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Jerome J. McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 10:11
Jerome J. McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001. xv + 272pp.  $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-29352-6).  $19.95 (Ppbk; ISBN: 1-4039-6436-X, 2004).

Reviewed by
Ron Broglio
Georgia Institute of Technology

Jerome McGann's introduction "Beginning Again: Humanities and Digital Culture, 1993-2000" gives us a glimpse at how far computing in the humanities has come in less than a decade, and it signals possible directions for the future. McGann situates humanities computing at a critical moment:

[W]e stand on the edge of a period that will see the complete editorial transformation of our inherited cultural archive. That event is neither a possibility nor a likelihood; it is a certainty. As it emerges around us, it exposes our need for critical tools of the same material and formal order that can execute our other permanent scholarly function: to imagine what we don't know in a disciplined and deliberate fashion. (18)

The way scholars work with new media has changed drastically over the years. As a collection of McGann's essays during the 1990s, Radiant Textuality bears witness to these changes--from digital editing in the mid-1990s, to pondering the ontology of the text in the late-1990s, and then to critical gaming in the new millennium. As the collection proceeds, chapter by chapter we see McGann's concerns shift, themes emerge, and new possibilities arise alongside the developments in digital technology. Unifying the diverse experiments in Radiant Textuality is McGann's persistence in finding ways that new media can improve the exploration and interpretation of aesthetic works.

In his chapter on textual deformation as interpretation, McGann suggests we try unconventional reading methods to release the possibilities within the text. Taking his advice, I will suggest readers first look at his final chapter, "Conclusion: Beginning Again and Again: The Ivanhoe Game." Adopting dialogue and gaming as formal methods for textual inquiry, The Ivanhoe Game stands as a culmination of McGann's experiments in new media. The chapter opens with a look at Mallarmé's Un coup de Dés. For Mallarmé the book works like a machine for producing the very orders that bring it into existence typographically, musically, and poetically. The book is not simply a carrier of information but rather itself a thought machine that produces worlds and readers both real and imaginary. Mallarmé's experiment provides an-other horizon for the book and for new media humanities. Using the poet's work as a model, McGann approaches the problem: "How can we exploit digital tools to augment critical reflection both on and within bookspace?" (214). His response is The Ivanhoe Game. In the game mode, "action does not take place outside but inside the object of attention" (218). This mode enacts McGann's idea of a quantum poetic: since neither the reading subject nor the textual object provides a stable ground for interpretation, each shifts in relation to the other so that there is no "outside" space, no Archimedean point from which to leverage an objective reading. In response to the problem of grounding meaning, gaming allows the readers to work from within the literary texts and produce their own textual commentary which becomes part of the playing field alongside the literary object.

In The Ivanhoe Game, readers become players who take on roles and particular styles of reading. Each player uses the literary text and commentaries on it as moves in the game in response to the opportunities and problems raised by the text-moves produced by other players. Players interact with one another through the moves they make and dialogue about these moves and even about themselves as role-players. The software McGann has sketched out uses a variety of venues--including primary texts in digital format, posting forums for moves, email discussion, and live MOO chats--that promote different discourses and hermeneutics. While most scholarly inquiries follow an essay format with its singular and unified argument from a point of view outside of the object of study, the gaming genre can work from within the text itself and adopt several perspectives (even contradictory views) in a polyphonic orchestration of interpretations. The game is not about winning but about what is learned in the performance of reading: "Its central object is to make explicit the assumptions about critical practice and textual interpretation that often lie unacknowledged, or at least irregularly explored, in a conventional approach to interpretational practice. . . . 'The Ivanhoe Game' is not a video game to be bested but a difference engine for stimulating self-reflection through interactive role-playing" (218-19, 222).

The playfulness found in gaming and interpretation begins as early as the first chapter. "The Alice Fallacy; or Only God can make a Tree" is a philosophical drama pondering the role of the reader in determining the meaning of a text, or as Lewis Carroll's Alice ponders: "whether you can make words mean so many different things" (38). The dialogue format, multiple characters with different agendas, and the wistful conversation look forward to strategies in The Ivanhoe Game where readers are the characters creating their own drama as they read texts.

