Morris Zapp and the Playful Fish

Stanley Fish is an important critic.

Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance.  While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so.  To suggest that he has nothing new to say is  a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés.  He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks.  He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.

For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.

We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously.  Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position.  Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it:  the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.

Fish asks questions, and provides some answers.  The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile.  What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature?  What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts?  And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?

His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive.  It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does.  The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice.  Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses.  A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level.  The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.

And so on.  Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies.  This is not criticism or theory:  it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?

Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.

We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place.  These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes:  they are about Stanley Fish.  Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.

The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.

Apple iBooks Author vs. ePub3: What If We Let the Tail Wag the Dog Just This Once?

John Gruber has an interesting new post on Daring Fireball in which responds to criticism of Apple’s new iBooks Author file format by Daniel Glazman, Co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group.  Glazman dislikes the fact that Apple has extended the CSS for that format beyond the standards set by ePub3:  “All in all, Apple has worked entirely behind the curtains here. If someone tells you that iBooks format is EPUB3, don’t believe it. It’s not EPUB3, it’s only based on EPUB3.”

The result — and I’ll take his word for this, as I don’t myself have access to the iBooks Author tool — is that “[b]ecause of these extensions, editing or browsing the html documents with a regular wysiwyg editor (BlueGriffon or DreamWeaver for instance) or a browser (Firefox, Chrome or even Safari) shows a total mess on screen. It’s not readable, it’s not usable, it’s not editable. Just forget it, Apple (re-)invented the Web totally incompatible with the Web.”

Glazman enumerates the nature of the particular extensions to CSS (and hence to ePub3):

  1. Template-based layout including special areas (gutter)
  2. Extended underlining
  3. Ability to control the size of each column and column gap in a multi-column layout
  4. something equivalent to Adobe’s Regions and Exclusions.

Now, again, I don’t have iBook Author, so I can’t speak with much assurance about what these extensions “mean,” except to say that they sound like rather good things.

Gruber’s response to Glazman is pretty unsympathetic, but both logical and reasonable.  Glazman feels that Apple should have proposed these extensions to the W3C CSS Working Group before implementing them — an unsurprising opinion coming from Co-chairman of that committee.  Gruber responds that

. . . if Apple had taken this route, the books generated by iBooks Authortoday wouldn’t have any of the layout features Glazman cited above. The iBooks format isn’t different just for the sake of being different, it’s different for the sake of being better — not better in the future, after a W3C review period and approval, but better today, in the textbooks you can download and read in iBooks right now.

Now, I’m a strong believer in open standards, and in standards compliance.  And I don’t particularly like, even if I understand, the thinking behind changes to standards that make a particular format proprietary rather than open.

That said . . . Apple has apparently produced a beautiful product here that employs format features that are better than could be produced through rigid compliance with ePub standards.

So what would happen if, instead of merely complaining about Apple getting the jump on standards-compliant eBook publishers or undercutting the attempt to produce such standards, the co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group had additionally said something like:  “But wow.  They shouldn’t have done it this way, but we’re glad they did, because now we can see that these are extensions that should be added to the ePub specifications!  We can all benefit from Apple’s decision to innovate and push the envelope here!”

Even better — what if those creating the open standards for things like ePub3 were to take the same kind of imaginative approach, and had the same kind of concern for the overall excellence of interface design, that Apple’s designers and engineers apparently have?  What if the w3C CSS Working Group were itself producing these kinds of forward-looking innovations, and in so doing making it more attractive to be standards-compliant?

Wouldn’t that be cool?

Tagging the Faces behind the Code: Why DH Projects Need to Acknowledge All Contributors

In a blog post from January 13, entitled “Citation in Digital Humanities: Is the Old Bailey Online a Film, or a Science Paper?” Adam Crymble, Webmaster and project developer for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment) discusses the problems surrounding the citation and attribution of work in largish digital projects.  “[W]hose names,” he asks, “was I bound by ‘good scholarship’ to include in the citation. Who deserved public credit?”  In other words, as he goes on to ask, what scholarly model might serve to account for the fact that many — perhaps most — projects in the digital humanities are the work not merely of the “principal investigator(s),” but also of many others — coders, project managers, and so forth — who have contributed in vital ways to the realization of a project?

Writing of the decision of the Old Bailey Online database to omit the names of all contributors in its suggested model for citing the resource, Crymble notes:

In an effort not to emphasize the contributions of some over that of others, this policy makes most contributors entirely invisible. This is particularly significant for people in the alternative academic (alt-ac) fields whose career progression and in many cases, next meal, depend upon the strength of their portfolios. These people have roles such as project management, database building, and web design, all of which are crucial to ensure the projects themselves are world class. If we adopt the no-names policy across the board, these people will never be cited anywhere, whereas traditional academics may still have books and journal articles on top of their digital project work.

