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Studies in Criticism: Electronic Text

English 8710
Studies in Criticism: Electronic Text

Michael Hancher
Spring 1995
Tuesdays, 12:45-3:00
Lind Hall 202

Widespread electronic networking has renewed some old questions about the status and function of text:
Does the text speak for itself? Does it depend on or construct the authority of an author, or community of authors? How does gender inflect text? What difference does the reader make? Whose text is it? Who can read it? Who has the right to copy it? How can the text change, or stay the same? Can texts be adequately described or reproduced? Can texts err? Are texts displaced or changed by images? How do they relate to other texts? How long can a text last?
This seminar will investigate many of these and related questions as reframed by the phenomenon of electronic text.

Readings will be excerpted from books-in-common (parts of which will be read by everyone enrolled in the course), supplementary books (parts of which may be read by some), and various electronic-text archives.

Books-in-common (excerpts)

Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge, 1982. ISBN 0-415-02796-9. $13.95.
  • A concise introduction to the history of orality, manuscript culture, print literacy, and electronic text.
George P. Landow. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. ISBN 0818-4281-6. $15.95.
  • The most influential account of electronic writing to date.
George P. Landow. Hyper/Text/Theory. Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4838-5. $16.95.
  • Recent essays on electronic nonlinearity and related topics.
Richard A. Lanham. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. U of Chicago P, 1993. ISBN 0-226-46883-6. $22.50.
  • A widely-read collection of essays, which relates the new technology of writing to the subversive vitality of classical rhetoric.
Myron C. Tuman. Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age. Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992. ISBN 0-8229-5489-3. $19.95.
  • Some implications of electronic text for the teaching of literacy.
Cynthia L. Selfe and Susan Hilligoss, eds. Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology. Research and Scholarship in Composition 2. New York: MLA, 1994. ISBN 0-8735-2580-9. $19.95.
  • Twenty articles on technology and literacy instruction, including: Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen, "Reading and Writing on Computer Networks as Social Construction and Social Interaction"; Billie J. Wahlstrom, "Communication and Technology: Defining a Feminist Presence in Research and Practice"; Catherine F. Smith, "Hypertextual Thinking."
Michael Auping. Jenny Holzer. New York: Universe, 1992. ISBN 0-87663-615-6. $13.95.
  • Lapidary and electronic inscriptions in the art of Jenny Holzer.

Supplementary books (excerpts)

Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. Routledge, 1991. ISBN 0-86091-546-8. $13.95.
  • The affiliations of capitalism, print literacy, and nationalism.
David J. Bolter. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991. ISBN 0- 8058-0428-5. $27.50.
  • Often called the basic book in the field.
J. Hillis Miller. Illustration. Essays in Art and Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. ISBN 0-674-44358-8. $19.95.
  • Two essays after deconstruction and Benjamin, one on the coming of "the electronic book," and one on the play of relations between word and image.
Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading. Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-5711-9849-x. $22.95.
  • Popular essays in defense of the old technology.
Michael Joyce. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. University of Michigan Press, 1995. ISBN 0-472- 09578-1.
  • New! By the author of the well known hypertext fiction, Afternoon, A Story (1982).

Electronic text archives

Don't worry: this course does not presuppose experience with electronic networking or hypertext. However, students will be encouraged to explore the available electronic resources, using networked facilities in the computer lab in Lind Hall 26 (where we will hold occasional classes) or elsewhere. These resources include files published at various sites on the World Wide Web (WWW), a linked subset of publicly accessible Internet addresses. (Lynx, a user-friendly program already available on University e-mail accounts, can be used to navigate text files across the Web; Netscape, installed on lab machines, can access graphics on the Web.) For example:
  • The electronic journal Postmodern Culture, where you can find such works as Stuart Moulthrop's article, "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media" (1991), Kathy Acker's story "Obsession" (1992), Charles Bernstein's "Three Poems" (1994), and Elizabeth Croker's article "'To He, I am For Evva True': Krazy Kat's Indeterminate Gender" (1994).
  • Excerpts from avant-garde hypertext fiction published by Eastgate Systems, such as Michael Joyce's Afternoon, A Story (1987), and Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1991).
  • Miscellaneous canonical texts in the public domain. Many electronic versions are directly accessible through the local Gopher system of the University of Minnesota; for example, Iliad (trans. Dryden), Hamlet, Wealth of Nations, The Prelude, Wuthering Heights, Origin of Species, To the Lighthouse. A comprehensive index is The Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts on the Internet.
  • The British Poetry Archive under construction at the University of Virginia, which includes texts by Tennyson, the Rossettis, and less canonical poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • The electronic archive of the Discussion Group on Electronic Text Centers (ETEXTCTR@RUTVM1.BITNET), which includes controversy about method as well as general information.
  • The electronic archive of TEI-L: Text Encoding Initiative Public Discussion List(TEI-L@UICVM.BITNET), which deals with technical details.
  • Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure: The Preliminary Draft of the Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights (1994), which weighs the need to reform copyright law to accommodate new media.

