I’m trying to do some serious work with Espen Aarseth’s distinction between texton and scripton. Though I have a general sense of how to use the two terms in casual critical conversation I’m not confident that my understanding of them is as rigorous and nuanced as Espen would want to insist. The key passage is to be found on page 62 of Cybertext. Let’s walk through it.
We first start by defining text:
A text, then, is any object with the primary function to relay verbal information.
Two words seem immediately important here, “object” and “verbal.” Is an object a literal physical entity? Is it the same as an artifact? The word is too abstract to do all the work it seems called upon to do. And what precisely is meant by “verbal”? Is verbal the same as linguistic? Alphanumeric?
Two observations follow from this definition: (1) a text cannot operate independently of some material medium, and this influences its behavior,
Why does this observation follow? Because “object,” as above, is used to reference some literal physical entity, which is constituitive of a “material medium”?
and (2) a text is not equal to the information it transmits.
Uh oh, “information” again. A word that rarely lays down easily. Let’s see where we go with it.
Information is here understood as a string of signs, which may (but does not have to) make sense to a given observer.
Note the introduction of two more load-bearing terms: “string” and “signs”. Is string meant to imply linear sequence? Does the word “signs” appear dressed simply in its semiotic clothes, or does it mean something special? The emphasis on the perception of the observer seems to suggest code, inscription, hieroglyphics, as well as alphanumerics. Are we operating in a visual register here or a formal one? Do “signs” follow from the earlier specification of the “verbal”?
It is useful to distinguish between strings as they appear to readers and strings as they exist in the text, since these may not always be the same.
We begin the slide into scripton and texton. Note “appear” which seems to suggest visible legibility, and the recurrence of “strings,” which suggest linear sequence.
For want of better terms, I call the former scriptons and the latter textons. Their names are not important but the difference between them is.
The meat of the matter . . .
In a book such as Raymond Queneau’s sonnet machine Cent mille milliards de poemes (Queneau 1961), where the user folds the lines in the book to “compose” sonnets, there are only 140 textons but these combine into 100,000,000,000,000 possible scriptons.
This is the one specific example offered. Note that it is based on a printed, rather than an electronic cybertext. Aarseth, of course, is impatient with such distinctions throughout his work, but can we then assume that HTML source code (“View Source”) maps in like fashion onto the scriptons visible through my browser? To take a standard classroom example.
In addition to textons and scriptons, a text consists of what I call a traversal function—the mechanism by which scriptons are revealed or generated from textons and presented to the user of the text.
This introduces the (seemingly) critical idea of the traversal function, yet it is not much glossed; the specific word “mechanism” is called upon to bear much of the explanatory burden.
Scriptons are not necessarily identical to what readers actually read, which is yet another entity (lexie in the Barthesian sense?) and one not determined by the text.
So is this another major part of the argument, or a gesture to the influence of reader response and interpretive communities—the notion that no two readers “read” the same text?
Instead, scriptons are what an ideal reader reads by strictly following the linear structure of the textual output.
Where does this leave us? The traversal function is glossed by the seven variables presented in the following pages, but texton and scripton receive no further explicit elaboration in the book. I don’t have specific questions, just the general sense that the presentation of these terms is too sparse for me to feel comfortable putting much of my critical weight on them. Anyone care to share their own interpretation of texton and scripton?
Update: Should textons and scriptons always be understood as relative terms? If I view the source of a Web page, the source code (the textons) become scriptons as they are presented in an interface (say Notepad) as conventionalized and artificial as the browser. Textons repeatedly, inexorably, are elevated to scriptons as the user tries to walk down the relentlessly upward moving escalator of symbolic abstractions that is emerging from the lowest levels of the computer.
What do you, as a scholar, want to be able to do with existing full text electronic resources—like the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center collections, or the Brown Women Writers Project, to name two—that you currently cannot do? What kinds of research questions do you have that these collections currently cannot help you answer but which you think perhaps one day they could or should? What kinds of features, functionality, and results would assist you or encourage you in using these collections in your work?
