Sweetness and Fiber-Optics: A Dialogue on Electronic Texts and Humanities Study

Mark Ledden and Carole Meyers
Emory University

Mark: I'd like to start with Steve Jones' beginning. The image of an isolated subject sitting before "multiple windows" resonates strongly, for obvious reasons, with fans of Romanticism as well as with computer users. Do we have the initial gesture of a greater Romantic lyric? If we do, should the critical repetition of that historically situated gesture lead us to suspect the ideological grounding of this poem-cum-essay? These might be questions for another day. For the moment, what strikes me is that while we look into computer windows, I'm not sure we look out of them. Rooted to our seats in real offices or homes, we become estranged whenever we log on. We are looking into windows-- other homes or potential homes, but not our homes. That might be a good thing. Alienation was the essential pre-condition of Auerbach's great Mimesis, and as all of the papers here indicate, a certain degree of alienation is underwriting very useful creative forces. Including anxiety.

In thinking about the distance from the subject to the computer window and the less easily gauged distance from the screen to whatever lies on the otherside, I'm tempted to make a connection to my own situation of composition. I've been teaching Henry Reed to my poetry class this week, and the begining of his poem "Judging Distances" (section 2 of Lessons of War) was ringing in my ears as I worked through these essays. It goes like this:

Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you will know
How to report on a landscape.

Carole: Since "landscape" refers both to an actual "expanse of natural scenery" and to a picture or branch of painting, perhaps it is a good term to use to explore how we create cyber-realities, both in the sense of virtual spaces like MOOs and in the sense of virtual representations like homepages.

Mark: I think so. At any rate, in some ways, what these essays give us is a collection of thoughts on various kinds of distance.

Carole: Coming at the idea of distance from another angle, MOO technologies allow people living at great distances to interact and work with each other. Developing EmoryMOO for the Prometheus Unplugged conference last year was my first real experience using a MOO and I have to say that I am a convert--and largely for social purposes. That is, far from isolating me from the world, sitting at my computer becomes a means of reaching out to talk to any of the wonderful people in California or Virginia or Florida or Boston or the UK or Austria that we met as a result of the conference. Our on-going development of the MOO as a pedagogical and intellectual space has proved that such long distance collaborations and friendships can be greatly facilitated by new technologies.

As we prepared to write this essay, we have talked about how all of these papers introduce the idea of context and of how information has no meaning without context. By allowing us to span great distances, Web technologies decontextualize information so that Web pages travel across countries and continents to be stored on the machines sitting in front of us. The information has travelled to us, but only in partial chunks, perhaps without the framework which would turn information into something meaningful.

Mark: Interesting how a window (a frame, some complete with scroll bars) might not be a framework.

Carole: Fragmentary representations seem part and parcel of Web technology and hence culture.

Mark: I agree. Fragmentation seems to be a major facet of the electronic landscapes we are confronted with, or, like Ruegg and Broglio, are trying to patch together. The Web is the ultimate bricollage.

Carole: The topographical language used to describe the Web and cyberspace in general interests me. We are trying to impose a model from "reality" that may be inappropriate. It helps us in terms of spatial navigation to think of cyber-spaces as mimicking "real" spaces that we understand but it may not help us to realize what electronic realities can become. Although MOO spaces both use the paradigm of geographical spaces and deviate from them....

Mark: That concern gets to the heart of a major question. Should electronic media be representations of real things we already have, or should they (or must they) become entirely distinct formations?

Carole: It may be a generational issue. That is, our children will do things with computers that we cannot imagine just as we do things with VCRs that our parents cannot fathom. This is not to say that you can't trust anyone over 30 with a computer but that people tend to stick with what they know.

Mark: I know I felt a certain amount of relief when I saw that Ruegg and Broglio included traditional explication of individual poems in their syllabus. But I was very impressed by the extent to which they used electronic technologies not to mimic a real classroom and traditional asignments, but to create an entirely innovative learning environment which establishes its own goals and protocols.

