#FLdigireading: Reading literature in the digital age

Reading literature in the digital age from the University of Basel, on FutureLearn, ran from 28 March for six weeks. Led by Philipp Schweighauser, Head of American and General Literatures.

How do we read literary texts today? Learn new ways of interpreting texts, from time-tested methods to computer-assisted practices such as distant reading.

In the course you will:

  • learn how to interpret a work of literature without using any contextual information
  • reflect on the costs and benefits of online reading
  • encounter a method for reading thousands of literary texts with the help of computer algorithms
  • think hard about the feel and smell of books

How we read today: different media

Offline and online, print book and ebook…reading always implies the use of a specific medium of reading, and  the technological possibilities of the medium fundamentally shape our reading experience with far-reaching cognitive and social effects.

Reading habits have changed substantially over the last three decades. A National Literary Trust 2013 survey found that today’s young people “are now much more likely to prefer to read on a computer screen rather than a printed book or magazine”, while a 2015 survey found significant gender and ethnic divides between online and offline readers: “girls continue to outpace boys in their enthusiasm for reading outside school at all age levels, with black girls in particular showing a prodigious appetite for literature”.

How do the new forms of reading impact the cognitive processing of the texts we read? When we read texts online or as ebooks, do we get as deep an understanding of them and remember as much of them as we do when we read a print book? See Anne Mangan’s 2014 study, which suggested that ebook reading impacts our cognitive processing negatively.

See posts on ebooks and digital literature, reading long form and reading the Berlin ebooks.

In our learning community, ebook readers and print books seem to be the favorite reading media. A sizeable minority has abandoned reading print books altogether, be it for reasons of space, mobility, or money. A majority treasures print books for their sensuous and aesthetic qualities, valuing their look, touch, and smell…reading literary texts in different media means reading literary texts differently. We could even say that it means reading a different literary text.

How we read today: new strategies

See post on different ways of reading.

Lay reading techniques, products of and responses to the digital age. What do you do when you read texts online?

  • hyper reading – unlike ‘linear’ reading takes us into multiple directions which cannot be foreseen at the beginning of the reading process
  • social reading – a collaborative form of online reading that incorporates discussion into the reading process and turns it into a communal experience; see post on tweeting about reading

Professional reading techniques:

  • close reading – deliberately ignores all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts to focus on the text itself, zooming in on the words on the page and teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices, and structures that make up a text; as practised on #FLHouseLit; see Sarah Dillon on R4’s Open Book (also connection with digital reading techniques in its forensic intensity, perhaps)
  • historical contextualization – placing texts in their literary-historical context – part of which is the literary-geographical context – see stedssans category and page, #FLwordsworth and #FLfairytales
  • distant reading – Moretti; surveys, analyses, and describes even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders, drawing on the methods of the natural and the social sciences; some of the most interesting outputs are not interpretations but visualisations (graphs, maps, trees); relationship with text analysis
  • surface reading – also not interested in interpreting literary texts, but focuses on a variety of things inc the materiality of books: some interesting stuff here; relationship with experimental writing

Close reading is one of the most widespread scholarly methods in literary criticism and constitutes an indispensable tool, the bread and butter, for professional readers. Formalist, ahistorical, too strenuous, too reductive, relevant to scholars only, not well suited to the digital age with its information overload, or a useful tool for interpreting literary and other texts?

Developed from a 1920s experiment by English literary critic IA Richards, but today more closely associated with the (American) New Critics, who dominated literary scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s. Poems that bear out such a close examination are characterised by multilayered relations between words, sounds, and meanings, with ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, and tensions contained within the organic unity of the text. Literary texts don’t need to serve any psychological or social function, to educate us or strive to make the world a better place – instead, they carry their value in themselves.

My classic 1980s degree in German was studied almost exclusively through close reading, although no one ever called it that. A module on the literature of the Weimar Republic, employing historical contextualisation techniques, was considered rather risqué and not quite proper.

Hyper reading is the type of reading you perform when you look anything up on the web, eg skimming webpages, following hyperlinks, downloading files, cutting and pasting text you find useful. See James Sosnoski’s 1999 essay, Hyper-readers and their reading engines, classing hyper reading as screen-based, computer-assisted reading practices. Hyper reading takes place online and is a non-linear form of reading, where hyperlinks can take us into any kind of direction, instead of proceeding smoothly from page one to page two, and so on. (Hmm not convinced this only takes place online.)

