Seizing the White Perimeter

In the chapter “Reading,” Thoreau writes, “…we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.” Obviously the Digital Thoreau project is accomplishing this by having readers think more deeply about the meaning of Walden and start a conversation about it, and that’s a great tool. It seems particularly appropriate for a text like Walden, which we think of as more “scholarly” than something along the lines of, say, The Twilight Saga. It seeks to call you to some kind of action, rather than simply existing for its entertainment value. It’s meant to be read, meditated on, and thoroughly processed. All of this made me wonder, however, if someone could read our digital version of Walden simply to experience it without any outside influences.

Annotations are distracting and a lot of times I hate them. There, I said it. Before you skip the rest of this and tear me apart in the comments, let me just say that another part of me thinks that annotations are great tools for understanding a text. I really appreciate them the second time through when I’m ready for that information. I’ll get to that later on.

The first time I read a book, I tend to go about it in a somewhat childlike way. I’m curious, but I just want to get to the meat of the story and don’t want anybody stopping to explain what certain things mean; I can usually get past that and look them up later. Annotations disrupt my feeling that reading a book is an intimate experience between the author and myself. It’s also sometimes challenging to figure out my own opinion with everything else in the way.

The first digital book I read was The Great Gatsby on my iPad. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but I can say that the one thing I hated was seeing “3,487 people have highlighted this” next to certain sentences. This is embarrassing to admit, but I found it downright upsetting at times. Why did all those people highlight that? What’s so important there? Am I supposed to find something deeper in that sentence? ‘Cause I’m not finding anything, and I’m supposedly an English major, so obviously there’s something wrong with me. I just wanted to spend some quality time with F. Scott Fitzgerald, but 3,487 people had to come in and ruin it with their highlighting by making me doubt my own reading abilities. How could I possibly engage with the text myself when all those other readers were butting their noses in and interrupting every few pages?

Even though I didn’t always find myself moved by the things other people highlighted, I had highlighting and comments of my own stuck in there too. Andrew D. Scrimgeour writes that “The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t engaging with the text, I just wasn’t quite ready to engage with others yet. Scrimgeour also suggests that our marginalia reveal a lot about how we personally are engaging with texts. What better way to develop our own thoughts regarding a text? I think that sometimes we have to figure it out for ourselves first, uninhibited by others.

I haven’t had a chance to look at all the Walden annotations, but I’d guess that most of us are approaching it from an analytical perspective rather than a “Wow, I just really like this sentence that Thoreau wrote so I’m gonna mark it” angle, and for the purposes of this class, that’s good. It’s easy as English majors to forget to read for enjoyment, though. We can’t forget to entertain our less academic-sounding thoughts, such as thinking Emily Dickinson is a ninny, along with more serious reflection. The background behind how an author like Thoreau wrote (as seen in the Fluid Text edition) is obviously very important, but since it’s a text with which we’re meant to engage as readers and scholars, I’m of the opinion that our personal reactions are just as valid.

All in all, while it may be intimidating to put our thoughts out there on the digital text because we worry that what we think is wrong, if the text prompts us to think something, we’re probably not alone. The text is supposed to make us think, and those organic responses are sometimes the most interesting, in my opinion. As for getting distracted by other people’s annotations, well, there’s always an unmarked print copy available somewhere if we need it. When we’re ready to engage with others, though, a network like Digital Thoreau can’t be ignored.

Technological Judgment

Andy Clark writes that we are a group of “Natural Born Cyborgs,” and I think this is a fine assertion. Technology, especially technology used for social purposes has become a working part of a great majority of people. This is okay! Contrary to William Powers who writes about taking a “digital sabbath” to take a break from being consumed by technology, I believe (and really hope) that people today will develop an ability train themselves to discern what is the correct time to use technology, specifically phones and cameras, and when it is inappropriate.

In the twelfth paragraph of “Sounds” in Walden, Thoreau writes about how much better it is to see, smell, and experience certain things, and the feelings he gets from them could never be written down. Upon talking about sailboats he has seen, he writes, “Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these rents have done?” No one. And even further, a tweet, a post, or a picture (even if it has a cool filter on it), will never bring about these same feelings.

