Saturday, May 10, 2008

2008 Kalamazoo Paper

Posting the text of the paper presented this afternoon, at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (because I said I would.) The happy part is that I can actually hyperlink the stuff that ought to be hyperlinked -- which , of course, is how God Meant for Text to Be.

Text in Motion: Navel-Gazing as Pedagogical Strategy

John Gower wrote:
That men mowe take remembrance
Of that thei schall hierafter rede:
For in good feith this wolde I rede,
That every man ensample take
Of wisdom which him is betake,
And that he wot of good aprise
To teche it forth, for such emprise
Is forto preise; and therfore I
Woll wryte . . . (John Gower, Confessio Amantis 1.76-84)

Okay, maybe he wasn't talking specifically about blogging -- but he knew that written text lasts in a way the spoken word simply cannot. Blogging continues an unbroken tradition of writing that is simultaneously personal and pedagogical, both private and public: it's a hybrid of journaling, conversation, and writing-as-performance.

This isn't a new idea, of course -- but implies that the nature of text itself is perhaps less static than we might like to think, but at the same time rather more stable than we might fear; even while digital text changes the very nature of how we perceive and use the written word.

The word itself, text, is from the PIE base *tek- "make" -- cognate with technology. The etymology implies a process, weaving, possessing texture and dimension -- which is an excellent description of electronic text: text as action, in addition to text as object.

I've been hearing people express concern about the future of text almost since I began to read. I remember a Philosophy professor laughing at himself but also expressing real anxiety over the delete function of his word processor. He talked about envisioning all those deleted words and letters, laying somewhere at the bottom of a dark pit hidden by the cover. While it was funny, he also was expressing very real consternation and anxiety over the forced changes in his own perception of what text actually is, how it's created, and what we can do with it.

In the introduction to The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, a collection of essays published in 1993, Richard Lanham said:
For the changes brought by electronic text, including the very redefinition of what a "text" is, touch upon practically every central question on the current humanist agenda. The volatility of electronic text, its mixture of alphabetic and iconic information, and its essential typographical plasticity, seem, much more than film, the perfect fulfillment of the Italian Futurists' desire to abolish the book in favor of a more dynamic medium.

Electronic text thus leads us to the many twentieth-century attempts to release language from the traditional rules print has dictated.

And electronic text has come much further, since then. How does this change what we do in a text medium, then? If, rather than a static object -- a book or a page -- text is dynamic and liquid, what practical challenges and considerations arise? And what possibilities?

One of the most exciting things that happens is that text is entirely set free of any specific temporal place and physical location. This paper I'm reading right now can be poured, essentially, from screen to flash drive to page, and later I'll go home and post it on my own blog. It's liquid.

Just the overwhelming variety of modern fonts, instantly available, is something John Gower could never have envisioned. And isn't it interesting that those same fonts that offer us an amazing range of choices also limit us in a way pen and ink do not, in terms of creating text as art? It's still a finite number. The way around that, of course, is to simply design our own fonts -- and we can do that now, too. Maybe it's still not calligraphy, but we can hyperlink the gloss to any esoteric terms, embed video and sound, animate the words themselves; and when we've finished all that, have a quick vanity-Google to see who has linked to us most recently.

That inherent flexibility of digital text creates a remarkable platform with which to parse complex ideas and examine the history of our language, art, and literature -- all the while reaching an audience that's both interested and participatory -- and in many cases will provide near-immediate feedback. Text in motion.

That's excellent news for medievalists, who have an unprecedented opportunity, then, to bring the past into the present in a nearly tangible and immediate way -- and capture the intimacy and immediacy of personal conversation in the permanence of text.

Essentially, the difference between a blog and "regular" website is a difference in container for text -- similar to the way this page, that browser, or the flash drive in my pocket are different containers for text. Blogs are characterized by features that we don't see in other websites, typically -- although more and more of those features are starting to cross over, as their value becomes ever more evident.

