5. Conclusion: Shakespeare after computing essentialism
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Well prior to the digital revolution of more recent decades, these are some of the historical conditions in which Shakespeare’s texts became machine-readable code. In all of these instances—from the code-bearing sonnets of Allied spies; to the code-breaking mindsets of Hinman, Bowers, and the Friedmans; to the New Bibliographers’ proto-cybernetic interest in the human-machine interface of the early modern printing press—a kind of informatic sublime takes shape in which the words and bibliographic features of Shakespeare’s texts assume special status even as they affirm their transmissibility within universal systems. In this view, Shakespeare’s texts hold a surplus of meaning that exceeds the capacities of any medium yet also underwrites the authenticity of the transmission. Combined with this Shakespearean transmissibility in the wake of information theory is the desire for regularity embodied by Shannon and Weaver’s communications model, in which we can find analogues in Hinman’s and Bowers’s cryptanalytic missions to find meaningful patterns in chaotic data, and even in Greg’s determination to see regularity and order in early modern documents like Henslowe’s diary (in his edition of which, Greg normalized all Sunday performances to fall on other days). In the logic of information theory, Shakespeare’s texts could be received as clear transmissions if only we could eliminate the noise on the line.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What makes Shakespeare such a fraught case for digitization is that minimizing static (to mix digital and analog metaphors) escalates from a technical possibility to a cultural imperative, and indeed to a defense of a culture that images itself under threat. Once information theory extends itself into questions of culture, it can no longer separate the solving of problems from the bestowing of value. Ronald Day argues that we see such values at work “in the privilege that a certain ‘factual’ and ‘clear’ information is given in communication (in writing in general, in the media, in organizations, in education, and in politics), in the demand that the arts represent reality rather than ‘distort’ it (realism), and even in the claim that history is the transmission of the past to receivers in subsequent generations (cultural heritage).” The digitization of Shakespeare’s texts thus represents the meeting of two culturally constructed essentialisms: Shakespeare idealized as transmissible heritage sublimated into digital networks as idealized communications channels.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What is at stake here, and throughout digital Shakespeare projects and studies today, is the idea of Shakespeare as code; not just as cultural code, in the semiotic sense, but also as the machine-readable code that makes computing possible, which Hayles defines as the “system of correspondences that relate the elements of one symbol set to another symbol set, for example, when Morse code associates dots and dashes with alphabetic letters. Unlike Morse code, however, code within the computer is active, for it functions as instructions that initiate changes in the system’s behavior.” Critics like Hayles, Kirschenbaum, Nick Montfort, and others have been exploring the idea of code in electronic literature, where the many layers of code involved in bringing a text to a reader’s eyes are themselves increasingly a “resource for signifying practices.” For many of the writers of electronic literature they study, the inseparability of these two senses of code has become both inevitable and desirable, even if it runs counter to the professional best practices of information technologists, for whom a good system is a content-neutral one.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Though I readily agree with critiques of the so-called “conduit metaphor” of information—Tom Davis, echoing Karl Popper, gives it the even less salutary name “bucket theory”—simply rejecting the metaphor out of hand, or ignoring its influence on the transforming discipline, cannot be adequate responses. If we do not theorize, at a technical level, our intellectual relationships with digital tools, others will do it for us. All this would be simpler if the metonymy of texts, practices, and imperatives we call Shakespeare were limited to performance as an unreachable quintessence. In practice the Shakespeare metonym usually takes a messier hybrid form, entangling performances with documents, texts, technologies, information patterns, and the materials of that other potent metonym, code. We should understand that entanglement as a kind of cultural work, a collective preoccupation with the virtuality of the received texts which implicates all aspects of digital Shakespeare scholarship.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Does the cultural logic of computation, as implemented through information theory, necessarily define the essence of computers, as received devices? I would say it does not, but also that we are after computing essentialism in the same dual sense for which others have argued we are after theory: both chronologically subsequent to it, and therefore inheriting it, and at the same time positioned to reevaluate it critically and move beyond its limits. The best means of resisting computing essentialism—and of awakening the humanistic imagination to the possibilities of computing—is history, both the historicizing of our own tools and practices and the historicity of our materials. My purpose in this essay has been to show that Shakespearean code and its deployment in computing emerged from specific historical circumstances, susceptible to ideological analysis, and open to contestation. This means that embracing computing uncritically is just as dangerous as rejecting it uncritically, or supposing that there is any approach to Shakespeare which remains somehow unaffected by the epistemology of computing.