Carole: Yes, I admired their new techniques as well. At the same time, though, their assignments brought up a question that I, as someone who studies 18th century prose style, think about a lot: Does the advent of the Web mean the death of writing? Broglio and Ruegg construct innovative assignments in which students represent themselves through various multimedia performances but also ask students to write essays. Pedagogically, can you accomplish both within the confines of a semester (or quarter) long class?

Mark: I'm not sure. That's a good point. And while technology does offer lots of new possibilities, I'm not sure I'm unsatisfied with the assignments, goals, and classroom experiences that need nothing more than a chalkboard and interested students.

Carole: When you move toward the tech, what happens to standards of writing? Standards, of course, are historically constructed and we have already shifted away from the high(er) standards of written literacy demanded earlier this century. Will the use of multimedia assignments (such as Web publishing but also considering projects using Macromedia's Director and the like) further degrade standards of written literacy, the art of writing, if you will? Can they not? They will promote difference literacies that are perhaps more suited to today's visual youth but what is lost and gained in the transition?

Mark: As you know, Carole, I'm conflicted on this one. I have a strong sense that my great-aunt, while not the most imaginative of thinkers, had at 18 a stylistic control of language that very very few of my current students can match. I don't think our students are coming to us adequately prepared in traditional writing skills. Pound says a new form is a new idea. I think a bad form is often a bad idea. I don't think you can think clearly if you don't command the architecture of the sentence. Nor can you take on the rigorous analysis of language (not texts--because texts are clearly more complicated now and demand graphic literacy as well as linguistic literacy) which we have traditionally thought of as literary scholarship. Still, it may be that I'm being deluded by a kind of nostalgia. Maybe multiple literacies are an inevitable and perhaps even desireable result of technology. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe you can teach traditional writing skills in this brave new classroom.

Carole: Putting these questions aside, I'd like to talk about some of the other issues surrounding technological education that Nichols so eloquently described. Namely, all the financial and technical trials and tribulations that standalone and networked computers entail. The widespread promulgation of humanities computing means finding the money and technical resources to support consistent and stable computers and systems. And that, as Nichols describes, is a lot easier said than done. Financially, doing humanities computing has both departmental and college- wide impact. Departments have to find the money to support machines and even personnel and this will affect other areas. For example, the University of Georgia's English Department recently hired a Computing Support Specialist using a faculty line to do so.

Mark: And of course, as we found out putting together last year's Prometheus Unplugged conference and getting EmoryMOO ready to support Villa Diodatti and the other EmoryMOO facilities, once you have dedicated the resources to get something on-line, you have to attract users. If you go hi-tech, people will come for the technology-- to see what's possible today. But that limits you to people with high end equipment. If you go low tech to give more people access, you lose some of the cache of "cool" that, as Alan Liu says, rules the Internet.

Carole: And standards of cool change constantly. Where in 1994, it was cool to have a Web page, as Nichols observes, now you're not cool unless your site is Java-enhanced, which separates the quasi-techies from the real programmers. Web development is moving into a stage where teams of individuals with varying skills (writing, document construction, graphic design, programming) are necessary. That's feasible in the corporate world but what about in academia, whose pockets are shallower? Can humanities study carve out a respectable Web space given its current resources? I think so but to move beyond the amateurish efforts typical today, we will need institutional support and the construction of the type of standards that Jones et al. are developing with Romantic Circles.

Mark: Once such standards are in place, serious investments of academic time and energy will be easier to justify. It's hard not to read Nichols' paper and say "this is all going to great someday, but not today." That sentiment is even more tempting when we consider two additional aggravations. First, at the moment, scholars are not given sufficient professonal recognition for their Web work. You probably won't get tenure on the basis of your work on the Web, and that matters. Second, the results of interactive projects are likely to be disappointing. Anderson is quite right that the Web presents a new frontier and a new necessity for persuasive rhetoric. What if you build it, and they don't come? How can you expect to hear a MOO in all that noise?

