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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 10, mai 1998

On Romanticism, the Canon, and the Web

Sous la direction de Laura Mandell et Michael Gamer

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005801ar

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Article

The Canon, The Web, and the Digitization of Romanticism

Neil Fraistat

University of Maryland

Steven Jones

Loyola University

Carl Stahmer

University of California Santa Barbra


1

Whatever else it may be, "canonicity" is an effect produced by three interrelated functions: a certain (perhaps loosely) articulated list-like content; various cultural communities and institutions that negotiate, produce, perpetuate, and consume that content; and the material forms through which that content is embodied and distributed. While most discussions of the canon involve issues concerned with its content as such, less attention is paid to the alignment of the communities who produce and consume that content, and even less still to the way that the medium of print has conditioned our notions of canonicity. In what follows, we would like to address these issues in terms of the theoretical and practical concerns we have confronted in developing Romantic Circles as a scholarly Web site.

2

Romantic Circles was created by four Shelleyans, all of whom had worked primarily on "second-generation" Romanticism and hoped to be numbered among the many unacknowledged legislators of the World Wide Web. For practical purposes, Romantic Circles was initially designed to focus on that sub-field and on the (canonical) authors we had published on or edited.

Nonetheless, we have from the start commissioned hypertextual editions of and resources about other authors and works of the Romantic period, deliberately employing the "circles" metaphor to suggest the centrifugal expansion of concentric ripples that we believed would ultimately characterize any intellectually vital Web site. One of the strengths of Web publishing is that it facilitates—even favors—the production of editions of texts and resources of so-called non-canonical authors and works. This is in part a function of the relative simplicity of HTML (and all of the simpler document-type-descriptions of SGML) and of "workstation publishing" in general when compared to traditional commercial or academic letterpress production and distribution methods. But it is also a function of hypertext itself, which allows, for instance, an ephemeral newspaper ballad its own privileged, fully "centered" space on the reader's screen—no less prominent than any famous High Romantic lyric poem—readily invoked at its own direct-access URL with a single click. In a different way than with each page of a codex book, each "screen shot" of the Web, at least momentarily, becomes the center of the user's attention. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the theoretical underpinnings of this drive toward canonical "decentering" via a mechanism of hypothetically perpetual "centering," for it presents a somewhat different reading of the radical potential of hypertext than those offered by most current theorists of the medium—one that bears importantly upon our current discussions of canonicity.

3

Since the earliest days of cyber-cultural critique, destabilization of the text has stood as the common thread in most literary-based thinking on, about, and in, hypertext. A certain randomness that is characteristic of the postmodern seems to lie at the technological heart of hypertext as a meaning-producing medium. Whether conceived from Barthes' perspective of the writerly reader who is set free to move at whim from link to link in the production of her own unique text, or from Deleuze and Guattari's perspective of the Web itself as a rhizomatic knowledge producer, the hypertextuality of the Web might appear to be a powerful medium for undoing the canon. The canonical "list" ultimately becomes meaningless in the first place because everything is now on it, and in the second place because the integrity of its lowest level discrete units—literary texts—risks obliteration from a rhizomatic system of linkages with no meta-order.

4

It might seem, therefore, that the increasing digitization of literary texts in itself portends the death of the canon. But things are never quite so simple. However threatening to the canonical list the destabilizing and decentralizing potential of hypertextuality might seem, one cannot overlook the fact that the most common organizational strategy on the Web is the list. At some very real experiential level, rhizomatic knowledge appears to be unsatisfying to the average user, who spends most of his time surfing links from meta-lists rather than following links within documents in search of information. We thus find ourselves in a situation where the surface structure of the meaning-making mechanism appears to run counter to its deep structure. Hypertextuality may, in and of itself, be decentralizing, but the Web, as a hypertext collection, seems to work against this decentralization in important ways. Whether this is because, as Jameson suggests about postmodernism in general, we lack the cognitive tools to deal with the effects of decentralization and fragmentation, or because, from a more Foucaultian stance, the knowledge potentialities of each hypertext unit are themselves engaged in a power struggle which operates outside of the agency of individual subjects, is of little importance. What is important is that we recognize the logic of these two counter-tendencies and try to learn how to operate dialectically in the space between them rather than falling into the trap of assuming that one of two binary poles represents the "true" nature of the medium.

