Towards a Model of Spatially Mapping Criticism Onto The Primary Text

Posted by on Sep 25, 2013 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping

[contributed by Adam Foster]

One of the key concepts that I’ve has arisen for me while working with INKE thus far is the tension between the primary text and secondary scholarship or criticism. Much of the new digital environments I’ve uncovered thus far hints that increasingly, the primary text becomes a part of the work of criticism itself. This, to me, seems logical. If we are concerned with a particular novel, story, poem, or what have you, why should the work of criticism be a separate piece of work that exists separate from the primary text? This is not the goal of the critic; scholarship is meant to explain a particular work or elucidate its meaning. This draws on the Kantian notion of critique as “the pursuit of knowledge outside of sensibility and the field of possible experience” and instead seeks to pursue knowledge “through the faculty of reason” (Ross 138). In other words, the pursuit of knowledge through sustained thought. Can this be done through the current model of journals and monographs? It can; if it couldn’t, then this would mean the entire history of literary criticism has not yielded any knowledge (which is not true). In some ways, this model is actually more valid than one that includes the primary text on Kantian grounds, since it is removed from the experiential act of reading and instead exists solely on the grounds of rational thought. However, we cannot escape the importance of the primary text. Do we not include passages and quotes from the primary text in our scholarship? In so far that the goal of literary critique is interpretation of a text, by incorporating the primary text into critical mediums, it is quite possible that the quality of literary criticism will improve by mapping ideas directly on to the passages to which they are related. The question that arises is, how do we link criticism to the primary text in this new model?

One such manner is to consider the primary text as a main road or highway. In this model, the primary text is reproduced in its entirety and is front and central in the digital environment. The act of reading a primary text is akin travelling down a straight road; we move from point a – the beginning of the text – to point b – the end of the text. We can stick to the main road and not take detours – this is like reading for pleasure when we sit down and read a novel and don’t consult secondary scholarship. However, sometimes we wish to take the scenic route, and do a little exploring.

I imagine this model as a digital version of a critical edition of a text: that is, criticism or auxiliary information for understanding is included in the primary text. In a digital format, we can map criticism directly on to the primary text in a model that is similar to Whitney Trettien’s “NaRRaTIVE MULTIPLICITIES + PaCK MEDIA” (Trettien). In that model, the reader clicks on a word, and an explanation pops up. This renders the distance or space between the primary work and the secondary work virtually non-existent. Wherein Trettien uses this model to make a relatively small argument –  in her argument about Dracula deconstructing the medium of the book, she analyzes only a small passage – it could very easily be adapted for more robust scholarly criticism. One could read a particular passage and want to learn more about its meaning. They would then click on the relevant part and up would pop a scholarly argument about that particular passage. It is also possible that there could be multiple scholars involved, and different interpretations available. To return to the street metaphor, when one exists the highway, the road will be forked, and one can chose which path to take. This moves the act of criticism away from a single, sustained, narrative-like argument to an appendix to the primary text and act of reading.

One final note about this street model; we can’t ever leave the primary road permanently. The main road – i.e the primary text – is the only way to get from point A to point B. Given that point A is the beginning of the primary text and point B is the end, criticism – or these side roads – are only for exploration; an extension of the pleasure of reading.

This to me seems like a good move. Let us consider the ontology of the primary text; first and foremost, a book or novel is meant to be read and enjoyed. I am sure there are exceptions, wherein a text is written to provoke only substantive thought and not read for leisure. And certainly some works of anti-art are intended to be not pleasurable. But this are the exception to the rule. Therefore, if criticism can be binded to – not only the act of reading – but the pleasure of reading, then this seems like a good thing.

It may be closer to the “pure” act of reading – that is, reading for pleasure- but the question is if this will improve the quality of criticism. Certainly, this model is not beneficial to the model of  the long-form argument. Current criticism assumes we have already read the primary text, and allows for an argument about the text as a whole, and one that is well thought. If a pieces of criticism the length of a journal article were linked to every passage of a primary text, it would be impossible to navigate through these side streets. To quote a popular online meme, “too long; didn’t read.” Therefore, this model forces the scholar to make compact arguments. Perhaps by mapping criticism directly on to the text, the goal is to guide the reader to a particular critical interpretation of the text as they read it. Does this mean one has to re-read the primary text every time they wish to learn of a new perspective? Not necessarily; if we map multiple viewpoints on to the text, as we read we are aware of multiple perspectives that are developed throughout the reading of the primary text.

Undoubtedly, an act of restraint in creating this model is required. No matter how condense an argument is, if every viewpoint is included it will be overwhelming to the reader; reading every single argument for every single passage will him or her from the primary text, or taint the pleasure of reading by making it too labourious.  Therefore, only some arguments can be included. Therefore, in conceptualizing this model, I don’t imagine all arguments regarding the text to be included. Even if one were to include literary artifacts or auxiliary documents that would allow the reader to construct his own arguments, this still implies a narrative argument in determining what is relevant and what should be included. Therefore, in so far that there are multiple arguments, which ones do you chose? This implies an authority on behalf of the person who maintains this digital critical edition in choosing which arguments are valid and aught to be included, and thus does not completely liberate the reader from the narrative of scholarly criticism. However, it does – I think – offer fertile ground for moving away from the long-form argument of journals and monographs that exist a posteriori to the act of reading. It allows for the act of scholarly criticism and the act of reading the primary text to overlap and fold into one another.

In so far that I think there is primacy towards the primary text by way of it being the object the scholar is studying by choice, the primary text should be the main artery in this model. There are other models that can be conceived in which the main text is not as central or hierarchical – such as if we eschew the notion of a highway and side streets for instead a grid like system of streets. In that model, the primary text is just one street, and a reader can turn off it at any point and chose not to return. Sometimes when we engage in research, we can come across interesting ideas that may draw us away from our original subject of study. For example, one may stumble across a new way of reading in relations to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (this is an arbitrary choice) that inspires the critic to think in new ways about the relationship between literature and history (again, an arbitrary choice). Thus, the scholar turned off the road of the primary text and is now presented with a new set of intersections to travel from. Is this a bad thing if those new thoughts don’t pertain to The Great Gatsby, which is, his original intended subject of study? It is not at all, and in fact very important work could emerge from this kernel of inspiration. Thus the model I propose could be criticized for being to rigid in its adoption of the primary text as a focal point – we can be inspired to do something completely new and unrelated to our original topic of study.

However, much of scholarly criticism still does seek to work upon a primary text; we seek to  theorize a work of art, a concept, or what have you. This is to say, I see criticism as hermeneutics; the act of trying to understand. As long as criticism holds this role, we should allow for models that allow us to structure our work as critics around what it is exactly we are trying to understand.



Ross, Alison. “Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804).” The Deleuze Dictionary. Ed. Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.

Trettien, Whitney Anne. “NaRRaTIVE MULTIPLICITIES + PaCK MEDIA Re-reading the Reader into Dracula.” 2011. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.



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