Why Built Upon Matters

Korey Jackson

March 26, 2013

“We cannot write literary history with intellectual conviction,” David Perkins says in the opening chapter of Is Literary History Possible?, “but we must read it.”

No story of (literary) historical movements can ever be a complete story. No narrative can account for the contextual complexities that give rise to things as strange and human as, say, the rising popularity of the lyrical “I” or the abiding interest in textual representations of vernacular speech. And without completeness, every story of literature’s history (and history in general) will, in some way, take shape as a necessary fiction. This central contradiction has dogged not just literary history, but the full enterprise of humanities scholarship, for a long time. And yet….

Narrate we do. Because narrative isn’t singular; narrative is part of the general fugue (one we “must read”) that gives rise to knowledge. Or so we hope.

I was recently reading Ted Underwood’s reflections on the potentials of text mining and analysis to redress the simultaneously motivating and undermining question of literary history’s possibility. It got me thinking that, above and beyond any “big data style points,” the real benefit of digital methods applied to humanities scholarship is the capacity to answer “yes” to Perkins’s question.

What’s all this have to do with Built Upon? Well, for me, the guiding light of the Built Upon project (whether anyone—including me—was aware of it at first) was precisely this question. What’s possible when we don’t simply capitulate to the impossibilities of context? What happens when, as Anastasia Salter’s proposal suggests, we look not to the singular text or even the more panoramic “cultural movement,” but instead to the architectures that make a text sharable, distributable, salable—to all the material conditions and networks that make narrative narrative and not simply (or not only, anyway) the outgrowth of a Victorian mathematician’s genius?

Or, what happens when we use digital identifiers and conversion tools to understand the materiality of textual composition—the layout and design of manuscripts and accompanying commentary? This is precisely what D. Neel Smith and Nikolas Churik are proposing to do with their project. Smith and Churuik are examining the ways that medieval commentary and marginalia on the pages of Homer’s Iliad were not merely ad hoc processes but were planned for by the designers of the material text—in much the same way that collaborative writing environments are planned for by today’s (digital) designers. And, just as we recognize layout and information architecture conventions today (whether of the physical or digital page), so too did medieval readers understand where on the manuscript page to look for certain kinds of information.

Finally, what happens when we take contextualized data and imagery and apply these to the language textbook? John Gruber-Miller’s “Imagining Ancient Corinth: An Introduction to Greek Literature and Culture” augments the traditional Greek textbook with data from the Perseus Digital Library, ORBIS, and visualizations from other sources (including several maps created using the Keyhole Markup Language). By engaging students in the multi-modal (and multi-contextual) experience of language learning, Gruber-Miller’s project grants the learner of Greek a fuller sense of cultural and linguistic mastery.

Each Built Upon project is scaffolded by the implicit conviction that expanded datasets can lead to expanded knowledge—that the stories we tell about the history of language and literature need not end simply by displacing prior argument, but can instead actively lead toward collaborative knowledge building. In other words, these Built Upon projects, themselves crafted from carefully assembled data, invite and warrant what University of Richmond president and Anvil board member Ed Ayers has called “generative scholarship”: work that is “built to generate, as it is used, new questions, evidence, conclusions, and audiences.” We hope that Built Upon becomes part of this interlocking series of generative works–models of and participants in the construction of a more possible humanities discourse.

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