Sosnoski’s eight hyper reading strategies:

  • filtering – selecting what texts or what parts of the text you read; with the help of search engines we filter the countless pages that make up the web and select but one or a few
  • skimming – locating the parts of a text you find most interesting, eg via a table of contents
  • pecking – a less structured and more random activity; randomly reading a bit here and a bit there, without respecting a text’s internal structure or coherence
  • imposing –  we attribute less coherence, unity and authority to hypertexts than eg a poem or a novel; we impose our interest on the text and use it for our ends, imposing our own specific significance on it
  • filming – privileging visual materials over texts; hyper readers film hypertexts
  • trespassing – ‘textual burglars’ raid hyper-texts and cut and paste whatever they find interesting; the danger is plagiarism and related
  • de-authorizing – authorship on the web is often difficult to determine; hyper readers don’t really care who authored a website and tend to treat them as if they were completely in the public domain; any link a website has to another website is an act of de-authorizing that website by putting it to one’s own uses
  • fragmenting – breaking texts into smaller units, relevant to purpose, thus fragmenting the text

Two more from Katherine Hayles’ How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis (2012):

  • juxtaposing – opening two windows, placing them side by side to eg cut and paste text; reading across two or more texts
  • scanning – rapidly reading through a website to identify interesting parts

Which of these go beyond stating the obvious? But still useful for typology lovers.

How does constant exposure to hyper reading affect us and what we can do about these changes?  Benefits and risks:

  • several studies show that people read less print, and they read print less well (Hayles)
  • other studies find that people, including digital natives, are reading more novels again – how to convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability, and how to make effective bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print’ (Hayles)?
  • Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994) warns against the disappearance of ‘deep reading’, the experiential equivalent of close reading, the cognitive and emotional effects that solitary, close, concentrated reading has on readers
  • much more of this from Nicholas Carr and The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains (2010; article); continual on-screen reading changes the neuronal structures of readers’ brains

Can online social reading sites turn reading into a whole new communal experience? “Social reading is a form of collaborative reading that takes place online, incorporating discussion into the reading process and thus turning it into a community experience”. Hmm…depends v much on the ‘community’ – not ideal for the anti-social.

See Glose, SocialBook (and the Open Utopia pilot project), The Golden Notebook Project (2008), book clubs…and Bob Stein’s (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book) essay A taxonomy of social reading: a proposal.

  1. Does the collaborative practice of social reading truly enhance our understanding of literary texts?
  2. Does social reading allow for a free exchange of equals?
  3. Will social reading ever replace solitary reading?

How can historical contextualization help us understand a literary work? Investigating the historical contexts of a literary text is one way to make sense of it. The literary-historical contexts of a work include, among others, the institutional aspects of its publication, its relation to the dynamics of various literary and artistic movements, and the connection of its author to other authors.

New Historicism has been a leading theoretical school in the humanities over the last three decades. New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt and Jane Tompkins developed a new historical approach to literature and culture.

New Historicists no longer believe that any historical era is dominated by one worldview shared by all – any era is shaped by competing worldviews and ideologies. History is neither progressive nor teleological. The world is not continually improving, for if that were the case, something like the Holocaust could have never happened. Likewise, history does not move toward a telos, an end or a goal. A teleological view of history would for instance argue that eventually, all the world will resemble Western liberal democracies, while New Historicists propose that history is much rather shaped by competing forces and changing power relations.

Historians’ desire to fully know and understand the past is illusory. The past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. Louis Montrose: the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. When we read literary texts we need to take into consideration that they were written and read at a specific moment in history, at a specific time and place whose social and cultural configurations were different from our own. The texts that historians and literary scholars write are also shaped by their time and place.

The textuality of history means that the past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. In most cases, the past comes to us in the form of surviving texts. Those texts that historians call sources. The texts from the past that historians call sources always already interpret the past, provide a certain perspective on the past that needs to be interpreted by us. New Historicists also note that the texts from the past that we actually have access to today are only a minute fraction of the texts that were actually produced and only give us certain perspectives on the past.

Perhaps the most important notion of New Historicism is cultural work (Jane Tompkins), going against the idea that literary texts simply mirror or reflect the world. For New Historicists literary texts are an integral part of the world in which they are read. They negotiate, comment on, and intervene in social and political debates of the time. Hence historical contextualisation is also good at providing opportunities to deal with questions which are related to literature only indirectly but which nonetheless strongly influence our perception of it.

Distant reading is a quintessentially digital method of analysing literature, relying on computer programmes. In many ways it is not reading at all – or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Moretti: “We know how to read texts. Now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Computer programmes, with the help of methods borrowed from the social sciences and natural sciences, are breaking new ground in dealing with literary texts and provide fascinating insights about literature. This strategy, developed by Franco Moretti, represents an attempt at utilizing big data analytics for the purposes of literary scholarship.

Three main arguments for distant reading:

  • not “years of analysis for a day of synthesis” (Marc Bloch) – instead of embarking on close readings of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single individual literary texts literary scholars can now use large databases, scan thousands of literary texts and identify recurring patterns and large scale historical developments
  • traditional literary scholars tend to focus on a rather narrow selection of literary texts written by eg dead, white males; distant reading promises to pry open the canon to also include largely forgotten works of literature
  • a promise of greater objectivity – traditional literary scholarship tends to be subjective in the end, shaped by the literary scholar’s own norms, values, and prejudices

Try out the Google Ngram Viewer (about) or Euterpe, an examination of French scientific poetry from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 20th century, led by Hugues Marchal. Or not.

