October 27, 2011

In the beginning….

Filed under: craft_obsession,writing — jrice @ 8:48 am

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes asks: “What is the meaning of a pure series of interruptions” (94). Barthes extends this question by reminding the reader that his “autobiography” is nothing more than a series of beginnings. “To write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings” (94). A rhetoric of the beginning, we might believe, consists of such fragments. Interruptions. “Once upon a time” without the lead in to what occurs. “In the beginning” without the creation of the world. Such a gesture is a rejection of totality, the complete understandings or all encompassing meaning we tend to depend upon for stability.

In any given subject – as many have already written – totality is a preferred gesture since it assures a reader or general audience of capability, knowledge, ethos, expertise, insider belonging, etc. An academic totalizing gesture as beginning might begin as “In this paper, I argue….” Or the gesture is not phrased as such but lives up to the spirit. In this paper, I argue….I argue…. There is condition. I comment. I analyze. I dissect. I explain. A totalizing gesture, of course, is hermeneutics. At some point, the paper/essay/project promises a complete and concluded meaning. “Because of this…..X is Y.” This is hardly a bad thing. Yet, as Barthes shows, there is value as well in beginnings.

Take any object of study and we find its first impulse is to totalize. Digital Humanities, for example, is born into a discourse of totalizing (historical totalizing such as “we were always here” or interpretative totalizing such as “X platform generates hegemony and control and we must be aware” or coding totalizing such as “now the entire body of work can be accessed and searched”). As we also learned long ago from Lyotard, totalizing gestures are grand narratives whose recitation (repetition) grant them power as topoi. As soon as a movement, like Digital Humanities, emerges, it must move quickly from beginning and become a body. It must be total in order to have meaning.

I only note Digital Humanities because of its growing popularity nationwide, a popularity affecting the local as well. In the Humanities, in some locations, there is a rush to join this totality. The same would be true for another movement. Every movement has a beginning, but no movement wants a Barthesian beginning, a return to the same fragment of introduction again and again without totalizing gesture. Digital Humanities, we find, focuses on the totalizing gesture “we are not new” because what is valued is the big story, “what we are.” Age lends credibility to definition.

I turn to Digital Humanities Quarterly and read Helen Burgess beginning her piece with the declaration: “Digital scholarship is not new.” In the Blackwell A Companion to Digital Humanities, Susan Hockey introduces the text with a statement of “age”: “Unlike many other interdisciplinary experiments, humanities computing has a very well-known beginning. In 1949, an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, began what even to this day is a monumental task: to make an index verborum of all the words in the works of St Thomas Aquinas and related authors, totaling some 11 million words of medieval Latin.”  Thomas Rommel’s contribution also clarifies age: “The systematic study and analysis of literature dates back to the beginnings of literary ‘text production’; even the earliest forms of oral literature were practiced in a context of descriptive and prescriptive aesthetics.” And Stephen Ramsay reminds us that databases, as well, are not new. “The design of such systems has been a mainstay of humanistic endeavor for centuries; the seeds of the modern computerized database being fully evident in the many text-based taxonomies and indexing systems which have been developed since the Middle Ages.”

So many nods to a beginning, but only so that we, disciplinary readers, can move on to the grand story. Let’s go back to Barthes, then, for a moment. Let’s interrupt this totalizing gesture. Let’s practice a rhetoric of the beginning because there are so many fragments, so many beginnings. To practice this writing, we don’t move outside of that beginning. We stay there exploring the introductory fragments of the story that we will never completely tell. What beginning should we tell? We could tell so many. The one I will tell, however,  is the one I alluded to posts ago: the beginning of craft beer and social media.

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