5

A model for understanding this type of apparently self-conflicted meaning-making arguably can be found in Romantic theories of poetics—a fact that may help explain why so many Romanticists, even if they are deeply skeptical of the medium, are at the same time enthralled by it. Take, for example, the poetics of Shelley—the shared scholarly pursuit of all four of Romantic Circles' General Editors—whose fundamental organizing principle (as it is now commonplace to observe) is always dialectically to assert meaning while at the same time deconstructing it. As a project, Romantic Circles conceives of itself analogously, as being to some degree both centering and decentering, selective and all encompassing, canonical and non- or extra-canonical—if not exactly simultaneously, then in a constant series of shifting, toggling possibilities and to a hyper-extent that would have been welcomed by our Romantic predecessors.

6

Of course, as General Editors of a site named "Romantic Circles" that prides itself on being a rigorously vetted publishing arena, we recognize that we are engaged in an act of canon formation (or perpetuation). Regardless of how inclusive we become, we do make decisions about which texts and resources belong on our site. And yet, do what we will, the dialectical nature of hypertextuality is always working at the same time to undermine any attempt at exclusion. On the other hand, however, as we bring to the "center" previously marginalized texts, we participate to some degree in canon reformation, if only within the context of an admittedly disciplinary paradigm. As Romanticists in the first place, we are not, after all, actively commissioning electronic editions of contemporary Chicana poets. Nonetheless, a commissioned Romantic-period work on our site could easily link to an online edition of such a poem (produced by one of our contributors or by someone else). The nature of the medium thus works against our own attempts at disciplining knowledge—a fact which we welcome and encourage. This does not, however, free us from the responsibility of recognizing and understanding the logics behind and the implications of our initial exclusionary moves—especially as they relate to issues of canon formation.

7

Following what looks like a traditional model of canon expansion (as seen recently in the new wave of letterpress anthologies of Romanticism, for example), we will cast our editorial net wider in the coming months. In the first quarter of 1998, we have begun introducing several new texts and other resources that will allow us to remove the names of the second-generation writers from our logo, as we have planned for some time:

This kind of subtle erasure and concomitant expansion—or hyper-canonization—will, we expect, greatly enrich Romantic Circles and its ability to further affect canonicity.

8

But we are also committed to providing resources and virtual fora for theoretical reflection upon and discussion of the Romantic Canon. Our first major effort in this direction was the mounting this past fall of two new resources. The first is an Anthologies Page, edited by Harriet Kramer Linkin, Laura Mandell, and Rita Raley, a resource that makes available, among other things, the tables of contents for all of the many recent anthologies of Romanticism (linked to a powerful search engine), providing an invaluable material base for anyone wishing to think about recent reassessments and implementations of the Romantic Canon. Another important feature of the Anthologies Page is its rich (and interactive) section on discussions of anthologies and canon reform. This feature makes a good companion piece for the second of our two new resources on the canon: a superb discussion thread on NASSR-L that we have mounted in the Scholarly Resources section of Romantic Circles under the title "Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon: An Online Discussion". We hope that teachers of Romanticism will choose to incorporate these resources into their syllabi for a specific class or set of classes focused on the Romantic canon, a strategy that we have heard has already been adopted successfully in a few graduate courses taught this past semester.

9

Perhaps even more significant, however, than helping to change the lists of which works and authors get taught and read—or providing theoretical discussions of such changes—will be our continued experiments with the very forms and infrastructure of online scholarly communication. Through such experiments Romantic Circles may have its greatest impact on "the canon"—by testing and perhaps altering the ways in which knowledge gets made and transmitted. This process will involve thinking about the electronic medium not just as "hypertext," but as leading to a series of vital, distributed networks, some of which cross traditional boundaries of academic discipline, collaborative group, and professional affiliation. In what follows, we want to focus briefly on one such initiative, the creation of Romantic Circles High School, an attempt to move several of our most important theoretical commitments into praxis by realigning two communities crucial to the production and consumption of canonicity in general and the Romantic Canon in particular. Our ultimate goal in this project is to build an experimental online community of educators and their students: across state (and even national) boundaries—but also across the sometimes more daunting border that separates secondary education from higher education in this country. Through such a project, then, the digitization of Romanticism comes to explore fundamental questions not just about the canon as such, but also about the institutional forms of education itself and the ways those forms might be reimagined on the World Wide Web. In describing our plans for Romantics Circles High School below, we hope to provide an example of one form that reimagination might take.

