Panel Abstracts for “Virtualizing Native Soil: Faulkner and the Digital Humanities in the Twenty-First Century”

William Faulkner, 1962, Martin J. Dain, Courtesy Martin J. Dain Collection, Southern Media Archive, Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries

The following abstracts are for the panel entitled “Virtualizing Native Soil: Faulkner and the Digital Humanities in the Twenty-First Century,” which will be presented to the 2012 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. An earlier post contained the panel proposal.

The proposed panel papers:
“Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction,” Elizabeth Cornell

“Hypertext, the World Wide Web, and the Fiction of William Faulkner: A Backwards-Forward Look at America’s Greatest Postmodern Modernist,” John Padgett

“Digitizing Yoknapatawpha: Progress Report on a Work in Progress,” Stephen Railton

“Journey to the Center of Yoknapatawpha: An Experience of Digitizing Faulkner’s Fiction,” Taylor Hagood

“Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction”
Elizabeth Cornell, panel organizer
Though some of this year’s conference goers will have a strong and experienced understanding of the digital humanities and its significance to Faulkner studies and beyond, others in the audience may wonder what the field is and what entitles a person to call him or herself a digital humanist. This paper will give a brief overview of the current definition of and methods used in the digital humanities.

As the abstract for this panel asserts, the digital humanities is not a passing fad but is here to stay. “Stay,” however, is a funny word because the digital humanities is a dynamic field, drawing researchers and students from every traditional humanities discipline, including English, history, art, and philosophy, who are creating digital projects even as they strive to define what it means to be a digital humanist (even the term digital humanities is under much debate). Often working collaboratively and across multiple disciplines, digital humanists use traditional critical methodologies alongside digital tools and publishing venues to research, collect, and analyze digitized and born-digital materials.

Collaboration is an important feature of the digital humanities, and it is one way the field is distinguished from traditional humanities’ research methods. As Stephen Railton’s Digital Yoknapatawpha project demonstrates, the digital humanities demands participants who each bring different personal strengths to a project. Thus, labor on a project is atomized into special tasks for each individual or groups working together. For example, not everyone working on Digital Yoknapatawpha needs to know code (though knowing the basic grammar of HTML can be useful and is easy to learn), and not everyone involved needs to have read any of the Faulkner stories or novels being translated (though it might be a pleasurable and informative thing to do). Another significant feature of the digital humanities is open access, which means making content available to anyone (as does the Digital Yoknapatawpha project) and not just to people with special privileges, such as academics who have access to gated databases subscribed to by their institution. Open access can also mean that anyone who wishes may make contributions to a project.

As Cathy Davidson has written, collaboration and open access and other methods associated with the digital humanities divorce production from consumption. In the digital humanities world, to make is to consume and vice versa. A digital humanist, therefore, is anyone who uses digitized and born-digital material to experiment, create, and express ideas and knowledge. The results of that work may manifest in a large, ongoing, complex project, or smaller, easier ones, such as blog posts and text analysis using word clouds.

But there are challenges to digital humanities work. Major projects can be expensive, time consuming, and require long-term institutional and individual commitment. Though some changes to policy are underway, researchers may not receive the same credit from their respective institutions for their collaborative work on digital projects as they would for publishing a book or a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Copyright and fair use are also thorns in the digital humanist’s side. The panel papers to follow each address the ethos, methods, tools, and challenges general to the digital humanities as they relate specifically to experiences of digitizing Faulkner.

Elizabeth Cornell is a teaching associate and PhD candidate in English at Fordham University in New York, with a dissertation defense set for August 2012. She is the project manager for the Keywords Collaboratory wiki and the website associated with the book, Keywords for American Cultural Studies (edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, NYU Press, 2007). Additionally, she is a 2011-2012 HASTAC scholar; a member of the Fordham University Digital Humanities Working Group; an active participant in the larger digital humanities community in New York City; and a collaborator on the Digital Yoknapatawpha project.

“Hypertext, the World Wide Web, and the Fiction of William Faulkner: A Backwards-Forward Look at America’s Greatest Postmodern Modernist”
John Padgett
In 2011, Touch Press released for sale in the iTunes store an app of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which included the text of the poem but also many additional hypertextual features. The app ably represents the power of hypertext as a tool for literary study and appreciation. The term “hypertext” was coined in the 1960s to refer to a method of creating and linking concepts in bodies of text; because it was conceived largely as dependent upon modern information technologies to achieve, it first reached widespread application with the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s. However, the roots of hypertext extend back to older connections among and between texts—including intra- and inter-textualities. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha fiction offers an unusually large number of interstices for such hypertextual connections. Intratextual connections include the cast of characters who often appear in numerous works as well as locations, sometimes enumerated places in Yoknapatawpha County, particularly on the maps he created for Absalom, Absalom! and The Portable Faulkner.