Meg Hourihan wrote an excellent early examination of blogging several years ago, called "What We're Doing When We Blog":
If we look beneath the content of weblogs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share -- the format. The weblog format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging. Without it, there is no differentiation between the myriad content produced for the Web.

Whether you're a warblogger who works by day as a professional journalist or you're a teenage high school student worried about your final exams, you do the same thing: you use your blog to link to your friends and rivals and comment on what they're doing. Blog posts are short, informal, sometimes controversial, and sometimes deeply personal, no matter what topic they approach. They can be characterized by their conversational tone and unlike a more formal essay or speech, a blog post is often an opening to a discussion, rather than a full-fledged argument already arrived at.

Characteristics in common, that differentiate a website from a blog (cribbed heavily from both Meg Hourihan's essay linked above, and Lisa Spangenberg's The Rhetoric of Blogging):

-- frequent updates: fresh content provides fodder for the social interaction we associate with blogs. Even if you have your comments turned off, a blog predicates on the idea that the same people will be following your thoughts from day to day, week to week. The comments feature allows those readers to respond, contribute, and interact with those ideas.

-- hyperlinks: Again, a blog is about conversation. The intersection and dynamic tension between various viewpoints, and the response and interaction between writers, whether those writers are reader-commenters or other bloggers.

-- timestamps: We're working with text that, again, has been released from the constraints of temporal and physical location -- a timestamp, then, offers an anchor to a specific context; a specific place in time to use as reference to the world at large. When a news article about a new archaeological discovery comes out, that timestamp offers a context for the environment in which you wrote your own response to that discovery.

-- permalinks: Beginning from the premise that a blog is liquid, flowing, constantly changing text -- a tiny current in the larger river of the net itself -- the permalink provides a reference point allowing a return to a specific previous point in that stream. It also allows other bloggers and respondents to link to that point.

-- RSS or other feed: Blogs typically have a feed that lets you subscribe. This is important because it means your blog-reader will go and fetch the text back to your own tool, you don't have to go out and find the site via bookmark and mouse clicks, then wait for it to load, in order to read. The text comes to you.

Those key characteristics of blogging allow for more flexibility and a much greater range of communication and interactivity than offered by a more fixed and static website. This flexibility and interactivity creates unique opportunities for scholars to introduce, discuss, and hone ideas; similarly, the immediacy and versatility inherent to blogging allows reader/audience participation on a scale and with a degree of engagement not always possible in a more formal or traditional academic setting.

And blogging is an amazingly egalitarian process. You don't have to be a scholar. People blog about the most amazing things - their kids, gardens, medical issues, cats, recipes, and knitting projects. The magic happens when we establish connections to like-minded souls, forming communities with a commonality of interests and passions.

Our audiences are motivated to be there, reading and interacting -- otherwise, they'll just close the window or click the next link on their reader. There is, then, a sort of inherent "survival of the fittest" built directly into this textual conversation: if you're boring, people don't come back.

That sounds alarming, perhaps -- but it's not really that bad. That dynamic provides some checks and balances. The presence of an engaged community provides us incentive to post, stay interesting, and say something fresh; while our readers have incentive to engage, participate, ask questions, and make observations. Readers who lack that incentive either "lurk" or drop away entirely -- leaving the blog with a community of actively interested participants.

That passionate, active interest combined with the inherent flexibility of liquid text creates a new classroom, also cut free from the moorings of time and place. There are, of course, some challenges too, then -- there's an amazing amount of crap on the internet, right? And how are we teaching people to differentiate? How do we convey the ever-growing requirement for critical thinking, that being the case? I don't actually have answers for that, other than we all bear individual responsibility to teach when and where we can, by example.

What an amazing time and place we're in, though. For example, I just encountered (through a link on Dr. Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard) a newish blog started by novelist Nicola Griffith, specifically for the purpose of research.

