Reading Machines

I was fascinated by Reading Machines. I’d already submitted my essay draft when I read it, but I think it’s going to be super useful as I think about my final project. Here’s a passage that stood out to me:

[A]lgorithmic criticism might well eschew the question of success and instead ask how much more gloriously and fruitfully it might fail. The goal, after all, is not to arrive at the truth, as science strives to do. In literary criticism, as in the humanities more generally, the goal has always been to arrive at the question. (68)

This was especially interesting to and complicated for me because I’ve never heard it put that way before–that literary criticism is attempting “to arrive at the question.” In fact, I’ve always been told that you can’t end up with a good analysis unless you start with good questions. That’s the sense I get from reading academic articles, too: you start with your burning question and then try to answer it, to fill a hole in scholarship, to address the question that everyone else is supposedly overlooking, and, by implication, get answers. How does our approach to scholarship change if we start try to arrive at questions rather than answer them? Is this perhaps what some of the texts (especially the fiction ones) we’ve read this semester are doing? What are some ways algorithmic criticism can help us here, especially those of us who aren’t used to thinking this way?


I’m still wrestling with “What is Code” and 17776, honestly. I’m not sure what to do with them. Even though “What is Code” was ostensibly written for someone who knows little or nothing about coding, I struggled to “process” all that information: the story peppered throughout kept me anchored, to an extent, in the whelming sea of terms and ideas and figures I didn’t know; I kept going to find out what happened. But, I just felt confused and overwhelmed by the more technical aspects. I felt similarly adrift in 17776. It was cool and kind of interesting, but I haven’t yet decided what to do with it… so I’m looking forward to hearing others’ experiences.

Pages and Screens and All In-betweens

I found the readings for this week incredibly disorienting. I’d never encountered anything like Young-Hae Chang’s work before; and Between Page and Screen turned out to be more difficult to access than I imagined–in a very material sense. My webcam is in an odd place on my laptop, for one thing (the bottom left corner, near the hinge between screen and keyboard), which made positioning the book awkward… and I ended up having to hold it upside down because otherwise the words were backwards and partially off-screen, like I was seeing them in a mirror (did everyone have this experience?). Because I didn’t know what to expect, I actually wondered at first if that was what I was supposed to be seeing, if it was more about being confronted with words as things than my ability to read the words. Then I read Ortega’s piece and realized that I was, in fact, supposed to be able to read the book. “Reading” thus became a constant negotiation of space, materiality, and interface. And who is reading the book, anyway? As Ortega notes, the codes in the book can be “observed” but not “read”–but they are seen by the webcam and then read by the program. In which case I am reading a reading of the book. Does this make what I read a translation? Or did I read at all?

My experience with Young-Hae Chang’s work was very different. I actually had to quit watching them eventually because they were making me so anxious and threatening to induce a migraine! The flickering screen, the fast-paced presentation, the substitution of 0 for o, the harsh contrast of the flashing black on white: all these things and others demanded attention. If you’re distracted for even a moment, you’ve lost the thread of the story and have to back-track, even though the story (or stream of consciousness) isn’t, I suspect, the point. Interestingly, I found that the more videos (?) I watched, the easier it was for me to catch every word that flashed momentarily across the screen, along with those that stayed fixed longer, as if I was being conditioned or trained to interact “successfully” with the medium. It was as if my brain figured out that if the text on the screen was in a certain shape, I didn’t have to move my eyes to read, but if it was in another shape, I’d have to read right-to-left, top-to-bottom in a more traditional manner. So, sometimes I would find that I knew what word had just been briefly exposed on the screen without having made any conscious effort to “read” it. So did I actually read anything? I’m not sure.

Which leads me to wonder: how much reading did I actually do (for this class) this week? I read the Ortega piece, but to what extent should I/we be understanding my/our interactions with the other two texts as reading?

Reading Writing Interfaces

Like mrsdalloway, I was also somewhat confused by the way Emerson ends Reading Writing Interfaces. Why the sudden return to the physical book? I understand it as an explicit rejection of the ways in which corporations co-opt our production of knowledge; as Emerson writes, the book’s “particulars cannot be tracked, monitored, indexed, fed into an algorithm, and given back to us as a commodity” (184). But as much as I appreciate and applaud this turn back to physical books, I feel like the move is shallow. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge the ways in which the knowledges present in our books are also products of, or tracked by, or hopelessly entangled with/in corporations. I’d like to read this ending as hopeful, but I’m not convinced that the return is quite as utopian as Emerson appears to suggest.

