Pet Book Report #10: The Civil War in Song and Story

This week’s readings turn to the question that for me is at the heart of my investigations in this course: is there such a thing as a divide between the material embodiment of a text and what it says, and if there is, where can that line be drawn? This question has proven to be particularly relevant in my exploration of genre, which seeks to do the same work of neat classification and often utilizes standard elements of material form in order to delimit its claims (such as the columned format of newspapers proclaiming the text enclosed in that form as news, with certain kinds of constructed expectations, social value, and legal protections). For a book like my pet book then, which blurs lines of genre—partly by mimicking that columned format, bringing it into a different space with very different expectations, value, and legal protections—also under question is the separation between form and content upon which Kirschenbaum and especially Hayles cast doubt.

Given that both Kirschenbaum and Hayles center their arguments around the way in which digital media–variously embodied in the hardware in front of the user, the internal logic of software which transforms whatever the digital is made of into something legible which Kirschenbaum centers, or the abstract sense of a core disembodied source which users may pull up separately on their local systems to view and possibly make change that reflects back into the central node—undermines traditional understandings of embodiment, one of the things I found myself considering this week was how the various digitizations of The Civil War in Song and Story, which I’ve discussed before, are not simply attempts to preserve a text but texts worthy of preservation in and of themselves. That it may be valuable someday—or even today, given how quickly the internet may change without, despite what people often claim, a trace of what it was like before—to understand the particular ways in which OCR failed in Google Books’s transcription of Moore’s work. This understanding sheds new light on the value of the work we’ve been doing in our Pet Book projects, as contributing not only to the archival understanding of the particular book we chose, or even in a broader sense the communal literary understanding of a particular author or genre, but in every sense, including documenting the ways in which today’s projects like the Internet Archive meet some user needs and fail to meet others and what that says about our expectations for what elements of digitality are prioritized. In that sense, this week illuminates for me a kind of continuity between media, the way in which tracing a particular text can move from 18th-century newspapers to the programs and institutions that document those newspapers today, that speaks to Darton’s reference of Adams and Barker’s concept of the evolution and survival of texts. In that way, it seems to me that our ability to speak of a “title” which transcends media, materiality, and editorial fumbling alike is more clearly indicated than ever.

I had difficulty less with Hayles’s subject matter than with the argument she advances about the ways in which she seems to posit that material metaphors structure not only the general expectations readers have of print but place strict limits on what is possible or impossible within the whole field of print, that there are “extraordinary resources offered by electronic environments” that have no analogous print counterparts (22). The “hypertext” paradigm is insufficient for Hayles because of its inability to capture the qualities, more than linking, which separate the digital from print, like the “sound, motion, animation” of second-generation electronic literature (22). But just as Hayles’s self-referential encyclopedia and choose-your-own-adventure books demonstrate that print hypertexts exist, so too can I think of print works that utilize these extraordinary resources, from picture books puppets and sound clips of animal sounds to animated flipbooks. The Civil War in Song and Story takes the content of the Rebellion Record, forced into compliance with chronology because of its ongoing publication as a periodical, and makes it nonlinear, a 19th-century example of print prefiguring the digital. At times, the material exigencies of print even demand nonlinearity. Though Hayles claims that “navigation…not only between lexias but between images and words…was an effect print could not duplicate,” the necessity of locating intaglio illustrations between gatherings in Moore’s work means that an illustration inserted between p. 104 and 105 which directs the reader to p. 107, in which the particular poetic image it depicts appears, requires the reader to make the connection between word and image in a very physical act of turning pages, of experiencing the navigation with their own hands. In this light, Hayles seems to be recreating the fallacy of print/manuscript culture with her sharp distinctions between print and digitality. Print and digital works might instead be considered not entirely separate modes of production with mutually exclusive qualities and capabilities but media which exist on a spectrum so that works may be both print and digital at the same time (a notion that is particularly exciting for books like The Civil War in Song and Story which are accessible to most people only in digital form; even I’ve used the digital facsimiles more often than the print copy in the archives).

Finally, this emphasis on what materiality is has suggested some further avenues of exploration that I might like to explore further if I ever get the time. For one thing, given the ways in which I’ve been looking at authorship as a legal construct (allowing Moore to register his work with the Library of Congress while he strips and uses the attribution of the news columns he quotes from as he pleases), I find Hayles’s brief treatment of it interesting and that it raises questions about how anonymity necessarily affects copyright and whether anonymity can ever be legislated. For another, given that Hayles’s understanding of how both print and digital texts are embodied is rooted in the idea of the visual, I’ve found myself very interested in how books for blind readers uphold or challenge these views, from the interaction of touch that braille and other tactile writing systems demand (like the “touch spots” of medieval manuscripts) to the conception of what the print reading experience is which lies at the heart of the DAISY format, given that it was developed in order to be a complete substitute for the visual experience of print. These considerations could, I think, shed new light on that central question of where the object ends and the text begins.

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