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?


7 thoughts on “Neologism of the week: Palimpsesting

  1. I love the idea of layered visualization, and want to play with it myself. juxta has a heatmap feature: try playing with it. Someone buy this girl the whole of photoshop! Or you could learn to code layers. Here are some resources for making and manipulating layers:

    This comment is also an example of how you can get good at doing things with your computer that you’d never imagined, and fast. Never underestimate Brandon’s reply last week: just google it, and dozens of tech savvy people will leap enthusiastically to your aid, or each other’s aid….

  2. Palimpsesting — I love it! And what a great image and connection for digital editions. I, too, tend to picture them in this fashion.

    Thinking along these lines, I wonder whether Prezi ( might have some interesting options that could be a means of a type of “layering” for at least a single short text (poem?). It might not exactly be layers, although I think there are some 3D options that might allow you to layer, but you might be able to do some thought-provoking visualizations / jumps / movements in that you can zoom in and out of an image, and thus a text. Could you zoom in on (into?) a word to delve deeper into its meaning or zoom in on a longer selection to relay previous versions of the phrase? It would be a more guided reading in that there is a path viewers must follow, but maybe that could be avoided…

    (Your palimpsested header image is great, too! :))

    • If you want to juxtapose simple combinations and compare them using histogram or heatmap view, then try juxta. I too want to experiment with several layers of ‘transparent’ layering, though, and have not found a good tool for it yet, so let’s all keep looking…

  3. I’m in that terrible state of figuring out what the heck I want to do for this project that I read people’s posts and just want to do ALL THE THINGS! (And there is the image I needed for my own blog post, I suppose.) In addition to the usefulness of this sort of thing for manuscript studies in the sense of medieval texts with multiple exemplars (I would LOVE to see a really well-done rendering of the differences between the three main manuscripts of Táin Bó Cúailnge), I can also see the functionality of adapting this idea for something like Beowulf as a way to look at the way different editions deal with things like punctuation, spelling (particularly when it comes to contested meaning) and the like. Hmm…

    Also, at some point, remind me to talk to you about the Sylvia Plath poems written on Smith College Memo Paper that I saw as an undergrad. The early draft of Lady Lazarus was almost as awesome to see as the 14th century Book of Hours!

  4. Eleanor, as always, illuminating – I find myself also intrigued by the possibilities of “palimpsesting,” but perhaps more on the creative writing side of things – I wonder what potential utility such a method could pose for digital poetry – I’m thinking along the lines here of Robert Lowell’s multiple versions of poems, each (according to the man himself) a discrete whole, worthy of existence in and of itself, and yet notably different. The possibilities re: Poetic Translation, as well, piques my interest: Regarding Hass’s thoughts on the difficulties of translation, and Rainer Schulte’s acknowledgement regarding the usefulness of multiple translations in approaching a Source Text, it seems to me that the Palimpsest model (and perhaps Juxta also) may tie in with this notion I’ve been fiddling around in my brain of the Word as Archive – but in a sense of translation: each original text (say, a poem in German) is juxtaposed in the manner you indicate with each iteration of its translation. This, of course, may also raise the question of intersemiotic translation (between the more obviously material print poem and the, perhaps “less obviously” material, digital poem. . . .

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