The Text Model: Working with Digitally Enabled Models of Texts in NewRadial

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Amy Robinson]

In my last blog I suggested that the format which a text takes within the NewRadial interface (a collection of nodes which the user can draw edges between to connote relationship) is actually a model of the text rather than simply a re-presentation of the same object in book or even e-book form. I also asserted that in any area of scholarly inquiry, method will shape the product and I think that this assertion holds true for working with a model as well. Scholarly research which is in part a product of experiments with nodal text models will necessarily produce an understanding of the text object which is different from the traditional approach to a text as a unified entity.

Over the course of my initial ‘experiment’ with a textual model in NewRadial, the use of this model proved an illuminating method of research which enabled me to see elements of the text which were previously concealed from me when I worked with its more traditional format. However this experience also raised two important questions for me:

  1. What is a model of a text?
  2. How does a digitally enabled model of a text differ from the original text?

I don’t know if these questions can be answered before a body of literary criticism is produced using the tools which the Digital Humanities offer us, but in terms of beginning to formulate an answer, I think it is helpful to first return to the idea of NewRadial as a mapping environment in order to understand the nature of the model it produces. Maps and models are similar in a number of basic ways. Both maps and models are representations of an original which are created to help the user negotiate aspects of the original which are difficult to perceive or interact with. Both maps and models are generally concerned with scale, and often reduce the subject to a smaller (or larger), more manageable form. Most importantly, both are very useful tools whose usefulness, in part, depends on the user’s recognition of them as tools. Thus maps and models help us to do very similar things: to interact on a meaningful level with objects whose scale or complexity make them difficult to engage with by creating a version of the original which we can manipulate easily for exploratory purposes. The user does not anticipate that the trail they are hiking will be identical to the red line they draw out on a map any more than the science student thinks that molecules are indeed composed of Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners. But they are still useful in terms of providing a new way to perceive the original which can aid in the development of a better understanding of the original.

Another important aspect of models and maps, one which will bring us back to the question of literary texts, is that they dramatically alter not only the way we perceive the original but also how we experience it. The experience of reading a map is not the same as going to the real place, and no one would call it a substitute, but it will influence the way we experience a place when we actually go there. And more than simply changing our experience of an original, it can improve this experience by allowing us to explore the particulars while maintaining a holistic sense of the original and our situation in relation to it. This is achieved, in part, through the model’s scaling process which enables users to address the original from different levels, either as a whole or part by part. The creation of a model necessarily involves a degree of categorization and compartmentalization with regards to its parts, and this organization makes both the individual parts and the whole more accessible to the user since the model enables them to move more smoothly between different levels of address, giving them a clearer concept of both the whole and the parts, as well as how the relationship between the parts makes up the unified object.

In nodal models of digital texts this process is particularly useful since text objects are already “massively addressable at different levels of scale” (Whitmore 325) such as the chapter, paragraph, line, stanza, or sentence. The model of a text augments this quality of the original by allowing the user to almost instantaneously shift from a paragraph-by-paragraph perspective to examining how those paragraph nodes relate to one another within the larger radial of the model. Furthermore, the interactive nature of the model enables the user to re-organize the model according to their specific purpose by re-categorizing the parts into groups or separate radials. The practice of isolating and categorizing parts of a text according to common ideas they express or a thematic element which establishes an over-arching relationship is a common practice in literary scholarship but it is largely implicit. The visual element of the NewRadial interface makes this process of compartmentalization explicit since the way in which the re-categorizes the parts of the text object is made visually apparent. The user effectively manipulates the model NewRadial generates in order to construct one of their own, one which uses specific parts in order to say something about the whole. This visualization makes the user more aware of their movement between different levels of address in relation to the whole, as well as enabling a greater degree of self-consciousness since the process of constructing an argument becomes a much more literal process of selecting different parts and connecting them to one another. In this light, I suggest that models (including maps) are differentiated from originals because unlike the original which is generally conceived of holistically, a model is its parts, and its usefulness lies in the way in which it allows a user to experience the individual parts separate from the whole while maintaining an awareness that they are parts of a separate whole.

