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The Walt Whitman Archive – McGonagill 4

By Evan McGonagill
January 2011

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4What other issues or questions relating to The Walt Whitman Archive most intrigue you?

Evan McGonagill

BA in English, Class of 2010 – Bryn Mawr College

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1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the Digital Humanist’s tool belt, the database is the trusty stand-by. Robust and indispensable, it has become a basic tool of modern academic research. One of the primary endeavors of the Digital Humanities, however, is to re-focus the perspective on the tools we use, and perhaps to redefine the term “tool” in the process. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a thing … with which some operation is performed; a means of effecting something.”[ref]Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Tool.”[/ref] This definition points plainly toward outcome, the tool’s utility at accomplishing “some operation,” as if it were an extension of the user’s will as a wrench is an extension of his or her hand. But by emphasizing results only, the dictionary neglects a tool’s significant influence over process.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Tools define process as much as they do outcome. When one searches a database, its individual design mediates the experience, filters it, frames it. A sleek database makes the act of use nearly imperceptible—it stays out of the way, as it were, by anticipating the needs and intuitions of the general user in its design. However, the specific user will always be limited by these presuppositions. It is tempting to imagine a database as a neutral container, a kind of Tupperware 2.0, while in fact the tool guides the searches that one can make, the items that they will return, and which will appear prominent. Facets of the design guide what sorts of orderings of information, or narratives, the researcher will construct out of the raw data, such that the database itself can form a subtle argument or narrative claim.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Acknowledging the skewed nature of any tool that presents information, Walt Whitman Archive co-editor Ed Folsom describes his approach to structuring the database: “Initially, [co-editor Kenneth] Price and I had ideas of how we would control the material in the database, and we knew the narratives we wanted to tell, the frames we wanted to construct. But the details of the database quickly exceeded any narrative we might try to frame the data with. Little roots shot out everywhere and attached to particulars we could not have imagined. Only if we insulated the narrative from the database could the narrative persist.”[ref]Ed Folsom, “Database as Genre: the Epic Transformation of Archives,” The Walt Whitman Archive, accessed November 2010, http://www.whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00142.html.[/ref] To me, the Walt Whitman Archive is rife with narrative paths for the user. Some of these are micro-narratives, unavoidably emerging from details of the interface. Because the left-hand navigation menu is more visually prominent than the search bar, the user is more strongly guided into a browsing mode of exploration, which encourages him or her to consider Whitman through a compartmentalized view of his life and works. By featuring a simple search bar without advanced specifications or filtration[ref]A notice on the site informs the user that this feature is soon slated to undergo an enhancement, which will include the development of faceted search capabilities.[/ref], the database allows the user to cast a virtual fishing line for an assortment of items but makes it more difficult to conduct a narrowly directed search—thus, one is likely to encounter information that seems scattered rather than tight and contextual.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Apart from these micro-narratives, the database also cradles a deep narrative claim pertaining to Whitman’s corpus: throughout the database there is an open discussion examining the suggestive congruity between Whitman’s work and the digital medium in which it is takes form. The documentation of this resonance begins with observations about Whitman’s language and works, which seem to share characteristics of digital structure. For example, Ed Folsom to the organic networks present in Whitman’s language, an intertextual and burgeoning web of words. He compares this quality to the dense entanglement of leaves and roots that adorn the lettering on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, recalling the rhizome[ref]Defined as “an elongated, usually horizontal, subterranean stem which sends out roots and leafy shoots at intervals along its length.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Rhizome.”[/ref]—“that subterranean stem that grows every which way and represents the nomadic multiplicity of identity—no central root but an intertwined web of roots.”[ref]Folsom, “Database as Genre.[/ref] Databases, too, are rhizomorphous, he argues—and this accordance between Whitman’s work and its digital format allows the two to reflect through and off of one another, revealing new permutations of form and language.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In a proleptic twist, Whitman’s work predates its own ideal medium. A common observation in the various articles about the database is the fact that the work is perhaps better displayed in digital form that it ever was in print: the digital medium is better equipped to represent the shapes and forms of the Whitman corpus, and flexible enough to accommodate the complex relationship between the many iterations of Leaves of Grass. The database does not privilege one edition over any other, and treats them as autonomous but entwined works rather than pieces of a distinct whole or drafts leading up to a definitive version. The sheer multiplicity of his writing is betrayed by the rigidity of print mediums. “Whitman’s work was always being revised, was always in flux, and fixed forms of print do not adequately capture his incessant revisions,” argues Price.[ref]Kenneth M. Price, “About the Archive: History,” The Walt Whitman Archive, accessed November 2010, http://www.whitmanarchive.org/about/history.html.[/ref] Whitman himself advocated methods of reading and taking meaning from his texts that today seem almost designed for digital tools. A line from Leaves of Grass, first appearing in the 1881-82 edition, reads “the words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing.”