10

Without doubt, the advent of the World Wide Web and real-time virtual environments has for the first time made possible on the Internet as a whole collaborative and distributed teaching—and at minimal cost to participating schools or individual classrooms. But major barriers still stand in the way, including (to our minds, most immediately) the poor quality and general unreliability of many of the resources currently available online. There is a pressing need for educational resources on the Web that would contain accurate and reliable information, produced by experts under peer-review and general editorial oversight; that would take advantage of the interactive possibilities of the medium to go beyond the home-page format to create sites of intellectual exchange and activity, where meetings of various kinds can take place and diverse forms of knowledge can be built through collaborative effort; and that would keep its markup and server-end technology flexible and up-to-date enough to continue to be usable as platforms and browsers inevitably change over time.

11

Over the next three years, we hope to build Romantic Circles High School according to these criteria as a site that, while dedicated to the special curricular goals and practices of literary study in secondary education, places those goals and practices in dynamic dialogue with those of literary study in institutions of "higher education." To this end, we plan to develop a collection of materials created by and for the special curricular and pedagogical needs of secondary education—while linking this new development to our higher-education resources, breaking down the clear divisions between the two in favor of a more permeable border. This will be accomplished by setting up clearly signposted hyperlinks from the more elementary to the more complex kinds of textual and historical resources, for example, and running regular discussion threads involving both college and high school teachers.

12

With the help of Brenda Walton, a high school teacher (and Romanticist) in Lakeland Florida, who will serve as "Principal" of Romantic Circles High School, and with the hoped for support of outside grants, we plan to develop over the next three years resources for the site in meetings (face-to-face as well as online) in which the General Editors of Romantic Circles will work with teams of high school teachers in our home bases: California, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Chicago, and Florida. These focus groups will "seed" a new network, providing a community of primary contributors and participants, and also providing a valuable means for publicizing and disseminating information about the site, and a way to attract new participants in their districts. In the year following our initial meeting, each member of a focus group, working with their classes, will contribute at least one new electronic resource for review and possible inclusion on the site.

13

Besides this effort to distribute the ideas and methods of Romantic Circles High School, we intend for the project as a whole to serve as a more widely accessible model and large-scale pilot program—its results fully public on the Web—for others to participate in, imitate, and improve upon. Beyond new hypertexts and study tools meant for high school use—virtual field trips, collaborative class project pages, timelines and maps, student writing, curricular models—we hope to exploit the possibilities of real-time online communication, in particular, as a medium within which to conduct pedagogical experiments. The centerpiece of the whole will be an entirely new "wing" added on to Romantic Circles' existing MOO ("Multi-User Dimension, Object Oriented"), an online conference and meeting center we call the "Villa Diodati," named after the house on Lake Geneva where in 1816 Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley talked and told each other stories—and where Mary Shelley began her most famous novel, Frankenstein. For this project we will build, "furnish," and then develop a series of virtual spaces dedicated exclusively to Romantic Circles High School for the learning of Romantic period literature and culture. Among these will be:

  • A virtual Teachers Lounge, where teachers from around the country could log-in for real-time live communication, posting assignments and curriculum ideas, queries to colleagues, meetings, or help from other teachers on the teaching of literature. (This will be an open space cutting across the existing barriers between secondary and higher education colleagues.)

  • Online Classrooms, where students can meet for lectures, presentations, or open discussions. These rooms will be programmed in different configurations: informal discussion areas where multiple participants interact; moderated discussion rooms where speakers must queue up and only two or three are allowed to speak at once (but an unlimited number of others can "listen"); and one-way "lecture halls."

  • Virtual Offices, where teachers and selected and trained graduate tutors from around the country can meet, one on-one or in small groups, with one or two students for "MOOtorials"—concentrated tutoring in literary studies. (Existing tutoring programs in our home institutions will contribute to this resource.)

  • The RC High Online Auditorium, which would be used for special events, formal guest lectures by speakers from around the world, faculty meetings, "assemblies," readings from literary works, or student "recitals" demonstrating their own work to a larger online audience. To introduce this space, we will hold a major culminating event, the Online National Teachers Conference described below.

