Neologism of the week: Palimpsesting

Frank O'Hara, "Morning": A Social Text

Frank O’Hara, “Morning”: A Social Text

I continue to be most interested in digital scholarly/critical editions and enjoyed exploring different projects this week which utilize visualization technologies (maps, graphs, word clouds….) for digitized archives in different ways: for example, the offer of a walking tour of physical locations alongside a comparative look at evolving editions of a Whitman poem. I had previously been enthused by John Bryant’s approach to fluid texts (most notably in his edition of Melville’s Typee, which includes images and transcriptions of manuscripts and corresponding print editions as well as a dynamic text that allows one to explore all this!) but I appreciated Ryan Cordell’s article on Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad” for offering a way of thinking through not only a genetic or variorum edition but what is described there as a “social text”. In the case of this short story, this includes looking at re-printing as re-authoring for a specific readership and analyzing paratextual materials, especially in periodicals.

If anyone else is very interested in digital editions, this blog about the Mark Twain Project Online was insightful. When I visualize my own digital edition, a recurring motif for me is the palimpsest, beautifully theorized with reference to (among others) Freud’s magic tablet here. While usually a palimpsest unites otherwise unrelated texts through a shared material object (i.e. vellum used for manuscripts), I am intrigued as to how one might create a cultural palimpsest of different versions of the “same” text. If only I had a full edition of Adobe Photoshop, I’d love to play with layering manuscript versions (such as a Dickinson poem) and trying out different transparencies to see “through” these different materials.

So how might one go about beginning such a project? Lisa Spiro’s introduction reassuringly emphasized the modular and constantly beta nature of many digital projects, which made me consider the different sections/elements of the projects I’ve already mentioned. I particularly liked the approach of a mapping project such as this one on 19th century Brazil, which includes a search engine to explore a census database; maps, graphs and text visualizations; and primary sources. The apparatus or paratexts offered by its creator are key, of course, in providing an initial analysis but such a resource is most successful in how it enables the analytical work of others to be performed.

I’ll stop musing at length quite so publicly and self-indulgently now but I wanted to conclude with some poetry. Blanchette’s “A Material History of Bits” locates our desire to think of the digital as immaterial in the philosophical tradition of Cartesian dualism. My favorite riposte to such a binary understanding in the literary world is Billy Collins’ “Purity” in which he strips off his flesh and becomes a skeleton (with or without a penis!) at a typewriter “so that what [he] write[s] will be pure, / completely rinsed of the carnal”. The poet’s body has always fascinated me but how might we begin to also think about the body of the typewriter here?

Safe Havens during the Zombie Apocalypse

Eleanor's Archive

Sadly I have, as yet, been unable to transport my prized book collection over to the US and all I can offer you is this iPhone snap and a descriptive record of some of my treasures, such as The Works of Shakespeare, a christening gift for an aunt who passed away young. (The volume contains a letter addressed to me from my grandmother.) Or Bacon’s Essays, which I discovered in a bookshop in the depths of Wales. (The volume features an inscription to a turn-of-the-century Christ’s College scholar.) Both have a deep personal significance, but the latter is a text for which the histoire du livre reaches beyond family to an institutional network of Cambridge scholars (Bacon went to my alma mater!) stretching across centuries. I had already read the opening chapter of D.F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts but it was a pleasure to explore his insight further, which my own opening anecdote is intended to exemplify: bibliography’s ability to restore the human presence to texts (29).

“Trapped by the paradox that texts are both closed and open, fixed and flexible, defined by one context only to be redefined in others, Faustus despairs.” (75)

Should we despair? If every reproduction or remediation of a text becomes “a bibliographical fact” (61) or “a historical document in its own right” (22), do we owe it to the archive to consider every instance, including our own attempts to represent the series that end up becoming part of the series (e.g. online fluid text editions)? McKenzie often seems concerned with the process of recovery or peeling away the historical layers to perceive an earlier form of a text while Whitney Anne Trettien in “A Deep History of Electronic Textuality” seems to despair of the zombie-like print-on-demand editions that muddy rather than enlighten older texts. Does this begin to offer criteria for how we might distinguish our own attempts to represent (the sociology of) a text from those of non-scholars who may truncate rather than respect the lived experience of a text?

Learning to Live with Archive Fever

“Supposing… that a living being ever responds in an absolutely living and infinitely well-adjusted manner, without the least automatism, without ever having an archival technique overflow the singularity of an event, we know in any case that a spectral response (thus informed by a techne and inscribed in an archive) is always possible. There would be neither history nor tradition nor culture without that possibility.” (42)

– Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

I believe this must always remain a hypothetical statement as, while the absence of any automatism entices us, it eludes us continually in our responses to the world around us. The archive of our society, its “history… tradition… culture”, structures our internal archives by both providing and limiting our available responses. Yet, so often, the desire to archive appears to be the impossible desire for the singularity of an individual author who paradoxically contributes to the archival technique of the culture they are perceived to have founded. Derrida diagnoses archive fever as “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin” (57). When I think of the emergence of digital and print archives, as well as a proliferation of related literary theorizing, for Emily Dickinson’s corpus, the desire for an origin becomes very concrete. Scholars are increasingly able to engage with the process of Dickinson’s idiosyncratic composition by looking at representations of textual artifacts: a letter, the back of a shopping list, and so on. This archive offers to bring us far closer than the medium of a conventional print edition to Dickinson’s originality. It appear to collapse the distance between the production and reception of her lyrics: as Wolfgang Ernst suggests, “there is a media-archaeological short circuit between otherwise historically clearly separated times” (qtd. in Parrika 13). We rightly place much emphasis on the intimate materials of  an author’s papers but our attempt to elide the reception history which mediates our reading frustrates me. I might be able to see the dash that Dickinson’s own hand marked but I can never short circuit the thick web of cultural archiving that lies between its moment of creation and my encounter with it. I hope in this class to more carefully theorize my burgeoning take on historicism as I contend we must pay attention to how we look through the effects of archive fever over the years without ever being able to, or choosing to, waft those specters of cultural transmission away.


Hello to you all in the blogosphere! My name is Eleanor Reeds and I am currently working toward my MA in English at the University of Connecticut. This semester (Spring 2014), I am taking a class on Digital Materialities so this blog will be a place to share my thoughts throughout the seminar and  to engage with my colleagues. 

Ta ta for now!