Textual Hacking and Re/making as Critical-Creative Practice
“Criticism begins with the recognition of textual power and ends in an attempt to exercise it. This attempt may take the form of an essay, but it may just as easily be textualized as parody or counter-text in the same mode as its critical object. As teachers we should encourage the full range of critical power.” – Robert Scholes, Textual Power
“By ‘re-writing’ is here chiefly understood such strategies as parody, imitation, adaptation and, especially, intervention. This last is the activity of re-writing a text from a deliberately off-center position, in some way ‘against’ or ‘across’ the grain. It corresponds in part to what Umberto Echo calls ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare,’ Alan sinfield calls ‘dissident reeading’ along ‘faultlines,’ and Robert Scholes and others call ‘ghosting’.” – Rob Pope, “Re-writing Texts, Re-constructing the Subject: Work as Play on the Critical-Creative Interface”
“Pope’s 1994 Textual Intervention is to criticism what The Oulipo Compendium is to poetry–not primarily a theoretical exposition, but a textbook full of problems, exercises, and worked examples. Were we to insert references to computation, its opening preface might serve not only as a description of algorithmic criticism but also as a general motto for much of what we already call digital humanities […]. – Stephen Ramsay, “Potential Readings,” Toward an Algorithmic Criticism
By now, the idea of playing around with someone else’s text, either in whole or in part, in order to make something new should be familiar to us. We’ve seen instances and discussions of verbal and visual collage (The Medium Is the Massage, Tristan Tzara‘s surrealist poetry), patchwriting (Kenneth Goldsmith), glitching (Kenneth Goldsmith), remix and mash-up (The Medium Is the Massage; The Medium Is the Massage LP; Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, Jamie O’Neil’s McLuhan Remix; Brion Gysin and William S. Burrough’s cut-up method; and Jeff Rice’s discussion of the Burrough’s writer), deformance (McGann, Drucker, and Nowviskie’s discussion of IVANHOE); remediation of a text from one medium and/or genre to another (Daniel Anderson and Mark Sample), and assemblage as a form of writing (The Medium Is the Massage and Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber).1 We might call all of these practices forms of textual hacking and remaking. And, by and large, the goal of such hacking and remaking so far has been to use old texts to create new texts, that is, to use these practices as compositional strategies.
This week we’re going to shift our focus from that of textual hacking and remaking texts of texts as compositional strategies to textual hacking and remaking of texts as acts of interpretation and criticism. Our guide to this practice will be Rob Pope and his concept of textual intervention, what he calls a “critical-creative practice,” that is, the use of creative rewriting for the purposes of gaining critical (interpretive) insight into how a text works. In the “Preludes” chapter of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Study, Pope argues explicitly for the interpretive power that hacking and remaking texts – textual interventions – offer us: “The best way to understand how a text works, I argue, is to change it: to play around with it, to intervene in it in some way (large or small), and then to try to account for the exact effect of what you have done. In practice – not just in theory – we have the option of making changes at all levels, from the merest nuance of punctuation or intonation to total recasting in terms of genre, time, place, participants and medium […]. The emphasis throughout is on exploring possible permutations and realizations of texts in and out of their original contexts” (1).