  • Literary "worlds": online "spaces" for exploratory learning, including navigating famous locations, real or imaginary. For example, students could "visit" the Keats house in Rome or Coleridge's "Xanadu," by typing directional and manipulative commands. In response they would see changing descriptions of the space, or links to images on the Web, as well as the messages and movements of other participants sharing and moving through the same space. (One inspirational current example of such an application is "Point Rash Judgment: the Exploration of a Wordsworth Text.") These worlds can also easily be programmed as places for virtual "artifact handling": the examination and studying of everything from an Aeolian harp (complete with image and sound), to a poet's rare manuscript or rough-draft notebook (never before made available to a high school student), to a nineteenth-century "Claude glass" (a special curved mirror for viewing and sketching "picturesque" landscapes)—each teaching valuable historical and cultural lessons through hands-on interaction and questioning, an active engagement in the process of discovery.

As we are currently discovering at Romantic Circles, MOO spaces, real time online environments, are educationally effective on several fronts: because they are text-based, their use helps improve language and rhetorical skills; students must write to communicate with a very real "auditor"—sometimes many at one time. Still, because it is spatially-conceived, the MOO appeals to and draws in those students who have difficulties with such verbal skills. And because it is interactive and inherently "playful," it helps improve social and communication skills. All of this enhances this technology's use as a tool in the study of literature and culture of the past, subjects which often seem dead and remote from the student's concerns, something passively to be consumed. On the contrary, these tools encourage the actively participating student to help make literary knowledge—and make it her or his own. As we look to the future (and given the rate of change the Internet has undergone in the last few years, this is not easy but is more than ever necessary), it is clear that educators will have to think beyond the Web as it currently exists. Such online virtual spaces is one direction educational technology is likely to evolve.

14

The key to the Romantics Circles High School project as a whole (and to Romantic Circles itself), from our meetings with educators to the way we build resources and have them evaluated, is collaboration. Anyone who has spent much time online knows that communities are not created simply by putting up Web pages, but on the other hand a community can be built using Internet resources at its center—as its infrastructure and shared point of focus. Teachers and students around the country will work with us as partners to actually create online resources for other teachers and students to use. In this way, we hope to build an educational community, making learning an active form of knowledge-production. Such an approach can radically change the relationship of a student to the material, between students and teachers, and among students themselves—as they work together in a larger national online community to build new forms of education, and to produce knowledge of the humanities for themselves and others.

15

Such collaboration takes a very concrete form in this case. Our hardware and software will provide the infrastructure for a wide range of high school projects around the country. We will actually provide accounts on our server for classrooms that might not otherwise have access to the Internet. There is a great deal of talk these days about "putting computers in the schools," but less is said (or understood) about the server-side needs of education. Our server and site will provide a rare avenue of distributed access, giving students and educators the means to become not consumers or "users" but content providers and producers of the resources they and others like them will use.

16

We believe that this kind of collaborative production of knowledge will have a radical effect on the canon as it is currently constituted. In opening the academic discourse community to a much wider audience, representing a greater range of backgrounds, interests, and situations, it promises to alter that community's overall perception of aesthetic and historical value. Moreover, the changes in the structure of communication and knowledge production necessary to make this collaboration possible will in themselves have a dramatic impact on what is judged deserving of inclusion in the canon. With this in mind, as a capstone for the initial development of Romantics Circles High School, we plan to run in October 2000 a major event: an "Online National Teachers Conference" focused on issues of canonicity, the Web, and the digitization of Romanticism. We will hold planning sessions and solicit papers (some from our pool of focus group participants but also drawn from a general call for papers), leading up in the fall to a 2-3 day virtual conference in the Romantic Circles High School MOO space, with online presentations (readable by a wide group of participants)—including keynotes on video conference CU-SEE ME links—moderated roundtable discussions, and open fora in the conference center, as well as informal meetings and social interactions among selected teachers and other guests from around the nation. With participants from both secondary schools and higher education, such a conference will provide an important occasion for assessing the success with which the World Wide Web and the Net in general has been able so far to realign academic communities, as well as to intervene in the production and transmission of literary canons and scholarly knowledge. But beyond this assessment, we hope that the conference will also spur practical and theoretical developments in all of these areas, perhaps even aiding in the conception of new digital arts and practices, which—in the words of Shelley—"tho' unimagined, [are] yet to be."


Auteurs : Neil Fraistat, Steven Jones et Carl Stahmer
Titre : The Canon, The Web, and the Digitization of Romanticism
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 10, mai 1998
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005801ar
DOI : 10.7202/005801ar

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