Of course, I also recognize that it is not simply a return to the physical book as it existed before the digital age, before search engines co-opted our readingwriting. I think we have to be careful not to fall into that sort of reverse-teleology. But does this move really solve our problems? The rate at which “real books” are being scanned and stored online–and even or especially quoted in digital sources–seem to suggest that it won’t.

This leaves me with a conundrum, of course, because I want to be able to resist corporations like Google… but is it possible to do that and be an active, prescient scholar in the so-called digital age? With all the pressure to “go digital” and the explosion of online journals and such, it seems that the problem will be harder to escape that Emerson proposes.

As a postscript: I really enjoyed Emerson’s reading of Emily Dickinson, but even more than that, I appreciated her discussion of anachronistic models of critique and how we might defend reading old texts in light of new developments in technology and critical theory. I’m hoping we get a chance to discuss that, though it’s not, strictly speaking, central to her project.

Plowing the Dark

This book moved me tremendously. So many of my own feelings and anxieties about art–and simulation–were mirrored in it. The descriptions and recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s room at Arles were especially powerful for me, as van Gogh’s work has always been very important to me, and because I’m something of an artist myself. (By the way, if you didn’t already know, a full-length film about van Gogh’s life was released in 2017. Each frame is an oil painting by a bunch of artists [expert copyists?] in van Gogh’s style–as if his paintings were animated. It’s a beautiful film and I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I read Plowing the Dark! It’s available on Hulu.)

What struck me about this text was its obsession with copying. Not simulation, exactly, but actual copying. Adie, for example, consistently claims she isn’t an artist because she “just copies” other paintings, photographs, etc. Taimur receives a copy of the Qur’an, blasphemous because it’s been translated (but aren’t all copies a kind of translation?). The Cavern’s simulations start out as drawings, copies of an original or “real,” like Plato’s cave. Ebesen’s wife simulates her death. Later, her actual death “copies” the simulation. The book is constantly questioning whether art is just copying reality or if it’s actually producing reality, or even a simulation of reality: the question we’re left with at the end when Taimur’s daughter, cast as Scheherazade of Arabian Nights, hands him a crayon drawing of a man returning home. And, if we wanted to push even further: van Gogh began his artistic journey by relentlessly and voraciously copying those painters he found inspiring. His famous image of the sower, for example, was one he drew over and over and over again from an “original” by a fellow Dutch master whose name eludes me at the moment… so in a sense, van Gogh was also copying his own copies of copies… But we would value one of those sower sketches or paintings as an “original” van Gogh.

This prompts me to ask:  What do the words “original” and “copy” and “simulation” come to mean in the space of the text? It felt to me that simulation and real were collapsing in on each other constantly; the text often slipped between the two. Adie feels like her art lead to the disasters in the Middle East. And what happens to all the copies, simulations, and originals that she “kills” in her fit of manic repentance? One more specific example of this collapse is the fact that the chapters focused on Taimur are formatted in the way we expect: dialogue is contained in quotation marks; thoughts or implied dialogue (body language, etc.) are in italics. But in the chapters about Adie, Speigel, the Cavern, and all the others, dialogue is in italics, as if it’s a sort of simulated or assumed conversation that isn’t actually taking place. And the chapters that are vaguely about the Cave(rn)/Room meld in interesting ways with those about Taimur, until at some points you can’t tell them apart: they both employ the imperative “you”–which, in its turn, collapses the reader with Taimur in a way that isn’t entirely natural, that actually feels uncomfortable in moments when you’re forced to play along with a simulation, as you’re told that these terrible things are happening to you even while you sit in a comfortable chair far away. (Reminding us, perhaps, that novels are themselves simulations?) I also couldn’t help but remember throughout that this novel was written in 2000, before 9/11, and I keep wondering how knowing that might change our reading of this. (Sorry this post is so long; this book is just absolutely fascinating to me…)


Since Hookway is defining “interface” throughout the entirety of Interface, it’s difficult to synthesize his argument into a few sentences, but I think one of his most important points comes early, on page 4:

The interface is that form of relation which is defined by the simultaneity and inseparability of its processes of separation and augmentation, of maintaining distinction while at the same time eliding it in the production of a mutualism that may be viewed as an entity in its own right, with its own characteristics and behaviors that cannot be reduced to those of its constituent elements.

