June 26, 2013 by Amanda Visconti

Experimental Editions: Digital Editions as Methodological Prototypes

My "Infinite Ulysses" project falls more on the "digital editions" than the "digital editing" side of textual scholarship; these activities of coding, designing, and modeling how we interact with (read, teach, study) scholarly editions are usefully encompassed by Bethany Nowviskie's understanding of edition "interfacing".

Textual scholarship has always intertwined theory and practice, and over the last century, it’s become more and more common for both theory and practice to be accepted as critical activities. Arguments about which document (or eclectic patchwork of documents) best represents the ideal of a text, for example, were practically realized through editions of specific texts. As part of this theory through practice, design experiments are also a traditional part of textual scholarship, as with the typographic and spatial innovations of scholarly editor Teena Rochfort-Smith’s 1883 Four-Text 'Hamlet' in Parallel Columns.

How did we get here?

The work of McKerrow and the earlier twentieth-century New Bibliographers brought a focus to the book as an artifact that could be objectively described and situated in a history of materials and printing practices, which led to theorists such as McKenzie and McGann’s attention to the social life of the book—its publication and reception—as part of an edition’s purview. This cataloging and description eventually led to the bibliographic and especially iconic (visual, illustrative) elements of the book being set on the same level of interpretive resonance as a book’s linguistic content by scholars such as McGann, Tinkle, and Bornstein. Concurrently, Randall McLeod argued that the developing economic and technological feasibility of print facsimile editions placed a more unavoidable responsibility on editors to link their critical decisions to visual proof. Out of the bias of my web design background, my interest is in seeing not only the visual design of the texts we study, but the visual design of their meta-texts (editions) as critical—asking how the interfaces that impart our digital editing work can be as critically intertwined with that editing as Blake’s text and images were interrelated.

When is a digital object itself an argument?

Mark Sample has asked, “When does anything—service, teaching, editing, mentoring, coding—become scholarship? My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it”. It isn’t whether something is written, or can be described linguistically, that determines whether critical thought went into it and scholarly utility comes out of it: it’s the appropriateness of the form to the argument, and the availability of that argument to discussion and evaluation in the scholarly community.

Editions—these works of scholarly building centered around a specific literary text, which build into materiality theories about the nature of texts and authorship—these editions we’re most familiar with are not the only way textual scholars can theorize through making. Alan Galey’s Visualizing Variation coding project is a strong example of non-edition critical building work from a textual scholar. The Visualizing Variation code sets, whether on their own or applied to specific texts, are (among other things) a scholarly response to the early modern experience of reading, when spellings varied wildly and a reader was accustomed to holding multiple possible meanings for badly printed or ambiguously spelled words in her mind at the same time. By experimenting with digital means of approximating this historical experience, Galey moves theorists from discussing the fact that this different experience of texts occurred to responding to an actual participation in that experience. (The image below is a still from an example of his "Animated Variants" code, which cycles contended words such as sallied/solid/sullied so that the reader isn't biased toward one word choice by its placement in the main text.)

Galey’s experiments with animating textual variants, layering scans of marginalia from different copies of the same book into a single space, and other approaches embodied as code libraries are themselves critical arguments: “Just as an edition of a book can be a means of reifying a theory about how books should be edited, so can the creation of an experimental digital prototype be understood as conveying an argument about designing interfaces” (Galey, Alan and Stan Ruecker. “How a Prototype Argues.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 25.4 (2010): 405-424.). These arguments made by digital prototypes and other code and design work, importantly, are most often arguments about meta-textual-questions such as how we read and research, and how interfaces aid and shape our readings and interpretations; such arguments are actually performed by the digital object itself, while more text-centric arguments—for example, what Galey discovered about how the vagaries of early modern reading would have influenced the reception of, for example, a Middleton play—can also be made, but often need to be drawn out from the tool and written up in some form, rather than just assumed as obvious from the tool itself.

I successfully defended my digital humanities doctoral dissertation in Spring 2015. The now-available Infinite Ulysses social+digital reading platform is part of that project; come read with us!