The Lure of Virtual Archives

MAP banner, with 17thC docsBLOG

MAP banner, with coat of armsBLOG

– Sharon Strocchia                                                                                                                    Senior Fellow, FCHI 2013-14

Every day for the past few months, I’ve taken a trip to the glittering world of Renaissance Florence without ever leaving the Fox Center. The vehicle for this magical time-travel is the Medici Archive Project (MAP)  Founded in the early 1990s, MAP is a digital pioneer dedicated to developing innovative research strategies in the humanities. At the heart of the project is a vast, searchable database cataloging the most complete princely archive that survives from early modern Europe. Spanning two centuries—from 1537 to 1743—the archive of the Medici Grand Dukes consists of four million letters distributed in over 6,000 volumes occupying a mile of shelf space. Letters were the Renaissance equivalent of today’s newspapers and social media. Missives flowed into and out of the Medici court from around the globe, relaying political news, intimate gossip, astounding discoveries, and stories both tragic and triumphant. Using the latest information technology to bring this unparalleled resource to the general public, MAP and similar digital repositories are revolutionizing our understanding of the past.

I’ve been tapping this virtual archive for information about the medical culture of the early Medici court. Of particular interest for my FCHI book project is the role that aristocratic wives and mothers played in providing healthcare in sixteenth-century Italy. Home-based healing—an area in which women exercised both expertise and authority—was the first port of call even for members of court. Reading these digitized letters, I discover the preferred household remedies of Medici duchesses, eavesdrop on their conversations about private health matters, mourn the loss of their children and celebrate the return of good health. Without this digital tool, I could never encounter such a wide cast of characters or acquire such depth of understanding so quickly.

Yet as I mine these treasures, I can’t help wondering what I’m missing. Historical documents are physical artifacts in their own right, exhibiting a certain heft, a particular feel, a distinctive smell. What does the paper feel like? How much does a bound volume of letters weigh? Digital humanities scholars readily acknowledge that “digital surrogates” comprised of clusters of pixels cannot adequately convey the sensory or physical experience of material objects. The web is, at least for now, a primarily visual medium. To fully grasp the materiality of these letters still requires an on-site visit to the Florentine state archives. That trip will have to wait for the summer break. In the meantime, I’m ready to get back online.


3 Things I’m Doing When I Read a Poem; or, An Apology for Interpretation

Last week someone asked me what exactly I’m doing when I read a poem, and my first response was to say, “I try to stick with interpretation.” What follows is some practical advice – the kind of thing I’d give to students – on how to interpret Robert Herrick’s (1591–1674) “Casualties”:

Good things, that come of course, far less do please,
Than those, which come by sweet contingencies.

I like this poem because it’s short, and has a few features that immediately associated with poetry: rhyme, rhythm, and a “take-away” observation that is “relatable.” It’s not a poem that invites deep readings, and that’s good, because I don’t believe literary interpretation is always about searching for unsounded depths. Instead, interpretation means figuring out how a poem works.

1. Count to ten.

In poetry (unlike architecture) function follows form. And if a poem is metrical, the easiest way find out how it functions is to count syllables. I get a feel for the rhythm by reading out-loud, tapping my fingers to the poem’s beat.

Counting like this shows me how a poem conserves and expends its energy. By starting with the poem’s rhythms, I am practicing a kind of interpretation that tries to do something with the poem rather than do something to it. Herrick’s poem quickly evens out into twenty neatly distributed syllables over two balanced lines. On its own, you don’t have to think too hard about that fact. But the first step in this method is simply observing how this poem behaves within a range of conventional metrical possibilities.

You can spend decades developing your ear (or your feel) for poetic rhythm. And you can debate it forever. That’s why it’s an ideal place to start with almost any poem.

2. X is not really A

At this point, there’s a tendency to jump to the question, “what does the poem mean?,” as if formal effects like rhythm are the skin that the poem sloughs off to reveal something more important.

Susan Sontag’s fireball of an essay, “Against Interpretation,” criticized this kind of reading:

“Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or really means – A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?”

For Sontag, this approach is stifling. Herrick’s little poem is not a code to be cracked or a package of meaning waiting to be unwrapped.

Instead of assigning X value as A, I overload the question of meaning by visiting the Oxford English Dictionary, relying on an electronic database to expand the range of possible meanings. The OED is one roadmap for what Roland Barthes called the “tissue of quotations” into which Herrick’s two lines are woven.

And I mean quotations literally. Looking up “casualties,” the OED leads me to this quotation from John Dryden: “Him who thought A casual world was from wild Atoms wrought.” (1631-1700). The dictionary also tells me that in the 1600s, “casualty” can mean “happy accident,” rather than the more depressing sense familiar to us now. Dryden tips me off to the poem’s specific vision of a “casual” universe, which Herrick might be imagining is made up of colliding atoms.

Similarly, “contingencies” is an antonym for destiny. And the word’s etymology also points to the Latin contingere, meaning “to happen,” based on the literal roots “to touch together, come into contact.” Contingencies are what happens when two or more things – like atoms – touch one another.

I keep thinking about form and realize that the poem is itself is small enough to be seen as a kind of atomic unit when compared to say, an epic poem. And it is made up of even smaller formal elements that come together to make the poem happen: letters, syllables, beats, rhymes. Meaning cannot be disentangled from this form.