Surface reading is not unitary method or a school of thought, but rather a general attitude towards literature that manifests itself in a set of heterogeneous practices linked by common presuppositions about the nature of cultural experience in general, such as the one claiming that by focusing on the meaning of literary texts we exclude and lose sight of another important dimension of literature.

Is the medium the message? To what extent do different media determine or preconfigure our reading experience and our interpretation of individual texts? The medial, material and technological preconditions of all communication forms, including reading.

The emergence of new media has a transforming effect on both society and the human psyche. What is the message of your cell phone? What psychological and social consequences does it have? How has it changed the way we think and act? How has it affected the structures and interactions of local, national, and global communities? What is the message of ebooks? Health effects, how the reading experience is enhanced or diminished by features not available for print books, the legal, political, and economic consequences of the increasing distribution and use of ebooks.

Why does the materiality of books matter? Since the 1980s scholars of modern literature have begun to devote increasing attention to those features of books that medievalists and Renaissance scholars have always considered crucial: the stuff that books are made of (their size, weight, type of paper, and binding) and the texts that surround the text proper (the cover, the copyright pages, marginalia).

  • in 1997 French literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the term paratext to name all those texts; paratexts are the portals through which we access the text proper, ‘thresholds of interpretation’ ‘thresholds of interpretation’ which significantly shape our reading experience, including our attempts to make sense of what we read
  • in the 1980s and 1990s Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer invited us to focus on the ‘materialities of communication…all those phenomena and conditions that contribute to the production of meaning, without being meaning themselves’
  • in a more recent special issue of Representations (108.1 (2009): 1–21) Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus introduced the term surface reading to name a kind of reading strategy that focuses on the surfaces of texts, ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.’

How is print culture responding to the challenges posed by digitalisation? One way is via remediation, the dynamic relation between older and newer media and the way they refashion and adapt to each other. In 1999 J David Bolter and Richard Grusin published Remediation: understanding new media, aiming at updating McLuhan’s insights for the 21st century. One of their central claims is that new media do not simply replace older media. Instead, they rework and redeploy older media, retaining some of their features and functions while discarding others. Media history is, in other words, not a series of radical breaks and ruptures, but rather a series of continual refunctionings and redeployments of older media by new media.

Remediation is defined as ‘the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms.’ It’s not only that new media remediate old media. Old media such as films and books also remediate new media such as computer games and hyper texts (retrograde remediation).

See eg McSweeney‘s Issue 19, Old Facts, New Fiction, & a Novella, which imitates and puts to new uses the multimedial quality of newer media:

By giving us the freedom to read these various texts and images and look at them in any order, this literary cigar box gives us the freedom to combine text and images in multiple ways. And that’s precisely the kind of freedom that we have learned to appreciate from hypertext. But this literary object here, all of this together, does something more than imitate hypertext and the world wide web.

It also does something that these newer media cannot do. It gives us a very sensuous and haptic access to these texts, these images here. We take these various artefacts into our hands, marvel at how well they’re made, and position them on the table next to each other, combining them in various ways. So McSweeney’s meets the challenge of new media by creating beautiful tangible literary objects. These material haptic qualities are well-nigh impossible to reproduce on the computer screen. McSweeney’s takes up the glove and competes in the medial arena, following its own maxim to create ’little, heavy, papery, beautiful things’.

Bolter and Grusin outline two major strategies in the medial competition between old and new media:

  • hypermediality – a ‘style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’; an early example of hypermediacy would be medieval books of hours, which contain beautiful illustrations that draw readers’ attention to the materiality of the book itself
  • transparent immediacy – where the goal is to make the reader or viewer forget the medium and give in to the illusion that what they experience is immediate and direct, eg 3d movies and fantasy novels

Verdict: the number of linked posts on reading and related shows that much of this was useful revision. An efficient FutureLearn MOOC, then, if not groundbreaking for me. My strategy remains curated reading, the introvert appropriate approach to social reading, which all too often though tends towards half-reading.

Update: interestingly, the Digital Reading Network‘s Simon Frost picks up the idea of curated reading from the other side with the concept of the ‘Net Work’, capturing “the idea of the work as an event which consists of people, places and bibliographic objects”. See also Reading the age of the Internet (Language and Literature 25(3)).

A related issue is the dissemination of literature in the digital age, as seen at Danish public libraries. See IVA’s Ditte Balling and CROWD, including its INTRE:FACE conference (posts), for more.

Literary geography: what is it?

Updates: see also the reading from RHUL’s GeoHumanities’ introductory workshop: Geography within the humanitiesEditorial from the first issue of the GeoHumanities journal | What might GeoHumanities do?