Don’t worry about what is or isn’t technically feasible. Just be as clear as you can about what you want and why you want it.
Yes, there is a context for this question.
From Go To, Steve Lohr’s history of programming languages (Basic Books, 2001), comes this account of the noon-day pursuits of the IBM team that developed FORTRAN (the first high level language):
And there were lunch time games of Kriegspiel (“War game,” in German.) Kriegspiel is a form of “blind chess,” in which two players sit side by side, each with a board, and a divider blocks the view of each other’s board. Each player makes moves in turn, and tries to imagine the moves the opponent makes. There is a referee who provides “clues,” by announcing when a piece is successfully captured or when a player cannot make a move because an opponent’s piece blocks the way. For a certain kind of mind, Kriegspiel was recess.
(See the context for this post here. )
Storage room indeed. Peeking at the sectors on the disk image of Sierra Online’s classic Mystery House (1980), using the hex viewer in Copy II+ running in an APPLEWIN emulator. Tip of the hat to Nick for getting me going with this.
Went to hear a talk by Jim Gemmell of the MyLifeBits project today. MyLifeBits is a Microsoft BARC research project, explicitly conceived as realization of Vannevar Bush’s plans for the Memex as an information management system and repository. The guinea pig is Gordon Bell. He has accumulated, as the project description has it, “a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings and stored them digitally. He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio.” I’m currently writing about MyLifeBits in my chapter on hard drives and storage media, so it was good to have the opportunity to hear Gemmell’s talk.
It’s easy to play pocket postmodernist and wax skeptical about the enterprise. The language surrounding the project continually lobs hyperbole like “a lifetime store of everything” and “Gordon Bell is his data.” The project seems to recognize no meaningful distinction between born-digital media like copies of every Web page Bell visits and the physical media of his past and present surroundings. One prominent object in the collection is what Bell refers to as his $10,000 coffee cup, all he has left of a start up he had sunk money into. The coffee mug, Gemmell tells us, is now included in the repository. Except of course it isn’t—what’s included are representations and depictions of the coffee mug, in the form of digital photographs. When I pointed out this out Gemmell seemed to regard it as a small point and ventured that technology would soon allow for ubiquitous 3-D modeling. Hmmm. At some point it would be healthy for the project team to be honest with itself about what is actually being captured and retained here.
MyLifeBits also seems blissfully unconcerned with such matters as intellectual property, DRM, software standards, downstream compatibility, preservation, and other non-virtual realities of contemporary computation. The privacy issues alone are huge and scary: around his neck Gemmell wore an automated camera which uses an array of metrics and sensors to capture a photostream of the wearer’s day—neat, you can replay a kind of impromptu home movie of any given day’s events. Yet Gemmell brushed off questions about the legal and civil implications. It got even more interesting after the talk, when I went up to ask what happens when my desire to save a copy of every song I’ve ever listened to collides with the iceberg of DRM. At this point Gemmell said that ultimately MyLifeBits may not seek to preserve actual media content but rather metadata—what’s important are not the bits in the song itself, but a record of the fact that I listened to such and such a song on a gorgeous, 65-degree afternoon on such and such a day when I attended the MyLifeBits talk, etc. etc.—if I then wanted to hear the song the presumption is that there will be a digital service to make it available to me (for the appropriate micropayment). This is not, I think, a small point that should emerge only with a walk-up question after the formal presentation is concluded.