[ref]Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, (Washington, D.C, 1881-82), http://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1871/whole.html.[/ref] Taking long-view of literature, Whitman’s remark resonates with the current practice of distant reading, in which vast quantities of text can be analyzed as an entity using statistical information and visualizations. Predating this practice, Whitman draws the reader away from the individual minutiae of his poetry and towards impressionistic views. If any text was written for a database, this one was.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Thus, the Archive attempts not only to exhibit its contents, but to carry out a vision that Whitman may have offered in the original work. This narrative is present throughout the site primarily via the apparent compatibility between the content and form. The claim is so elegant, so fluid and simple, that the argument almost makes itself.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The Walt Whitman Archive is able to transcend its (considerable) utility as a research tool, performing simultaneously as a critical analysis, a new edition of Whitman, and independent artistic work. I imagine four theoretical levels at which a format can manage a text, with increasing involvement: presentation, description, criticism, and artistic response. The sophistication of this particular database is in how it blurs the lines between those acts, seeming to realize all at once and none predominantly, and, further, how it reveals the fact that this multiplicity of function must be true of all databases, however subtly, however unintentionally.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This remarkable plurality within a single tool (if tool is still an adequate term) is both fitting, in the context of Whitman, and disruptive to the user’s relationship with the technology. It remains to be addressed how, or whether, the user should adjust his or her approach to such a complex mechanism. At the recent undergraduate digital humanities symposium Re: Humanities, keynote speaker Amanda French advocated for the “rehumaniz[ation of] the inhuman mass of data.”[ref]Amanda French, “Humanities Research Methods from 1860 to 2060” (presentation at Re:Humanities, Haverford, PA, November 11-12, 2010).[/ref] She suggests that scholars who favor distant reading may be losing track of a meaningful element of the text. Rather than conducting interpretive based on massive aggregates of information, why not reacquaint ourselves with an affection for individual pieces of data, find “datum love” among the mass of details? The two methods appear to be mutually exclusive. However, by reconceiving the practice of data mining, it is arguably possible to find personal touches in the thrill of broad claims as well as the nuance of the particular.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 If each database frames its contents in an array of narrative claims, then each one is specific, disputable, and limited. Rather than markers of failure, however, we might use these idiosyncracies to reawaken us to the particular experience that that tool offers. We could use the fact that a database mediates actively to inject an element of personal interaction into the task of digital research. In the course of achieving proficiency with any tool, one gains an understanding of its particular advantages and limitations through repeated contact and experimentation, returning to the interactive original meaning of “interface.”[ref]Defined as “a means or place of interaction between two systems, organizations, etc.; a meeting-point or common ground between two parties, systems, or disciplines; also, interaction, liaison, dialogue.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Interface.”[/ref] Here is an opportunity to find a better alternative to the impersonal database experience, an escape from hard vocabulary statistics untempered by readerly love.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The management of scale is a challenge that each database must address by determining how the user will navigate between detail and distance. Due to Whitman’s distinctive engagement with matters of scale, especially the fluidity between the individual and the masses, the Walt Whitman Archive may be uniquely able to offer a distant reading that is paradoxically intimate in its connection to the philosophy of the poet. How can a distant reading cheat the humanist if it scrutinizes the work of the man who wrote, exhilarated, “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses?”[ref]Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: 150th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), iii.[/ref] Ed Folsom describes Whitman’s “poetic project” as an endeavor “to move from a particular person, period, or place toward an absorptive embrace of all people, periods, and places,”[ref]Folsom, “Database as Genre.”[/ref]emphasizing the blurred distinctions between love of the particular and love of the vast. TokenX, a textual analysis tool that is available through the database, numerically charts the uses of particular words throughout the six editions of Leaves of Grass, giving a visual representation to the exponential growth and organic proliferation of certain words as the poetry burgeoned in its various iterations. Statistical tools such as these, when applied to the work of this particular author, are not reductive but in fact profoundly resonant with the tone and principles of the poetry they describe. Perhaps this is the database to wed tender devotion to individual data and multiplicity.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Featured prominently on the home page of the Archive is a striking engraving of Whitman’s face.[ref]William J. Linton, (1870-72), engraving, (http://whitmanarchive.org/multimedia/image044.html?sort=year&order=ascending&page=5).[/ref] The poet appears as if caught in motion, whipping past the viewer with his eddies of hair scattered about his face like sprouts. The beard connotes a general outward drift as it spreads from his face in swells and waves. And then, from somewhere in the profusion of hair and wrinkles emerges an arresting pair of dark eyes: Whitman’s eyes simultaneously confront and confide in the viewer, imparting a personal moment amidst a storm of minutiae.

Evan McGonagill

BA in English, Class of 2010 – Bryn Mawr College

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Source: http://www.archivejournal.net/roundtable/the-walt-whitman-archive-mcgonagill-4/