At the Poetic Places launch event David Cooper gave a good introduction to the topic, starting with Willam Sharp’s 1904 Literary geography (review), referring everyone to De Certeau and subdividing #litgeogs into inter alia mapping a text, big data across a corpus, deep mapping and (broadly) field trips, including Mapping Bristol and just going for a walk. Shout-out too for Nottingham’s Centre for Regional Literature and Culture. See also the special issue of Humanities on Deep mapping edited by Les Roberts, a typology of geohumanities from the launch of the RHUL Centre for the Geohumanities, and Sheila Hones’ Literary geographies: narrative space in Let the great world spin.

See also Robert Tally’s Routledge handbook of literature and space and the Palgrave handbook of literature and the city, both 2017.

Sightings of Danish literary geographers – Elisabeth Skou Pedersen (AUPhD abstract), have come across her writing here and there. Martin Leer (Geneva), nothing else traced.


The first issue of Literary Geographies (blog cum bibliography) is out! Lots of litcrit, which I’m a bit sniffy about when it appears på dansk, plus a couple of useful articles exploring what we are actually talking about here.

The editorial sees litgeogs going beyond human geography to embrace literary criticism, literary cartography, geocriticism, comparative literature, and the digital and spatial humanities, situating it in the intersection of literary studies, geography and cartography. The journal takes the general position that literary geography is essentially a way of reading, “an approach to literary texts, a geographically-attuned way of reading fiction or poetry or drama” but also “making connections while reading scholarly work in geography and literary studies”.

Up to the 1980s the term was generally taken to refer to the kind of literary gazetteer aimed at reader-tourists discussed by Virginia Woolf in a 1905 review for the Times Literary Supplement. It was not until the ‘spatial turn’ took hold in literary studies nearly a century later that a contrastingly critical literary geography started to gain traction. More recently, the division between academic and creative work on literary geography has also started to be broken down, while literary geographers working on different national canons have also begun to collaborate.

Taking this a step further, Neal Alexander writes in Thinking Space that litgeogs might be regarded as one specific articulation of the cultural turn in human geography. The term can be traced back to 1904, when it meant “little more than the particular places, landscapes, or regions associated with individual writers…a kind of literary geography [which] continues to manifest itself in the form of literary tourism ventures and coffee-table books”, oh dear. In a more academic context he cites Moretti, Andrew Thacker and Sheila Hones, who “offer[s] a model of the literary text as a ‘spatial event’, produced ‘at the intersection of agents and situations scattered across time and space’” (see Narrative space in Let the great world spin). Interesting…

Literary geography is often carried on under other names (imaginative geography, literary cartography, geocriticism, geopoetics, geohumanities) and takes many forms drawing on ideas from a range of disciplines:

  • generating maps from quantitative data as a means of correlating genre with geography or charting the lineaments of a narrative trajectory
  • the nature of the relationship between material and metaphorical spaces
  • literary representations of places and spaces
  • the histories and characteristics of specific genres, such as landscape writing
  • the spatial properties of the text itself as a material object
  • literary geographical readings of early modern drama, realist novels, modernist poetry, and contemporary science fiction

Not quite sure where my ventures might fit in!

Placing the author: the literary tourist

Updates: Literary footprints, running from 8-25 Oct, offers over 40 walks on the theme of London’s literary heritage. Lots of Bloomsbury and Dickens, plus a fair amount of readings…on R4’s Open Book on 19 Nov “literary anoraks” Paul Farley,  former writer in residence at Dove Cottage, and Frank Barrett, author of Treasured island, discussed literary tourism as offering a different perspective on a writer and as an enriching experience. Virginia Woolf may have found such journeys sentimental, but that didn’t stop her from undertaking some of her own…Defining Digital Dickens (not tourism, but new ways of engaging with classic lit)…Paul Scraton on (literary) tourism and sites of memory, and not least, Stefan Zweig (trans. Will Stone)…Travel, landscape and the Bronte legacyAnne Klara Bom (Academia.edu) on the literary icon city (affective practice | authenticity)…a home for Seamus Heaney.

#flhouselit is running again from 29 June. On a slightly different tack is Placing the author (abstracts | reflections | more reflections@placingauthor), a conference on literary tourism in the 19th century (and today), which took place in Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester on 20 June. The conference blog has a post on Imaginary tourism, with students at a university in Florida mapping places and journeys in five novels and exploring one place in depth – see Wuthering Heights, the North Kent Marshes from Great Expectations, the London Streets in The Moonstone and  Thomas Hardy’s Stonehenge. Lovely. See also The Postcard Project (map), accounts of visits to sites such as birthplaces, residences, gravesites, monuments, museums and blue plaques:

To take part in the project, all you need to do is to send us a photo, telling us when and where the photo was taken, why you went (max 100 words) and what you got out of the experience (max 150 words).

See a visit to Freud’s house in Hampstead, Elena’s postcard from Prague, Poets’ Walk in the Hudson River Valley and Lucy’s postcard from Abbotsford, plus the Guardian gallery from Nick Channer’s Writers’ houses, random post on Kafka’s death house

Go on then…as a dedicated literary, or perhaps rather cultural, tourist I’ve loads to pick from, but let’s go for Trieste.

