Our Digital Voyage

by Maggie Graham

As we embark on this new era of digitization, or are just now receiving the memo that we left the certainty of the shore years ago, we are challenged to scrutinize the way in which the form of cultural text impacts its content. Surely it is not a novel concept that the meaning of a text is influenced by its presentation, but when our minds are busy deciphering content, the effect presentation has on the overall semanticity proves a difficult variable to keep tabs on.

With the great migration to digital forums in the past years, humanists have realized the danger being posed to literary and imaginative texts as they enter a wasteland whose residents are fluent only in binary and markup. What will be the outcome of such a transition?

In his paper Visible and Invisible Books: Hermetic Images in N-Dimensional Space, Jerome McGann delves into the finer details of this digitization dilemma, but he is ultimately hopeful. He issues a challenge to his fellow humanists, calling them to hitch a ride on the next available dingy to join the crew of this digital voyage.

If the next forum for literary texts is to be one which thrives on logic, and has been nurtured at the hands of linguists and computer scientists, then there need to be advocates for the incoming literary tenants. As McGann says, such a regulated system may construe the playful nature of imaginative texts to be redundant, or ‘noisy’ on account of the artistic repetition and seemingly paradoxical nature of texts which require human contemplation to be fully understood.

For this reason, those human minds which best understand the nuances and implications of such texts must be the ones aiding in their transition to the digital dimension. Would the integrity of such texts not be better preserved by humanists whose intensive studies have made them conscious of—and even aggressively opinionated about—the semantic implications of presentation?

Perhaps so, but don’t relax so soon, dear readers, for you don’t exactly get off responsibility-free.

relaxing frogs

None of us do.

We are all Argonauts in this digital voyage (yes, back to the boat-imagery—we’re on a roll). For years, Textual Studies have been the wind in the literary buff’s sails. Each ‘revised’ edition of a text, which claims to have improved the integrity of the work because it is closer to the author’s original intentions, presents us with a completely new text. Each time the format of a classic novel changes—BANG, hold on tight because we’ve got a new rendering of the text.

And with copious revisions and issued edits, there is always the chance that, in the pursuit of a more accurate rendering of the text, we have actually led ourselves in the opposite direction. If no original drafts remain and we are making edits upon revised editions, we’re dealing with a finicky inheritance for future our generations. (Though this isn’t the case with many well-documented texts which have been preserved, the point remains). Hard copies of these texts can be destroyed, but digitization is a way of preservation that hopes to ensure texts with a sort of immortality.

So when the entire essence of a text is transformed in a way that allows a computer to understand it, what has the text become? How has it changed and what does this change mean to us? Is this new text comprised of what the computer generates for our viewing or of the strings of code that remain indecipherable to the average reader?


cargo ship

All I’m saying is that we are going through a transition phase. When we reach the other side of this water, we will be moving some of our most precious cargo onto new territory and the movers we choose to transfer it are crucial. Without skilled movers using adequate tools, the cargo could suffer changes that would alter them irrevocably; if this piece of cargo is the only version available to us (and let’s hope this isn’t the case), then we stand to lose some of the complexity and deeper implications of the original cultural artefact.

We’ve got a long way to go on this trip, but we’re already a long way from shore. Like McGann says, the book is still a relevant technology, but as we develop digital tools that will in time outmatch our current modes of textual analysis (or such is the hope), we will arrive at a point where the book finds it’s “pages numbered” (haha… get it?)


In short, we must ask ourselves the implications of this transition and become conscious of how these changes will impact the delivery of literary and creative texts to future generations.

And of course, enjoy the ride! It may not always be smooth sailing, but the horizon ahead is rife with opportunity.


I hope no one is stricken by metaphorical sea-sickness; I left my figurative mop at home!



Image 1 ß Image 2 ß Image 3 ß Image 4


Jerome McGann, “Visible and Invisible Books: Hermetic Images in N-Dimensional  

Space,” Jerome McGann (U of Virginia: IATH, 1999)


One thought on “Our Digital Voyage

  1. Maggie,
    I wish we had read Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing before we did this lecture. The way meaning changes depending on how the text is presented is, as you mention, becoming increasingly important. Goldsmith and other ‘uncreative’ writers are really capitalizing on that. This also ties into his thoughts on authorship. I find it interesting that you point out that various editions being revised to be more like ‘what the author intended’ could very well be revising themselves into another text entirely, especially if the original is up for speculation. I remember when I first started analyzing texts based on theme and meaning, and how fixated I became upon authorial intent as some kind of authority on what the correct answer was. Having since learned to analyze a text for what it provides, rather than what it was attempting to provide, I wonder if soon the digitization of texts will be less concerned with keeping true to an original and more concerned with making the text the best possible text it can be. As a writer myself, knowing my work is out there to be manipulated is terrifying, which is why I think Goldsmith’s talk of doing away with credit and labels entirely is too extreme and rather impractical. But crediting the modifier makes a piece a multi-layered text, like a translation; the original author will be credited in bigger print, but the translator’s name will always be on there. No one says the translation is the original text, but it is not entirely different, either. Because of the accessibility provided by translation, that gray area is allowed to exist.
    PS: I always enjoy your puns!


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