Reading by Screen Light

As, at the very latest, my blog post from a few weeks ago reveals ("Glass Reality"), I live in a rather 'techie' household. And yes, the fact that my fiancĂ© is a freelance software engineer and app developer certainly contributes to our always having the newest and latest technology we (or better, he) can afford (I'm a grad student in the humanities, after all). After reading Hayles considerations of How We Think, or perhaps even better, how our thinking changes in relation to media usage, I therefore could not help but wonder to what degree my own thinking has already been influenced by all this technology. I certainly lay no claim to understanding it all, or even a slight fraction of the inside-the-black-box functionality (to use Kirschenbaum's terminology), nor to possess more than a slight familiarity with coding. And this, as I shamefully admit, despite considering myself as an aspiring Digital Humanist. My fiancĂ© usually has a lot of explaining to do. A familiar scene: "Honey, I broke it!!! Help!!!" — He takes a quick glance at the document I've painstakingly encoded in TEI for the past few hours and which I've been trying to fix for the past 30 minutes in hopes that "Oxygen" finally gives me this great relief of having provided me with this tiny little square in the lower right corner of the screen meaning that the document 'validated' — "You're not ending your tag in line 96732. It's a self-closer." Duh.

However, I'm not only an aspiring Digital Humanist. I'm also a literary scholar. Even writing this out still makes it seem as if there still exists this stark division — I'd almost say dichotomy — of being a traditional literary scholar (the vampire-resembling kind that reads dusty books in dark libraries) and the computer science guy (the zombie-resembling kind with the blood-shot eyes from staring at a screen for too long). And yet, as becomes clear in Hayles' book, the Digital Humanities are somewhere in between there; they constitute some kind of hybrid identity (to borrow from Manovich) in literary scholarship. And that, perhaps, changes our perception of what constitutes literary research in fundamental ways.

What I mean to emphasize here is not only Hayles' point that print culture is slowly vanishing (however troubling such thought can be), but, more importantly, that the duplicity between print and digital media changes how we read, even as otherwise traditional scholars. To illustrate my point, let me use the example of a project I've been helping to work on for two years now. Under the supervision of Laura White in particular, our team has been trying to TEI mark-up free indirect discourse (FID) in all six of Jane Austen's finished novels. It has been my role within the project to firstly, identify potential instances of FID in the novel, and then secondly (after a secondary check), to mark them in the XML file.

Ironically enough, these two steps in the process superficially seem to reinforce the division between 'traditional' scholarship and 'digital' scholarship. During the first, initial pass through a novel, I sit there, vampire-like, with a print version of one of the novels, pencil in hand, close-reading for FID. A quite intellectually challenging process. I will have to re-read several passages. I will have to concentrate on the context of the reading. I cannot miss any words. During the second step, I sit there, zombie-like, with a screen in front of me, coding: scattering tags, elements, attributes, values, all in nice different colors, across the screen. A relatively mechanical, tedious process. Open element. Provide attributes and values. Close element. Open another. Repeat. Two quite distinct steps, clearly divided among the materiality of print and digital media.

No. Although the first step in this process seems like quite traditional scholarship, the second step (the encoding itself) very much influences how I read Austen. Certainly, there are questions of how we define FID to begin with: What is 'true' FID, meaning, in which instances do the narrator's words reflect what a character truly would think or say, and in which instances do we simply have a case of ventriloquization? These are pretty traditional questions. But, in a lot of instances, anticipating having to encode this ultimately, I also have to ask questions as simple as, "Who speaks here?", a question that might simply not even matter in traditional literary criticism, no matter how close the reading. For example, early in Persuasion, "Anne was walking with only the Miss Musgroves, [and] one of them, after talking of rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank, said …" (Austen 31). Well, which one? Henrietta or Louisa? Typically, this wouldn't matter much. They're both pretty stuck up, superficial, and greedy, so lumping them together as "one of the Miss Musgroves" works pretty well — if the reader even notices that no clear speaker is provided here. Trying to mark this up digitally later changes the game, however. All of a sudden, it makes a difference of whether Henrietta or Louisa says those words, since this monologue will be forever linked with the personography in the TEI header according to my attribution here (thank goodness, I'm not the only one making the call here). So, then, if some scholar down the road decides to search our files for words in Persuasion specific to Henrietta or Louisa, I might be in trouble. Here, it matters.

Even more poignantly, what do we do about such narrative techniques as people lying? Again, in Persuasion, there is an instance in which Mr. Elliot lies to Anne about what another character had said. The narrator knows it, and the reader does too. But, can we, in the XML file, attribute the words Mr. Elliot had made up to the original character or not? Even more complicated, what if a character is under a misconception? In Emma, for example, there are innumerable instances of Emma Woodhouse's believing someone to have said or meant something, which is then faithfully translated into free indirect discourse. As the reader already knows, Emma is mistaken in assuming, for example, Harriet and Mr. Elton as "lovers". And yet, should we then assign a passage clearly written in free indirect discourse (insofar as the narrator faithfully represents the language of a character in third person) as direct discourse simply based on narrative technique and the building of tension within the plot?

These clearly are questions that affect only those that close-read (however traditional) for digital purposes. Because the method of delivery, the method of research, the method of scholarship, in short, the medium, changes, so does the method of inquiry. Suddenly, aspects of close reading matter that didn't matter before. This, however, does not mean traditional scholarship is becoming obsolete — and that is certainly also not the point Hayles is making about print. It, perhaps, simply means that we are offered additional ways of pursuing literary scholarship and asking literary questions. Maybe this is also what Hayles means when she considers how her book, "in recursive fashion, partakes of digital media even as it also reflects the practices of print scholarship" (247). DH is neither more forward, nor is print more backward. We're somewhere in between. I just haven't yet decided whether I'd rather be known as a vam-bie or a zom-pire.

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