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Looking at the OHCO at Balisage 2014

Looking at the OHCO at Balisage 2014 published on

The Balisage 2014 program is up, and I’m on it, Thursday Aug 7 at 9am. See

The LMNL project I started over a decade ago with Jeni Tennison (or the “rump version” thereof, since everyone else has moved onto other things) is still offering me intellectual rewards. It turns out a range model like LMNL’s is very useful for addressing the question of what one is describing when one marks up a document, because it forces no predisposition to one hierarchical rendition or another (or any) before the document description is mature. So the “ontology” of the markup can remain much looser, to develop iteratively.

This means that LMNL is useful not only for models of texts that have honest MCH (multiple concurrent hierarchies), such as models of poetry that present both verse and grammatical (sentence/phrase) hierarchies together, but also for examining texts that show structural anomalies — the kind of thing that makes us wonder whether and where the hierarchies and “containment” are even to be found.

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows such a structural anomaly, it makes an interesting case study. Formally, it’s a hybrid between an epistolary novel (in its framing narrative) and a more conventional first-person narrative (with a long embedded narrative in the center). But overlap between these two structures (at least in almost every printed edition) gives pause: it frustrates a clean and simple representation in a hierarchical model such as a conventionally encoded XML version, and raises questions about the coherence of its representation. Is this a feature (of a gothic horror romance), or a bug?

Interestingly, LMNL offers a way to demarcate the parts of the book without organizing them into a single hierarchy or any hierarchy at all. This turns out to be useful for asking questions about this work and hence about the idea of the OHCO in general, as applied to texts that were not already committed to hierarchical forms in their composition.

Or were they? LMNL helps us ask.

New Republic takedown of DH

New Republic takedown of DH published on 1 Comment on New Republic takedown of DH

Adam Kirsch’s takedown of digital humanities in the New Republic tries its best, but ultimately disappoints.

After taking a few easy potshots and tossing forward a few casual examples and over-generalizations, he concludes somewhat lamely with this: “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility.” But what digital humanist would want any less? Indeed, hasn’t he been listening: isn’t this the whole point?

(We pause to note the somewhat comical image of standing on a breakwall, Canute-like, resisting a tsunami by offering a critique of it.)

Similarly, his peroration is reduced to the usual highbrow clichés:

These are the kinds of questions that humanists ought to be well equipped to answer. Indeed, they are just the newest forms of questions that they have been asking since the Industrial Revolution began to make our tools our masters. The posture of skepticism is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so confident and culture is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are tempted to throw off the traditional burden and infuse the humanities with the material resources and the militant confidence of the digital. The danger is that they will wake up one morning to find that they have sold their birthright for a mess of apps.

That bit too has another funny notion, namely that a posture should be a burden — one wonders why, if one’s posture were a burden, wouldn’t one straighten up or do whatever one should do to relieve it? presumably the answer being “well that depends”, and I take it that Kirsch feels the posture of skepticism is still worth undertaking. (It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.) But I think he’s got it exactly backward: if those who assume responsibility for “the humanities” don’t step up and engage directly with the digital — apps is exactly what we’ll be left with. The apps, after all, will be there in any case. It’s only a matter of whether there’s anything demonstrably better to offer against them. Like, using digital machinery not just to create game spaces, diversions and echo chambers, but also to help understand and document our actual world and its actual history.

But finally, one thing puzzles me. How does Adam Kirsch figure that DHers recommend that humanities students and scholars stop doing whatever it is that they’re doing (or are supposed to do, in his mind or anyone else’s)? What DHer has ever said that the old-fashioned work isn’t worth doing? Why can’t this be about expanding the pie (to use another cliché)?

Liking paper after all

Liking paper after all published on

Over on Wired is a smart piece by Brandon Keim on why we like reading paper after all. (I found it in the aggregator.)

My pattern these days is to peruse the tablet for morning newspaper time, which is now also magazine and aggregator time, and paper for bedtime reading. (I am reading Zite, which is called “the aggregator” in our house. For complicated reasons, I don’t much read in Flipboard, however pretty it is. Maybe I’ll write about that. I hope I like the new Zitified Flipboard when the day comes.)

But I still want paper whenever I want to dig in. Keim describes text on screen as “slippery” and more difficult to retain, and I can confirm this. He also cites research. (It’s always reassuring when Science corroborates what we knew anyway: this is science we know we don’t have to discount.) Or, I would qualify, it’s not so much that paper makes for better retention. It is just makes for a safer space, allowing the mind to quiet enough to hear the quieter tones and inflections and feel the texture of the text. (In turn, I suppose these may be conducive to better retention.) A book is going to be what it is, while text on a screen, even on a tablet, is always offering, unsettlingly, to transmogrify into something else — if nothing else, then into another text. I suppose this “mind-quieting” theory also helps account for why this is so subjective. It’s related to the distractability factor but not limited to it. The researchers cited by Keim remind us of how much information we are getting from the codex format, implicitly and passively, and this is important too: physical, tangible pages have a kind of grounding effect.

The same thing goes for a printed PDF of a research paper or scholarly article. One can better see it for what it is, and isn’t, when it is given space and material (paper!) of its own, even if it’s just a stapled set of 8½x11s.

This all bears on what I was thinking about in relation to Renear’s Strategic Reading. As long as my primary purpose with a text is to assess it and assimilate it, the screen is fine. But to give the text a chance to write me (inscribe on me, change me) — requiring a receptive mind as well as an active one — then having it printed on paper first is a good first step. Paper is just a better instrument for that.