Normalizing Textual Deformation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “deformation” as “alteration of form or shape; relative displacement of the parts of a body or surface without breach of continuity; an altered form of” (“deformation,” Def. 3a), and in his book Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism, Stephen Ramsay describes the prevalence of this phenomenon in relation to literature. In briefly examining this concept in my upcoming PetchaKucha presentation, I will argue that the normalizing of increasingly powerful deformation strategies permitted through such methods as ‘algorithmic criticism’ not only affirms such ideas as Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory, but permanently and incontestably situates both the reading and writing process in the alienating realm of the subjective.

Ramsay notes that “literary-critical insight begins with a change of vision” (48), arguably making the case that for a given reading to acquire validation through attaining the status of criticism, the reader-critic must not only endeavor to distance him/herself from the potential limitations of dogmatic interpretation, but by extension likewise distance him/herself from any interpretive strategies that might limit the ability to make logical meaning of the text. Essentially, if we as aspiring reader-critics are unable to extract logical meaning from a text upon an initial reading, or if we encounter a meaning that traditional dogmatic interpretation might render excessively obvious, we are compelled both through a sort of critical responsibility and an innate tendency to engage in an “overt manipulation of the text” (48). This begs the question of whether such a process actually takes place, and if so, whether such a deformative tendency is natural or has been programmed through the hegemonic dominance of such critical regimes as the ‘close reading’ discourse.

If indeed deformation is a natural tendency, it validates Barthes’ assertion that the text is nothing more than a “tissue of quotations” and a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes 146). This is so in the sense that the writing process thus becomes only the appropriation and deformation of various types of existing texts, nevertheless ultimately maintaining a sort of fragmented continuity with the massive but finite realm of objective textual possibility. The reading process is then likewise understood as another step in this inescapable cycle of deformative re-writing, wherein the reader-critic also becomes a writer through his/her own inevitable tendency to “read out of order, [to] translate and paraphrase, [to] look only at certain words or certain constellations of surrounding context” (48), all of which is the essence of deformation itself. Ramsay’s description of deformation in action, particularly in the reading and criticism of poetry, certainly feels natural to anyone who has attempted to derive meaning from a Dickinson poem (34-35) or a Shakespearean sonnet (55), as we indeed find ourselves applying a host of unconscious deformative algorithms in the process of meaning extraction/creation. Even in this presentation I am unavoidably deforming Ramsay’s text, which in turn unavoidably contributes to your own individual deformations of the text in your quest to understand and situate it in your subjectivity.

The notion that the deformative tendency is the unnatural product of hegemonic discourse domination by certain modes of criticism seems absurd by comparison, as it is difficult to imagine a possible reading that doesn’t involve deformative action on at least some level. One has only to glance at the numerous schisms that occurred even as early as the 5th Century AD as a result of the tensions arising from the multiplicity of interpretive deformations of Biblical scripture. Such evidence of humanity’s innate deformation tendency is clearly situated well before the advent of formal modern close-reading discourse.

What are the implications of what I will term the ‘deformation instinct’ in textual reading/criticism? Perhaps most importantly, admitting that textual deformation by each subjective reader is a natural occurrence necessitates a willingness to consider the conscious limits of our individual deformative practices. This is precisely the point that Ramsay makes in arguing for a computerized ‘algorithmic criticism’ – that this new method of criticism does not change the definitions and structure of the practice, but instead simply facilitates and expands the possibilities of an already naturally-occurring phenomenon. Essentially, algorithmic criticism is nothing more than “human-based criticism with computers” (Ramsay 81).