Why I went…

A fan of borders and edges (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire), I’ve had Trieste on my bucket list for years. In her book Trieste and the meaning of nowhere Jan Morris comments: “People who have never been there generally don’t know where it is…Visitors tend to leave puzzled and remember it with a vague sense of mystery”. Last autumn I finally made it, in a journey also taking in Venice, a popular magnet for literary tourists throughout history. Trieste, temporary home of Casanova and Rilke and locus of Claudio Magris, is rather less familiar and hence all the more fascinating.

What I got out of the experience…

Described by Morris as “a loitering kind of place”, Trieste is perfect for drifting. James Joyce, for me rather more accessible via his places than his writing, lived in Trieste’s seediest quarter from 1904-20, teaching English to businessman and novelist Italo Svevo, the model for Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom. Commemorated in life size bronze statues and plaques around the city, Jim and Italo share a museum in a hidden corner of a palatial building next to the central library. Despite arriving at closing time Claudio the curator was unperturbed, happily relating tales from both writers’ lives, such as Italo’s stay in Charlton from 1903-13, where he worked as representative and manager for the in-laws’ paint firm. The lives of Joyce and Svevo, plus those of two other Triestine writers commemorated in sepia tinted leaflets, represent the changing identity of the city in a nutshell, and, perhaps, of Europe. Unforgettable.

Onward…Denmark’s big hitters are Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen and Hamlet, but let’s hear it for Nexø’s House on Bornholm. See also the Writing places project, “celebrating the rich literary heritage of the South West, Nicola Watson’s Literary tourism and 19th century culture (and blog post on dogs of genius) and Nigel Beale’s Literary Tourist, “a travel planner for book lovers”.

Sagas and space (6-8) and wrap-up

Week 6 looked at spatiality in visual media, specifically stone, wood and vellum (light edit):

This week again deals with visual media. On the one hand, we focus on picture stones and rune stones and how they develop a concept of space. Kate Heslop gives us an insight in her research on framing strategies and narration on such monumental sources. Oh the other hand, Lena Rohrbach speaks about the specific spatiality of medieval manuscripts, shedding some light on many questions which had to be answered at the beginning of the book culture of the North. Although rune stones and parchments do not have much in common at first glimpse, they are intertwined in their self-referential discussion of space and their function as media.

What are runes, exactly? From the glossary: the individual letters of the runic alphabet, the oldest and only native system of writing used by Germanic peoples. This alphabet, called the futhark after its first six letters (th = þ), is attested in an older version from about AD 150-750 and in later variants. The older runes encompassed 24 letters, whereas the younger runes, emerging sometime before 800, only contain 16. Latin letters, which came in the wake of Christianity, competed with and gradually replaced runes. Only in Scandinavia, because of the late christianization (10th an 11th centuries), did runic writing continue into the Middle Ages.

Runes

In normal parlance, a couple of vids looking at a few picture stones and the layout of manuscripts, potentially thought provoking in the digital age. Judging by the wrap-up this one didn’t really catch fire.

Week 7, sticking a load of words together, is entitled Space – place – landscape: diaspora, folklore, archaeology (edited):

We now return to the Icelandic and North Atlantic landscape, widening the perspective of space with the help of more general concepts. First, Judith Jesch introduces the concept of ‘diaspora’ as a new field of research in Scandinavian studies, then Terry Gunnell examines notions of space, place and landscape in connection with folklore studies, addressing questions of ritual and performance. We also point to a project from another discipline, archaeology. The Mosfell Archaeological Project (vids) is an interdisciplinary research project aimed at constructing a comprehensive picture of human adaptation and environmental change in southwestern Iceland.

So, random corner once more. Looks like week 3 is going to be the standout, with a nod to week 1 for scaring people off.

Judith on The Viking diaspora:
definitions

  • diaspora – originally a term applied to the expulsion of the Jews from Israel and their dispersal around the world; nowadays commonly used to explain a variety of modern phenomena arising from the migration of peoples around the globe – the idea of migration is key to diaspora, but diaspora is much more than just migration
  • the sagas arise precisely out of that ‘consciousness of being connected to the people and traditions of a homeland and to migrants of the same origin in their countries’ that is the primary characteristic of diaspora
  • there was a continuing connection between Iceland, the homelands of the settlers, and other parts of the world, such as Orkney or Greenland, also settled at the same time by ‘migrants of the same origin’, which both enabled and stimulated the writing of the sagas

The difference between colonisation and diaspora becomes clear when one thinks about Viking culture. There was not merely a succession of exodus, immigration, establishment of a new society in new surroundings – Norse culture in the Atlantic was characterised by continuous relations with its origins. ‘Parent culture’ and genealogical affiliation is one of the key issues in Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature and culture. At times the conservatism that lies in the term led to an unwillingness to adapt to new physical and environmental surroundings, as was the case in the Norse settlements in Greenland.

