Are Digital Technologies Rendering Formal Textual Distinctions Obsolete?: A Response to Greetham

image composite: Trauman; individual image credits at the end of the entryReading this morning in Eliot & Rose’s A Companion to the History of the Book, and I was startled at the gravity and clarity of David Greetham’s chapter, “What is Textual Scholarship?” In it he argues that in order to define “textual scholarship,” we must first articulate a working definition of “text.” He argues that his earlier call to include painting, sculpture, poems, films, symphonies, gestures, etc. isn’t capacious enough to effectively move textual scholarship forward in a world increasingly mediated by digital technologies. I agree. But my interests in the chapter aren’t in “texts” in the general sense, but a much more specific notion of text know as “the book.”

My first inclination is to suggest that the book is a class within a set of objects we call texts. But that started to fall apart immediately, as I reflected on how, exactly, digital technologies were perturbing each of the elements in Greetham’s set. For instance, how have digital technologies affected “the symphony” as a text? In someways, the most traditional notions remain, undisturbed. Performance. Written scores. And digital tech hasn’t really affected how we think of recordings of symphonies, either, except maybe for an improvement in fidelity. But the digital allows for a more expansive and granular reach. Reproduction and distribution of a symphony is much different in a world of filesharing, streaming audio, and online media stores. And there are many more ways to access and experience that symphony as a digital text. For instance, different orchestral sections might be recorded in discrete contexts, much in the same way lots of professional recordings of popular music use multi-track mixing techniques. A listener could isolate one or more instrument sections by altering the sound levels of each. And then there are options for visual elements to make up the text as well. Visuals responding to the audio, or visuals to which the music might be responding, for instance. And then there are all of the roles which traditional alphabetic text might play as pop-ups, closed-captioning, user-generated comments or notation, etc. The form of the symphony, in this case, expands and complexifies to encompass other, traditionally discrete forms within it.

The same might be said for any of the other genres in Greetham’s initial list. A sculpture might contain several films, audio interaction, and the gestures of its observers. Video games incorporate gesture and film technique into a single formal text. And of course, there’s no shortage of discussion about the different modal elements that books can contain, in addition to the traditional static image/text combination. That conversation has been going strong since the early days of the CD-Rom.

Books. Books. Books. What does this mean for books? It would be easy, too easy in fact, to resign ourselves to the idea that books are no longer books because they contain so many other modalities. For instance, is a symphony still a symphony if, as a digital text, it communicates alphabetic text and visual images along with the aural content? Is a film still a film if it contains digital elements of a symphony, images, and alphabetic text? And is there any point in arguing for a distinction?

Absolutely. I’ll be getting to that shortly.

(images: “Chicago Symphony Orchestra, featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio,” jordanfischer, via Flickr, CC license; “Return of the Bumble Bee,” lighthack, via Flickr, CC license.)

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