Within and Without the Margins

The articles we read for today seem to come together under the shared basis that readings of literature are unified in the 21st century through collaboration, and through writing on top of/alongside them. It shifts our understanding of how the reading (as opposed to writing) side of the texts is examined when we transition for being witnesses of texts to acting, instead, as participants with them. I mentioned in class that I was interested in Liu’s evocation of “margins” when discussing DH close/distant reading practices, and how it evoked the image of writing on the text, of navigating websites, etc. He says:

“all the new decentralizing literary-critical approaches I mention above [are] skewed into a new social geometry by adding what can be generalized as a margin. In various ways, for example, deconstruction, cultural criticism, and the field of the history of the book defined marginal zones of literary activity that renegotiated the roles of literary sociality.”

In this sense, writing in the margin of a text becomes a genre in and of itself, where it is shaped both by the content and context of a text, but also by the presence of the margin itself. I am most interested though in how the thought of the “margin” or of “margins” affects our visualization of texts through DH as well.

On a basic level, interpreting texts on a screen, on a page, through audio, associate a clear understanding of how we look (or don’t) and interact with a text based on visual queues. The margin on a page is different than the margin created when using hypohes.is, but it is a margin nonetheless. We have a meta-experience of this while reading the Liu and Kirschenbaum pieces as the commentary is embedded alongside the text, implanting the discourse around the theory within the article itself. It does not ask permission to do this either; I found myself frustrated with the MLA annotation format—it would scroll back to the top of a paragraph and pull up comments alongside it if I attempted to highlight one sentence—whereas while the Debates in DH software wasn’t so aggressive in terms of implanting the commentary within the structure, it still forced visual queues into the reading to alert readers to the conversation, or to sentences which were given attention by previous readers. In one sense, this feels like a sort of cheat code by enabling efficient skimming, but it also gives the reader no choice but to concern herself with the conversations going on around the text.  It goes against the grain of digital ephemera—I’m thinking of the endless feeds on twitter and threads on reddit, or listings on amazon with thousands of reviews—which ultimately  get swept up and away as newer thoughts/posts send them further back and out of consciousness. But more than that, it disrupts the normal methodology of reading, where we have thoughts at the forefront of our minds, but also sub-thoughts that are unarticulated but shape our perception or internal feeling towards a text (this isn’t something I read, but is more so an observation for my own reading habits, which I assume other people experience too.) The presence of a margin complicates the nature of literary conversation, because our thoughts in this context cannot exist as ephemera but as an essential, or at the very least, un-ignorable component of the writing. While the intention of this effect is to broaden and promote discussion, it seems actually to do the opposite: by filling the margins for you, it prevents you from filling them for yourself.

In Hayles’ example of playing texts through facebook, or even in our own class, the example of finding audiobooks “in the wild” and doing a textual analysis of them, we are forced to rethink the visual queue of the margin (Hayles, 196-197). Audiobooks typically lack any visual structure, besides maybe a thumbnail image to accompany it if it is digital. While the facebook example has its own host of digital queues,  the margin is not on the sides but within the framework of the text: in memes it is on an image itself, in posts it is in the reaction buttons, it is in the search bar, and in the comment feeds—which within the last year have incorporated the ability to create visual sub-threads within a given comment in a comment section. By eliminating the visual image of a margin, there is an actual opportunity to host new discourse, because that discourse isn’t confined to a space with which it has a mutualistic dictation (the margin exists to be written in, but it is only written in chiefly because it is there.) This reshapes the methodology of reading a given text. This ties back to the idea of ephemera and the hyper-attention of Hayles’ writing, by eliminating the traditional space to interact with the text, but rather than pushing the margins out further and making them inaccessible, the margins are eliminated almost entirely, and we are forced to annotate directly within the text itself—it is the creation of new, technological margins and, thus, social margins that are more similar to those of salons and coffee houses of pre-21st century literary discourse (Bérubé, et. al. 423). In the long run, I wonder what this means for pedagogy and the future of close reading: would Hayles’ say that our margins are indicative of hyper- or deep-attention? Are margins both visually and analytically constrictive? If so, what do we do with them?

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