Nonetheless, MyLifeBits stirs something in me. We are, most of us, destined for 1 terabyte lives—this, Gemmell predicts, is all the media the vast majority of us will produce and consume on our mortal coil. Such is the cold calculus of modern data storage. But MyLifeBits includes a psychic counterweight, almost as an afterthought, in the form of a screensaver which Gemmell jokingly refered to as its killer app. The idea is that when your computer goes idle some random bit of your past—a video clip, a photograph—will appear on the screen. You can, if you like, sieze the moment to annotate it, adding metadata to enrich its value to the overall collection. There’s a sweetspot (Gemmell called it) in this spontaneous user interaction when you might be willing to reflect and comment on the media in a way that you wouldn’t if asked to carry out the task in some more formal, methodical fashion. And therein lies the poignancy: for here, at the screensaver, that thinnest of interfaces between storage and lived experience—so fragile that a mere keystroke or mouse touch will disturb its placid waters—is a reflecting pool on whose surface appear images of our personal past, images which we can accept and engage with (or else pass over and reject) in ways that depend entirely on chance, contingency, whimsy, mood, the local environment, the closeness of another, and all the other non-quantifiable unreproducible irreducibles that escape informationalization in the stark schemas of MyLifeBits. This is humanistic computing, warm, humane, and profoundly human.
The last two weeks we continued to develop themes from the first class, using a variety of texts including numerous images of saints and scribes writing (most readily available on the Web), the Bible, the poetry of George Herbert, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. With regard to the images, a Google search on St. Jerome, Gregory, Matthew, Hildegard, and others will turn up dozens and dozens of instances where writing is the main activity depicted. Consider these three representations of Saint Matthew and the angel:
These are an anonymous 15th century French illumination, an oil by Simone Cantarini (1645/1648), and an oil by Rembrandt (1661), respectively. There are at least two levels on which discussion can transpire. Literal—”What’s that thing on Matthew’s desk?”—and figurative—how does the angel’s relationship to Matthew alter the way writing is depicted in each image? Collecting images of this sort would make an excellent activity for class discussion.
We spent much of yesterday on Don Quixtote, a text Roger Chartier has worked on extensively. It is, of course, a metafiction and recursive text. The constant leakage between the world of the book and the world of the reader is the primary mechanism by which Cervantes achieves his satire. This is the tradition of Borges’ Pierre Menard and Paul Auster’s use of the Quixote and I won’t dwell on it here. Second, and more important for our purposes, writing and the material difficulties of writing often dominate the plot. This means that actual writing technologies and the interactions between them are described in some detail—as in the episode where Don Quixote, lost in the wilderness of the Sierra Morenas, must write several letters and legal documents. He considers the implements available for this task:
[S]ince we have no paper, we should write as the ancients did on leaves of trees or on tablets of wax, though it will be as hard to find wax as paper. But now that I come to think of it, there is Cardenio’s book. I will write on that and you must see to it that it is copied out upon paper in a good round hand at the first village where you find a schoolmaster or a sacristan to transcribe it for you. But don’t have it transcribed by a notary, for their writing is so garbled that Satan himself would not make it out. (247)
There’s quite a lot going on in these sentences: Sancho Panza, whom Don Quixote is addressing, cannot read or write, and so the letters must be transcribed by a third party. (Sancho can, however, commit words to memory, and his misrememberings provide for additional layers of confusion in the plot.) Three possibilities for transcription are mentioned, scholarly, clerical, and juridical. I don’t know the exact reason for the gibe at the notaries, but presumably one could track it down. “Cardenio’s book” is earlier described as a “little memorandum book”; in fact it is a writing table, a portable codex with erasable pages (they were prepared with a special varnish) meant for temporary notes and jottings. (Such writing tables were a lost technology until recovered by PS and RC.) Note that the writing must be transferred to regular paper before it can assume proper legal authority. Mention is also made of the wax tablets, forerunners to Cardenio’s memory book. With regard to the ancients writing on leaves, it’s worth recalling that many of our earliest words for book have associations with trees: codex from the Latin “caudex,” book from the German for “beech,” the Latin “liber” which originally meant bark. What emerges here, I think, is that terms like orality and literacy do not operate as Ongian binaries but as part of an overlapping spectrum which constructs and consists of different kinds of writing, different kinds of writing technologies, and different kinds of writers (and readers). There are numerous such episodes throughout the text, perhaps the most famous of which is Don Quixote’s visit to a Barcelona printing shop in Part II.
