WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES: COLLABORATION, PARTICIPATION, AND SOCIAL MEDIA by Roger Whitson and Jason Whitaker, Reviewed by Mark Greenberg
 

WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES: COLLABORATION, PARTICIPATION, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
By Roger Whitson and Jason Whitaker
(Routledge, 2013) xi + 211 pp.
Reviewed by Mark Greenberg on 2014-02-08.

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This book presents Blake as a progenitor of the digital communication networks currently available to capture his art and the collaborative creative expression it spawns. As Whitson and Whittaker explain, "New technologies are forming new social groups inspired by William Blake, and these social groups are creating work at a pace and with an ingenuity that was simply not possible even a decade ago" (2). Furthermore, they argue, interactive communication technologies may overcome typography and the culture of fixity, solitary acts of reading and writing, and unidirectional messaging, which are all antithetical to Blake's purposes. The book advances twin theses: that Blake deliberately designed his art to spur imaginative responses, and that only such responses fulfill his ontology and aesthetic design. In accord with these principles, digital media are uniquely useful for teaching and studying Blake. For the first time, they offer modes of expression capacious and democratic enough to accommodate the wide range of responses provoked by Blake's art.

Critics have long asserted that Blake's art fundamentally and deliberately rouses its audience to participate in it. Calling this process "zoamorphosis," the authors of this book write: "Blake's work encourages--even demands--that people create their own work as a response to his visions . . .. Blake's art is a networked form of creative collaboration" (4). In Blake's ontology, which is congruent with his aesthetics and artistic practice, they find a radical commitment to create art that re-creates its perceivers, stirring them to transform their thinking, to generate their own imaginative responses, and to achieve higher forms of consciousness. As Blake himself writes in language that anticipates both the thesis of the present book and the direction of new media: "Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! . . . Painters! On you I call! Sculptors! Architects!" (Erdman, Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. ed., 1982, 95). In his own time, Blake's way of reproducing his art--relief etching-- limited him to a few hand-made copies of each work, ironically circumscribing his visionary goals. Today, by means of digital technology, his work can rouse Digital Designers, Gamers, Tweeters, and--All Perceivers! According to Whitson and Whitakker, "folksonomies" and "mechonomies" (collective and machine-produced responses and systems of organization, respectively) are blurring the line between collective and individual reactions, humans and machines.

The authors begin by clearly analyzing the history of textual reproductions of Blake's poetry and prose. Examining a sequence of Blake editions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they show that editors always took creative liberties with Blake's works, typically in letterpress. To preserve a virtual Blake for future generations, editors selected works, liberally re-wrote and edited them, and reduced to typography what were originally--for the most part--works of composite art. For generations of readers, then, a typographical ecosystem created versions of Blake that became standard but that always diverged from the original hand-colored copper plate engravings. Not even the William Blake Archive, the authors claim, can fully capture the originals that it graphically reproduces. In mimicking, they say, the typographical fixity of letterpress volumes, the Archive-- while helpful--offers only proprietary and unidirectional communication, failing to take advantage of the full range of digital effects and opportunities for creative interactivity available today. In short, the authors contend, Blake has been appropriated by a typographical system that has imposed its own norms and expectations on works specifically designed to challenge and exceed the limits of typography.

Subsequent chapters trace creative responses--including critical analyses and interpretations in various artistic genres--to two classic Blake lyrics, "The Tyger" and "Jerusalem" (lyric from the "preface" to Milton). Undermining linguistic determination and the apparent fixity of typography in their transformations or "co-productions" (74) of "The Tyger," readers are said to co-create the poem by engaging in "[r]epetition through anthologies and critical debate . . . archiving and hermeneutics . . . rewriting, adaptation, and rebranding"; poets in their own right, they are producers of "user-generated content" (53-54). That, the authors assert, was Blake's intention. The ambiguity and rhetorical complexity of "The Tyger"--its unanswered and unanswerable questions, the ironically puzzling relationship between the tame creature depicted on the plate and the fierce language of the poem -- prompts endless hermeneutic debates and creative transformations of the work. The "Tyger . . . zoamorph," we are told, "extends through literature, drama, poetry, music, novels, visual culture, and animation"(64), and the authors devote pages to elaborating how elements of the poem have been appropriated and transformed in various genres and modes of communication(64-71). Poets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Robert Graves and John Cotton have tried to resolve its ambiguity. It has been set to music, depicted in animated films, and raided for lines or phrases that appear in works by Kipling, Ray Bradbury, and Nancy Willard, among many others. All this leads the authors to conclude that the poem "may be considered an abstract machine operating on the edge of chaos, a dynamic network, folding signification" (62).

