On Integrating Network and Narrative Approaches in Scholarly Work

Posted by on Feb 11, 2015 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Amy Robinson]

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how to make my collections in NewRadial visually meaningful. Since beginning to think about how NewRadial and other Digital Humanities tools could be useful in the classroom, I have been curious as to what degree a collection assembled in NewRadial can communicate an idea or argument that someone else could learn from, interact with, and challenge. My focus has been inspired by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s suggestion that digital platforms for the humanities “make scholarly work available to the wider public and encourage its response…[and] show the scholar’s work in process, as fragments, that precede the finished product in the form of a book or journal article. Instead of the monograph springing fully formed from the mind of the scholar, we begin to see the building blocks, like a painter in her studio” (Lopez interview with Kathleen Fiztpatrick). I think that presenting scholarly work to students in network form invites both critical and creative thought since, by showing the many different modules that make up any given argument, the student becomes aware that no academic, no matter how experienced, produces a fully-formed argument on the first draft (a fairly common expectation, I have found). It also makes evident the fact that the individual parts that make up the finished narrative, the ideas in primary and secondary source texts that the scholar employs in their argument, belong to other ‘networks’ and that they could be re-assembled by the students themselves into many more; in other words, that no single interpretation offers an authoritative perspective.

One of the ways I attempted to test the degree to which my own collections made these ideas evident was by returning to collections I had previously made in NewRadial, particularly those made before NewRadial’s design was changed to allow the user to use both directionless and single-direction edges to connote relationships between nodes. I interested in the differences between collections that employed solely directionless edges and those which also used single-direction edges, but what I found really remarkable was a similarity. I had used my collections to develop scholarly papers and so, in one sense, each network represented a narrative that I had created but that narrative, whether I had used single edges, directionless edges or a combination, was inaccessible to me in the form I had structured it in for my paper. In returning to my collections, I had to go through each node and edge at random, and while the single-direction edges guided my reading more explicitly than the directionless ones I was unable to use the collection to re-create the exact narrative of my paper.

This is not to say that my arguments, ideas, questions, and thought processes were entirely obscured. But unlike going back and simply reading last semester’s papers, my experience of the related NewRadial collections was undirected and disorienting. It was an active rather than passive process, and one that included an element of randomness since there was no indication of where to begin and end, and even the single-direction edges only hinted at the next step. This experience recalled to my mind another quotation from the same interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick:

“we have this romantic notion that the author produces an idea and conveys that idea perfectly into the brain of the person who is reading the text. That the reader perfectly obtains that idea and processes it in exactly the way that the author intended, should the author have done his job perfectly. And, in fact, it’s never been that straightforward. The possibility of misreading has in fact been the norm. And the reader has always been free to do with the bits and pieces of the text what he or she will.”

Clearly networking my arguments, even when integrating narrative elements into the network, meant relinquishing this “illusion of control” entirely. It was almost impossible that another user, encountering my collection in NewRadial, would begin and end where I had done so originally. I couldn’t even achieve that myself after only a couple of months had passed. But it also meant that so many more meanings, so many more interpretations and arguments became possible via this networked configuration than had been the case in the traditional narrative form of these same arguments.

This element of chance which networking my arguments introduced into my and other potential user’s experience of my work is not unique to NewRadial or even to computational processes of any kind. In 1969 Samuel Beckett explored this freedom of the reader to experience the text in any number of ways through his short story “Sans”- which he one year later translated into an English version entitled “Lessness.” The 120 sentences of the piece, which are divided up into 24 paragraphs, suggest a sense of underlying structure through image and aurality but they are assembled entirely randomly. To create the short story text, Beckett composed each of the sentences and then drew little slips of paper out of a container to determine the order they would appear in. As a result, the version Beckett published represents only a fraction of the possible combinations, and the text can be reassembled into “8.3 x 1081 possible orderings” (Drew and Haahr) according to how the reader constructs the meaning of the text for themselves. Drawing on this potential, Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr created “Possible Lessnesses” (https://www.random.org/lessness/) a website which generates all of the different potential versions of “Lessness” one at a time for the user.

The reader’s experience of “Lessness” in many ways reflects the scholarly process of researching relationships and tracing patterns and then translating this work into narratively structured arguments for journals or monographs. As Drew and Haahr observe, “Although Lessness is linear prose, its orderly disorder calls for a reading process in which the reader works to untangle the threads of sameness and difference to discern the underlying structure, becoming aware of the usually unconscious processes of interpretation…Meaning emerges in the perceived space between order and randomness, and is derived from the work the reader does in sorting through the randomness and patterns in the text” (Drew and Haahr). Working with edges in NewRadial, this becomes almost literally the case: the meaning, the patterns I observe and trace emerge in the spaces between the nodes, the edges I create between them, the space between the ordered and methodological research I conduct and the creative inspiration that forms my narrative from the pieces of primary text and scholarship that I reassemble to communicate my meaning. This is the same space into which readers of my work can bring their own meaning, commenting on my edges, adding their own to strengthen the existing connection, adding entirely new edges between new pairs or groups of nodes, or taking the nodes I use for one narrative and putting them in an altogether different one of their own creation.

Furthermore, “Lessness” illustrates the way in which associative and narrative relationships can function in tandem to produce meaning. All of the different sentences which are the nodes of Beckett’s piece are thematically associated, existing in a directionless relationship with one another, which is full of potential meanings but not narratively structured. It is up to the reader, after recognizing this associative relationship, to trace the single-direction narrative pattern that they perceive in the piece. But no narrative pattern which the reader creates is ever authoritative or final: each time a reader approaches the piece can produce a different, and just as legitimate, narrative pathway based on different relationships they interpret between the sentences in the associative ‘network’ of the story. “Lessness” is therefore eternally a work in process; it can never be finished because the building blocks are constantly being re-formed by each reader’s individual experience. This is, I think, the kind of scholarship that Fitzpatrick envisioned: one that, rather than being afraid of the possibility of ‘misreading’, actually creates space for it to happen overtly, embracing the element of unpredictability, of randomness, in every encounter with any text. Networked arguments which employ both associative, directionless connections and narrative, single-direction relationships that represent a progressive movement towards a conclusion facilitate this process. Incorporating narrative elements into networked arguments enable the user to produce meaning as well as assert relationship without the subsequent narrative masking the scholar’s work in establishing the associative relationships that underwrite it. It also reveals the creative, unplanned pathway towards discovery that these associations lead the researcher down as well as the alternative trails that their chosen narrative did not follow. By making these processes explicit, researchers can not only embrace the potential of other scholars to read alternate meanings into their work, but can open this process up to the next generation of academics.

We are still exploring all of the implications of introducing single-direction edges into NewRadial. As Jon Saklofske observes of this blending of narrative and network approaches to meaning making, we are still “realizing ways to productively braid these two motivations and to further understand their interplay”. However, I don’t think a conclusive answer is necessary. As we explore and challenge the processes that underlie our scholarly work, more productive uses of these two approaches will emerge as we create space to experiment creatively and challenge our habitual ways of reading, writing and researching.

Drew, Elizabeth and Mads Haahr. “Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning.”
CAiiA-STAR Research Conference ‘Consciousness Reframed’ in Perth,
Australia, 1-4 August 2002. https://www.random.org/lessness/

Rowland, Fred. Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Center for the Humanities at
Temple.Transcribed by Andrew Lopez. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. 14 Jan. 2014.

Saklofske, Jon. “On the Edge: Activating the Networked and Narrative Natures of Humanities
Data.” Sustaining Partnerships to Transform Scholarly Production
An INKE-hosted Partner Gathering in Whistler, BC. 27 January 2015.

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