Examining the multiple digital presentations of William Blake’s work, it became apparent that scholars had to decide whether or not, in archiving his work, they would present it as text with accompanying images or each plate as its own work with artistic elements of words interwoven with images (and words as works of art unto themselves). This affected not only the choice of presentation, or interface that presented Blake’s work, but also whether it would be searchable, indexed, and historically situated.
Most of the archives chose to privilege Blake’s text over the images not only because they desired to construct a searchable database of these words for scholars, but for epistemological reasons as well. Both Textarc and The Blake Digital Text Project emphasize his poetic skills, and the William Blake archive separates the text from the image and uses a representational matrix that continually asks, “what thought/idea is Blake attempting to signify with this image?” Blake’s work is acknowledged and held in acclaim for its representational logic and for the signifying power of his poetry, or use of language, instead of the additional play on representational forms that the plates make. As the assignment sheet attests, “Tyger, tyger burning bright” is the opening line of the most anthologized poem in the world, but what about the accompanying images and manipulation of lettering? There are material constraints interwoven in this distinction that I am pointing out, namely that one cannot search for an image but can search through metatext that attempts to indicate what an image is signifying, but I think that other archives thought about this representational logic as well. For instance, the Library of Congress Blake archive chose to present the Songs of Innocence and Experience in an “original” codex form that has been scanned. The plates function as images and text that are inseparable (and therefore not searchable) as one work that speaks to the function of images and words as well the poetic use of language to create a “written text.”
I am not attempting to make value distinctions between the two models, but instead want to focus on the representational and epistemological consequences of such a distinction. The move to emphasize Blake’s representational logic (or the elusive thing that is being signified) attempts to examine how and why Blake set about crafting his work from a very humanist perspective; implicit in this is a necessary familiarity with his work when encountering the archive. For instance, when navigating through the William Blake Archive, the user can search through text or choose types of images to view from categories, or can view specific plates. Developing such an interface separates plates from other plates and attempts to individualize them in some way as works unto themselves—it is analogous to examining a single track on a music album without focusing on the context that is developed through the other tracks (and yet one must wonder if such a context is always present, and if the desire for that context from the author of the text matters if it exists—a question we have looked at in depth this semester). The Library of Congress Blake archive retains this context through the presentation of the codex, and attempts to introduce Blake’s work through an “authentic” original (which contains its own problems-See Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and other Critical Theorists who work on the concept of “origin”). I think it is important to note that one of these archives is a project developed by university sponsored academics, while the other is an outgrowth of the Library of Congress; both have overlapping audiences, but have different institutional objectives and prerogatives.
This question of audience affects the development of an interface for the reading/viewing of Blake’s works for the archives as well. The Library of Congress Blake archive is not only designed to stand in for the codex (by presenting the work as a digital codex that is to be read chronologically), but also introduces audiences to Blake in a way that other archives like Textarc do not. Clicking through the pages of the codex emphasizes an interaction with the text that was unavailable to many before and stands in for how the text was supposedly “intended” to be read by the author; the site is positing its archive as providing the “real thing.” Other sites emphasize scholarly investigations of the original work, and do not attempt to stand in for the work (or introduce it for that matter), but instead present it in a new fashion and allow for accessibility to aspects of the work that were previously unavailable. But Textarc and The Library of Congress Blake archive employ formalist notions of reading and do not consider the historical context or construction of the plates and text the way the William Blake Archive does. While Textarc and the William Blake Archive emphasize non-linear reading patterns of users (Textarc more explicitly), the question of audience in relation to these works determines in many ways how the archive is constructed. The William Blake Archive emphasizes scholarly articles that are available on Blake and point out different historical and cultural aspects of the work, focusing on its construction and the cultural impact Blake had; in comparison, the other archives are focused more on facilitating accessibility to Blake’s texts and representing these texts in novel ways.
What is most important in evaluating these works is acknowledging that none of them stand-alone. Many work off one another and may be used in tandem; in all likelihood the developers of the various archives may have been (or are still) in conversation with one another and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their various archives, allowing for others to develop digital works that are not intended to shadow other archives, but instead work alongside them. Researching the historical context, specific images or text in Blake’s plates, or the intertextual information provided to the reader between the prints in a book requires multiple resources that these archives provide.Posted by Andrew at May 5, 2004 06:03 PM