While such visionary critical practice indeed allows for deformative techniques previously impossible under the regime of “library based criticism” (81), it inevitably engages in a trade-off of sorts, providing vast new potential for subjective meaning-making through such tools as geometric analysis (55), but at the cost of further alienating the reader-critic from the already tenuous objectivity of the physical text, whose necessity is increasingly obviated by technologies of summary and limitation. Such objectivity has arguably never existed in an absolute sense, and it would not necessarily be positive even if it did, as Ramsay argues that textual works are “always coalescing into stability by virtue of the readerly process of deformation” (54). It is impossible to read or write in a vacuum, and this fact is affirmed by the potential of algorithmic criticism, as it will permit the reader-critic to observe the “bare, trivial truths of textuality” (79) from a vastly increased multiplicity of sources, revealing the utter interdependence of all textual input and output.

By thus gaining increasing access to humanity’s textual wealth, the reader-critic is able to “install the text into a network of critical activity” (Ramsay 79), exponentially multiplying the deformation-potential of a given text and concurrently illuminating the deformation process of a given author as his/her writing act is situated in relation to, and as a consequence of, the myriad number of existing textual manifestations. Ultimately, the advent of new and more sophisticated deformative practices marks the final blurring of the thin line between author, reader, and critic, relegating them all to the realm of subjectivity. Along with the obviation of the currently required ‘objective’ textual experience will come the death of reading as we know it, leading us into a great unknown in which the relationship of reader-critic to text is no longer about answers, if indeed it ever was (68), but is solely driven by the pursuit of our subjective questions.

Discussion Questions:
1) Does the ‘deformation’ process differ according to different types of texts?
2) To what extent does ‘textual deformation’ already define your reading/writing process?
3) What are the types of questions that drive the reader-critic’s deformative relationship to a given text?
4) Does the advent of digitization indeed spell the end of reading as we know it?

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text. Trans. Stephen Heath.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48. Print.

“Deformation.” Def. 3a. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Web. 12 March 2013.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

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One Response to Normalizing Textual Deformation

  1. davisrh says:

    In response to your second question, I find Ramsey’s notion of “deformation” to characterize my reading practices, and the way I produce papers, quite intuitively. For example, some years ago I wrote a paper on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which came entirely out of the observation that imagery of ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ often paired together, kept appearing throughout the book. Once I noticed this, I began to ‘lift’ the instances that I found out of the text and discussed them in relation to each other, further drawing a connection to the Icarus story (where he flies up to the sun and then falls into the sea) via Joyce’s epigraph from Ovid. In doing this, I made a selection from a very complex text and produced a new text (the paper that I handed in) illuminating a narrow—though extensive as I am sure I did not notice everything—cross-section of Joyce’s novel. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not solely: hot-and-cold-in-pairs-connected-to-the-Icarus-story; this barely scratches the surface. This was the selection that I made, which served my interests and appeared to me to be significant. This selection both represented (as being based on words that were there) and misrepresented (as being very selective) the whole novel.

    This seems to support Ramsey’s contention that algorithmic criticism is simply an extension of the kind of criticism we are already doing. An algorithm would have helped me find every instance of hot and cold in the novel much quicker than the “manual” rereading of each chapter that I ended up doing. I am not certain (responding to your fourth question) I can agree that this spells “the end of reading as we know it,” however. If algorithmic criticism is a computer-aided extension of the kind of criticism we are already doing, then it would make sense to expect reading to remain roughly “as we know it,” even if the kinds of deformations that algorithms are capable of producing are producing results that look strange when compared to non-digital work. I hope I have understood what your meant by this, and I look forward to discussing it tomorrow.

    Further (perhaps by way of a postscript), I am not entirely clear on what you mean by your claim that textual deformation of the kind Ramsey is talking about “situates both the reading and writing process in the alienating realm of the subjective” (in the last sentence of your first paragraph). What exactly is it about subjectivity, and this merging of reading and writing, that is alienating? Do you mean that the reader-critic is alienated from the text because the text can no longer be taken as a stable, objective presence? If this is what you are saying, I feel that one could argue that situating both reading and writing in the subjective would bring a reader-critic (a subject) closer to the text, as it would then be something ‘produced’ subjectively… But I should wait for your clarification. (Perhaps my confusion has to do with my not being particularly well-versed in Barthes.)

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