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Modernism/Modernity 9.4 (2002) 683-691
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Theory as Praxis:
The Poetics of Electronic Textuality
Digital Poetics. Loss Glazier. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 320. $24.95 (paper).
Electronic Texts in the Humanities. Susan Hockey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 216. $24.95.
Radiant Textuality. Jerome McGann. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. xvi + 288. $35.00 (cloth).
In the heady days when theory turned the world of critical studies upside down, Jacques Derrida was one of the people who caused us to rethink the very foundation of our work. Everything—texts, readings, interpretation, meaning itself and all the intellectual frameworks we had taken for granted—was called into question. So imagine my excitement, two years ago, when I was asked to participate in a conference at SUNY Albany where Derrida was to talk about digital media. Who, if not this remarkable individual, could bring traditional theory into serious dialogue with new technology?
The actual event proved illuminating—but not in the way I had expected. In fact, something so untoward took place as I watched the theorist, with all his deconstructive skills, unable to get a purchase on digital media, that it has taken me awhile to grasp the significance of the event.
I did not witness a distinguished old man unable to perform, losing his edge, blunt weapons falling down useless and inadequate to the task. No, the problem was not in the man, but in the theoretical idea within which he was working. Theory itself wasn't up to the job. At least, not theory as we have known it in the various guises of structuralist to post-colonial idioms of the once-vital stream of interrogative thought. Why? Because abstract theory, critiques of the foundations of textuality in the terms of older philosophy, can not cope with digital media. Derrida's observations were made from a distance, fraught with [End Page 683] the perils of slight acquaintance. Like many humanist theorist-critics, Derrida does not engage with new technology directly, he merely reflects and observes. This will not do.
The world is changing. Just as dramatically and radically as it did under the influence of post-structuralism and deconstruction. But the changes being wrought are taking place in day to day activities that are, for the most part, far from the seminar rooms that spawned theoretical activity in the past. These changes are being enacted and performed in the making of electronic instruments whose premises will change the way humanities is done. In his recently published Radiant Textuality, Jerome McGann provides an account of these changes by distinguishing between theory as gnosis (conceptual undertakings) and theory as poeisis (construction). He points out that in the humanities this distinction is rarely maintained in part because the undertaking of hands-on projects is an uncommon experience—even though it results in "concrete acts of imagining" (RT, 83). Making things as a way of doing theoretical work pushes the horizons of one's understanding "because poiesis-as-theory makes possible the imagination of what you don't know" (RT, 83). These are themes central to McGann's current project—the creation of an electronic archive of the poetry and visual work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But even McGann, perspicacious as he is, did not begin his involvement with electronic media with this insight. It came over him in response to the specific technical exigencies that pressed upon his critical imagination in the working process. McGann's work demonstrates that the implications of these changes can only be grasped by an actual involvement with the production of new media artifacts. I am going to report on those changes to sketch some of the theoretical issues arising from current praxis—as well as to offer a glimpse of future developments in the realm of speculative computing. 1
Speculative computing is a fertile site of imaginative work that makes use of the capacities of computational processes to produce aesthetic provocations. Willard McCarty's Onomasticon, a study of Ovid's metamorphoses, is one such work. 2 Focusing...