1. Shakespearean computing
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thy selfe a lasting Monument:
For whils’t to th’shame of slow-endevouring Art
Thy easie numbers flow, and that each part,
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued Booke,
Those Delphicke Lines with deepe Impression tooke
Then thou our fancy of her selfe bereaving,
Dost make us Marble with too much conceivingJohn Milton, “An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare”
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I would like to think that Milton somehow knew he was writing about computing. Since the advent of digital textuality, Milton’s encomium to Shakespeare in the 1632 Second Folio has acquired significance he could not have foreseen. The word “numbers” in particular gathers together several meanings: numbers as the metrical units of Shakespeare’s verse (OED “number” n. def. 17a); numbers as musical signs of order in the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic qualities of Shakespeare’s poetry (def. 17b, 14a, 14b); numbers more generally as objects in a collection that may be enumerated in a totality, in the manner that John Heminge and Henry Condell (inaccurately) describe the First Folio plays as being “absolute in their numbers”; the numbers of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which we use along with first lines as identifiers; the Old Testament book of Numbers, which deals with a census (the same type of event that led to one the first pre-electronic computers, the Hollerith Tabulator); and numbers as the type of data usually associated with computation at its most essential—computers have their historical roots in the processing of numbers, not text. In addition to the computing resonances of the word “numbers,” Milton also evokes a form of textual transmission familiar to anyone who uses a personal computer, that of making exact copies in an instant and on practically any scale. As anyone who has suffered major data loss can attest, modern computing forces upon us an equivalence between copying and preservation. Since a digital text’s “deep impressions” are merely positively or negatively charged electrons on a magnetized disc surface—or the microscopic impressions laser-etched into an optical disc—the devices we now associate with computing provoke a complex set of responses to preservation, largely in the absence of a single trusted substrate for digital archiving. In digital media, preserving data means keeping their numbers flowing.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 This essay argues that Shakespeare’s numbers flow with a difference in modern information culture. His texts have come to stand as both ideal and limit-case for the concept of information, which, in its modern guise, emerged from a late twentieth-century cultural formation that still dominates much current thinking about computing. Idealized as easily encoded, unproblematically transmissible data, Shakespeare’s works supposedly flow inevitably into new digital forms of analysis, such that Shakespearean compatibility with digital media has become a truism. In this future-oriented discussion, however, it is easy to forget that Shakespeare and information practices have a long history together. For example, Peter Stallybrass has recently argued that Shakespeare’s compositional habits reveal that he may have understood more about database structures than we realize. A similar sense of playful anachronism in the service of historical imagination was the tenor of the forward-looking collection The Renaissance Computer. However, like many nonetheless valuable discussions of early modern literature and digital textuality, it tended to look no further back in the history of computing than the early 1980s, when the consumer-oriented machines now on everyone’s desktops turned the popular experience of computing into document-management, multimedia, communication, and e-commerce. And yet, just as Stallybrass’s table of Shakespeare’s copy-and-paste composition renders “To be, or not to be” newly strange to our eyes, so is it worthwhile to see computers with different eyes by looking at similarly unexpected parts of their history. That reciprocality between our understanding of materials and tools is crucial for digital humanities generally. Shakespeare’s history within that epistemological crux is especially complex, in that his texts both underpin and trouble the twentieth century’s normative concepts of transmissibility.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 1949 was a crucial year for bibliography, information theory, and what we now call humanities computing. The postwar decades saw a boom in Renaissance editing and bibliography generally, and scholars used this period to theorize and codify editorial and bibliographical practice—the former in Greg’s “Rationale of Copy Text” (first presented as a lecture in 1949) and the latter in Bowers’s Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949). Even as textual scholars were using Shakespeare to theorize the ways literary texts bear the marks of their material transmission, so were information theorists such as Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Warren Weaver codifying the discipline now known as information studies. Kirschenbaum sees significance in the publication of Greg’s and Bowers’s foundational works in the same year as Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, a book that has proven equally foundational in information studies and related fields. To these formational events I would add another from 1949: the beginning of Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa’s groundbreaking use of computers in his Index Thomisticus, a concordance to the works of Thomas Aquinas—the project generally credited with initiating the field now known as humanities computing (or more recently, digital humanities).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 In what follows I will explore how the idea of the virtual Shakespeare text took shape within this historical confluence, as bibliography, information theory, and computing converged on the same questions. Although the term virtual has suffered much dilution in the theorizing of digital media and hypertext, Katherine Hayles provides a clear and useful definition: “Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” Unlike many critics who invoke the term, she goes to great lengths to define and situate the idea of virtuality in relation to events such as the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics from 1943–54. Even so, her descriptions of virtuality sound remarkably akin to the study of literary texts as the New Bibliographers conceived it. Hayles argues that “Seeing the world as an interplay between informational patterns and material objects is a historically specific construction that emerged in the wake of World War II.” It is also worth considering how bibliographers may have contributed to—and been influenced by—that emergence.