Don Quixote displays a constant tension between erasure and inscription. The written word is always threatened with disappearance in this text, no matter its origin, medium, or audience. This phenomenon starts in the preface, where the text is almost kept from publication by the author’s inability to write a preface containing the customary verses, notes, and other paratextual apparatus. Then, in Part I, chapter 8, the narrative is abruptly stopped, quite cinematically, arms upraised in the midst of a sword fight. Who is the author up to this point? Cervantes of course, but the text refutes such literalism when in the next chapter it introduces “Cide Hamete Benengeli, Arabian historian.” His pages, which represent the continuation of the tale, are intercepted by the narrator in a Toledo bazaar as they are on their way to be sold as scrap to a rug merchant—as was pointed out by a member of the seminar, the text constantly teeters on the brink of disappearance, even as DQ himself searches for an appropriate author of his adventures. Later, in the second half of the book (published ten years later) the characters encounter the written exploits of their own earlier selves. For all of these reasons, I’m now strongly considering using excerpts from Don Quixote when I teach my Intro to Literary Studies next fall.
Much of our attention has also been focused on writing surfaces. Writing begins not with stones but with the heart. This is a well established biblical trope, for example Ezekial 36.26: “A new heart also wil I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stonie heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” Like the stiff-necked man who cannot bow his head before the lord, the stoney heart is a surfcae that cannot be written on. Recall that Moses’ stone tablets are broken almost as soon as they are received; when they are inscribed again, god is copying his own writing and so the commandments are received from a scribe as well as an author. In George Herbert’s “The Alter,” god becomes an etcher: “Thy power doth cut.” The poem appears The Temple and the 1674 W. Godbid (London) edition features some rather amazing constructions of the book as a physical space:
Note that the order of stanzas is transposed, 2 above 1, in order to create the perspective for the three-dimensional effect—predictably, the two stanzas remained transposed in many later, more conventional typographic settings of the poem.
Perhaps the final thing to be said is that our focus on interactions between orality, manuscript writing, and printing is giving me some new perspectives on theorists like Ong, whose sharp psychological divide between orality and literacy now seems less compelling than the myriad and complex ways different modes of communication interacted with and fed back on one another. But neither are simple models of “complementarity” necessarily sufficient, where each mode of communication is treated as having its place in a broad spectrum of writing technologies. Peter Stallybrass favors a model by which which new technologies like print paradoxically spur revolutions in older practices, for example manuscript writing; his favorite example of this is actually a quite contemporary one: the customs forms that one fills out when traveling to the United States from abroad. A printed, mass-produced form becomes the setting for autographic manuscript writing. Peter describes this as an instance of “compulsory literacy” and makes the point that literacy itself is not a homogeneous descriptor—the skills required by a scribal copyist, for example, were very different from those of an accountant or someone keeping a datebook. (See, for example, the schoolmaster, cleric, and notary in Don Quixtote, above.)
The particular volume I’m looking for is nameless, lacking a cover, title page, or any other outward markings of identity. Over the centuries its leaves have known nothing but change. They have been removed, replaced, altered, lost. The nameless book has been bound, taken apart, and reassembled with the pieces of other dismembered volumes, until one could ask whether there is anything left of the original. Or if there ever was an original.
Miriam mentions Borges; the premise also reminds me of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (for which a PDF typescript is said to have circulated online before the printed publication—I’ve never seen it) and, of course, the eldritch patron of them all.
From John Unsworth comes this documentary footage, accompanied by Professor Wilhelm Ott (Tuebingen) narrating an early, highly experimental multimedia project.
Digital Designs on Blake, a new electronic feature at Romantic Circles, edited by Ron Broglio (who’s a friend) and containing work from lots of great people, including the herd’s own Joseph Byrne. Also David M. Baulch, Marcel O’Gorman, Nelson Hilton, Adam Komisaruk (see also his piece in the current Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly), Steven Guynup, and Fred Yee.