I believe everything Thoreau writes in this section, as I have had an experience just like it. I was in Ghana for a good part of this past fall, and although I was certainly not as “connected” technologically, I still had my iPhone and its camera. Naturally I wanted to take pictures of everything that struck me as beautiful or memorable, and I did end up taking a lot of pictures. One evening at about dusk, a teacher at the school, who is now a good friend, offered to take me and my friend Patrick to a place he called “Pito Base.” Pito is an alcoholic drink that originates in the northern area of Ghana, where the teacher grew up, and “Pito Base” is a place where people who grew up in the north but now live in the south gather to meet and enjoy each others’ company. I knew immediately that I was being taken somewhere that no tourists ever go, and that what I was doing was an absolute privilege. We walked through dusty, beat up dirt roads that were far away from the cozy college hostel we were staying in, and little children pointed and yelled, apparently not used to seeing large white men walking around their village. We turned into a small “yard” that ended up being “Pito Base.” There were wooden benches arranged so that those sitting could see and converse with everyone around. A bowl was placed on a metal ring on the ground in front of me, and it was filled with the drink. For what seemed like hours, I conversed with locals about their culture and what they believe. We sat in this circle and drank pito out of bowls. It was dusk and it was beautiful. The sun was setting and the moon was already out and I was doing something people rarely do and that I will likely never do again. I wanted so badly to take my camera out and capture all of these moments…  but I used my judgment. It would have been so disrespectful to take out my iPhone and snap pictures of these people who so kindly let me into their life. Like Thoreau says, nothing would be able to recreate that moment I had, and I will never forget any of it.

I wonder if such a judgment can be taught or if it is just something that has to be felt. I hope that people can learn this sort of technological judgment and remember that life is all about little moments that cannot be captured or recreated.


Alone Together?

I’ve been enjoying people’s recent posts on the question of anxiety over technological change.

In contemporary social critics’ and social scientists’ efforts to grasp the cultural consequences of digital technology, one theme that has emerged is epitomized in the title of a book by Sherry Turkle. The book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the director of the Initiative on Technology and Self.

Turkle’s book offers evidence for the idea that in some ways digital technology is driving us farther apart even as it offers new possibilities for making connections. So it wouldn’t be fair to say that her thesis is refuted by a few images at Kids These Days, the Tumblr maintained by Nathaniel Rivers, an assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University who studies rhetorical theory, blogs as pure_sophist_monster and tweets as @sophist_monster.

But the images do offer reason to be skeptical of the near-apocalyptic claims you sometimes hear about “kids these days” and their devices. (To be fair to Turkle, her own approach to this question isn’t in the apocalyptic vein but is in fact more nuanced.) I routinely hear it said that “kids these days” just aren’t capable of having “real” social interactions — only the “virtual” ones made possible by social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

As Oscar Wilde has Algernon say in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either…”

Medieval Helpdesk

As I was sitting in class on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but remember a certain YouTube video I’d seen a few years back called Medieval Helpdesk.

I don’t include this clip because I think it’s of any great quality, but because I believe it contributes to our conversation of Walden in some interesting ways.

1. Adaptability – Let’s be honest, the content of this video is silly and long-winded in its delivery, which will lead to my third point in a moment. But for now, I think it’s interesting to reflect on the idea that people of a previous culture had to become accustomed to the idea of something as “simple” as a book. Before this, it was parchment and scrolls, but never a codex with a binding and hundreds of purposefully constructed pages. Maybe the character in this video is a bit slow, because I doubt the operation of a book was honestly puzzling for the masses. But satirical or not, humans have had to adapt to every single piece of time-tested technology ever created from the beginning of mankind. The anxiety Thoreau feels in Walden about society shifting in different ways was felt by his ancestors, and will inevitably be felt by ours, and by theirs, etc.