3. Look for constellations

Counting with my fingers. Looking up words in dictionaries. This is how most of my interpretive work starts.

After these steps, I start looking for constellations of figures and concepts that are illuminated in the poem. For the Herrick poem, the constellation would include these points: atomism, the baroque, carpe diem, conventionality, short form, predestination, and so on …

I like the term constellation, because it reminds me that the job is to make connections between multiple points within fields of literature, history, and philosophy. And, because I work on poetry from another time, it reminds me that I am receiving signals from beings who died out long ago, but still glow. You might call my method “reading by telescope.”

– Michael Ursell
Post-Doctoral Fellow, FCHI 2013-14

New Ways of Seeing: Contemporary Poetry and the Visual Arts

In his study of contemporary visual culture, Picture Theory, critic W.J.T. Mitchell characterizes the 20th century’s movement away from words and toward the image as a “pictorial turn,” indicating that our contemporary environment is dominated by the visual and claiming that “the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the image.” Mitchell points to the proliferation of image culture as a problem stirred up by new media technologies, a crisis that threatens to take over our ability to use and understand language. However, this crisis is also an opportunity to reconceptualize the ways in which language interacts with the visual. While we all are surrounded every day by experiences of the encounter between word and image through advertising, television, film, digital and social media, and pop print cultures, my research at CHI this year focuses specifically on one instance in which verbal and visual come together: ekphrastic poetry—or poems that take visual art as their inspiration and subject matter.  In opposition to the assumption that we need the verbal to dominate or translate visual meaning, I suggest that our openness to the visual enhances and enlivens the practice of writing poetry about art.

 Nearly all contemporary poets have at least one poem that could be categorized as ekphrastic—many poets find inspiration in the work of particular artists, or write about the experience of a museum visit, or imagine what it would have been like to be the model for the artwork, or even try to evoke the experience of a visual work of art through the sound and form of their poetic lines. Just as there is a vast diversity of poets writing ekphrasis, there are also wide-ranging ekphrastic strategies—from the feminist poet who takes on the voice of a reclining nude in a Manet painting in order to speak back to the voyeur; to the experimental poet who captures the abstract blotches and droplets of paint in a Howard Hodgkin painting within the playful verbal innovation of her lines; to the prose poet who contains the enigmatic work of Joseph Cornell’s puzzling box constructions in tight paragraphs of lyric prose. Emory’s own Natasha Trethewey is one such example, using her ekphrastic poems based on historical images of raced bodies to guide the reader into a kind of self-reflective viewing of these accepted art objects within a new, often critical, context. In my time here at Emory, I will be thinking through the ways in which ekphrastic poems are sensory experiences that engage both language and the visual, and how—with eyes wide open to the pictorial turn—we might look to these unique poems as spaces of possibility for investigating new ways of seeing.

Anne Keefe     
2013-2014 N.E.H.Post-Doctoral Fellow in Poetics

Differences Once More

Devoted as I am to exploring various nuances of that eternal verity, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” I have visited many Humanities Centers over the years — most of them rather briefly, often as the guest of some friend or other who was in residence at a Center when I happened through town.  As a graduate student visiting a friend who was a Fellow at the Getty Center about twenty-five years ago, I gathered my first sample of what has turned out to be a kind of Humanities-Center-Fellow conversation that has recurred almost as often as the inevitable menu of sandwich, chips, cookie, and bottle of water.  On this occasion, on my right sat an Eastern European dramaturge who had written a book about Shakespeare and twentieth-century politics.  On my left sat a young woman who was composing an ethnography of contemporary Javanese shadow-puppet theater.  Asked about the dissertation I was writing at the time, I volunteered that it was about the successive editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and their respective ways of embodying male-male desire.  After listening to each of us describe our projects for about a minute apiece, a Fellow sitting across the table from me looked at us and observed, “In a way, you’re all doing versions of the same thing.”

We are?!  On what planet, I wondered with astonishment.  I could barely follow the capsule descriptions I’d just heard, and in the 1980s, my proto-queer-theory dissertation project tended to function as a guaranteed conversation-stopper at meals — not in most cases because my interlocutors were hostile to such a project but because the idea of a public (and even an academic) discourse of male-male eros that was neither psychiatric nor criminological was new to them.  I don’t remember in any detail what the Fellow across the table went on to say about how the three of us were doing the same thing, but, like the many iterations of such comments I’ve heard in the years since, it had something to do with our all being scholars of “the Humanities” with (allegedly) a certain set of cultural and intellectual commitments and methods of working and thinking that were specific to “the Humanities.”

But my experience of much of the most vital work in the overlapping fields in which I’ve toiled as an academic has been one of an extremely, even incoherently wide and rich array of ways of working — of selecting (or being selected by) a research focus, locating and exploring an archive, framing a project, articulating its contours, considering how one wants to try to make it intervene in some of the discourses with which it will intersect, deciding how to circulate the work as it emerges in draft, etc.  So please don’t tell me that because you imagine we all somehow occupy the same “Humanities” box, we must all in some sense be doing the same thing.  For all that various of our projects may overlap and intertwine at an unpredictable number of points, I want early in this new academic year to acknowledge also that the real differences and incommensurabilities between and among our projects are a significant aspect of their potential value to our fellow scholars, including present Fellows.

– Michael Moon 
Senior Fellow, FCHI 2013-14