The Necessity of Context for Reference

AyaSeaver's picture

I experimented and used a lot of photos and graphics in this post which serendip isn't always 100% on board with so I've posted it online

Comments welcome! 

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Anne Dalke's picture

On the use-value of formal systems

So, Aya, of course my first reaction is one of unmitigated delight @ the degree to which you have exploited the resources of the internet--images, hyperlinks, a fluid, invitational, conversational style--for this paper. (I loved the links, and wondered of course what it meant that when I clicked on "my teacher" I got "not found"--are we talking a teacher-less class? a student-led education? or just a failed link, needing updating?)

My second (equally predictable) reaction is disappointment that you and Serendip haven't been able to work this out directly: I think Serendip could easily have accommodated what you did on your own blog--but perhaps you just preferred that format? In either case, I have thoroughly enjoyed your work-around!
What I hear, here (and I'll be curious to hear back if this is where you were aiming) is a challenge to/dismissal of/putting-in-their-place of reference works, because context-less: "a grand amassing of material," you say in conclusion, but "a tragic loss of vision." You tell the story in support of this denunciation quite compellingly (you are a VERY engaging storyteller, and of course now I can begin to see why you so prefer the form of the memoir).
So let me just lay alongside the "tragic" tale you tell another one, more comedic, and see what sort of reaction it might evoke (in you, in any others who might be listening in...). In my ESem this semester, we've just finished reading Logicomix, a graphic narrative that represents, on one level, an "epic search for truth," and on another, a biography of the logician and peace activist Bertrand Russell. It operates also on many other levels as well.

One way we used it in class was to think together about the use-value of formal systems: how Russell's devotion of many years of his life to a task that failed--constructing the Foundations of Mathematics--actually led Godel to realize, in turn, that there can be no formal system can be both complete and consistent. And Godel's work led us to the computers that we are all so reliant on today. So the "tragedy" of the failed project generated something entirely new, entirely unanticipated. And the essence of that project was the attempt to create a stand-alone system, by stripping away context, in order to see the model, the schema, the frame....

Wittgenstein also plays an important role in this graphic narrative, and one of his insights is that words are 'models' (like the toy guns the generals used to plan their battles during WWII): they are not the thing itself, but an abstraction of the thing, always insufficient, always incomplete. But it is precisely because they are generalizations and abstractions that they are useful to us for identifying what is common among many different objects. Most useful, of course, if we acknowledge their limitations (see Owl on this topic....)

I find myself wondering, too, how you understand the relation between this essay, so full of challenge to the uncontextualized dictionary, and your analysis, last month, of all the visual textual references of Fun Home: I'm assuming that this insistently layered, very "literary" text, so clearly bound (as you show) to its ancestors, explicitly shows us, by contrast, what dictionaries, not bound narratively in this way, are not?
The other story I'll lay alongside yours is one I just read by Katherine Hayles. Commenting on the increasing ease of access of the internet, you ask, "Where is the effort, the goal, the journey? And without that what is the value?" In contrast, Hayles suggests (in a forthcoming essay on "How We Read") that we explore the possibilities opened us to us by reading that is more waht we call "skimming." She terms this practice "hyper reading"; it includes practices such as "reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading [including] search queries...filtering by keywords, skimming, hyperlinking, "pecking" (pulling out a few items form a longer text), and fragmenting...juxtaposing, as when several open windows allows one to read across several texts, and scanning, as when one reads rapidly through a blog."

What might we see, reading this way, that we could miss in the sort of close reading that you (and I would say all traditional literary studies scholars) favor?

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