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Thursday, December 28, 2006

MLA Blogging, part one

Random point #1: Since Philadelphia is close to the city in which I grew up, my wife and I had dinner with my parents last night, and they got to enjoy the traditional game of "Spot the MLA Conventioneer." It didn't seem very difficult for them, even though people weren't wearing their badges yet. Speaking of which, at a paper session I saw today, one of the speakers was wearing a suit jacket that was about two inches too long in the sleeve, and 2-3 inches too long in general. And he hadn't quite realized (unless this is some new style that the kidz are displaying--but this man was no cool kid) that he was supposed to unstitch and remove the sewn-on designer's label from the cuff of the sleeve. Philadelphia isn't a fashion capitol like NYC, but still, people, let's try not to confirm stereotypes quite so immediately.

Random point #2: Being at MLA with nonacademic family members changes one's view of things. Some might say it provides much needed perspective on academia. That's true, and welcome; but in another way, it makes MLA harder, because in order to make it through the conference relatively intact, one needs some measure of comforting blindness to things like people neglecting to remove the label from their suits. As we walked towards the Ritz Carleton today, I said to my wife (Mrs. Hieronimo? Isabella?), "Any MLA that I'm not interviewing is a good MLA." To which she replied, "Any MLA that I'm not in academia is a good MLA." All true.

Truly random point #3: Gordon Teskey looks a lot like David Lynch:

And both are well dressed, unlike some. And there is a character in Blue Velvet named the Well-Dressed Man. This concludes the lesson.

As for intellectual matters...

The most interesting panel I went to today was Session 173. Textual Materialities. Reconstructing from memory, mind you:

The first paper was Matthew Kirschenbaum (U Maryland), "Save As: Textual Studies and the Challenges of Born-Digital Literature." A PowerPoint slide presentation accompanied by an off-book(!) discussion of the questions about editing, the history of the book, and, more generally, the nature of textuality (take that, Malcolm A. Kline!) that are raised by texts that are created digitally, as almost all ultimately printed texts are these days. Kirschenbaum went through, in an admittedly survey-ish style, the different areas of investigation in what he's calling "technobibliography." These include: the workspaces of digital writing (he notes that images of these have become a mini-genre, similar to early modern paintings of scholars' desks, as you can see by searching for "workspace" on Flikr); storage media and their cultural effects (he compared the hard drive, which is almost entirely invisible to its users, with the flash drive, which is highly visible and has become a fashion accessory); digital versions/states/editions; digital forensics (recovering "erased" data, e.g.); preservation; digital palimpsests (when you "erase" a file, it can often be recovered "written under" a later file); "machine-written text" that the author has not "intentionally" written but that has been written automatically by the computer itself (which is apparently the vast majority of text on any computer); and other fields I can't recall offhand. It was an interesting paper, laying out some terrain more than making specific arguments, although I'm not sure about the word "technobibliography": wouldn't technography be more appropriate? why retain the remnant of books in biblio?

The second paper was Kari Kraus (U Rochester), “Picture Criticism: Textual Studies and the Image,” which discussed the difficulties of analyzing images with the same sort of techniques used for textual criticism. With pictures, we lack the ability to trace lineages of descent or even to compare states of the same image with any precision, because we have no real sense of identity when it comes to an image. As an example, she showed two states of a Rembrandt etching and it was immediately apparent just how complex the problem is: how does one separate those differences that "make a difference" and hence signify from those that do not? Without some heuristic along these lines, it becomes impossible to place images into the sorts of relations that are the bread-and-butter of textual criticism, editing, etc. Instead, every difference seems to signify, and so each state becomes a unique image. By contrast, she notes that bibliographers and linguists can far more easily distinguish between phonemic (or graphemic) differences, which usually are thought to "matter," and phonetic (or graphetic) differences, which usually do not. So the difference between dad and mad is phonemic or graphemic, and marks a key difference, while the differences among

are graphetic (here, differences in font) and are usually thought of as insignificant. (Similarly, if you speak the word dad four times, you will inevitably pronounce it with miniscule differences each time, and these differences are phonetic rather than phonemic.) Of course, contemporary textual and editorial theory problematizes this distinction, but nonetheless we can understand the distinction quite readily. With images, we can't even get to the point of problematizing the distinction because we can't imagine the distinction in the first place.

The final paper was Peter Bigland (who knew?) Stallybrass (U Penn), “Textual Studies and the Book,” which was the only paper not to include PowerPoint. Instead, Stallybrass folded paper. He's old skool that way. Anyway, he began by recalling the well-worn idea that "Authors do not write books," but then added that "Printers do not print books either." Printers print sheets, which are sometimes later sewn and bound into books. This wasn't merely a semantic quibble, though, as he went on to note a 16th-century (forgot the exact year, sorry) regulation of the Stationers' Company demarcating precisely the difference between a "book" and other types of printed matter. Once a text comprised more than 40 sheets in folio or 12 sheets in octavo, it had to be sewn and bound into a book. Under those numbers, it was likely sold folded in sheets or else "stabbed" (ie, pierced with a fastener, analogous to our corner staple). Stallybrass' point was that we should think much more narrowly about the category "book," if we want to think in the terms that early modern printers thought, especially given how little of a printer's business was taken up with books and how much was made up of small jobs like broadsides, advertisements, blank forms, lottery tickets, and the like. He argued that it was these small jobs that were the core of a printer's livelihood, and that books were dangerous speculations that might as easily bankrupt an unwary printer as make him or her wealthy.

