12.0314 confinement, loss, growth

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 24 Nov 1998 23:13:15 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 314.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 24 Nov 1998 14:19:22 +0000
From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com>
Subject: Re: 12.0299 old walls, new growth

Dear Willard,

Your meditation on a sense of confinement, possibly a sense of loss, as
we consider what these instruments we build are actually capable of
doing, really resonates with me. I think you have got onto your answer

> I wonder if the next step is to turn our attention to what happens
> when we read, i.e. to the process rather than to the artefact.

This is the same conclusion I came to in a study I did of Walter Pater
in the context of an e-text publishing project (one product of which was
a print article, "Inhabiting the Electronic Text?" in
_Nineteenth-Century Prose_ -- is it Fall 1996 or Winter 1997? the recent
special Walter Pater issue).

Not only because of the central issues, but because of the resonances.
"Butting up against walls" is exactly what this is all about. I agree
that the next problem is the intersection of material and phenomenal
within the processes of consciousness (a fancy way of referring to the
old problems of empiricism, and yes, I treat reading as a kind of
"consciousness"). The barriers we face, not only to our sense of making
progress on our journeys, but also to understanding and communication
with others (as we try to explain why we bother to do what we do), can
only be breached if we "get real" about reading, "reading" being clearly
different in different media (as it is in different modes, genres,
contexts, for different purposes etc.).

To recognize this really undoes the dichotomy you (rightly) question in
that key paragraph:

> I have difficulty with the idea that, as one especially intelligent
> colleague has argued, the computational representation of a text, for
> example, is simply another representation, not necessarily a lesser one. I
> can see that what we study is (to quote the title of Antonioni's last
> great film, completed by Wenders) "beyond the clouds", i.e. that all forms
> of what we study are representations triangulating on the unsayable.

Well, this position is inescapable, and yet students of poetry may
recognize it's not the whole story -- and thus your canny difficulty.
Why do poets love occasions of the concrete and the found poem? A found
poem can provide us with a joyful, startled recognition of the
interdependency, to the point of identification, between content and
form, form and function (yes, Francois, "process and artefact") -- and
that such a recognition is near the core of the artistic motive, which
may begin in a romance with the material.

To say "the computational representation of a text ... is simply another
representation" argues there is something "behind the veil," more
essential than the medium of presentation (the print or the screen). An
old question in editorial theory: should a new edition seek to represent
an extant text; or should it be something "truer" than that (which any
texts extant themselves only represent imperfectly)? Whether something
"truer" should itself be posited is an even older question. Maybe one
reason Plato didn't want the poets in his ordered Republic is because
they say "No, nothing more essential is necessary. Close your eyes and
listen to the text for a moment -- is it words, an echo, or silence and
the intermittent clicking of a disk drive, the hum of a fan? Straighten
your spine in your chair. There's your reality." No need to wander
pathless and confused, confined within the walls of a garden of

As is frequently remarked on this list, a well-crafted book, framed by
the occasion of its reading, also seems to argue that there can be
something more to the experience of reading than a mere murmuring of a
sequence of words, and then passing on to the next thing. Not only can't
a poem be captured by its concordance; it can't even be captured by
talking about it. Your e-mail missives keep trying to hint at something
beyond them -- that our experience may be, not just of your prose, but
also of tomato relishes, or maybe squashes, mince pie and pumpkins, in
this season of darkening, departures and homecomings.

The fallacy may be even to suppose the essence has to be in one place:
maybe an essence arises even out of an awareness of these phenomenal
interpenetrations. Without accounting for more of what is happening when
we read, we are just counting the bricks in the garden wall.

Best regards,

Wendell Piez mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street, Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

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