2. Language, Accessibility, & Artistic Reproduction – I find it interesting that many of us commented on Thoreau’s (pretentious) attitude towards classic literature, especially the part in “Reading” where he talks about the importance of text being understood in its indigenous language. The original YouTube video was created in Norwegian, and is posted online with English subtitles.

This is obviously not a piece of classic literature, but does my comprehension, enjoyment, and appreciation for it diminish if I watch it in my native language, rather than learn Norwegian and watch the original video? Consider the following comments left on the remade English version:

“Yes, the original is better, but kudos to the people who made this version, for making it available to a wider audience. The copy is very rarely better than the original. just look at all Hollywood remakes of European movies…”

“I think that the fact that the original IS in a foreign (to us) language and subtitled in fact makes the reception and mental processing of the humour even more salient. It’s the translation that allows the viewer to really consider how this is a ‘common experience’ since sub-consciously we are also relating to foreigners who experience this same thing, making the humour ‘Universal’. Just a complex view of a simply brilliant satire on how we adapt to change, no matter what or when!! :)”

This video also speaks to Benjamin’s article in the sense that the remake – a close reproduction but not exact, and for multiple reasons – may never live up to the original art object. But I suppose that’s the question: could it ever?

3. Technological Evolution & The Critic – The English version of this video was posted in 2008. I’ve been thinking about how audiences change so vastly in light of new technologies, that though this was no masterpiece to begin with, I wonder how much worse this clip is now received in 2014 than it was merely 6 years ago. I find myself in the position of critic (another idea borrowed from Benjamin) as I mentally comment on various aspects of both the original and the remake that could have been done more artfully. For example, I’m thinking that the (candle)lighting needs work, the original’s subtitles could be placed more strategically as to not block the book from view, and that the remake could have been shorter and sweeter, but still have gotten the point across. I believe this shows that as technology evolves and produces outcomes of greater quality and deeper meaning, our reception grows alongside it. Perhaps this subtle evolving goes unnoticed on a day-to-day basis, but it’s certainly clear as a viewer comes in contact with any media produced even a decade ago.


P.S. I want to say how beautifully written and insightful the previous posts are. Seriously, you all killed it!


One of my friends recently shared a short creative non-fiction piece, written by ThoughtCatalog member Jeremy Glass, that reminded me both of our discussions in the Digital Humanities course and the reading that we’ve been asked to do for this Monday, Joseph Farman’s “The Myth of the Disconnected Life.”

The ThoughtCatalog post, titled “We Can’t Get Lost Anymore,” dramatizes a recurring idea that technology has changed the way that we interact with one another and the world around us in a negative way: we can no longer be spontaneous, the narrator argues, because we are worried about damaging our phones or have them to search business reviews; we can never “get lost”–literally or figuratively–because our devices keep us connected to a wealth of information, including maps of where we happen to be.

The piece, a collection of snapshots between the narrator’s past and present, implicitly elevates the past experiences, in which “the only mobile phone is attached to [his] father’s car, which is parked god knows where” instead of being in his pocket.  The piece evokes a Transcendentalist mindset for interpreting one’s environment on his or her own terms and (supposedly) without filter.  It is, after all, a technological ‘middle-man’ of sorts that forces a wall between the narrator and his [apparently more enlightened] girlfriend in the final scene.  He insinuates that to disconnect would be to connect with her, who is frustrated with the presence of a third voice (the GPS) in the car.

My immediate response to the piece was one of identification.  I rarely don’t know exactly where I’m going when I walk around my home city of New York; while part of this assurance stems from my familiarity with the streets after a little over twenty years, it also exists because I’ve already looked up what side of the street my destination is on.  And when I travel, I will rarely just wander in favor of charting out what I should do; in fact, I am extremely cognizant of how I might look if I didn’t know exactly where I was going (I should just be able to look it up, right?).

