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Digital textuality, autopoietic editing, and the Courten MS.



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Jerome McGann has explained the functioning of text by appealing to systems theory, explaining that reading is an autopoietic process that operates as a feedback loop co-dependent with the reader. He uses this idea as a starting point in a critique of hierarchical methods of digital markup, such as TEI. By forcing the structure of the text to conform to a formula of ordered content objects, the autopoietic functionality is lost and, since the text can no longer be said to operate in the same way, the reader's engagement is irreparably altered. In his essay “Marking Texts of Many Dimensions,” McGann calls for the development of digital tools that would allow for markup that preserves the ambiguity of language and, therefore, the autopoietic nature of text. Though such tools do not yet exist, something of McGann's vision can be realized by modifying one's notion of the process of digitization. If the entire movement of text from printed object to on-screen rendering is understood as an autopoietic system, the engagement that McGann desires can still be achieved using the common and open tools available today. My work digitizing MS Sloane 3961, William Courten's seventeenth-century financial records, demonstrates this. The process I followed can be read as an autopoietic system, despite my use of TEI in the marking of the text. By conceiving of the system as the reader/editor's interaction with successive iterations of the text, rather than with textual elements and bibliographic cues, the reader/editor is made aware of the inherent ambiguities and is forced to actively read and engage the ambiguity in pursuit of a digital text. The autopoietic functionality is introduced in the iterative nature of the process, in that iterations of the text are read and understood in the light of previous and subsequent iterations of the text. The rendered text becomes the record of the decisions that led to that iteration and representative of the numerous iterations that preceded it and surround it. This is seen in the solutions developed to effectively digitize and represent Courten's cipher.



digital, humanities, manuscript, digitization, markup, tei, auopoiesis, poiesis, process, reading, editing, textuality, iteration



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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