There are many possible networks of spatial meaning in Viking Age and medieval Iceland. By telling and performing stories about what happened in specific places, the Icelanders of the settlement period turned the seemingly ‘meaningless’ nature of the country they found at their first arrival into a landscape which was full of meaning, ‘filling’ the empty land with stories and memories of places.

Week 8 has the title of Language and space: spatial thinking in language; landscape and place names (light edit):

The topic of our final week proceeds seamlessly into last week’s discussions about the naming of concrete places in the landscape. Stefan Brink introduces the field of place name studies and delivers some concrete Scandinavian examples. Paul Widmer brings a more abstract spatial perspective into focus, sheding light upon different conceptualizations of spacial thinking in a language by the example of Old Norse Icelandic.

Place name studies aka toponomy are/is interesting, but the 10 minute lecture didn’t yield up much beyond dividing names into nature names and culture names (with subdivisions for settlements: hamlets, farms…nations | fields), offering up the concepts of typologies and chronologies and affirming the need for insights into cultural geography to be able to contextualise place names properly. See Linguistic patterns in the place-names of Norway and the Northern Isles as an introduction, plus the British Museum’s Discover Nordic place names map and the Viking Network on placenames. Update from serendipity corner: tying place names in with memory and mapping we have Mapping, Beirut-style: how to navigate a city without using any street names.

Danish sources: Navn.ku.dk (Names in Denmark) and Stednavne, plus Forstadmuseet’s List of local placenames and piece on the etymology of Hvidovre. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks strays into this area – see his word-hoard, plus The landreader project, and my own Faroese glossary. Lieven Ameel has looked at toponyms as triggers for a sense of place. Latest finds: Key to English place names and female placenames analysis.

It’s a thing

See THING Sites and the THING project, a transnational World Heritage nomination, based on an expansion of Iceland’s existing World Heritage site Thingvellir. The Shetland Amenity Trust has a place names officer, wow. Assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, eg Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands),Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in the Sherwood Forest, and obv, Folketinget.

Wrap-up

The peer assessment took the form of a 450-500 word essay, incorporating primary source and secondary course material, based on one of the discussion questions from the course. Quite neat, but judging from the discussion forums the hard core is pretty small.

So, what was it all about? There was a lack of a narrative thread, it felt like a random collection of pet projects hung round the broad theme of Sagas and space dressed up in academic language. Kudos for the non-natives for running the thing in English, but this can obfuscate even for a native speaker, so who knows what confusions may have arisen among non-native speakers.

Have to confess to being even more confused about who the Vikings were than before (eg did the Vikings conquer Denmark in the same way as they did Yorkshire? this article isn’t really helping) – it’s still not my period. (On which note, the local burial mounds and the sword at Avedøre are fun, but way too early for this context, obv.) Generally, Vikingery is a Scandi angle I have avoided up to now, but there are connections of interest to follow up, perhaps by revisiting our trip to the Faroes, a year ago this week.

Update: for the record, there’s an annual Norse in the north conference (@NorseintheNorth)

#edDDI: Digital Day of Ideas 2015

2016 update: #DigScholEd was liveblogged by Nicola Osborne. Keynotes from literary historian Ted Underwood on Predicting the past, a distant reading type approach to digital libraries, Lorna Hughes on Content, co-curation and innovation: digital humanities and cultural heritage collaboration, and Karen Gregory on Conceptualizing digital sociology.

Bumped/rewritten post – see below for brief mentions of #edDDI in 2014 and 2013 and other #digitalhss doings.

From the #digitalhss stable came Digital Day of Ideas 2015 (#EdDDI | TAGSExplorer – see graph) on 26 May, livetweeted, blogged and Storified by Lorna Campbell (@LornaMCampbell), with recordings of the talks to come.

Speakers and outputs:

Other #edDDIs:

#digitalhss in four keys: medicine, law, bibliography and crime, workshop on 12 November 2013, liveblogged by Nicola Osborne:

  • Digital articulations in medicine (Alison Crockford) – ah, the Surgeons’ Hall…seeks to illuminate the relationship between literature and medicine in Edinburgh through the development of a digital reader,  joining together not only the literary and medical spheres but also the rapidly expanding field of the digital and the medical humanities; interesting points on the nature of digihum and public engagement issues, see Dissecting Edinburgh for more
  • Rethinking property: copyright law and digital humanities research (Zhu Chen Wei) – the entrenched idea of copyright as an exclusive property regime is ill suited for understanding digihum research activities; how might copyright law respond to the challenges posed by digital humanities research, in particular the legality of mass digitisation of scholarly materials and the possible copyright exemption for text and data mining
  • Building and rebuilding a digital catalogue for modern Chinese Buddhism (Gregory Scott) – the Digital Catalogue of Chinese Buddhism is a collection of data on over 2300 published items with a web based, online interface for searching and filtering its content; can the methods and implications of working with a large number of itemised records, bibliographic or otherwise, be applied to other projects?; channelling Borges’ library of Babel 
  • Digitally mapping crime in Edinburgh, 1900-1939 (Louise Settle) – specifically an historical geography of prostitution in Edinburgh; used Edinburgh Map Builder, developed as part of the Visualising Urban Geographies project, which allows you to use National Library of Scotland maps, Google Maps and your own data; viz helps you spot trends and patterns you may not have noticed before;  for locations elsewhere in UK Digimap includes both contemporary and historical maps; Historypin uses historical photography to create maps, (EH4, plus come in #kierkegaard); see also the Edinburgh Atlas

See also the workshop on data mining on 19 November 2013.