Carole: The problem of people not coming is real. As we found out with the Prometheus Unplugged conference, while the Web site was (and continues to be) popular, the MOO technology was harder for people to grasp. Mostly because it's text- based and lacks sexy graphics. But MOOspace, to my mind, offers more exciting pedagogical potential than the Web. Or at least as exciting. For example, professors at the University of Florida use their MOOville as a tool for improving student's analysis of language by having them construct their own MOO rooms based on a particular scene in a book. That example is from Jane Love's class, but Ron Broglio also has some interesting experiments that draw analogies between poetic and MOO structure.

Mark: I'd like to take advantage of this dialogue form (we're using this response to explore the ways in which how you say things is as important as what you say, a familiar proposition made more challenging by electronic texts) to invite Carole to comment on the problems involved in attracting new users to innovative technology.

Carole: The problems are multifold. First of all, you have very busy people who are already overloaded with information--they don't want to take any more in unless you can demonstrate that it is worth their while. This is particularly true of academics. Then, you have all of the phobias and anxieties raised by the spectre of the computer. I'm not sure why it is but the computer makes many people profoundly uneasy and the anxiety may be conscious or un-conscious. Perhaps unconscious anxiety may be one reason why some individuals never learn how to, for example, back up their machines adequately. At least, this is the reason I have articulated regarding people that *will not learn* how to use their machines smartly. This is an extreme example but in my job at Emory as a Computing Support Specialist, one of my main challenges (besides keeping the machines up) is teaching professors how to view their computers as something more than glorified word processors.

Mark: I'm sure a major source of user anxiety is the speed with which everything changes. That's a real problem for machines and systems as well as for us humans. Here at Emory, the university computer labs have just installed Word 6 on all their computers. That's fine, because Word 6 is the latest and, therefore, the best. We want to have the latest and the best. The problem is that none of the computers in our classrooms and English labs have enough RAM to support Word 6. So now, students who write or save their work at one site won't be able able to get at it at another. By trying to keep up, we have created a huge technology distance, which can either be measured in the money Emory will have to spend to buy new RAM or the time someone will have to spend teaching students to always save their files as Word 5.1 documents.

Carole: Yes, one doesn't always have to have the latest and greatest to have what one needs. But the software and hardware market drives us on and on. This is less of a problem for corporations who have the money to buy new equipment but more of a problem for universities, particularly smaller and state institutions. So, once again, here in this conversation arises the gap between academic and corporate worlds. Thinking of this schism from another point of view, Anderson, Nichols, and Jones all bring up the issue of how Web publishing brings academia into (at times abrupt) contact with the non-academic world. With the click of a mouse button, users can be moved from a rich representation of Rossetti's poems to a blaring, Java-overloaded Saturn site. What happens when two such disparate cultures (because it seems to me that we are talking about localized cultures) come into proximity? Is there room here for humanities study to promote itself to individuals who might not otherwise read a Pope poem?

Mark: Your question reminds me of the images on Ruegg and Broglio's Web pages. What happens when you expose Pope to transgressive encounters with cyberpunks, or, perhaps even more dangerous, bankers? What happens when you set Kerouac next to Wordsworth? What happens when the altering mind confronts an altering landscape? I think that the recurring presence of Frankenstein and his creature in these papers is not merely an indication of Mary Shelley's current status among Romanticists. Victor Frankenstein is the ultimate contextualist. Likewise, judging from the mixture of fascination and fear electronic media still elicit in academic circles, we may be well justified in calling our electronic texts our hideous progeny. This is all the more true given that the creature's watery eyes, translucient yellow skin and pearly white teeth, while unsettlingly uncanny, do offer their own kind of beauty, and the creature, should we hear him out on his own terms, is a powerfully persuasive rhetorician.

Carole: The Frankenstein metaphor seems to be trying to do two things. First, comparing fragmented Web performances, which are always composed of various parts that can and do disappear, with Shelley's patchwork creation. And second, characterizing these performances as somehow monstrous because they "liberate...that which remains undemonstrable or too often unseen in print text" (Ruegg and Broglio). After reading that sentence, I jotted in the margins (and yes I printed everything out to read it) that "monstrous" is inherently a relational category, requiring an oppositional non-monstrous quality to achieve definition. So what is the non-monstrous here?