And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The growing presence of multimedia online necessitates a redefinition of text. This is more difficult than it appears, for the word text is used as a blanket term for all sorts of media. As early as 1999, D. F. McKenzie defined text as “verbal, visual, oral, and numeric data, in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information, everything . . . from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography” (13). Indeed, the word text derives from the Latin verb textere, meaning ‘to weave’; in this sense, multimedia make up the digital text, just as threads constitute a tapestry. Moreover, beyond digital texts, we now have subspecies of ‘digital genres,’ such as the online edition, thesis, and blog (Liu 18). The Internet is therefore a hybrid space, where word and image intersect to form what Leo Hoek calls ‘iconotext’ (Gervais 195).
It is here that we return to Hayles’ Media Specific Analysis, and the gaps that exist in current bibliographic criticism. According to McKenzie, Saussure’s insistence upon the primacy of speech acts has confined critical attention to verbal structures, while dialects of written language (graphic, algebraic, hieroglyphic, typographic) have suffered exclusion from interpretation because they are not speech-related (34). As our definition of text expands to encompass multimedia such as visual and audio files, so must our hermeneutics embrace those media as legitimate forms of text. Indeed, digital humanists have begun incorporating iconotext into their analyses; algorithmic critics dismantle the word / image binary, with computers unraveling connections between artworks and displaying them “in a visual format entirely foreign to [their] original organization” (Ramsay 17).1 Visualizations replace the alphabet, projecting it (either micro- or macro-analytically) “at a different scale and with expanded powers of observation”; and GIS pushes readers to new frontiers—forcing them to grapple with images in place of words (Ramsay 17). In Jonathan Hope‘s algorithmic criticism, Shakespeare’s plays no longer fit the traditional definition of text, but are closer to pointillist paintings, full of dots and colour. Colour pluralizes reading, acting as a “combinative creative tool” that permits “multiple readings of the same text, as well as multiple relationships within it” (McKenzie 45). In cartography, blue typically signifies a river and black a railway or bridge; in Hope’s heat maps, black denotes overlapping diction and white discrete vocabularies in Shakespeare’s plays.
Navigating the Book-space
Past bibliographers, like Robinson and Petchenik, have objected that maps do not qualify as texts: cartography and language, they say, are “essentially incompatible” because language is verbal and comprised of “meaningful patterns of vocal sounds,” while maps lack a vocabulary, having “no grammar” nor any “temporal sequence of syntax” (qtd in McKenzie 45). Yet, as McKenzie observes, this definition of language “logically entails a limited concept of text,” for though maps are not a language in the narrower, phonological sense, they are nonetheless “constructions employing a conventional sign system” and so constitute texts (45-6). Maps employ conventions just like the printed page: we interpret a landscape, like a book, by naming its parts (valley, rock, and hill) and searching, like Guyon, for what we know:
Of faery lond yet if he more inquyre
By certein signes here sett in sondrie place. (Spenser Bk II Proem)
In this way, “maps take on meaning by virtue of the conventional understanding given to signs and their structure in a particular text” (McKenzie 43).
Falling under this umbrella of text then, is the University of Victoria’s Map of Early Modern London: a digitized version of the Agas Map, containing clickable landmarks from early modern literature. In MoEML, place no longer hovers between the verbal and the non-verbal but rises to textual significance:
The principles of textual criticism apply no less . . . because the words are graphically, indeed topographically, not grammatically or syntactically, defined. Difference, the essential ground of meaning in language, is here at least partly a matter of distance. (McKenzie 43)
With digital technology, London becomes a layered space like Faeryland in Spenser. MoEML raises all the same questions of intention and reader-response as Spenser’s allegorical poem: it establishes a “precise relationship between the physical phenomena represented within the map,” and assumes a ‘correct’ reading of that map as text (McKenzie 45). Like Spenser, MoEML‘s editors are selective in their choice of features:
Different maps tell very different stories, and assume very different forms, according to their function or their point of view. Ptolemy mapped the heavens by standing on the earth. Galileo remapped them by imagining that he was standing on the Sun. (McKenzie 44)
In this way, MoEML is not “subject-specific, any more than books, photographs, and films are” (McKenzie 44).
A Ship Adrift
If different maps tell different stories, then different stories make for different maps. On top of the Southbank Centre, at the heart of London overlooking the Thames, stands a ship christened Roi des Belges; the ship takes its name from the Belgian riverboat commanded by Joseph Conrad in 1890s Congo—an experience that inspired Conrad’s most celebrated work, Heart of Darkness (Bridle). Distressed that Roi des Belges was forever moored to the arts centre, James Bridle took it upon himself to program a virtual ship using a “broken hybrid of spam and webby language” and Conrad’s prose (Bridle, “Opening”). Data from a nearby weather station directs the course of an imaginary airship, called Ship Adrift, which is manned by a mad, lost, AI autopilot. If the wind gusts across the roof of the Southbank centre at 5 mph, then Ship Adrift ‘drifts’ five miles to the East:
I wanted to make the ship move, and I wanted to make it speak, and I wanted to speak back to it, with it, together. To make something. (Bridle)
As the ship drifts, it records its own logbook:
Bridle’s project links words to images, generating first-person narratives for a make-believe vessel that is, currently, bobbing off the coast of Western Australia. The stories that it tells are a defamiliarizing jumble of human passions and cyborg jargon:
Stories of loneliness:
I remembered crowd of a shadows the night, and he white memory of them. Such a darkness. That accumulate inspired uneasiness (11 Dec. 2012)
Stories of drinking:
“Nice little saloon, and in return came a precious trickle of despering. Keep a look-out? Well, you maybe. I delivered goods, thought cast me door they had been to grin, or even to the table for dinner, we had being else our secret parted; a stream of no more usual sense: it was afraid of accidents, though it to as in the othering. Keep a look-out? Well, you may guess that it was closed. For what it to revile men were against us; the elements, they had being the stillness, alluded extravagant, warm, stifling. (13 Jan. 2013)
Stories of arriving in a foreign land littered with buildings, beads, strings, and feral cats:
The Sunday quietness, I suppose, denied miles deep in itself – for they though it being lost into the ship; time that it?”Yes. He was a cat whisperings, buildings, beads, and in the signs of success, I confess of it was in the dead.’t it?” “Everythings. String. They thought cast me door the down very much in the me; but foreverythings, buildings. Strings, buildings, buildings. String.” (13 Jan. 2013)
As art, Ship Adrift hovers between verbal and non-verbal dimensions; as iconotext, it demands that we navigate the book-space, shifting the locus of meaning from pure phonetics to the alien signage of code and cartography.2
- See also the new HASTAC forum, Visualizing Geography: Maps, Place, and Pedagogy. [↩]
- It should be noted that iconotext is not exclusive to online publications: in his 2012 book Love and the Mess We’re In (advertised as a book that cannot be read on a Kindle), Stephen Marche includes a foldout map of his protagonists’ journey to New York; he also uses diagrams and constellations. [↩]