So a nodal model of a text in NewRadial does not differ from the original in terms of its particular details but in the way the user encounters those details. The words and images remain essentially the same but the user experiences the text in a dramatically different way than when they read it in a linear, narrative fashion from beginning to end. Jane Gallop’s comments on traditional reading practices were particularly useful to me as I considered this. She observes that “We have been trained to read a book globally: that is, to think of the book as a whole, identify its main idea, and understand all of its parts as fitting together to make up that whole.” (Gallop 5) What struck me as most interesting as I considered this comment was her emphasis on the action “to think” and the way in which she suggests that this mode of engaging with a text prescribes, to a certain degree, how the text will be interpreted. Text, particularly fiction or those texts which we refer to as “literary” are objects of thought. They are born of the inspired thought of the author, who publishes her or his text in order that an audience can participate in their thought process, think about the subject matter themselves, and form their own unique thoughts based on what they have concluded is the “main” or “central” thought presented in the original texts. Simply put, this is the process of literary criticism.

Models and maps, on the other hand, are objects of doing. They are inherently active in that they encourage the user to interact with them as well as think about them. As such, they prescribe (to a certain degree) the manner in which they are to be used rather than the conclusion that the user will come to. As Colin Bowers helpfully observed in his blog post “Negotiating Modularity,” NewRadial is “process-based and not (only) results driven.” So in approaching an original text in the manner in which Gallop describes, the parts always equal the whole and the whole is always a central or unifying thought. In approaching a model of a text in NewRadial, the parts, in this case the nodes, can relate to each other without necessarily having to relate back to a central idea. This is not to say that they don’t relate back to a central idea, since any ‘good’ literary text will have a degree of unity (even very experimental ones) but that the process of approaching the parts in isolation, without a view of making the relate back to the whole can change our perspective on a text. A model requires users to explore it on the ground level, wandering its various trails without worrying about how to get back on the highway. The user might still end up there, but their experience will be much different than traversing the original, and, I think, much richer.

As scholarly researchers, it can still be difficult to break away from the influence of the global approach to the book in order to explore the particulars without the hegemony of the author’s linear organization. As a visual activity, I think our reading is influenced by the ways in which text is visualized in different formats and the unified physical text object of the book is no exception. As I mentioned earlier, scholarly research generally involves isolating and re-categorizing different parts of a text at different levels of scale. This process usually begins with a holistic reading of the text, after which the reader extracts parts in the form of quotations which represent larger ideas which the writer wishes to address in their article or monograph. Working with a model of the text alters this process in several ways. Breaking down the unified book object into a radial of nodes emphasises the way in which the whole text is constructed of parts, disrupting the user’s sense of the book as a unified object while still enabling them to fluidly move to addressing the text from a holistic scale. As well, when a user extracts a nodal ‘part’ from NewRadial’s model of the text, the space which that part occupied within the entire radial remains empty, actually allowing the user to see not only the parts of a text they want to isolate, but what the consequences of this extraction are for the whole. This enables an entirely new understanding of how individual passages work within a given text.

So models of texts allow for a new relationship between the text object and the reader, who, through the use of a digital model, becomes a user as well. This shift necessarily makes the reader-user’s work process-based rather than outcome-centered, since the user of the model controls their own experience of the text to a greater degree than when they work with a traditional narrative format. In terms of NewRadial, when users work with a nodal model of a text which is interactive and displayed in a radial rather than a linear pattern, they have the opportunity to determine their own pathways through the text rather than following the single path which an author creates for them. Of course this ability is not meaningful or productive unless the user has first read the text since NewRadial is designed for secondary scholarship, but for a scholar in search of truly new experiences within a text, this kind of perspective shift has two key benefits.

