A living archive: Literary Simulation and the Digital Humanities, Part 3

By | March 16, 2022

The Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog presents: a production on Manuel Portela’s Literary Simulation and the Digital Humanities in three parts. Part 1, Part 2

Episode 3: Digital Humanities

We’ll be able to create secondhand; we can imagine one poet writing in us in one way, while another poet will write in a different way. I, having refined this skill to a considerable degree, can write in countlessly different ways, all of them original.
— Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, “The Art of Effective Dreaming for Metaphysical Minds,” c. 1914, translated by Richard Zenith.

[SYNOPSIS: The conversation moves towards the end. Given the inexplicable absence of the editor when her services were most needed, the epistemology of DH and other incursions into the reign of abstractions take hold of the third episode. Nevertheless, reader and author seem to enter into an almost happy relationship.]

R – There is another intriguing element in the title, your mention of “the Digital Humanities”. Are you referring to the growing presence of quantitative analyses in literary studies?

A – I am not questioning quantitative practices in themselves, but rather an epistemology that insists on the separation between data and interpretations, objects and subjects. The formalisms necessary for the execution of code have resurrected outdated structuralist paradigms.

R – So what would be the difference between those and the approach you describe in Literary Simulation and the Digital Humanities?

A – I would argue that the fundamental difference is this: instead of adopting a representational paradigm that abstracts literary artifacts according to data structures and algorithms derived from that model of knowledge, what we try to do is to design the digital medium itself in ways that integrate the complexities of contemporary literary theory.

R – What complexities are you referring to?

A – First, to conceptions of reading, writing and editing as cognitive and social practices. Secondly, to a performative notion of meaning and subjectivity. Finally, to a dynamic view of the book as an agent in a social semiotic field.

R – They all seem to be very difficult to translate computationally. Almost intractable, if I were allowed to continue to borrow from your language.

A – I am not saying that we were able to make that theoretical translation. But we worked within those premises and the research resulted in the transformation of a digital archive into a digital simulator. Yet it should not be seen as a simulator with a predictive function.

R – I think you need to explain yourself further.

A – Look: it is not a simulator in the sense that it parameterizes a natural phenomenon or an artifact in order to be able to foresee its future behavior given a set of material conditions and transformations. It is a simulator that invites each interactor to participate in a literary experience that has been modeled on the Book of Disquiet as a chaotic system for the emergent creation of meaning.

R – Chaotic system for the emergent creation of meaning?

A – Yes, a space for play, something like an open ecology of algorithmic processes and social relations of meaning production through reading, editing, and writing.

R – And how do those literary actions by users become part of the system?

A – As I said, the simulation consists of a socialized textual environment for reading, editing, and writing actions. This environment, in turn, evolves over time at the level of text and at the level of code. In other words, the digital medium itself is designed to become a speculative space for literary experimentation, a living archive.

R – If I understood what you said, this book is the description of a digital experiment.

A – It is the description of the experiment, and of the theory that underlies the experiment. As a scholarly monograph, the book also talks about its relationship with the space of the World Wide Web, thus interrogating its own autonomy as a networked artifact.

R – Are you still sure this book is for me?

A – This conversation already shows that there are good prospects for symbiosis.

R – Symbiosis?

A – Yes, indeed. Symbiosis between a difficult and theoretical author and a curious and distracted reader.

R – I wouldn’t go that far.

[The END]

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