All three papers were quite good. What surprised me most was just how "scientific" the first two papers were, drawing on computational linguistics, digital forensics, computer science, even biological genetics, and other fields you don't usually hear about at the MLA. I'm not qualified to evaluate their use of that work, but it struck me as rigorous and responsible, not the Sokol-hoax variety. And if one really wants to engage with something like "technobibliography," then one ought to actually know something about those fields. The growing field of Digital Humanities and/or Humanities Computing seems now to be taking exactly the right approach to these questions, with serious collaborations between humanists and scientists, as opposed to the early efforts I can recall from my undergrad days when people thought that hypertext fiction would be the crucial thing to study.

Afterwards, I drank a lot. And so to bed.

  • At 12/29/2006 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I'm not sure you want to extend the narrative of your pseudonym to the missus... if you do, make sure you keep her away from any valuable arbors.

    Any MLA that I'm not at MLA is a good MLA. Much more enjoyable in blog form. Although the drinking sounds fun. Looking forward to reading more.


  • At 12/29/2006 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Excellent first post, Hieronimo (say hi to Mrs. Hieronimo for me). Made me kind of wish I was there--well, no, I mean, it made me glad you're there to tell me what I'm missing while I'm here reading blogs and writing recommendations.

    Stallybrass's blurb on the Cox and Kastan New History of Early English Drama calls him the "Peter Bigland Professor of English," a great typo.


  • At 12/29/2006 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    PS The time stamp on this post says 2:19pm. But I posted it at about 12:30am on the 29th. Blogger is weird. I think it's because I wrote the first paragraph at 2:19pm, then saved it as a draft, then wrote the remainder after the rest of the day's events. Blogger is annoying.


  • At 12/29/2006 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Jebus, the Harvard Crimson wrote an entire article (pub. Feb. 9, 2006) on the stylishness of Gordon Teskey. It's opening sentence: "Besides being a truly sharp dresser, Gordon Teskey also happens to be a professor of English and American Literatures and Languages."


  • At 12/29/2006 11:43:00 PM, Blogger Matt wrote…

    My thanks to H. for such a generous and detailed summation of my "Save As" talk, along with the others on the panel. (Ain't Technorati great for instant feedback?) Seriously, this is the academic blogosphere at its best, much more satisfying than "thanks, I enjoyed your paper" over the shoulder as people rush out of the room. The "biblio" in technobibliography is vestigial of course, but I wanted it there as an explicit reminder of the long, careful traditions of thought that have evolved around the book as a physical object--a level of attention that is only beginning to find its way into the critical study of new media objects. MLA, btw, is becoming a major venue for the digital humanities; in my view the Sokal analogy (to science studies) is not quite to the point since (with very rare exceptions) humanists are not practicing scientists, but more and more denizens of the MLA are active bloggers, hackers, coders--people actively shaping the digital present. So there's an element of praxis that I bring to my work, which is necessary (but not sufficient) for its intellectual credibility. Cheers--


  • At 12/30/2006 12:17:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi MGK, and welcome. You're right that the Sokol allusion is not quite on point (it was a bit too throw-away at midnight). My point about the "scientific" nature of your paper and Kari's was meant (perhaps this didn't come across) as complimentary; you may be right that many MLA members are now practicing hackers and coders (certainly they are bloggers, but this isn't quite of the same order), although I would think that few are computer scientists in the disciplinary sense, and what struck me (positively) was how actively engaged the papers were with computer science (and in Kari's case, with biology/genetics), in a real rather than parasitic way.

    I can see the logic of biblio, and of course bibliography as a term is well-known, so the pun/coinage is readily apparent when you leave the full word in there. Still, I wonder if leaving biblio doesn't make this new field too dependent on book-centered bibliography. Maybe "analytic technography"? Then again, I'm quibbling with semantics here. Instead of that, I'll go read your article in TEXT.


  • At 12/30/2006 04:45:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Sounds like a fascinating session. I wish I could have attended. I'm organising a similar panel session for the NEER conference in Perth in July, but with more of a focus on early modern drama. I've managed to score papers from Michael Best, Ian Lancashire, and Helen Ostovich (all members of a research cluster I've gotten funding for - "early modern drama in the electronic age"). Would any BtR readers be keen on partipating? (Does this count as a commercial post? Or, worse, as a Reynolds-style self-promotion?)


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