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 To substitute “literary works” for “the world” in the quotation above would capture the mindset of the New Bibliography, especially in W.W. Greg’s prewar definition of bibliography as “the science of the transmission of literary documents” and in the postwar turn to compositor analysis led by Fredson Bowers and Charlton Hinman. Just as Milton’s poem evokes a particularly Shakespearean pattern of transmissible “easy numbers” flowing through the book and leaving deep impressions in other media, so was the New Bibliography determined to trace that flow of information back to its source. Their legacy was continued by some but contested by others, especially in the 1990s, when renewed interest in the materiality of texts coincided with the rise of the Web and what we now call the digital humanities. Some digital humanists, especially in the sub-field of text analysis, regarded digital tools as means to purge authorial transmissions of noise, while others more influenced by D.F. McKenzie, Jerome McGann, and Randall McLeod imagined digital editions that could represent non-authorial interventions as meaningful in their own right. McLeod’s portmanteau term “transformission” nicely captures the shift in thinking about the dual virtuality and materiality of texts since Greg (though one can detect in Greg’s 1932 essay a conflicted sympathy with the concerns of present-day textual materialists). My purpose here is to uncover aspects of this prehistory which have bearing on digital Shakespeare’s present and future.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The metaphorical coincidences in Milton’s sonnet, however anachronistic, anticipate Shakespeare’s twentieth-century role as a reference point for information theory, the epistemology that quietly governs many of the digital texts and tools that humanists work with today. Shakespeare often represents ideal material for transmission and preservation, possessing complexity and cultural importance in equal measure. That ideal is an unreachable one for some, and Shakespeare just as often becomes the limit-case for imagining what new media can do. W.B. Worthen, for example, objects that “The widespread assumption that Shakespeare’s plays can mean the same thing as texts and as performances […] is, in a sense, an ‘information theory’ understanding of text-and-performance arising from the iterative character of print: in this view, dramatic writing functions like encoded data, which can be properly (and identically) downloaded with the proper theatrical software.” Specifically, Worthen emphasizes that which escapes mechanical iteration: “To the extent that it clarifies the deep contextuality and contingency of performance meanings, drama seems not readily assimilable to ‘information.’”
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 These are substantive objections, not to be taken lightly, but terms like “information theory” (in scare-quotation marks) and “encoded data” should not be taken for granted either. Worthen’s objection highlights the nuance in Hayles’s definition of virtuality, which she qualifies as a cultural perception, not an innate quality or universal condition of information. Cultural perceptions are powerful, and it is essential to understand that information, as a concept, performs a kind of cultural work by means of its metaphorical mobility; as Willard McCarty suggests, “Having it is good. Being without it is bad. But its colourless, odourless, tasteless and elusive ubiquity makes the notion, however successful, exceedingly difficult to grasp critically—which fact should make us very suspicious.” Worthen gives voice to that very suspicion with good reason when he objects to the quasi-scientific “sense that a photo carries the same ‘information’ whether it is displayed on [a] cellphone, laptop screen, in the newspaper, or in a gallery exhibition.” This is a notion that grates against the performance- and history-oriented approaches that have enlivened Shakespeare studies even as digital culture has been taking shape. As we head into a new decade of digital Shakespeare projects which mobilize the idea of information in various ways, it is worth taking account of our critical grasp on the idea, as well as the claims it makes on us.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Historicizing information technology and practices can be a healthy antidote to a problem that Shakespeareans face as they reckon with new media, which McCarty describes as “the common notion that the computer has a single nature we should regard as its essence and emergent evolutionary form, whether this be modeling machine, interactive environment, appliance or whatever.” The crux of the problem is how we respond to “the implication, that having discovered what the single nature of computing is, we must either take it or leave it.” Digital Shakespeare scholars would do well to challenge what we could call computational essentialism by investigating the prehistories of Shakespeare and new media. The ongoing history of digital Shakespeare research is of course a vital context for this discussion, and there are worthwhile overviews of new and recent projects, but this essay approaches the topic from a different angle. Discussions of digital projects naturally focus on the present, often taking present forms of computing to be the result of technical forces beyond the scope of humanist inquiry. What I offer instead is a critical prehistory which takes the present state of technology not as a given, but as the result of cultural investments that bestow value in some ways and withhold it in others. The most consequential of those investments were made earlier than we might think, in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 By understanding this crucial episode of computing’s cultural history prior to the more familiar PC revolution, we can find new contexts for questions about Shakespeare and digital technologies of the present and future. How does the notion that Shakespeare’s works are somehow exceptional in all of literature function in scientific knowledge domains like information science, which value generalization over special cases? How does the perception of Shakespeare’s printed texts as information patterns affect their reception and cultural meaning? The following sections take up these questions and trace the cultural imperative to penetrate the veil of code (to paraphrase Bowers) that came to enshroud Shakespeare in the later twentieth-century. After examining historical and cultural antecedents to the idea of Shakespeare as encoded information, I will explore some of the foundational ideas of information theory and their relation to bibliography, turning finally to the consequences this history holds for digital Shakespeare studies in the present.