Its energies, the authors argue, cannot be tamed. Citing a host of contemporary philosophers and theorists, they conclude that the "attempt to impose a rigid conceptual system of meaning on Blake's poem demonstrates instead just how dynamic a network it really is. Endless readings of 'The Tyger' are not merely possible but in fact are demanded by a text that deliberately refuses to answer the question 'Did he who made the Lamb make thee?' " (62). To skeptics who ask if this approach to Blake invites unlimited riffs, the authors say no: "this is not an argument for simply 'anything goes', but rather a serious consideration of the complexities of chaosthetics [apparent formlessness prompting interpretations] through some specific examples of how the Tyger zoamorph can be seen to work in a variety of circumstances and media" (64). But having essentially denied any limits to interpretation, the authors never show how "anything" can be denied the right to "go." If Blake's ontology and aesthetics demands creative responses, as they argue, who is to say whether one response is better, more effective, or more creative than another? And why would one wish to do so?

Without answering this question, Whitson and Whittaker treat print culture as a hiatus in the long history of participatory and collaborative responses to works of art. "Blake's 'Jerusalem,' " they assert, "is one of the clearest and most startling examples of the co-production discussed throughout this book, a return to the social reading that was common before the Gutenberg parenthesis made print a privileged mode of cognition" (74). An untitled prefatory poem, "Jerusalem" has been set to all forms of music and appropriated for a wide range of occasions, enhanced by modern sound technology and distribution networks. A familiar Anglican hymn, it found life as a Suffragette anthem in the 1920s and a stalwart rallying cry of Labor Party gatherings after World War II. It has been adapted by musicians from Parry to ELP (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and post-punk groups. "Zoamorphosis," say the authors, "never stops . . ." (90). The work of art in this age of mechanical reproduction is uncontained, its spirit and meanings absorbed by conservatives, progressives, nihilists, and all forms of artists operating in various media; it belongs to no one and to everyone.

Only in the last 86 pages of this book do the authors discuss the use of digital media in teaching and responding to Blake. Yet they offer the most informed and informative tour of Blake in the digital age that I have read. Teaching and other ways of responding to Blake's art, they show, now flow from his deliberate rhetorical and aesthetic choices, which they construe as the purest and highest expressions of that art's purpose. "The obscure," they write, "operates in Blake's work not as a means for preserving an occult underlying world that is alienated from students, but as a lure to get his readers to move beyond a strict close-reading model and start the zoamorphic process of creating their own work" (92). In their own teaching, the authors apply "multimodal and digital communication to give students methods for inventing new approaches to old problems" (93). Employing blogs and Twitter, they say, encourages rich student engagement in archiving and preservation, within the classroom and beyond.

Blake explores this zoamorphic process in works such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where he also reflects on the construction of history. For Blake, history was generated by fundamentally creative and participatory processes. In this spirit, the authors encourage students not to worry about what Blake means but to create graphic, sculptural, or multi-media works--a range of expressions--inspired by what they find in his work. This way of teaching Blake entails valuing (never evaluating) creative responses to Blake that reach beyond the groves of academe: "whereas Blake," they write, "may be declining in the secondary and postsecondary educational environment, outside of school and academia he is being deployed in a host of ways that . . . treat the experiences of initiated readers as largely irrelevant" (120). And this, they aver, is fully consistent with Blake's own standing during his age and with the spirit of his work. By using text mining, such as Google alert, Whitson and Whittaker painstakingly track myriad appearances of Blake's lines on Twitter and in other digital forms on the Web around the globe. Connecting the two parts of their book, the authors maintain that the "virtual Blake discussed in the first chapter is being reconstituted in a variety of new formats and situations in the online environment, as indeed he has always been reconstituted in print culture since the mid-nineteenth century" (137).

True to its thesis, the book concludes with discussion of a Blake truly produced by those who engage him: the peoples' Blake on Flickr, Wikipedia, and You Tube (138-163). Here, knowledge production is collaborative, participatory, democratically derived and negotiated, open, and unfettered: minds extending into digital machines that independently, algorithmically shape thought. As testimony to the impact of Blake, thousands of expressions inspired by him are traceable on the Internet. One tweet inspires another; one Blake image on Flickr begets a transformed response. The authors skillfully examine vibrant "folksonomic" and "mechonomic" digital communities formed by those responding to Blake using networked digital media. Bots and algorithms, for example, collaborate with human beings to make editorial choices: "two-thirds of the most active editors on the English edition of Wikipedia are bots or algorithms, and complete the majority of editing duties" (145). The instability and strangeness of Blake's works engender equally strange, unstable responses in digital media, as his images and ideas spread through networks of associations, responses, and counter-responses, onward, outward, without end.

