What struck me the most about McGann’s thinking is that this man who devotes so much time and energy to building the Rossetti Archive also spends so much effort arguing (successfully, I would say) that bound, printed books are themselves a form of database. He consistently refers to the varying layers of information that can be gleaned from a printed work, from the content itself, to the arrangement of the material in print, to the way printed data is indexed, cataloged, and stored. With examples spanning from the very small through the massive, McGann shows that a text shouldn’t be viewed as any different from a very detailed and robust database. Indeed, I believe he is arguing that modern databases have a hard time reproducing the depth and complexity of a bound version of a database.

The “microscopic” detail of language itself provides challenges for textual analysis for machines, but humans often don’t consider it. When speaking of alphabetic and diacritic forms (what I typically think a computer considers simply bytes of data), McGann says that

“they are the rules for character formation, character arrangement, and textual space, as well as for the structural forms of words, phrases, and higher morphemic and phonemic units—that readers tend to treat them as preinterpretive and pre-critical. In truth, however, they comprise the operating system of language, the basis that drives and supports the front-end software” (115).

His argument is that we, too, process language in a very machine-like way. I see this as the essential root of all his work with databases: trying to reduce the complexities of language—and its interpretation—to things machines can read and understand. I see there being a large gap between thorough encoding and comprehension.

Where I do wholeheartedly agree with him is on the nature and importance of layout: “A page of printed or scripted text should thus be understood as a certain kind of graphic interface” (199) and on print-based reference systems:

“Grotesque systems of notation are developed in order to facilitate negotiation through labyrinthine textual scenes. To say that such editions are difficult to use is to speak in vast understatement. But their intellectual intensity is so apparent and so great that they bring new levels of attention to their scholarly objects” (79).

There is more useful metadata on a page than most people recognize. However, nearly every time I remember having read or annotated something, I recall precisely where on the page it was located. The interconnectedness of hypertext vastly reduces the complexities McGann identifies in notation systems; however, we have yet to sufficiently transfer the physical/spacial aspect of print into the digital arena.

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