Why Edit Digitally: Scalar and the Decorum of Form
For most of its history, the dissemination of knowledge in the study of languages and literature has been a decidedly two genre affair: the book and the article. But the advent of the digital and the ongoing “crisis” in academic publishing have both acted to destabilize this once neatly arranged landscape. As knowledge producers, we now enjoy both the liberation and anxiety that has always been associated with choice (see Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald V. Casale, Bog Casale, and Alan Myers's vinyl recording).
Publication placement under the old world order was driven by word-count and status. Long arguments required books, whereas shorter arguments were more suited to articles and chapters. And the ever-present drive towards tenure and promotion dictated placement with the publication or publisher that enjoyed the highest perceived status amongst the peer-group most likely to sit on a review committee. Other than the length of the piece in question, the choice of publication venue had very little to do, in the end, with the scholarship itself. It was a matter of forces external to whatever argument was actually being made.
Today's scholarly publishing landscape is markedly different. In addition to books and print articles, there now are a variety of peer-reviewed electronic books, e-journals, websites, blogs, list-serves, and even moderated Twitter feed aggregators from which to choose. Many see these new options as simply reactions to the economic demise of the print model or as a welcome expansion in potential publication venues. Both of these are true. But the growth in diversity of publication media brings with it another, far more important, advantage: the ability to fit the form of the final product more specifically to the nature of the argument that it delivers. Decorum is now a factor of scholarly publishing.
Arguments about the form-factor of electronic publications have been a staple of the discourse and debate surrounding it since its inception. The high-mark of this line of thinking can be found in the Hypertext movement of 1990s. Critics such as Landow, Unsworth, and McGann, to name a few, advocated for a move to scholarly electronic publishing precisely because it disrupted the form of scholarship in ways that made possible new modes not only of scholarly production but of critical thinking itself.
An Early Depiction of Hypertext, c. 1990
According to Jerome McGann, “Computerization for the first time releases the logical categories of traditional critical editing to function at more optimal levels” (57). A major component of this optimization was the apparent conflation of authors and readers. Barthean and Foucauldian arguments aside, the printed text clearly posited an Author and a Reader. But in the electronic medium, “The function of the reader merges with that of the author and the division between the two is blurred” (Landow 14). This blurring is enacted by the digital medium through both textual addition and recombination. The networked digital text provides myriad ways, particularly in this social era of digital publication, for readers to become authors. Common functions such as “Comment,” “Like,” and “Tag,” for example, literally allow the reader to add to a written text. Additionally, the point and click nature of the digital invites creative movement through a text. Rather than encountering a single text, we find a “dispersed, multiply centered network organization inherent in electronic linking” (Landow 15). The electronic text “offers as a paradigm the text that changes to suit the reader, rather than expecting the reader to confirm to its standards” (Bolter 233).
But we should not too quickly rush to declare electronic publications by default more fluid and writerly than their print counterparts. In fact, broadside ballads were, at the time of their printing, and remain, equally edgeless aesthetic artifacts, built from fluid aggregations of sub-objects (Derrida 175-176). Woodcuts, text, tunes, ornamentation, imprints, and indeed all of the constituent parts that comprised the ballads were combined and recombined in various contexts and combinations at near lightning speed as the printing industry worked to churn out, according to some estimates, millions of broadside ballads in England alone during the seventeenth century (Watt 11).
Those engaged in the physical act of printing were continuously performing exactly the type of discursive recombination that stands at the heart of the hypertextual ethos. Additionally, as noted by Fumerton in her introduction to this volume, the ballad consumer’s experience of the broadsides was equally recombinant:
As I have discussed at length in “Remembering by Dismembering,” contemporaries would have created their own mental collection of preferred ballads and parts of ballads, including selections of text, illustrations, and tunes. After all, they would have encountered broadside ballads daily in a makeshift, fragmentary way as they walked the streets, catching parts of stanzas or glimpses of woodcuts pasted up, or hearing sections of ballads being hawked aloud. They would also frequently re-encounter parts of texts, individual woodcuts, and tunes (sometimes renamed, though the melody would be the same) appearing on or sung to different broadside ballads.
The speed and frequency of both material and experiential object reuse across printed broadsides encouraged readers, if not physically, to figuratively traverse the links between various objects, thereby constructing continuously shifting narratives. The broadside ballad was an hypertext.
It is fitting then that the present volume adopt an electronic, hypertextual form, as doing so offers authors, editors, and ultimately readers a synergistic theoretical perspective suitable to the volume's specific focus on the “making” of the ballads. In working through the constraints and possibility of the digital interface, we confront the same relationship between form, function, and meaning that the volume attempts to elucidate with regard the printing press and broadside ballad. In production, a host of decisions had to be made and scholarly output had to be fitted to these decisions. Would the work foreground traditional, long narrative essays, or would it foreground user-driven linking of smaller snippets of information? How would video demonstrations and tutorials be worked into the overall narrative? Would we work to dissolve the edges of the narrative, encouraging users to construct narrative across the network, or would we attempt to construct a contained narrative universe? In short, training in the digital production environment advanced the same learning that Griffin tells us in his introduction was the result of working with pulp, paper, type, and press:
As the essays in this collection attest, training in the papermaking workshop, the woodcutting studio, the printing house, and the makeshift recording studio has inspired critical observations that would have previously been unavailable to scholars working on the early modern broadside ballad.