Stephan Ramsay, in another reading for this week, asserts that this first paragraph of Textual Intervention could just as easily be describing the goal and purpose of algorithmic criticism as it describes the goal and purpose of Pope’s textual interventions. All that’s missing, Ramsay notes, are references to computing: “Were we to insert references to computation, its opening preface might serve not only as a description of algorithmic criticism but also as a general motto for much of what we already call digital humanities” (32). Like the Oulipo, both Pope’s textual interventions and Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism seek to introduce constraints into their process. However, while the goal of the Oulipo is to use these constraints to create new (or potential) literary texts, both Pope’s and Ramsay’s goals are to use their constraints to help us understand how various elements of a particular text work to make meaning.2
Like collage, remix, mash-ups, and assemblage, both Pope’s processes of textual intervention and Ramsay’s processes of algorithmic criticism involve conscious, intentional manipulation of a text or set of texts for a desired effect. While the critic may not be aware of the outcome until it’s happened – these are tools for analysis after all – the critic plays an active role in the textual intervention or in the decision regarding what features of a text to which the algorithms will be applied, and the critic can describe the general results beforehand. For instance, if we look back to Ramsay’s discussion of algorithmic criticism applied to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in the first chapter of Reading Machines, for the first example we could explain that the results of applying that particular algorithm would be a word frequency list for each of the six speakers with commonly shared words removed so as to identify words unique to each speaker (11-13), and, likewise, for the second example we could explain that the results would be two word frequency list, one a list of the words shared by the women of the novel, and the other a list the words shared by the men of the novel (13-14). Because we would know what the algorithm was intending to do before we ran it, we the general results are already known. What we don’t know is what words will emerge in each list, which is why we might want to apply such an algorithm to a text.
I believe it’s worth recognizing the knowingly intentional nature of textual interventions and algorithmic criticism so that we might better compare those methods with the two other methods we’re looking at this week: the cut-up and the N+7 procedure. While the cut-up method and the N+7 procedure also rely upon intentionally created constraints, the purpose of both is to create unknown results – potential texts, to use the Oulipo’s language (the N+7 procedure was developed by the Oulipian Jean Lescure). While it’s clear that the cut-up method and the N+7 procedure are forms of textual hacking and remaking, it’s not so clear that they are forms of textual intervention because their purpose lies in creating new texts to enjoy rather than the creation of new texts for the purposes of analyzing the base text. (Textual interventions are, according to Pope, forms of rewriting done as a critical-creative strategy for interpretive and critical purposes.) While it is worth making this distinction between textual hacking and remaking for creative purposes versus critical-creative purposes, I want to suggest that all forms of textual hacking and remaking have the potential to be textual interventions to be used a critical-creative strategies to understand how a text works. Consider, for example, Mark Sample’s discussion in “Notes Toward a Deformed Humanities” of what happened when he ran the entire book Hacking the Academy through N+7 procedure:
“The results of N+7 would seem absolutely nonsensical, if not for the disruptive juxtapositions, startling evocations, and unexpected revelations that ruthless application of the algorithm draws out from the original work. Consider the opening substitution of Hacking the Academy, sustained throughout the entire book: every instance of the word academy is literally an accident.
Other strange transpositions occur. Every fact is a fad and print is a prison. Instructors are insurgents and introductions are invasions. Questions become quicksand. Universities, uprisings. Scholarly associations wither away to scholarly asthmatics. Disciplines are fractured into discontinuities. Writing, the thing that absorbs our lives in the humanities, writing, the thing that we produce and consume endlessly and desperately, writing, the thing upon which our lives of letters is founded–writing, it is mere “yacking” in Hacking the Accident.
These are merely the single word exchanges, but there are longer phrases that are just as striking. Print-based journals turn out as prison-based joyrides, for example. I love that The Chronicle of Higher Education always appears as The Church of Higher Efficiency; it’s as if the newspaper was calling out academia for what it has become–an all-consuming, totalizing quest for efficiency and productivity, instead of a space of learning and creativity.”
We humans are use to finding patterns and meaning within randomness and chaos regardless of whether that randomness and chaos only seems random and chaotic or whether it actually is so. In other words, we are good at finding meaning and sense in things even when there is no meaningful intent involved. This is one of the reasons why we’re able to find meaning in art and poetry, and its how we’re able to engage in analysis and criticism. While the N+7 procedure technically creates a form of randomized chaos through word substitution, as Sample notes many of these substitutions do seem meaningful. That is, when we read hacked or remade texts through the lens of their original context, we find accidental commentary and insight. Consider, for example, the transformation of The Chronicle of Higher Education into The Church of Higher Efficiency. It’s a common complaint that education itself and higher education in particular are becoming corporatized and are more concerned with being efficient and cost effective than they are at producing knowledge and using best practices to educate students. With this in mind, the transformation of The Chronicle of Higher Education – the newspaper of higher ed – to The Church of Higher Efficiency isn’t just a funny substitution. It is, instead an accidental but nevertheless poignant commentary on higher education today. In this way, meaning emerges from randomness, and we can use that meaning as the basis for analysis and criticism.