But if I am conscious of my appearance to others, I am just as conscious that I’m somehow crippling my experience of a new place by filtering that experience through those of others.  Am I ever really seeing somewhere through my own eyes and not first through someone else’s?  Joseph Farman tackles this issue when he defines what it is for a place to have “meaning” in his article: to him, a place’s meaning is “found in the practice of a place, in the everyday ways we interact with it and describe it.”  Besides deconstructing the idea from Glass’s piece that technology mediating our experience with the world is anything new, Farman reminds his readers that social media, etc. creates the meaning of a place; he sees it as a record of the relationship between it and the people who visit it.  Farman mentions apps like Broadcastr and one from the Museum of London that, he says, offer the “deeper context” of a place and “connect [its] innumerable narratives.”  For him, the wealth of available information about a place doesn’t destroy our experience of it, but rather enhances it.  I wholeheartedly agree–the availability of information about the history of a certain apartment building or intersection in the city satisfies and continually prompts my curiosity.  Historical context, rather than overwriting my experience of a place, sits alongside it as a comment on the original file.  And, for that matter, I would prefer to have a little help finding and eating at the cheap gem of a seafood restaurant that Glass’s narrator finds on Yelp, rather than eating at the DairyQueen that he stumbles upon with his high school friend.

As Farman explains how technology can enhance connections between people over time and distance, however, he does not refute the second point that Glass’s piece raises: that this information, while making an individual experience more collective, is a barrier to another kind of collective experience–an experience with and of the people right in front of you.  I have certainly felt pretty guilty for refreshing my Twitter feed during a lull in conversation with family or friends.

Then I think back to the other night, when there was a scheduled power outage that left my apartment pitch-black for about an hour (the horror, I know).  For this short time, I was not even a little disconnected: my phone still had 4G-LTE coverage, and I could have even tethered it with my laptop and its 8-hour battery if I had really wanted to.  Anyway, I was sitting at my desk on my phone, waiting both for the lights to come back on and for one of my friends to come over and have a glass of wine, when she called me.  When I told her the lights were out right now and that she should come over a little later, she offered ‘well, why not come over here instead?”  I agreed with [only a] little pestering–after all, why sit in the dark?  So, did a lack of electricity impel me to get up and away from my desk a little earlier and to go connect with someone else face to face?  Maybe.  But I had made those plans anyway.

Aura stories

In class today, we were talking about an “aura” that exists around original, physical art objects. I have experienced this on several occasions, but there are two that are particularly dear to me.

One was when I stepped inside the Globe Theatre for the first time, less than a year ago. I admit, I cried a little. I had read every one of Shakespeare’s 37 glorious plays by the time I was 18, and had reread the majority of them several times. I also read about a quarter of his corpus in French because I just could not get enough of this guy. To step inside that building was the hugest of deals for me, especially because I got to be a groundling and my tickets cost me less than ten dollars! I watched The Tempest as I leaned against the stage! Imagine! I’m about to faint just remembering it.

The other time, I’m a bit less ecstatic about and a bit more reverent. Personally, I consider so much of Christianity to be art, especially the Bible. I’m not just an adherent — I’m really a student, and sometimes I find my academic interest in my faith overshadowing my religious devotion. Anyway. A couple of years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls came to NYC and I harassed my dad into taking me. I’ll spare you the sappy description of how much it touched me to see words written twenty-five hundred years ago (words I had read again and again throughout my life) just one pane of glass away from me, but trust me, it was awesome. The coolest thing in the world, though, was that they had a stone from the Second Temple at Jerusalem. I got to touch a stone that, who knows, Jesus or other biblical figures could have walked on. Talk about an aura!

On a lighter note, I was reminded of this clip from one of my favorite shows when we were discussing “technology anxiety” in class today. 🙂

