“The Poet is Independent & Wicked” (William Blake)

Today, we’ll use Jerome McGann’s idea of “deformance” to think about electronic literature and how it produces meaning by refiguring the page. Specifically, we’ll look closely at a few pages of The Jew’s Daughter (Judd Morrissey, with contributions by Lori Talley) and work by YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. You can read McGann on deformance in his chapter on “Deformance and Interpretation” (co-authored with Lisa Samuels) in Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide WebPalgrave, 2001: pp. 105-131; also available here. We’ll consider Zach Walen’s speedy deformance of TJD found here, as well.

Paul Schacht offers a useful summary of McGann’s main ideas that we will borrow from for this lesson.

To interpret a text is to recast its intelligible or rational content in your own words: to articulate what it’s ‘about.’ If the work is rich and complex, this re-casting will be densely layered and highly nuanced — by no means a simplistic reduction of the text to ‘the moral of the story’ — but it will still be a reformulation of the text’s meaning in the language of criticism.

To perform a text is to repeat rather than recast it. This repetition engages meaning, too, but not by rewording it. The idea of engagement through repetition is a familiar one in music and drama, where it’s a given that each new performance of a score or production of a play will give the work a particular ‘spin,’ bringing out some aspects of meaning and (perhaps necessarily) suppressing others. It’s not an alien idea with respect to poetry, either: read a poem aloud, and if you’re doing a competent job, your decisions about which words to emphasize, when to pause, and how to modulate your voice all reflect your engagement with the poem’s meaning. McGann extends this idea of performance beyond oral performance, though, suggesting that translations and editions, too, are performances. The editor who must choose which version of an Emily Dickinson poem to print in a collection of her poetry must contend with the different meanings that the different versions may encode. The volume that results from multiple decisions of this kind is a repetition of Dickinson’s work reflecting the editor’s particular ‘spin’ on the work’s meaning. In the translations category, we might think not only about textual translations — from, say, English into French or Arabic or Chinese, where nearly every word choice will involve an engagement with meaning — but translations into other media. The film version of a novel is a performance of this kind. […]

A deformance, as described by McGann, is a performance that simultaneously and intentionally repeats and deforms. Examples might include reading (or printing) a poem backwards, from the last line to the first (an idea suggested to McGann by one of Dickinson’s ‘letters to the world’), reading/printing only the poem’s verbs, or reading/printing only the nouns.What’s the point of doing this? According to McGann, deformance, in disrupting or re-organizing a text’s original order, can bring to our attention possibilities of meaning that we might not have seen otherwise. McGann seems to be arguing that these possibilities don’t belong to the performed-deformed version alone, which is not simply a new work. The possibilities were there all along, though perhaps obscured, in the original. Deformance merely brings them out. It does this by putting us in a new relation to the work’s form.”

Sources: Shacht, Paul. “Interpretation, Performance, Deformance.” Practicing Criticism Blog. 16 September 2012. Accessed 5 March 2017. Emphases mine.

I also built today’s lesson with inspiration from Lori Emerson’s blog post “Activist Media Poetics” and Kathi Inman Berens’ Storify “Deforming The Jew’s Daughter.” 

Image: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/static/photo/1x/Abstract-Art-Typography-Design-Type-Letters-651716.jpg

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