This raises the question of who and what are William Blake and his works? The authors respond by focusing on his reception. "Blake is archived," they say, "by billions of tiny acts of tagging, often by people and machines who don't know Blake and could[n't] care less about his works. . . . Blake survives because other actors invent new spaces for him by perceiving him differently" (159). As the historian Sir Lewis Namier observed, "we create the past and remember the future." Every new encounter creates a new Blake and the creative responses Blake's works spawn are creatively recalled in perceivers' future expressions. Yet while shaped by experience and mind and textual editors, one's experience of a Blake plate or poem --an image, perhaps just a phrase--is energized by Blake's ideas and aesthetics. We need such a Blake, always being appropriated, to spur the sort of imaginative response that his work essentially demands. Blake's survival is due not only to those who are moved by him and respond, as Blake demanded, with their own productions, but also to his ideas and modes of expression--to what we like to call his art--as it plays out across new modes of expression and transformation.

A "Coda" extends the book's argument to a new vision of literary studies in which hierarchy, the limitations imposed by academic guild behavior, the decline of institutional support for the humanities, and even a focus on the human are overcome by Blakean "Self-annihilation": "literary studies should embrace the awareness of network culture and the elision of difference between human and non-human actors to engage in what Blake called self-annihilation . . . a literal dissolution of the self and the ego, driving a creative reorganization of past realities and developing a greater awareness of the networks that work together to engage the creative process" (172). Bold, open, welcoming differences, valuing reception over authority, the authors advance this Blake-inspired vision for the death of literary studies as they imagine them and the birth of new, networked, collaborative and trans-disciplinary approaches to literary discourse. Digital humanities as thus envisioned "might not save literary studies at all; in fact, it might hasten its demise" (174).

From its ashes, however, they seek to build a better way, energized by digital technology and an awakened consciousness: "Let's cast off the filthy garments of our areas and see what hybrid beasts emerge from the interinstitutional collaboration of hundreds of different specialists working together to distant read and topic model millions of texts. Let's read all published books that still exist from the nineteenth century, and stop attempting to make broad sweeping historical arguments based upon six or seven novels. Let's remix and transform literature into experimental multimedia installations . . . Let's stop reading about the building of Golgonooza in Jerusalem and start actually building it" (174-175). It's a radical vision worthy of Blake: "Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age!" Of course, it may not be everyone's idea of how to rescue literary studies, even if we could agree upon what that would produce. But in echoing the similarly idealistic and visionary appeals that swept across campuses in the 1960s, the networked and collaborative communications being enacted every day on the Internet augur more changes, lending a sense of possibility to this cry for change.

Nevertheless, several ironies complicate this tightly-argued, original, and thoughtful study. First, its examination of the digital humanities and its multi-modal capabilities takes the form of a letterpress book, which participates in--works within--the typographical culture it criticizes. With its table of contents, prefatory matter, chapters, sub-headings, numerous citations of authors and authority, indices, quotations, and so forth, this is plainly a specimen of print culture. Second, though the book is scholarly and addressed to an audience professionally steeped in Blake and Blake scholarship (as the authors show themselves to be), it critiques the culture of professional scholarship in favor of fandom and crowd-sourced multi-media, creative digital responses. Third, its typography limits reception, as the authors effectively argue. Even the dozen drawings, photographs, and tables reproduced herein are monochromatic, not visually distinct. Why are there no digital enhancements, such as a companion DVD perhaps and links to many of the sites mentioned in the book -- the kind of aid routinely accompanying textbooks today? Even better, why not a fully online version of the book with hyperlinks embedded in it? The authors' familiarity with pop, punk, and post-punk graphic and musical artists, for example, could best be shared with readers by means of recorded perfomances for the uninitiated.

Despite these limitations, I found this study absorbing, informative, and emblematic of how thoughtful teachers and scholars are engaging twenty-first century students and colleagues in the ongoing conversation about the eternally-fresh William Blake.

Mark Greenberg is Professor of English and Provost & Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Drexel University, Philadelphia.


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