earliest stages of development. The audience, though frequently anonymous and lacking in credentials, has the virtue of offering rapid, continuous, asynchronous feedback. The scholarly project posted on the net, as opposed to published in a journal, is likewise open to continuous, collaborative revision. The lone individuals single-handedly revising the way everyone reads a particular text, the Harold Blooms or whoever, are to become a thing of the past. The networked writing space renders transparent and in most cases records in precise detail the collaborative processes (e.g. peer review) that have long undergirded the production of groundbreaking criticism. The acknowledgements page, that polite and immanently ignorable prefatory gesture of print culture discourse, becomes, in the digital era, an integral part of the finished product (or at least the most recently updated version).

No comments: