Noting the two entries that have been posted so far (Jess and Jenny), it’s rather interesting that at this point in this discussion of Blake, little has been mentioned about the content of his work, the ways in which Blake creates virtual spaces through the juxtaposition of blended imagery and text within his plates. This is quite appropriate in the context of this assignment—to search and discuss variant Blake resources in a critical manner is to search and discuss the mediation of Blake, not the work in itself. In fact, within new media (a purposefully broad term) there is a current that dictates that any close reading of a (new) mediated text is really a close reading of the media itself. We read Blake and cognitively blend the content of each plate but we do so based on prior decisions made with the text and, more importantly, prior incisions that digitization has made on us. Put differently, we possess an (often unconscious) awareness of the digital that precedes our interaction with these texts, an unspoken mandate that the text exist as a manipulable, user-controlled entity.
And, indeed, manipulation is what we get when we encounter these various Blake sites. As Jenny notes, this manipulation is quite obviously pre-configured towards the aims of the specific sites. But to what degree can we say that this manipulation actually reflects the content of Blake’s artistry? Do the structure/ interface/ presentation in these sites in allow us to reflect upon the nature of the plates themselves? In other words, do these sites in any way extend in the conceits put forth by Blake’s composition? The answer, of course, varies from site to site but each can be seen as an expositor of sorts of the aims of Blake himself, namely the desire to expunge “the notion that man has a body distinct from his Soul…by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives… and displaying the infinite which was hid” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14).
When working with Blake’s plates, one quickly develops an awareness of the degrees to which the “text” of the poetry itself becomes as inherently visual as the “imagery” of the work. In fact, it’s quite obvious that text in Blake is imagery to a large degree, completing the sweep of the entangled vines, arching tree branches, creeping fauna and advancing wildlife. By removing this division between sign (letters, words) and signified (images), Blake seeks to unify the rational and individual minds, creating a space where the human reaches its truest potential in its own conceptions. Combined with the inherent self-reflexivity of new media, this desire becomes manifest in the presentations of Blake found on the web.
Take, for instance, The Blake Digital Text Project, specifically the Songs of Innocence and Experience Graphical Hypertext, which aims to present the movement from “pre-verbal, pure sound inspiration to sung words to written text” (Hilton 1998) that is evident from the opening of the cycle. Indeed, it is this in this reading that our navigation of this cycle becomes bound. Blake worked in multi-dimensional multi-media, and it is here that we extend our readings past the simple black and white digitization of the plates themselves. Note that the point of not using color images is to increase navigational speed, as if progression through these texts is the focus, not the close reading of the plate itself. Knowing this, one must realize that the text itself is not necessarily inconsequential but, rather, only a portal to other mediations of it. We do not browse The Blake Digital Text Project in order to read the text (even if this was the only online version at the time, codex facsimiles have existed for years). Instead, we navigate in order to become part of a larger multimedia experience (sound and image). Just as Blake’s plates allow us to view the multidimensionality of the visual-textual form, so does this site allow us to interact with the extensions of this form into aural media. It becomes, then, a site that, although antiquated to our techno-myopic eyes, recognizes Blake’s own use of multimedia extensions and fulfills at least partially the promise the of McGannian archive.
The Romantic Circles MOO, however, presents a differently oriented yet equally visual-textual aware mediation of Blake. In it, the text itself becomes the means through which the user not only navigates the site (and Blake’s work), but also the means through which its imagery is constructed. Granted, all text in one way or another corresponds to determinants of visual cognition yet in a first-person forum like a MOO, this text constitutes spatial orientations as well. We change form, float to the heavens and traverse estates much in the same way that the text of Blake’s works snakes its way from plate to plate, the visual line extending far beyond the “page” that pretends to contain it. To put this differently, although it is certainly possible to use image concordance to traverse almost hypertextually between plate spaces, it is ultimately the text that drives us on towards the completion of the Blakean cycle. Similarly, it is text in the MOO (typed or clicked) that allows for interaction and completion.
So what, then, do we make of TextArc, where imagery is absent and the Blake’s work becomes nothing more than discrete units to be distributed through the algorithm of a verbal centrifuge? Can we say that this, too, contains an awareness of Blake’s intentions? Although Jess was certainly correct in asserting that both textual and image distribution could make this a far more encompassing site (imagine that for a second—images broken down into lines and forms to be constructed, deconstructed and followed through the length of the plate[s]), TextArc does, in many ways, come closest to approximating the visual-textual dynamics of Blake’s work as a whole. Poems are broken down into swirling, cascading vortexes of meaning with whole lines struggling to maintain the delicate balance between the chaos of scattered words and their simultaneous unity. We use this maelstrom as an interface; our actions within this space are an attempt to make sense of this verbal ataxia, to find patterns in the seeming randomness. Yet again, one cannot help but be struck by how innately visual this whole enterprise is. In the case of Blake (perhaps not so for Alice in Wonderland et. al), TextArc is successful not because it breaks text into its base patterning (there is still some work to be done here) but, rather, because it alludes to the erasure of the division between text and image. Johanna Drucker maintains that all text is inherently visual, especially so on the screen. Blake reminds us that this division is an inordinately human one to make, but also an inordinately limiting distinction as well. TextArc provides us with a tool to dissolve these barriers, rendering text and “texted” image one in the same.
And so it is, having looked at these sites, one cannot help but be underwhelmed by the scans of the texts provided by The Library of Congress. Quality here is quite clearly not the issue. The scans are brilliantly rendered and extraordinarily intimate. It seems clear, though, that the use of digital media has and always should entail an awareness of the media itself, a self-reflexivity that attempts to accommodate digital nature with textual nature. The Library of Congress scans, though, are only copies. They do not contain the awareness necessarily to truly translate an analog object into digital form. Each site discussed here shows us that not only cannot Blake be separated from the concept of multimedia(tions), but also that, online, his text cannot be separated from its carrier either.
Nelson Hilton --"William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience"
in The Blackwell Companion to Romanticism, ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998).