So, while it may have been accidental in and of itself, by hacking Hacking the Academy through the use of the N+7 procedure, Mark Sample has shown how we can use any form of textual hacking and remaking as a critical-creative practice if we choose to do so. In this light, I want to argue that the difference between textual hacking and remaking as a compositional strategy and as a critical-creative strategy resides not in the forms and procedures one uses to hack and remake texts but in the reasons for which one does so.
- Reading Response post: 10:00 PM, Thurs., 23 Oct.
- Community Response post: 10:00 PM, Sun., 26 Oct.
- Participation posts (3): During the week.
- Read lecture posts for the week. The most recent lectures can always be found on the front page for the course or using the Lecture category. Short lectures will be posted throughout the week.
- Review and begin weekly Participation assignment forum posts.
- Reading Response and Community Response blog posts (Online Writing Activities).
- Group 1 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 4.
- Group 2 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 1.
- Group 3 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 2.
- Group 4 will read and respond to the blogs of Group 3.
- Graduate students: Continue working on the Annotated Bibliography assignment. Due: Dec. 2, 10:00 PM.
- Pope, Rob: “Preludes.” Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Study. London: Routledge, 1995. 1-45. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Pope, Rob: “Review of the Theories and Practices.” Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Study. London: Routledge, 1995. 183-202. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Read section 5.1 (pp. 183-192)
- Skim sections 5.2 and 5.3 (pp. 193-202) to be aware of the strategies available to you when you create your own textual interventions.
- Ramsay, Stephen. “Potential Readings.” Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2011. 32-57. (Required text)
- Burroughs, William S. “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.” (Online reading)
- Open Culture. “William S. Burroughs on the Art of the Cut-up Writing.” (Online reading and 3 min 13 sec video)
- Explore the Tristan Tzara Arcade of Scissors. (Online reading)
- Play with the N+7 Machine.
- Sample, Mark. “Notes Toward a Deformed Humanities.” Sample Reality. 2 May 2012. (Online reading)3
- McGann, Jerome, and Lisa Samuels. “Deformation and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25-56. (Online reading)
- Pope, Rob: “Bibliography.” Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Study. London: Routledge, 1995. 203-210. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Pope, Rob. “Re-Writing Texts, Re-constructing the Subject: Work as Play on the Critical-Creative Interface.” Teaching Literature: A Companion. Ed. Tanya Agathocleous and Ann C. Dean. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 105-124. (pdf in Blackboard)
- While we can try to separate out each of these concepts and practices to one lecture or one text, it should be clear just from the number of times The Medium Is the Massage is included in this list or the number of times we’ve encountered passing or direct reference to Tzara, Gysin, and Burroughs that these concepts and practices overlap and have been a constant theme of the course, what Paul Miller calls “new kinds of literacy: digital media, cut and paste imagination, non-linear thinking, you know, kind of the whole twentieth century, McLuhan The Medium is the Massage kind of thing” (see the fourth epigraph to Week 5. ↩
- For Pope, the constraint comes in the form of intervention, which can be as small as changing the pronouns in a text to as large as imagining the events of a text from the perspective of a different character, changing an event and imagining how that change would play out, or remediating the text into a new genre or medium. (Many of the activities Daniel Anderson discusses in “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-Level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation” are forms of textual intervention.) For Ramsay, on the other hand, the constraints come in the form computer algorithms we might use to produce data about a text which, in turn, we use to help us interpret a text. ↩
- For a list of deformance tools to play with – from imaging glitch software to the IVANHOE game – see the Deformance Tools section of dhresourcesforprojectbuilding. ↩