13.0387 what's interesting about Web pages

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Tue Feb 08 2000 - 20:58:21 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 387.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Tue, 08 Feb 2000 20:46:56 +0000
             From: Johanna Drucker <jrd8e@virginia.edu>
             Subject: what's interesting about Web pages

    Interesting this question that you pose. Ed Ayers, in equally lucid (to
    your prose) remarks on a visit this fall posed the same conundrum, his face
    as he spoke expressing a scholar's puzzlement: What does it mean to write
    as a historian when all of the archive is available to the reader?

    A few preliminaries: I might make a substitution for "write as a historian"
    and say "write history" and pull apart the act of production from product.
    This is not just a nuance, and I think making the distinction is useful as
    part of answering the question since the shift of emphasis in the first
    example is to a "making" that is always understood as contingent and
    performative and the second presupposes some more fixed value in what is
    "made". But the two concepts, making and made, production and product,
    stand in a similar (though not the same) relation to the archive, so on to
    that more fundamental discussion (as long as the caveat stands that in a
    more detailed discussion I would want to examine the differences sketched

    The first line of a work of mine (that takes its title from the opening
    phrase) begins, "Figuring the word against the jealous ground [...]" This
    is the crux of the matter as I see it. The ground, that extensive archive
    with its inexhaustible seeming repleteness, will ALWAYS want to claim
    authority in its apparent-seeming primacy. As if IT IS ALREADY
    MEANING, and all meaning. Thus its "jealous" character, wanting to pull
    the figure that is produced as a meaningful trope, back INTO itself. Primal
    matter attempting to keep separation from occuring. I see this so vividly
    as an image -- the primordial swamp of the archive and the figure of
    interpretive meaning forming above (though this hierarchy isn't meant to
    carry moral valuation).

    Ultimately, it seems that the issue of meaning is always only resolved
    within finite limits -- that IS the lesson of structuralism, after all. So
    the archive, in some sense, has NO meaning. It awaits the act of
    "configuration" to be rendered useful. We will, I think, come to appreciate
    rhetoric more finely again as the task of constructing a persuasive,
    seductive, and engaging argument (the "figure") comes to be recognized as
    the scholarly act. The tasks of complete recovery of "evidence" (always
    accidental and incomplete) as a scholarly enterprise will be less valued,
    except in gazing towards those portions of antiquity that erode behind us
    into dust, the contours of old forms barely discernible as fragments,
    figments, of an unrecoverable totality. In Figuring the Word, one text
    "emerges" from a font of unproofed foundry type that is rearranged, a
    demonstration of this idea of the figure of a text coming out of the
    inexhaustible possibility of the archive of the type.

    So, my answer to your query comes in this form: In relation to the replete
    archive, the scholar's task is one of configuring meaning, producing an
    interpretation, as a conductor makes a performance from a score (or, as
    above, writing makes specific discourse out of the generality of the
    alphabet). It is what we have always been doing, only the claim to
    authority that the replete archive seems to presume must be qualified just
    as thoroughly as when the archive was incomplete. The interpretive act
    never attempted to replicate the essence of the archive, but to activate a
    dynamic relation among the discourse of figured meaning and the body of
    material from which it is written.

    Somehow I am NOT managing to reach closure here -- every point seems to
    open to other possibilities for understanding this dyanamic relation. I'll
    stop, but with the final suggestion that in the next generation a
    descriptive langauge for apprehending the *forms of dynamic metalanguage*
    that address the tropes of process will come to occupy us. An idea we could
    not have even grasped before being posed with this new condition.


    P.S. After a talk with Will Thomas of VCDH this morning, another more
    practical image also became clear. As the "archive" of The Valley of the
    Shadow exists, it has potential for a variety of constituencies, some of
    whom would be completely unable to use it without assistance. The
    "interface" becomes almost a custom tailored tool -- not for each person,
    but each kind of user. Thus, school teachers make "lesson plan" interfaces,
    scholars have their own search engines, and the lay public might actually
    want an "entertainment" interface to display material in a more passive
    way. The design of and conception of these interfaces will be a crucial
    part of the educational industry in forging useful connections between the
    online archives we create and the broader communities of users we wish to

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