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Worthen posits performance as a modern form of Shakespeare which cannot be reduced to information, but such an argument carries the dual risks of treating performance as its own kind of ineffable pure geometry (to paraphrase G.H. Hardy, quoted above), and of overlooking the many digital projects which treat performance as archivable, preserving not the performance itself in toto but rather the records, documents, artifacts, and other material traces which may be represented digitally. The question is not whether drama is “assimilable to ‘information,’” as Worthen puts it (I believe it isn’t, for exactly the reasons he states); the question is how and why that assimilation takes place anyway—both in digital Shakespeare projects and in the cultural imagination—and what to do about it. Computers are not providential machines with ordained natures; they are whatever technically literate Shakespeareans can make of them.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 One response I would suggest is to avoid equating computing with science. Specifically, digital Shakespeare researchers should not feel constrained by the idea that digital technologies are somehow inherently scientific instruments, on loan to the humanities on the condition that they be used scientifically (or pseudo-scientifically, as is more often the case). The benefit of rejecting such constraints is that Shakespeareans do not have to carry the ideological baggage that Day describes, and can think of applications for computing beyond the conservative preoccupation with canon-policing, authorship attribution, and quantitative verification of qualitative interpretations. In many ways it was unfortunate that the first widely publicized use of computing to solve an interpretive problem in Shakespeare studies was a question of authorship attribution, Don Foster’s computer-assisted analysis of the contested authorship of the “Funeral Elegy”—unfortunate not because of any particular deficiency in Foster’s methods (which I am not qualified to judge), but simply because it cast computers in their old postwar role as answer-machines. Stephen Booth likely spoke for many Shakespeareans in his response: “As to the [computer] tests themselves, I don’t pretend to understand them.” Who can blame him? In retrospect, it is difficult to see the past decade’s proliferation of social media and Web-based computing drawing much inspiration or energy from the “Funeral Elegy” episode. Even at the time it seemed an old-fashioned use of computing (statistical analysis) applied to an old-fashioned critical question (authorship attribution in the service of regulating cultural heritage), fought out in divisive polemics that led nowhere.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 “[T]hou shalt not sit / With statisticians nor commit / A social science” was W.H. Auden’s caustic response to the humanities’ postwar displacement by the sciences, part of a “Hermetic Decalogue” which includes another commandment regularly ignored by digital humanists today (myself included): “Thou shalt not worship projects.” Yet the message that computing brings an inevitable turn toward this kind of quantitative research—and, implicitly, away from other approaches favoring history, materiality, gender, ideology, and performance—is simply not true. Its promulgation within sectors of the digital humanities is less about recognizing the computer’s essential nature, and more about a disciplinary sleight-of-hand by which poststructuralist and materialist influences are displaced by an empiricism more amenable to the cyberinfrastructure model of big science and an administered world. As Mahoney argues, computing is not an alien technology which impacts a discipline from some distant beyond, like a meteorite hitting the earth, but rather a set of practices which have long been adapted and reinvented by different communities for their own purposes.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 As one of those agents, Milton reminds us that technical challenges like digital preservation and interface design may be understood through the lenses offered by literature, in which the rational and the irrational can be in focus simultaneously, resulting in a useful blurring of distinctions between form and content, text and reader, interface and data—just as meanings of the word “numbers” overlap in a post-digital reading of Milton’s own poem. The note of potential loss that Milton sounds resonates with one of the strongest themes shared by Shakespeareans and information theorists alike: anxiety about what is recoverable and what is irrevocably lost in the material transmission of texts. The power of that very anxiety must have struck Milton as he looked back to the First Folio, in a way one of the first great experiments in interfaces for the Shakespeare texts, along with the Elizabethan public playhouse itself. Milton’s epitaph validates a kind of readerly collaboration in the continuance of the Shakespeare text: the leaves of Shakespeare’s “unvalued book” are a preservation format, but only when they provoke a further circulation of texts among communities of readers, building networks of “deep impression.” As Milton’s poem suggests, Shakespeare’s texts have no perfect material archive for transcendental data; they persist only through transformission in the form of numbers yet unknown.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Bradley Clissold, M.J. Kidnie, Jennifer Lokash, and Paul Werstine for their comments on drafts of this article, and to Emily Monks-Leeson. Any errors are my own. This work was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.