This seems to be the crux of Hookway’s theory of interface: it’s a relation, a condition in which (through which? by which?) things are both defined and brought into a process of becoming-with. This all reminded me of the work of new materialists like Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and others–but especially Karen Barad, who talks a lot about entanglement and the simultaneous “maintaining [of] distinction while at the same time eliding it.”

In Interface Effect, Galloway is much less clear about exactly how he’s defining “interface,” but he does make it clear that he doesn’t mean simply the “medium,” or “media.” In other words, he like Hookway doesn’t want to confine the definition of “interface” to just the physical, the surface. It appears that Galloway wants us to associate the interface with mediation rather than media (13): it’s like “a process or active threshold mediating between two states” (23). But of course, it’s one that doesn’t mediate, or is unworkable.

Both authors thus use the idea of a threshold to explain what they mean by interface. I actually found Hookway’s recourse to Greek mythology and the demigod Janus incredibly helpful for understanding this concept… but I had more trouble parsing out Galloway’s. Part of this had to do with his tendency to reduce so much down to binaries (again), but then in the end we’re left with the “whatever”? Can this be associated in some way with Hookway’s description of the interface as a liminal space?

Paper Knowledge and Blank Space

Maybe this is weird, but I’m completed infatuated with the first section of this book–the one on _________. This is partially because I work with 18th/19th century literature (in which the nominal blank is ubiquitous), and partially because I love Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter.” I was especially intrigued by this passage:

These are nominal blanks in both a modern grammatical sense — they are missing names — and in the contemporary, Swift-era sense that they are not really blank but only virtually so: they are sites of transaction between a knowing author and a knowing reader within the public, published world of print. The same public knowledge that made names supposedly unprintable made them known to all and unnecessary to print, when “all” refers to the selective “everybody” of the public sphere. (27)

This passage stood out to me as offering an example of an interface. These blanks actually become “sites of transaction” that, as Gitelman suggests, are not actually blank at all. This idea got me thinking about other “virtual” blanks–specifically digital ones. On the opposing page, Gitelman notes that “Alan Liu has suggested that we might think of every online text object as an already filled-in blank, because of the ways that metadata necessarily direct and delimit (that is, encode) the appearance and behavior of text on screen: Metadata make the blank, and data are poured in” (26).

So essentially, as a I write this post, I’m simply filling in a blank. Does this actually change the way I write? Is my content different because I’m filling in a blank? Or am I more constrained by the conventions of blog posting than I am by this virtual blank in which I write? Later, in the context of PDFs, Gitelman questions the idea that “form and content are all too separable, even as keeping them together is being praised. It implies that representation (of data) and exactness (of form) are both straightforward projects” (128). If metadata are blanks and data are what is filled in, how should we understand the distinction between form and content? Does it exist? Is the difference only virtual?

[I’m also thinking about other types of virtual blanks, or blanks that are already filled in. What about literary allusions? If the nominal blank serves to reference something that both the author and reader know because of shared public consciousness, can allusions also be considered “already filled-in blanks,” in that they are also “sites of transaction between a knowing author and a knowing reader”?]

The Intuitionist

Whitehead’s book reminded me so much of The Crying of Lot 49 and, in some ways, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hr Bookstore. They all three deal with mysteries hidden in older texts, and they all incorporate that infamous (post)modern con: surprise! the answer is nothing at all. However, I didn’t enjoy The Intuitionist quite as much as I did the other two. I enjoyed the story and the characters, but I’m not a big fan of long narratives written in the present tense. I can handle it in short stories, but in a novel I find it alienating and tiresome. Of course, this in no way reflects my thoughts about the quality of the book; it’s just my personal preference.

The moments I found most interesting were the ones in which Lila Mae contemplated her own process of reading. Page 186 is a great example of this. “In this dream of uplift, they understand that they are dreaming the contract of the hallowed verticality, and hope to remember the terms on waking. The race never does, and that is our curse. The human race, she thought formerly. Fulton has a fetish for the royal ‘we’ throughout Theoretical Elevators. But now–who’s ‘we’? [para. break] She is teaching herself how to read” (italics original). And again, “No, Fulton was colored. She understands this luminous truth. Natchez did not lie about that: she has seen it in the man’s books, made plain by her new literacy. In the last few days she has learned how to read, like a slave does, one forbidden word at a time” (230). I’m wondering: does our reading of the novel change as we learn Fulton’s secret alongside Lila Mae? When I first began it, I was consciously looking for the “racial allegory” (because one of the reviews inside the front cover called it that), but I was struggling to find it until Lila Mae’s discoveries told me how to read it. Then it began to make sense. Did anyone else have this experience? What are other ways her discoveries and the uncovered secrets (especially the fact that Vol. 1 of Theoretical Elevators was a big con) affect both her reading and ours?