Sagas and space (4-5): cosmography and cartography

Week 4 was entitled Cosmography: descriptions of the world in medieval texts:

This week’s main topic will be the cosmography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of pre-Christian cosmology in Week 1…The central question of all the sources is: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs? Two famous works will be at the centre of our attention, the so called Itinerary by the Icelandic Abbot Nikulás, and the so called Carta Marina map by the Swede Olaus Magnus with its sea monsters.

Abbot Nikulás’ itinerary, aka Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan (Wikipedia), was published around 1157 and takes the form of a guidebook for pilgrims about routes from northern Europe to Rome and Jerusalem. Gosh. The wrap-up states that “many of the contributions you posted on cosmography and intertextuality were extremely good” – the number of contributions may have fallen off a cliff, but leaves a fully engaged hard core. Expanding on this, “a nice definition of intertextuality can be found in some of Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Julia Kristeva’s writings…Intertextuality means that a text uses another text (more or less overtly and explicitly) and thus speaks with the voice of the other text…the Bible is of course the main text which was and is re-used and re-writtten in the Christian tradition.”

Week 5 was entitled Cartography: mapping the North:

This week’s topic will be the cartography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of the textual cosmography from last week. This means that we will look at some of the same sources, although from different angles. The central question is still the same: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs?

The videos take e a closer look at some of the more prominent medieval and early modern maps in the North, in particular Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (Wikipedia), made in the first half of the 16th century, ie a bit on the late side, but clearly Jürg Glauser’s specialist subject.

No headache inducing theory in weeks 4-5, hence rather less interesting to a non-Vikingophile.

As it happens the latest issue of Granta has the theme of the map is not the territory, ie “the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is, beyond our faulty memories and tired understanding”, with pieces that “remind us of the human cost associated with the divergence of map and territory” in, for example, Iraq, and on the present state of Russia: “Communism…made the distinction between image and reality a political art form” (source: introduction). Of the open pieces, The archive is a splendid bit of experimental writing in the from of a visualisation which provides “a means of understanding the essential aspects of a literary text, avoiding the possible confusions, or a proliferation of diverging interpretations, to which a conventional approach could give rise”. It would be interesting to tie these ideas in with the texts and maps on offer in the MOOC.

Sagas and space (3): discovering new spaces

Week 3 was entitled Discovering new spaces: geographical and social aspects; memory and space:

This week’s topic will be the social space and the historic landscape in which the Icelandic saga literature is set. Another very interesting facet of space we will hear of is its connection with memory.

Pretty heavy going, with two theoretical dollops, starting with a lecture on the space of literature by Torfi H Tulinius:

  • title borrowed  from French literary theorist and essayist, Maurice Blanchot, who wrote The literary space (1955) – literature is a locus where you encounter and transcend the limits of meaning and understanding; is this a space in the usual sense of the word?
  • Old Norse-Icelandic literature is very much concerned with space (ie how the country was settled; horizontal) and time (ie history; vertical) – these axes intersected in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries
  • all space is mental – we do not have immediate access to it, so we have to represent it, in our consciousness and in our cultural artifacts, such as literature
  • there is also space which we neither represent nor experience, but which is nevertheless part of our existence; for example the space of literature which exists in the sagas
  • some of the texts display evidence of fluidity (fluid space, liminal space, spaces of uncertainty) – the nature of the world changes as the character goes from one place to another; also from one time to another; transcending traditional categories, literature as a special place where the limits of language are tested
  • the sagas were a public space, testing the meanings and representations of society, particularly in the liminal times around the settlement of Iceland and conversion to Christianity
  • the space of literature as an alternate space, where things that didn’t happen can happen and where meanings and ideas can be tested

Next, space and memory by Pernilla Hermann (Aarhus):

Memory and space are connected in a variety of ways. Memory is best constructed on the basis of place – space can preserve memory, it can structure memory, and it can trigger memories. Two traditions bring together space and memory:

  • collective and cultural memory – memory places, places that construct and preserve memories; here the focus is on collective identity; places are something external – social groups, cultural symbols, collectively shared, external
  • the art of memory – a rhetorical tradition, where places are mnemonic devices or mnemonic tools; places are constructed in the mind of individuals and are internal. – rhetorical tradition, mnemo-technical device, individually constructed, internal
  • ancient authors distinguished between  natural memory and artificial memory, with artificial memory based on a cultivation of natural memory and two dominant principles:
    • mnemonic places – constructed in the mind of the one who trains his memory; very often architectonic structures such as a theatre or palace
    • mnemonic images – constructions of things that is supposed to be remembered, images of these things to be remembered are placed in various locations in the architectonic structure
  • when you have to recollect your memories you enter the space and go to the various images that you have to remember
  • artificial memory influenced art and literature – the sagas came into being in a transitional culture between orality and writing, and we can expect the people in this culture to have explored and used a rich variety of mnemonic aids
  • how did memory function among the Nordic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries? does Old Norse literature represent artificial memory? is Old Norse literature to some extent structured from mental spaces?