In the end, it seemed most fitting to adopt a publication platform that, at least conceptually, closely resembled the hypertextual nature of the broadside ballads themselves. First, it would be necessary to present similarly multimedia material. Second, the platform must also support the publication of ostensibly self-contained essays while at the same time capitalizing on the modularity of sub-narrative units within each essay in order to create new, interconnected texts that worked across each essay's discrete boundaries. And finally, the platform had to allow users to “walk down the street” of the reading experience, interlinking snippets of textual experience as they move in a self-directed way through the textual roads and alleyways. The Scalar platform provides just such a digital publication environment.
According to its developers, Scalar is an “authoring and publishing platform” that “enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and juxtapose them with their own writing in a variety of ways” (McPherson et. al.). Integral to the Scalar project is an ethos of combining the authoring and publishing spaces. Unlike standard blog platforms, which act as a publishing platform for semi-multimedia content (text and other content are connected only through physical orientation), publication in Scalar requires a unique form of writing that immerses the author in the realities of production. As a user, one quickly comes to realize the insufficiency of simply pasting or uploading text from a word processor into the environment. As stated in the brief quote above, the entire point of Scalar is to provide non-technical experts with an easy, intuitive interface for juxtaposing (as opposed to simply linking) various narrative units in a “variety of ways.” According to its developers, “Scalar also gives authors tools to structure essay- and book-length works in ways that take advantage of the unique capabilities of digital writing, including nested, recursive, and non-linear formats.” In this capacity, it mimics the early-modern printing press, which similarly both constrained and liberated publishers, forcing them to work within a certain set of rules, but rewarding this effort by promoting and facilitating object reuse in multiple contexts.
Our particular implementation of Scalar capitalizes on two primary possibilities offered by the platform: the ability to create complex linkages between audio, video, still image, and textual content, and the ability to create paths that offer alternate readings across the boundaries of individual essays. In so doing, both we editors and our authors were forced to think about our work as a collection of modular, multimedia units capable of being re-used in novel contexts that extend beyond their initial bounds, just as ballad authors, woodblock carvers, musicians, typesetters, printers and publishers would themselves have understood their work.
A key component of Scalar is the ease with which it allows authors to “annotate video, audio, images, source code, text, and maps,” allowing users to "embed links directly to the annotated portion of a media file.” This represents an application of multimedia authoring that is far superior to conventional blogging platforms, which do not allow textual annotation of specific moments in media files. As the present volume relies heavily on a combination of textual and multimedia content, this ability was crucial to properly integrate all content.
Scalar's path structure also provided an important authorial structure and possibility, one that spoke specifically to the object reuse ethos of broadside ballad printing. In Scalar, “Paths are linear sequences of content, like a chapter full of pages or a tutorial full of steps.” In and of itself, this description does not appear to offer anything more than conventional print organizational models. However, the added value of the Path structure is that Paths can cross, link to each other, and otherwise re-use narrative units. As such, using Paths one can (as many authors have attempted in various ways in print) take the same ten chapters and create 1010 Paths through them, thereby creating multiple “texts” out of the same ten chapters. This makes, in the words of Scalar's developers, “both hierarchical and rhizomatic structures possible.”
The current volume uses Scalar Paths to deconstruct the conventional, long essays provided by the volume's contributors and rhizomatically recombine them according to a select set of paths of particular relevance to early-modern scholarship. These include:
1. Heterogeneity in the Act2. Sensory Experience and Sensibility3. Experience and Experiment4. The Matter of Making and Form5. Bodily Labor and Craft6. Making Identity7. Circulation and Re-Making8. Making as Performance9. Impact
A complete table of contents for the work should thus rightly be considered as the combination of the individual essay titles as well as each of the Paths described above, as each of these represents a unique critical engagement with the topic of making broadside ballads.
It is worth noting that what we claim here to be the editorial advantage of using Scalar to present a critical work on “making”—namely that it mirrors, in digital form, the proto-hypertextual nature of the broadside ballads themselves—flies directly in the face of what most scholars of the digital believe to be the single biggest advantage of digital scholarship: the idea that conventional print modes of literary scholarship suffer from the fact that they, themselves, are bound by the same formal rules as their objects of study. This perceived constraint of traditional print, according to many, dramatically limits the ability of literary scholars to consider a work from anything truly resembling a new perspective. This position is summed up nicely by McGann, who claims that, “When we use books to study books, or hard copy texts to analyze other hard copy texts, the scale of the tools seriously limits the possible results." Print-bound literary theory, like social theory, is, according many digital scholars, bound by the inability to take down the master's house with the master's tools. Such theories may, at times, hold true, but the argument is hyperbolic on two specific fronts. First, it fails to recognize the critical value of inhabiting an aesthetic object from within its own narrative universe. Reading against the grain masks as much as it reveals about a text. And as our historical distance from the early-modern period necessarily positions us with an outside view of its aesthetic objects, adopting a critical form that places us on the inside of its modes of aesthetic production is particularly valuable. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the argument overstates the difference between the digital and print environments.
An unfortunate trend both in digital scholarship and popular culture imagines the digital as somehow disembodied. But the electrons that store the ones and zeros of the digital are no less physical than those that constitute paper. And the acts of writing, publishing, and reading digitally are subject to physical constraints similar to those one negotiates when dealing with printed or manuscript texts. Both forms of text present a set of physical constraints that must be negotiated by producers and consumers. As we hope the present volume makes clear, the hypertext is as old as the text, and working from within this form reestablishes the roots of our critical efforts in the materiality of the broadside ballads, even as the ballad is reconfigured in digital form.