The first of these benefits has to do with NewRadial as a process-based interface. As Colin Bowers observes, “the older methods did a much better job of hiding or distorting the real processes of research activity to the researchers involved.” As literary scholars, we are often very familiar with our research practices but much less conscious of our reading practices and the ways in which they shape our interpretations. As both a student of literature and a lover of books, I sometimes find it difficult to perform the mental shift necessary to read a text critically rather than simply being drawn into the world of the book, following the author’s path without analysis. Furthermore, like most products of Western educational systems, I have been trained when approaching a text for the purposes of reading to, just as Jane Gallop says, “identify its main idea, and understand all of its parts as fitting together to make up that whole.” And this reading method, just like my choice of research method, will colour the products of my research, leading me down the same paths again and again. But the nodal model of the text that NewRadial produces doesn’t allow the user to simply follow the same path through the text which they walked on their first reading, marching towards a main idea which will make all of the parts fit together. The user cannot simply think about the model the way they would reflect on the text, they have to do something with the model. In terms of Gallop’s description of global reading, this means beginning with the parts and moving towards an idea rather than beginning with an idea and making the parts fit into it. This process of interacting with the model means that not only will the user begin to forge new pathways through the text, but also that their own reading practices will become evident through the contrast of their experiences of first the text and then the model, enabling them to move in directions they haven’t before.

The second benefit which is related to the first is that by creating a model of text which is interactive, NewRadial gives users the opportunity to be path-makers within the world of the book, wandering off of the author’s linear prescriptions to create new connections and new experiences. A text model in NewRadial is useful because it allows the user to perform a kind of “doing” as thinking (Moretti 11). The user can use NewRadial’s model as a map with which to create paths of exploration, to break the text down into its parts to examine how they fit together. These discoveries are meaningful because they shed new light on the user’s original experience inside the text object, not the model. When the user leaves the NewRadial environment and returns to the place of the book, they are more familiar with its paths, they know its parts more intimately as separate entities, and they no longer think of these parts simply in relation to how they produce a unified thought. Rather, working with a model reveals all of the various thoughts which the separate parts encourage a reader to experience, thereby enriching the experience of the unified original object.

In my own experience, by making, experimenting, exploring, and building within NewRadial, I acted out a new way of thinking about text using my model. This was doubly fruitful for me because when I stopped thinking of a book globally and began to think of it as made of up various parts or potential paths, what I saw was not only the model of my text or even the text proper. What working with a model exposed for me that my usual approach to a whole text could not was a closer look at the unconscious ways I lead myself continually to find the same things in different texts. In other words, experiencing a model of the text, doing as a kind of thinking, gave me new critical insight into my own practices of doing and thinking, and the way treating a text as a whole has influenced my experience of a book and my interpretation of its meaning(s). This insight into my reading process also translated into an insight regarding the process of the book in generating meanings, since instead of approaching the text as a passive reader looking for unity, I encountered it much the way the author wrote it, connecting small part to small part, stepping back to look at the whole that I had created only after I was done working with my pieces.

Working with a model of a text object such as the nodal models which NewRadial produces are ultimately beneficial because they allow the user to shift perspective, drawing attention to the ways they are used to interacting with a text and allowing for new experiences and meanings to be produced. This is achieved through a method which allows the user to think through a text by approaching the text not from a global scale but via its individual parts. The process of thinking then becomes a process of thinking by doing as the user experiments to see how the parts do (or do not) work together to create different experiences for the reader. The usefulness of models of texts will ultimately depend on the user’s willingness to let go of their traditional methods of reading for a kind of exploration which may lead to new discoveries or nowhere at all. This is the risk of experimentation, but in exchange for the freedom to experience text in brand new ways, it seems like a risk worth taking.

 

Bowers, Colin. “Negotiating Modularity.” INKE, INKE, Nov. 14, 2014. Web. 30 Nov.

2014.

Gallop, Jane. “The Ethics of Close Reading: Close Encounters.” Journal of Curriculum

            Theorizing. 16.3 (2000): 7-17. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013.

Whitmore, Michael. “Text: A Massively Addressable Object.” Debates in the Digital

Humanities. ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

  1. 324-327. Print.

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