Crymble goes on to suggest that a more appropriate policy is to model scholarly citations after those used in the sciences (where the names of all those who made “meaningful” contributions are included), and to be sure that, as is the case in films, a “credits” page is included within the resource itself that comprehensively lists all of those involved in the project.

This strikes me as a pretty reasonable approach to take, although I can imagine that some discussion about what exactly constitutes a “meaningful” contribution is likely to ensue.  Underlying the post’s discussion of methods of citation and attribution, however, is the larger issue raised by Crymble’s justification for the need for a new policy.  How we attribute and acknowledge work in the digital humanities is much more than a merely technical or even scholarly concern: it is, at least in part, also about “fairness” and “justice” to all of those who are characteristically working behind the scenes to plan, manage, and build the databases, software, and resources that we have come to depend upon. That those who are least likely to be acknowledged in scholarly citations, or even within the resource itself, are also generally the most vulnerable and those most in need, professionally, of acknowledgment, makes this question a particularly pressing one.

Crymble’s argument is, I think, a pretty compelling one in its own right, but I’d like to extend it a little with two further considerations that elaborate upon his excellent points. The first of these relates most obviously to the argument made above.  The digital humanities are distinct from most other areas within the larger field of arts and humanities because they rely, to a far greater degree, upon what we might call “infrastructure.”  Part of that infrastructure is material.  We need computers, servers, specialized software, digitization equipment, and purpose-built labs and facilities to do much of what we do.

At the same time, however, we also need to have working alongside us people possessed of a pretty varied set of specialized skills.  These skills range from project management to such things as programming, hardware maintenance, and interface design;  they are often vital to a project, and yet represent specialized talents that a great many of the academics who are “principal investigators” are unlikely to possess.

We work quite hard, through funding applications, lobbying around Deans’ offices, and so forth, to ensure that we have the material infrastructure that we need:  we should be working at least as hard to support and sustain the “people resources” that we also need.  If we don’t find the ethics of providing proper acknowledgement to these colleagues motivation enough, self-interest should dictate that we do so, for our projects themselves will benefit from the participation of colleagues who have been recognized and, perhaps, have reaped the rewards of that recognition through  greater financial stability and further opportunities for professional development and training.  The digital humanities as a whole gains by nurturing, rather than exploiting, our human resources colleagues.

My final point on this issue is, perhaps, somewhat more abstract.  Within the last 30 years or so, approaches to book history and bibliography have undergone a dramatic and fundamental transformation:  foremost among the things that have changed has been a growing appreciation of the fact that even the products of print culture are, in fact, collaborative productions.  D. F. McKenzie’s seminal identification of the “sociology of texts” refocused attention upon the impact not merely of the material forms of the printed book, but also upon the contributions of those — printers, compositors, proofreaders, binders — who created the material culture, the “forms [that] effect meaning” (13).  As McKenzie reminded us, books have never been the creation of solitary “authors”: they are in fact born of  and shaped by a whole community of those (including, ultimately, even readers and critics) who influenced the form in which they were finally expressed.

At one level, a sociology simply reminds us of the full range of social realities which the medium of print had to serve, from receipt blanks to bibles.  But it also directs us to consider the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption.  It alerts us to the roles of institutions, and their own complex structures, in affecting the forms of social discourse, past and present. (15)

Jerome McGann has similarly argued that such “interactions” are embedded within what he calls “the bibliographic codes” of books — the material and formal features of the physical object that are, ultimately, the signs of a collaborative endeavour.  And, like McKenzie, he has argued that the “form” that is the end result of that collaboration is a significant generator of meaning:

[B]oth linguistic and bibligraphical texts are symbolic and signifying mechanisms.  Each generates meaning, and while the bibliographical text commonly functions in a subordinate relation to the linguistic text, “meaning” in literary work results from the exchanges these two great semiotic mechanisms work with each other. (67)

If it is true that “form effects meaning” — and surely the entire digital humanities enterprise is fundamentally predicated upon the conviction that this is so — then it is undeniably true that those who help produce that form impact upon the meanings produced.  In other words, it is not merely the recognized “scholars” and PIs who are making “meaningful” contributions to these projects, but also the interface designers, the coders, and indeed, everyone involved in the creation of “form.”  They “effect meaning” as well.

So, where does this leave us?  Well, perhaps it merely returns us full-circle back to where Adam Crymble started us:  how, in practical terms, can we acknowledge the very real, and very meaningful contributions of all those involved in a project, and what scholarly form should our citations take?

I’m not sure that I have a better practical solution to offer than Crymble’s.  What I do want to emphasize is the importance of his insight that we need to better account for and recognize the contributions of those with whom we “principal investigators” work.

To fail to make such acknowledgements is, as Crymble argues, unjust.  It is also unwise, counterproductive, and ultimately, inaccurate.

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References

McGann, Jerome J. “What Is Critical Editing.”  The Textual Condition. Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1991. 48-68.

McKenzie, D. F.  “Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.” Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.  1986.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1999.  9-76.