Blake studies is an interesting place to track digital humanities. On the one hand, you have the documentary tradition, probably most typified by the Blake Archive (which has just published Blake’s gorgeous illustrations to Dante). On the other hand you have the kind of explorations and experimentation found here, which include work with MOOs, Flash, and 3-D modeling. It’s silly to argue that one or the other is somehow more “Blakekean” or more faithful to Blake’s own poetics—that’s never been a compelling criteria to me. But it’s not surprising that Blake functions as a receptor site for both modes of digital scholarship, since Blake himself embodied all the contradictions: illuminator and copyist, visionary and social realist, artist and laborer. Go have a look for yourself.
Question: who would commit to buying and playing a board game priced upwards (sometimes well upwards) of $60.00, with an 80-page rulebook that demands an investment of many hours of real time to simulate a few seconds, at most minutes, of the event it’s depicting?
Answer: an audience of less than 1,000 world wide, according to J. D. Webster, designer of the World War II air combat game Whistling Death (the title comes from the Japanese nickname for the US Navy Corsair). As some of you know, my weekend hobby is, well, “wargaming,” more euphemistically known as conflict simulation. (There is in fact a Master’s course in conflict simulation now offered at King’s College, London.) What is the appeal of these games? The kneejerk answer might be toys for boys, i.e. much the same low-grade testosterone kick of a Rambo action movie—but it only takes a moment’s consideration to realize that doesn’t jibe with the formidable barriers to entry recounted above. Whistling Death is not a game I play since the particular subject doesn’t interest me enough, but J. D. captures well what appeals to me in many comparable games, ranging from the ponderous musket and pike clashes of the English Civil War to the dreadnought battleship duels of 20th century naval warfare.
Here’s his take on his gaming audience:
They are generally enthusiastic and serious students of air warfare and appreciate the level of detail that the wargame goes into as it helps them visualize why a fight develops the way it does. WD was designed by a former Navy/ANG Jet pilot in such a way as to allow the three dimensional development of a dogfight to be depicted. They are detail nuts - who care that an airplane with 1100 horsepower will be rated differently than one of similar size and weight with 1350 hp. They care that 20mm cannon have more destructive capability than smaller machine guns despite the fact the smaller guns are putting out more shells in a two second burst and therefore they like the fact that WD’s designer takes into account rate of fire, weight of fire, bullet spread and destructive power of individual weapons in his game ratings. . . . They are not interested in the unrealistic split second reactive and usually badly modeled video arcade or computer air game. When they move a piece in a fighting wings game, they will get a feel for the effect the maneuver had on the plane’s total energy state, note the change in relative geometry of the fight their move had and note the impact of their move in the thoughtful reactions of their opponents.
One of the implications of J. D.’s remarks is that our most detailed games, at least in the realm of historical conflict simulation, remain
analog printed rather than digital electronic. Why is that, given that the games are essentially cardboard computers? To wit:
The movement system is relatively intricate and, while using a hexgrid map, still allows you to change an aircraft’s pitch in 30 degree increments or to make facing changes on the map in 30 degree increments, but those changes take time to accomplish, measured in distance moved across the map based on the aircraft’s speed. Each plane speeds up and slows down according to how many acceleration points or deceleration points it accumulates in a turn. Decel offsets accel in this matter. Your selected actions will have a direct bearing on this. One accel/decel point represents about a 5mph change in speed.
Note that this kind of simulation takes us very specifically back to the roots of modern computing. I would love to hear from the ludologists among us.
Via Humanist: what are the origins of the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy we seem to take for granted these days? Well, it appears to be T. S. Eliot, who wrote these lines in a poem called “The Rock” in 1934:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
I actually knew of the reference already, but it’s interesting to see it confirmed as the first use of these terms in relationship to one another. More here.