omg okay so i was just thinking

While this is all fresh in my head, I want to maybe start a discussion about online communication, particularly in terms of how typing styles and conventions reflect quirks of face-to-face speech.  The way I typed out my title is how I type to my friends or on my personal blog–in those arenas, I tend to type in a way I’ve described as “exactly how I talk”.  I drop caps and punctuate with phrases like “lmao”, “omg”, or even just a “keysmash” (exactly what it says on the tin), because this reflects a more organic flow of conversation.  Recently, within my online circles, I’ve seen a rise of people typing liKE THIS to communicate a sudden crescendo in the “volume” of their speech, such as when they’re liveblogging a piece of media and something surprising happens.  Emoticons have evolved well beyond the stock “:)”, and reaction images have also spread in popularity–sometimes, a screencap of a character making a disdainful face says all that needs to be said.  People don’t talk in complete sentences with preplanned structure, at least not in informal situations, but does this make their communication in some way less valid?  I’m sure at least a few people are catching the allusions I’m making to practices that are taken for granted on venues like twitter and tumblr, and even as I’m typing this, I’m wondering how many of them will be shaking their heads in secondhand embarrassment, giving me the metaphorical side-eye for bringing these kinds of sites into academic discussion.

Am I suggesting that a train of 20 .gifs expressing a high schooler’s “Feels” (with a capital F) for Loki from the Avengers franchise is the future of human expression?  Not really, considering that kid can achieve the same effect by screeching and swooning with their friends in “real life”.  What I’m really trying to get at here is that people, from academics to tweens on social media, are slowly but surely translating the quirks and conventions of the spoken word to the written.  For instance, shortly before I came back from winter break, I went downstairs from my room to greet my dad, who had just come home from work.  When he asked me what I had been doing directly before that, I replied, “just talking to a couple of my friends,” to which he replied, “actually talking, or ‘talking’ by IMing?”.  I chided him for not being in tune with the times enough to realize that IMs are more or less obsolete, replaced by a combination of texting, tweeting, and private messaging on social media, but it did get me thinking–I use the term “talking” in reference to verbal, face-to-face conversations just the same as I use it in reference to text-based, online conversations I’m having with people on the other side of the planet, people whose lives never would have touched mine without this expanded definition of dialogue.

I guess what I’m ultimately getting at here is that online dialogue is not in some way more disingenuous than face-to-face–rather, people are reshaping and retooling the written word to make it reflect the spoken.  We have different “levels” of speech, and so I think it’s only logical that different “levels” of typing have evolved as well.  Of course, I can have a serious literary discourse in all-lowercase, punctuated by some “omfg”s and emoji, just the same as I could write a discourse on how much I love peanut butter in the format of an MLA-style research paper.  So casual and new forms of communication alike are hardly indicative of lesser intelligence–as far as I’m concerned, these changes are indicative of an amazing level of creativity, flexibility, and potential that I’d very much love to see explored even more.

(As a disclaimer, I am not a Superwhovengerslockstuck, or however the portmanteau goes these days, so my experience with 20-.gif long trains of Loki Feels is entirely secondhand.)

Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age, Spring 2014 Edition

“Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age” is in its third incarnation at SUNY Geneseo as ENGL 340 – a brand new course with its own place in the line-up of offerings under Geneseo’s new English major. The course began as HONR 206, Digital Humanities in Spring 2011, and was offered twice as ENGL 390, first as Studies in Literature: Literature in the Digital Age and then as Literature and Literary Study in the Digital Age.

The latest iteration of the course has its home in this space, a group blog for all students and faculty at Geneseo interested in digital humanities. The blog is part of a larger community organized as English @ SUNY Geneseo, a community powered by the open-source blogging platform WordPress and the open-source plugin Commons In A Box.

If you’re a student in the course, this is where you’ll be blogging this semester, following guidelines you’ll find on the page How to Blog Here. If you’re not a student in the course but you’ve joined the group, please join the conversation and follow the same guidelines.

This year the course coincides with the rollout of two projects at Digital Thoreau, a collaboration among SUNY Geneseo, the Thoreau Society, and The Thoreau Institute at the Walden Woods Project. The two projects are Walden: A Fluid Text Edition and The Readers’ Thoreau. Students in previous iterations of the course have contributed to both projects, and this year’s group will use the projects as resources and carry them further, while also continuing work at Digital Thoreau’s third project, The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.

I’m posting here from San Marino, California, where I’ve just spent the past two days in the Huntington Library with two Thoreau scholars who’ve been instrumental to Digital Thoreau and to the development of this course: Ron Clapper and Beth Witherell. We’ve been looking together at the HM 924, the manuscript of Walden. More on that to come.