Track Changes

To be perfectly honest, I really struggled getting through Track Changes this week. The different examples all seemed to be making more or less the same point, such that they began to blend together in my mind, and I don’t have enough technical knowledge to really enjoy/understand the details about how each word processor was slightly different than the one before it. Often, I would become bogged down and my attention would unconsciously wander. Then I became frustrated with the whole reading process, firstly because I usually enjoy narrative nonfiction, and secondly because I was reading from a hardback print book, and print (as we’ve discussed) usually keeps my attention relatively well. So that was my reading experience.

Despite these frustrations, there were parts of the book that I held onto and that seemed to ground me (and I’m very aware of the materiality of those phrases as I type them). Some of these included Kirschenbaum’s description of Derrida’s reaction to the word processor (the fact that it prompted him to change his style); the various indications that word processors are bringing us closer to “writing” as spoken word (199); and the description of Max Berry’s digital archive project, which is almost exactly what I’ve been envisioning a future digital Tolkien archive to be like (230, 233). In fact, the question of archives haunted me throughout my reading of Track Changes. I’ve become increasingly interested in archival work for a variety of reasons, and am even taking a short “Preparing for Fieldwork in the Archives” course at the library. But what happens to archives in the digital age, and in the age of (digital) word processors? What happens to archives when we no longer have visible or discrete drafts, but we edit the same document and lose track of the changes we’ve made along the way? Kirschenbaum addresses this a bit in the chapter “What Remains,” but I’m interested in probing this further as we, perhaps, consider the ways the word processor affects our own writing/editing process.

Semester Project Proposal, Draft 2

As I work to refine my ideas about this final project, I’m realizing that the project I actually want to undertake is one that could quite easily turn into a life-long endeavor. The idea of having Tolkien’s manuscripts stored in a digital archive–and potentially creating a program that would animate and superimpose the revisions Tolkien made to each manuscript over his lifetime–excites me. I have had recognize, however, that given my limited (i.e., nonexistent) knowledge of coding and programming, and the fact that the archives are largely owned by the Tolkien Estate and/or private collectors, it’s an idea that is unrealistic at best at this time in my career.

On the other hand…  This project is important to me because by beginning to log and organize the vast number of revisions and manuscripts in a digital archive, we could see important patterns emerge, make direct comparisons between drafts and transcriptions, superimpose multiple manuscripts of the same story, and track important changes on a variety of levels. It would allow us to cross-reference Tolkien’s drafts, which in turn would make it possible for scholars to conduct process readings with an ease and depth heretofore difficult or even impossible. Furthermore, opening up the Tolkien archives to scholars around the world who may not have the resources to visit the various collections would not only level the playing field among Tolkien scholars–it would also enrich the field as a whole in that it makes possible a level of research and collaboration we haven’t yet experienced. And I would love to see it include the priceless work fans have done in creating things like these mind-blowing, elaborate interactive maps, timelines, and genealogies.

At first, I toyed with the idea of limiting my scope to a single Tolkien manuscript and creating a very simple display that would allow me to in some way superimpose his revisions, rather than having them in the linear sort of format that they’re presented in by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth series. But, this would mean that I couldn’t make my work readily available to the public in any way because of copyright issues (at least, not without a lot of hassle that isn’t worth it at this stage), and I’m really hoping to get other Tolkien scholars on board with the project as it develops.

Various readings and conversations (along with the fact that a once-in-a-lifetime collection of Tolkien’s manuscripts and artwork is currently on display at the Morgan Library in NYC) have prompted me to think about moving in slightly different directions with this project. So, my current goal is to write a paper describing my vision for this Digital Tolkien Archive and why I believe it’s something we need to seriously consider developing, in collaboration with the Tolkien Estate, of course. The essay will work to explain how such an archive would advance scholarship while addressing important issues of textual criticism, such as authorial authority (v. that of the reader/critic), the relevance of marginalia, and the transition from manuscript to digital/screen. All these topics would of course be considered within the context of Tolkien’s work, but I’d be drawing from many of our readings for this semester, especially McGann’s Radiant Textuality.

Finally, I’d love to also use this project as a conference presentation this summer. This year, The Mythopoeic Society’s conference theme is “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” and I think that would be a great time to get a lot of Tolkien fans and scholars invested in the possibilities ahead of us.