So bring on Emily Lethbridge’s Icelandic Saga Map and accompanying blog, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage. From Emily’s  vid:

  • maps and narratives are age old explanatory systems or frameworks which help us to understand the world and our place in it
  • all stories are maps of a kind, and maps in turn can tell stories; Robert Tally (Spatiality, 2013; Literary cartographies, 2014) : to draw a map is to tell a story
  • from a literary critical perspective mapping as an approach is a means of textural reduction and abstraction, prompting or helping us to ask different questions
  • we organise information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way; maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions and consider more possibilities (Peter Turchi, Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer)
  • digital maps can be used to present literary worlds as spaces through which characters move and the places and events in a narrative are set, and also to present the historical worlds in which bodies of literature were produced and transmitted; the medieval Icelandic sagas are fundamentally rooted in the Icelandic landscapes, and many places in them can be identified around the country today
  • mapping the sagas works on two levels; at the narrative level and at the level of presenting and visualising their transmission in space and time
  • at the narrative level, a map displaying places named in any single saga gives all kinds of insights into the literary functions or significance of different kinds of places and spaces inside the landscapes and enhances our understanding of the ‘narrative logistics’, such as the relative distances between places or the progress of journeys made by characters
  • the map highlights the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas over time and underlines some of the methodological issues in this kind of literary cartography; hyperlinking places named in the in the sagas to points on the map suggests that the relationship of saga text to modern day landscape is simple, but the correlation between the identification of specific places in the Icelandic landscapes today with those named in the sagas is often far from straightforward
  • landscapes have changed as a result of natural processes, not least volcanic eruptions and the various ensuing consequences of this, and also on account of human intervention of different types; farms have been abandoned, resettled, and place names have been lost or moved around; sometimes the political, ideological, or economic stakes are high with regard to identifying a certain place in the modern day Icelandic landscape as a place in a saga
  • the map is therefore also a resource that tries to highlight these mismatches, ambiguities, or disputes over the identification of saga sites
  • the process of developing the saga map brought into focus the extents to which places in the sagas exemplify what Edward Soja
    calls real and imagined places (Thirdspace, 1996), because of the way that the sagas are at once both history and fiction, ie fictionalized or literary renderings of historical events that are said to have taken place in identifiable local locations
  • one key preoccupation of past scholars investigating the topography of the sagas has been the extent to which local landscapes have been accurately or inaccurately represented by saga authors, but if one accepts that the saga sites around Iceland are both real and imagined places, real and imagined simultaneously, one can begin to better understand the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas, and to examine how the sagas have been transmitted via or through the landscapes, as well as being copied in manuscripts
  • this gives us insights into the broader sociocultural functions that the sagas have filled over time; many place names around the country reference the sagas or saga characters but aren’t mentioned specifically in the  texts; these places play a crucial part in the reception of the sagas, and are a part of what might be described as the sagas’ outdoor mode of transmission rather than their indoor mode of transmission, acting as mnemonic triggers for episodes in the sagas; while one was, say, moving through the landscapes, details from the sagas would be brought to mind
  • until recent times this spatial way of reading the sagas was just as important as the reading of the sagas from manuscripts in an indoor domestic setting; the landscape itself is, in fact, just another kind of saga manuscript, and is, in fact, a palimpsest with layers of saga memory and narrative detail built up over and across it over time
  • the possibilities that the Icelandic landscapes have offered over time for reading and rewriting the sagas is one of the reasons for their enduring popularity over time in Iceland, and arguably also one of the most remarkable characteristics as a body of internationally acclaimed literature

New in the glossary: in Icelandic the term ‘saga’ generally means a story told in prose. As a linguistic term it also refers to a large collection of stories from the Icelandic and partially Norwegian Middle Ages, ie ‘saga literature’. The sagas are the most extensive of the three main categories of Old Icelandic literature. The handwritten tradition starts in the 12th century, but most manuscripts date from the late 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

From the wrap-up:

Saga sites in the concrete Icelandic landscape help to support and create memory. This space related memory can be individual, collective and/or cultural, so space and time are part of different levels. Landscape as described and memorized in the sagas sometimes belongs to different layers of time which becomes clear when the narrator of a saga comments that a certain spot is called this and this today, but it was called differently in those times, or that this place is not inhabited any longer today; older layers of the history of a region may thus become visible and one might call such phenomena palimpsests.