In addition, we will probably be able to explore an electronic archive recently purchased by the University of Minnesota Libraries, The English Poetry Full-Text Database, published in CD-ROM format by Chadwyck-Healey. This database comprises all the books of poetry, ranging from 600 A.D. to 1900 A.D., that are reported by The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969-72), plus some additional texts omitted by the NCBEL. Hardware support is now being arranged for this multiple-CD-ROM archive. Online documentation, tailored to the copy locally networked at the University of Virginia Library but generally relevant, is available here. (For a recent popular review of this electronic archive, see Anthony Lane, "Byte Verse," The New Yorker, Feb. 20-27, 1995, 101+.)

What counts as an electronic text?

The above-mentioned English Poetry Full-Text Database is, in the jargon of the trade, "TEI-conformant"; that is, it conforms to the Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange (3rd ed., 1994), edited by C. M. Sperberg-McQueen and Lou Burnard; published by the Text Encoding Initiative under the auspices of The Association for Computers and the Humanities, The Association for Computational Linguistics, and The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing; and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A copy of this daunting technical manual, running almost to 1300 pages, will be placed on reserve in Walter Library. (An indexed electronic edition is also available.)

The elaborate and scrupulous description of text elements that the Text Encoding Initiative recommends stands at the opposite extreme from the "plain vanilla ASCII" aesthetic (or ethic) that has been strongly advocated by others, including advocates of Project Gutenberg. For several years Project Gutenberg has been broadcasting numerous simple electronic versions of texts, thereby earning the scorn of associates of the TEI. (See, for example, recent postings on the Discussion Group on Electronic Text Centers [ETEXTCTR@RUTVM1.BITNET]; or, for a more moderate critque, Susan Hockey, "Evaluating Electronic Texts in the Humanities," Library Trends 42 [1994]: 676-93.")

The dispute between those who would totalize editorial description of an electronic text and those who would minimize it recalls other, older controversies, theological and philological. (Not to mention ideological: this contest pits an establishment of well-affiliated experts against populist amateurs.) Both positions are prey to the kind of skeptical analysis repeatedly pressed by Stanley Fish: What is natural about simplicity? What is certain about complexity?

Doing things with electronic text

Despite the attractions of skepticism, which is often easier than practice, especially new practice, we will try our hand at making an electronic transcription of a short text: for example, an early nineteenth-century broadside. There may be another brief exercise as well, prompted by the course readings.

In the second half of the course students will present oral reports on topics that specially interest them; each student will also write a related seminar paper, about twenty pages long. Throughout the quarter we will be able to communicate with each other as a group, outside of class, by making use of an automatic e-mail distribution list. At the end of the course students will have the option of publishing their seminar papers on the World Wide Web.

A related course

Len Hatfield, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, has posted a syllabus for his course English 5334, "Open Sesame: HyperText/HyperLiterature" (1995), on the World Wide Web.

For more information

If you have questions (or suggestions) please send me a note, stop by during my office hours, or leave me a phone message.

Michael Hancher
Professor of English
207 Lind Hall
E-mail address: mh@umn.edu
Telephone: 625-5075
Office hours Winter 1995 (will change Spring quarter): Mondays, 2:00-3:30; Thursdays, 1:00-2:30

Return to courses, spring 1995.
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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/prosetxt.html

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created February 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996