Chapter 2, "The Rationale for Hypertext," extends McGann's argument about the use of the digital medium as a machine for thinking. McGann argues for hypertext editions of a book over paper editions of a book. As the number of online editions grows and their use becomes commonplace, the importance of this chapter shifts from simply arguing for digital editions to making clear once again what it is readers do when working with an online edition. The digital tools provide a new reflexive heuristic for editing and reading. The problem with book editions is that "they deploy a book form to study another book form. This symmetry between tool and its subject forces the scholar to invent analytic mechanisms that must be displayed and engaged at the primary reading level--for example, apparatus structures, descriptive bibliographies, calculi of variants, shorthand reference forms, and so forth" (56). Hypertext editions provide "nested series of operational possibilities" (58) for both editors and readers, manifesting how different editions serve the purposes of different scholars. Readers no longer find order; rather, they make it. McGann illustrates the new operational possibilities through several editing examples: Burns's "Tam Glen," McGann's New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, Emily Dickinson's corpus, Landon's picture-poems, and Wordsworth's multiple versions of The Prelude. He concludes that "Precisely because an electronic edition is not itself a book, it is able to establish itself in a theoretical position that supervenes the (textual and bookish) material it wishes to study" (68).

The rationale for hypertext editions, as well as for readers as performers (actors and agents) of meaning, continues in "Visible and Invisible Books in N-Dimensional Space." The focus here is on how web archives of literature can better meet the needs of scholars than a page-based edition of a literary work. When marking a text for digital archiving, e.g., in SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), an archivist must decide what parts of the literary work should be tagged and how the parts function in relation to one another. Secondly, an archivist must decide how to represent the literary work. In what McGann calls "conscious deformation," editors manipulate the perceptual field to generate dominant conceptual patterns for reading and understanding the text. A digital archive allows for greater storage and means of serving data. Consequently, in digital archives, the meaning of the textual object can be de/reformed "on the fly." In selecting particular textual features from the archive, readers create a version of the text and at the same moment are performing a reading through their choices. McGann points out that an informational text seeks to minimize attention to its perceptual features. However, as his readings of several poems show, it is the interplay between percept and concept--between visible and invisible--that makes for aesthetic meaning. While we can order fields of information hierarchically--semantic, syntactic, and rhetorical features--it is a topological interplay among fields that carries richly textured meaning. Using hypertext markup and databases, the reader can run through topological fields of meaning without being bound by the dictates of a particular perceptual or conceptual feature. Texts may then reach toward an N-dimensional space. It is worth noting that in The Ivanhoe Game, the topological fields and N-dimensional space become the playing fields for critical gaming.

Editing and reading as a play among fields is evident in Radiant Textuality's central chapter "Deformation and Interpretation." McGann explains that "criticism (scholarship as well as interpretation) tends to imagine itself as an informative rather than a deformative activity" (114) by favoring exposition to deformation. Yet as he shows throughout the book, every edition and translation is a performative deformation. Such performances disorder the organization of the text and our common sense methods of reading. A release from common sense highlights the methods normally held in common and interpretive possibilities overlooked by customary heuristic rules. McGann then gives examples of reading through several deformations: reordering, isolating, altering, and adding. Performative deformation is extended in the chapter "Rethinking Textuality." In this chapter interpretation as textual transformation gets enhanced by storing readers' transformational "moves" in computer programs. The programs could then scan various texts using the stored computational-interpretive operations. Such experiments run throughout the book and show how McGann uses performance as an interpretive strategy to supplement scholarly delineation.

Radiant Textuality shows McGann building important theoretical arguments for pursuing digital humanities. Since the early 1990s, he has been a central voice in digital editing and experimentation. My one regret is that many other voices of the computing in the humanities community do not make an appearance in his book. McGann's experiments in digital textual deformation build on methods of interpretation advocated by digital guru Greg Ulmer in Teletheory, Applied Grammatology and Internet Invention. Over the last decade, Ulmer and many from the loosely grouped Florida School of criticism have adopted experimental methods for reading literature through the construction of new media objects. Textual deformation leads to questions about the ontology of the text which Katherine Hayles has vigorously pursued. Likewise, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin's popular Remediation certainly has relevance in any discussion about the translation between book and digital media. McGann's examinations of online textual editions include his own sophisticated Rossetti Archive but omit the formidable The Blake Archive and important editors such as George Bornstein and Peter Shillingsburg. Finally, his advancement of critical gaming overlooks many gaming communities as well as performative interpretations constructed over the last five years in Romantic Circles' MOO space. Attending to suchs omissions reveals the rich polyphonic discourse amid which McGann's voice rings clearly.