The Canon, The Web, and the Digitization of Romanticism[Notice]

  • Neil Fraistat,
  • Steven Jones et
  • Carl Stahmer

…plus d’informations

  • Neil Fraistat
    University of Maryland

  • Steven Jones
    Loyola University

  • Carl Stahmer
    University of California Santa Barbra

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. 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. 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. 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 …