Resisting information

This is my contribution to a round table held during the Outside-In/Inside-Out festival of outside and subterranean poetry in Glasgow on 8 October 2016. Other members of the round table were Bronac Ferran, a writer and curator from Birkbeck, University of London, and Tom Schofield, Lecturer in Digital Cultures at Newcastle University.

This is one of my favourite medieval manuscripts, the Gorleston Psalter, made in Norfolk for a nobleman associated with the church of St Andrew’s Gorleston in about 1300, now British Library, Additional MS 49622. You can see here the opening words of Psalm 1, in which the words ‘Beautus Vir’, ‘Blessed is the Man’, have been used as the starting point for a dazzling visual fantasia. Stemming from the sleeping figure of Jesse at the bottom of the ‘B’ is a biblical geneaology which encapsulates in visual form the key events of biblical history. The text of the psalm becomes the starting point for a visual extravaganza which also incorporates in the decoration the arms of England and France and contemporary hunting scenes. The sensuality and opulence of this text is evident even in a diminished and washed out digital image.

As a young history undergraduate, truculent and perhaps rather unhappy, I was taken to Lambeth Palace Library where I saw such wonderful medieval manuscripts as the Lambeth Bible and the Lambeth Apocalypse at close hand for the first time. I was entranced and fascinated by the way the scribe seem to engage with and play with the materiality of its text, how scribes transformed the text with their decoration, and with the sensuality of a book as a craft object. It seemed a million miles away from the dry and abstract arguments of history text books. As I afterwards came to explore medieval government archives, I was again fascinated by the different shapes of the rolls and files used for government records and how the links and connections between documents were expressed in physical form.

When we edit medieval texts, we squeeze all that vitality out of them. When I first saw digital images and first encountered the world wide web — which was shown to me by Tim Hadfield, an energetic network administrator in the British Library, a moment I remember in just the way I remember the assassination of Kennedy — the reason these developments so excited me was because it seemed that here was a way in which the sensuality and materiality of medieval manuscripts could be at last be widely shared and conveyed. As a curator in the British Library, I was aware of the incredibly varied and different material forms of text, and how text was fundamentally shaped by the different material forms in which it was presented, ranging from writing on bones and pots to newspapers and sound recordings. The world wide web seemed to offer the potential of bringing all these together in radically different formations which would be intellectually transformative. It would be not so much a question of the death of the book as rather than supercharging and transfiguration of the book.

The term ‘digital transformation’, which is used by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in England, has nowadays a variety of common applications in both the academic and corporate worlds, ranging from the streamlining of office processes to reduce costs on the one hand to the creation of mixed media methods on the other. However, for me, at the heart of the digital transformation in the arts and humanities remains a reengagement and reimagining of the texts, images and performances which are the heart of the arts and humanities, defining so much of its intellectual territory. And it is this type of reimagining we have been engaged in during our festival this week.

One of the themes which I think has run through this festival is the modern revival of the sense of reimagining and reshaping the text. Just looking round our ‘Design and the Concrete Poem’ exhibition at the Lighthouse, we can see experiments in visualising, remixing, animating, linking and sonifying texts in a way that prefigures the type of activities that now occur in digital environments. Indeed, I would go further and argue that the experimental and radical textual and visual culture of the 1960s and 1970s, of which these works are part, provided a chief breeding ground for the type of visual and verbal language which inform our present digital culture.

However, if we look at the sort of remarkable pioneering work undertaken by artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Stephen Bann, Liliane Lijn, John Furnival, Bob Cobbing or Lily Greenham, we might speculate that they would feel great disappointment at what we have so far done in the digital environment. While many artists — including Tom Schofield here with us today — have experimented with digital media in the tradition of these pioneers, it is still difficult to escpe the feeling that within that field of endeavour that we call the digital humanities, a lot of the experimental enthusiasm which was evident in the early days of the web has vanished. We are concerned with sustainability, with measuring the impact of our digital resources, with the costs of preserving them. When we digitise great archives and collections of manuscripts, we are concerned not with viewing these documents in different ways, but with more efficiently extracting information and with creating a seamless experience for library users. The tyranny of search, and the reduction of digital text to a crude keyword search, flattens text into information and discards the cacophony of voices that an artist like Bob Cobbing would have heard and destroys the beauty of form evident to a Stephen Bann or a Hans Jorge Mayer. It was observed during our discussion that Bob Cobbing, who experimented so radically with the possibilities of photocopying and letraset, was fascinated by the possibilities of digital technology, but felt you had to move quickly and keep one step ahead. I worry that we haven’t moved quickly enough and instead that we are being overwhelmed by a grey mush of information.

Poetry resists information, and that is its constant beauty. However you look at it, poetry is always more than information. The shape of the words on the page in poetry is important. But how a poem appears on the page does not prepare you for the way it sounds when it is performed. As Willard McCarty’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture all the allusions in Ovid demonstrates, the rhetorical complexity of a poem cannot be captured in tags and markup. Markup and quantification are ways of further exploring the complexity of poems; they do not capture its spirit. By virtue of its very complexity, poetry has the potential to drive deeper and more profound changes than mere information and number-crunching (although in the plurality of computings, all these approaches still have their place). I was delighted when I gave an inaugural lecture at King’s College London on digital humanities in 2011 to find, when I wanted to discuss Jeffrey Robinson’s poem deforming Coleridge’s ‘Aeolian Harp’, that I had to distribute a photocopy, because it simply couldn’t easily be incorporated into a powerpoint. Jeffrey’s poem resisted information.

I believe fervently that the type of experimental and radical approach to text that we have heard here this week can, because it resists and subverts informational and mechanistic views of the world, be a driver for the creation of new forms of digital creativity which will ultimately be more powerful and subversive than the more technocratic approach favoured by governments and corporations. The kind of radical and experimental approach favoured by a Bob Cobbing or Lily Greenham can create a complex, multi-vocal and ultimately more democratic digital world, providing we follow Bob Cobbing’s advice and move quickly, keep experimenting and keep one step ahead of the technology.

New ideas come from unexpected places and often from below. Here in Glasgow, we are very proud of the association of James Watt, the inventor celebrated for his improvements to the steam engine, with the University of Glasgow. But Watt was never employed as a professor by the University of Glasgow. He was a repairer of scientific instruments. He had a workshop in the university, but this became the intellectual hub of the university, as his friend John Robison described:

All the young Lads of our little place that were in any way remarkable for scientific predilection were Acquaintances of Mr Watt, and his parlour was a rendezvous for all of this description — Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of of us, we went to Mr Watt. He needed only to be prompted — everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study, and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificancy or made something of it.

Robison emphasised how for Watt, thinking was play. ‘Every new thing that came into his hands became a subject of serious and systematical study, and terminated in some branch of Science’. Watt’s workshop was one of the eats of the Scottish enlightenment, but it was a place outside the mainstream of the university. Indeed, it seems that one of the reasons why the University of Glasgow was at the forefront of the Scottish Enightenment s not because of its celebrated professors but because it admitted unusual outsider elements into the academy, such as a university typographer, and offered practical lectures that anyone could attend.

The University of Glasgow is thus itself an illustration of how new ideas and new thinking can emerge from engagement with outside places, Its engagement this week with different type of spaces ranging from the Glasgow Poetry Club and Glasgow Women’s Library and here today at Many Studios in the heart of the barras is a striking reengagement with that tradition of seeking innovation in hidden and unexpected places, and a strong signal of how governments, universities and others might approach the pursuit of digital transformations.