Digital Textual Studies, Social Informatics, and the Sociology of Texts: A Case Study in Early Digital Medievalism

July 17, 2013, 08:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C

This paper investigates the use of digital textual studies alongside the discourse of Social Informatics (SI) for the purposes of developing rich sociotechnical analyses of information and computing technologies (ICTs) in their manifestations as both projects and objects. I intend this approach both as a way of studying various digital humanities (DH) projects but also as a way of practicing a form of DH that, while not focused on building DH objects itself, investigates the social and technical conditions under which they are built. Toward that end, I discuss the affinities between digital textual studies and, as a demonstration of the joint analytical power of textual studies and SI, I present a case study of an early project in the history of humanities computing, Bessinger and Smith’s A Concordance to Beowulf (Bessinger & Smith, 1969).

Bibliography and textual criticism have long been characterized by an orientation toward media consciousness, one which has lately expanded to include the social aspects of artifacts. Indeed, as Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has argued (2008, p. 16), "textual studies,” an umbrella term for bibliography and textual criticism, “should be recognized as among the most sophisticated branches of media studies we have evolved.” As such, they are not just a set of methods for media-specific analysis; they can provide DH with valuable insights into the workings of digital media. For example, Alan Galey (2010, p. 93) has argued that "Textual scholarship stands to contribute two key ideas to the digital humanities: first, that there is more to electronic forms than what reaches the screen; and second, that the relationship of form to content is complex and sometimes beyond exhaustive modeling.”

Contemporary theorists, such as D.F. McKenzie (1999) and McGann (2004) have argued for the application of textual studies to a broad range of electronic artifacts. Indeed, bibliography, according McKenzie (1999, 12), “is the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms, and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception.” (Thus, for McKenzie, textual criticism is a form of Bibliography writ large.) Toward this end, McKenzie (1999, 13) defines “texts” 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 in fact from epigraphy to the latest forms of discography. There is no evading the challenge which those new forms have created.

Many of these “new forms” overlap with the ICTs that SI and other sociotechnical discourses study. As Rob Kling, Howard Rosenbaum, and Steve Sawyer (2005, 11), explain, “The acronym ‘ICT’ refers to information and communication technology—artifacts and practices for recording, organizing, storing, manipulating, and communicating information.” Moreover, there is also overlap in the social aspects of technology between SI and textual studies. In addition to “physical forms” and “textual versions,” McKenzie (1995, 13) counts among bibliography’s interests, “technical transmission, institutional control, [texts’] perceived meanings, and social effects.”

Indeed, for McKenzie, bibliography is properly considered the sociology of texts. It is in that sense a sociotechnical discipline and thus shares affinities with SI. SI, as defined by Rob Kling, is the "interdisciplinary study of the design, uses, and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts" (Kling, 2000, 218). SI and the sociology of texts share an attention to the ways in which technology and society are mutually shaped. Texts are key nodes in what Kling, Geoff McKim, and Adam King (2003) have called socio-technical interaction networks (STINs).

As a demonstration of how textual criticism and the insights of SI might be used together to produce an analysis that is above and beyond what either discourse can provide by itself, I present in this paper the case of Jess B. Bessinger and Philip H. Smith’s long term collaboration to produce a concordance of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. Bessinger, a professor of English, and Smith, a professor of Computer Science (and former researcher with IBM) formed various alliances with colleagues, vendors, publishers, and others during the life of their project. They mobilized these alliances to acquire and produce software, have custom hardware produced for them, distribute knowledge about new techniques, solicit advice, and sell the two concordance volumes produced by the project. The story of their collaboration cannot be told without discussing such alliances, specifically the ways in which the ICTs used and made by the collaborators shaped and were shaped by disciplinary cultures and institutional contexts. SI is very well suited for discussing such aspects of the project. A preliminary depiction of a STIN for this case study, which shows various social connections between people, institutions, and technologies could look like the following:

Despite the pioneering technical aspects of the work that went into the project, the goal for Bessinger and Smith was always to produce a paper volume that would be used by Old English scholars—that is, a book that would fit into traditional paper-based scholarly workflows. Thus I propose employing, alongside SI, studying the language features of the concordances and what Jerome McGann (2004, 11) has called “the apparitions of text—its paratexts, bibliographic codes, and all visual features—[which] are as important in the text's signifying programs as the linguistic elements.” By paying attention to such elements as they appear in the concordances, we can see evidence of a program of extreme automatization at work in their production. For example, whereas other computer-produced concordances of the era used computers to produce word lists that were then typeset by traditional methods, Bessinger and Smith used them not only to produce their word lists but also to typeset the camera-ready copy. This is clear, for example, in the fact that the text of the Beowulf concordance is struck in IBM’s Artisan font, which has a distinctly 1960s computerized look.

Both the objects produced by digital humanists and the projects that produce said objects are worthy of study. By “project” I mean the nexus of formal and informal relationships between people, institutions, and technologies that come together to meet a set of goals. Social Informatics is an approach to studying this nexus. In the case of DH, project goals are often the creation of objects (both concrete and virtual). Thus, digital textual criticism provides a powerful approach to analyzing such objects. The contribution my paper makes to the critical conversation in DH is to introduce and theorize this project-object distinction. I will demonstrate how pairing SI and digital textual criticism helps us to open up projects and objects in a way that exposes relationships between people, tools, and the work they produce. This is not simply a matter of saying that we should look at an artifact in context, for that would imply a primacy of object over project where I don’t intend one. In this paper, I lay out the case for why SI is a valuable discourse to be used in the study of DH. I discuss affinities between SI and digital textual criticism, and why a sociotechnical approach is important to understanding what DH practitioners do. By means of bibliography, textual criticism, and the STIN approach, I explore the Bessinger and Smith collaboration to demonstrate both the project’s historical importance and the strength of this hybrid approach. I believe that this paper, given its interdisciplinary focus and willingness to bridge disciplinary boundaries, is in keeping with the theme of DH 2013, “Freedom to Explore.”