From the sidebar description of Gemaecca:
This is a blog about writing a novel. The novel is based on the life of Hild of Whitby. I intend to not contravene what is known to be known about those people and those times, but while I'm a good novelist (I've published and won awards for five) I'm an indifferent scholar. I'm going to need help. I don't think in footnotes. I don't remember references. I read a little Latin and I've picked up a smattering of Old English (enough to pick out a word or two) but I'm much more at home with translations. My hope is that those who know more than I do about seventh century Britain will be generous enough to share their thoughts from time to time. Meanwhile, I'll share my process, that is, to the degree that it's comfortable. I don't usually discuss works-in-progress; if it turns out to be too uncomfortable, I'll fold my tent quietly and steal away.

This is a remarkable thing. When and where in history have we had the sheer access to information that we now have, let alone the ability to intersect and interact with one another about that information, without waiting months for letters and pictures from across the country -- or across the world? Anything we're interested in Google will fetch right to our fingertips in an instant. A passionate interest that takes our search deeper will provide weeks, months, or years worth of reading; then blogging allows us to either join or establish a community just as passionately interested in engagement with the subject, creating a dynamic conversation captured in text that's both liquid and permanent.


Nicola Griffith said...

Wow, how cool: I got mentioned in a paper presented at Kalamazoo! Thank you.

I liked the point you raised about pondering the computer's effect on text. This is something I first witnessed being discussed in 1988, at a writers' workshop: with the advent of wordprocessing, the notion of discrete drafts becomes more or less meaningless.

One day I'd love to see someone do some research on how writing with one hand, i.e., creating a manuscript, uses slightly different brain paths then using two hands, i.e., creating a computer document. In other words, how the words produced now are not the same words that would have been written twenty years ago, even if all other circumstances were the same.

Anyway, thanks again. I hope you're having a great conference.

Dawno said...

Immensely ponderable. Good paper, Mac. Thanks for sharing it.

rich said...

I've typed with one hand. I found that I produced half of what I would've produced with two hands. I also found that my brain kept repeating "WTF are you doing"?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

It's nice to see the text here, too! Possibly the first Kazoo paper to be published online, as well.

Chris Johnson said...

Interesting paper, Mac--thanks for putting it up. Blogging reminds me of 18th-century pamphleteering operating in an immensely compressed time frame.

Pete said...

I think, with respect that the article glosses over major problems, like the Digital Dark age, in favor of a rose-tinted image of the internet. I further would suggest that although she brings up Medievalism a number of times, what she fails to consider is that medievalism only exists because we have the documents, works, papers, texts from that time period intact and accessible.

In 500 years, can there be Internetists? not with the digital dark age as a problem.

You can see the digital dark age in action, I realized, if you go back to the American Gods archives of Neil Gaiman's blog and look at how degraded it's become. Further, go to the Internet WayBack Machine and consider the state of some of the web-sites there. And then, compare it to documents from the 14th century. From the Roman Empire. From Greece.

The imbalance makes this a golden age of spoken communication (via the internet) but a dangerous age of written communication especially if the emphasis is turned on the internet.

Which is not to say that the internet should be abandoned or discarded as a method of written communication. Just that there are problems and price tags that have be keenly attended to.

*braces self for stones thrown; respectfully bows out of the room & runs for it*

Shwebb said...

As always, loving your posts. Hating to sound like a suck-up. (When do we get to graduate to "curmudgeon?" I'll never win that one, I'll bet. Not in another forty years.

Blogging was for self-important loosers (intentional misspelling, that), I'd always thought. Until I got one of my own.

Now I know it's for that sort of people. *wink*

And amazing to see what roles and pigeonholes we put our own selves into when blogging.

I tend to blog family stuff. I don't know why--maybe someday I'll feel like I can say something semi-important about what I think instead of hiding behind pictures of kids playing on the back lawn and detailing semi-perfect suburbia.

Oh. That's right. That's what "secret" blogs are for! Oh, and hi, Rich! Nice to see you, there. Heh.


Grinning like a loon, yet?

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I missed this on my latest Miscellany. If I neglect to link to it on my next one, feel free to smack me over the head with a board until I remember.

By the way, I've got two new Hawaiian shirts thanks to you!