The intertextual connections of Faulkner’s literary works to other works is also well known and studied—in titles that allude to Shakespeare, the Old Testament, and to classical mythology, for instance, or in content that contains shades of any number of American, British, and world authors. And finally, there are the “hypertextual” connections in Faulkner’s fiction—which suggests new ways of assembling and reading Faulkner’s fiction. Some of these occurred during Faulkner’s lifetime: for instance, the assembling of Collected Stories in themed sections, the interspersing of complete stories in Big Woods between snippets from other Faulkner works, and of course The Portable Faulkner. “Hypertext,” however, more often implies a modicum of reader control: the reader determines how to proceed through a text (usually with the text’s implicit encouragement to do so). Some of that exists even in print form for Faulkner’s fiction: in choosing the order in which one reads Faulkner’s works, for instance. A related hypertextual question for critics might be how to regard “linked” works: for example, does “That Evening Sun” have any discernible connection to The Sound and the Fury?

Recognizing the numerous hypertextual possibilities inherent in Faulkner’s work led, in part, to my creation of William Faulkner on the Web in 1995, a web site that quickly grew from what was initially little more than a Faulkner “fan” site to one that envisioned what the World Wide Web and hypertext in general could afford to the reading, understanding, and scholarly study of a major author. At the same time, it led me to recognize some of the major obstacles to achieving a comprehensive hypertext of Faulkner’s work, some of which are seemingly insurmountable in scope: the amount of labor involved; the problems of veracity and consistency with character and plot details (when Faulkner himself was often inconsistent); and especially, the legal/financial obstacle of gaining use rights for texts still protected by copyright. The challenge of gaining use rights for copyrighted material suggests a kind of inevitable divide between “primary” hypertexts, in which the actual words of an author are rendered intact in a digital form, and “secondary” hypertexts, which focus primarily on interpretations, evaluations, and commentary on an author’s works.

Despite such obstacles, the possibilities of hypertext and digital humanities in general to shed light on Faulkner’s fiction is by now pretty well established by sites such as my own and others, including the Absalom, Absalom! Electronic Initiative and the Faulkner at Virginia audio archive at the University of Virginia, and the hypertext version of The Sound and the Fury created by Peter Stoicheff at the University of Saskatchewan. Stoicheff’s site was inspired by Faulkner’s own comments in an early letter to his publisher in which he posited the notion of color-coding Benjy’s section of the novel, with each color representing a discrete time period in Benjy’s recollections. Unfortunately, Stoicheff’s site is at this moment not available, perhaps a victim of copyright and intellectual property protection, since the site did in fact recreate the entire text of Faulkner’s novel. That site, perhaps more than any other current or past Faulkner website, may reflect the future of Faulkner “primary source” hypertexts, as an “app” like the one for The Waste Land whose purchase would include the full text of the novel, but whose “hyper” text may include any number of other resources—scholarly commentary, line-by-line annotations such as in the Reading Faulkner series published the University Press of Mississippi, and facsimiles of manuscript and typescript pages.

John B. Padgett is an associate professor of English at Brevard College. In addition to his teaching responsibilities in American, Southern, and Gothic literature, he teaches courses in journalism and mass media, serves as the faculty advisor for the student newspaper, and is a leader of several digital pedagogical projects at the college and beyond, including Digital Yoknapatawpha. In 1995, as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, he created William Faulkner on the Web, a multi-faceted website on Faulkner, and followed it a year later with the creation of The Mississippi Writers Page, an encyclopedia-like website devoted to writers from the state of Mississippi. He has contributed articles to The William Faulkner Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of American Literature, and Research Guide to American Literature: American Modernism, 1914-1945, and has presented at such conferences as the American Literature Association Conference, the MLA Convention, and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature conference, as well as others. In addition to his doctorate in English from Ole Miss, he has earned a Master’s and B.A. degree in English from Clemson University.

“Digitizing Yoknapatawpha: Progress Report on a Work in Progress”
Stephen Railton
The presentation will display and discuss the Digital Yoknapatawpha project currently underway at the University of Virginia and elsewhere.  The project, underway since the summer, 2011, is a collaborative effort involving technical support from UVA’s Digital Media Lab and the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, and scholars from over half a dozen universities.  Its central goal is to take the fullest possible advantage of electronic technology to give scholars, critics, teachers and students new ways to appreciate the fiction Faulkner set in his imaginary county.  Yoknapatawpha was both his “postage stamp of native soil,” and a site he was continually returning to and revising as the needs and preoccupations of his art changed over the decades between the 1920s and the 1950s.  The project’s external face will be visual and map-based, but behind that will be a robust set of databases, enabling users to set individual texts, characters and themes in the larger context of Faulkner’s career.  The intertextual links he himself created between various fictions, families and characters create a particularly good fit between his achievement and the new capabilities that digital humanities scholarship can explore; at the same time, another project goal is to provide one kind of model for other author-based internet sites. The presentation will focus on the challenges as well as on the promises of such an re-presentation of Faulkner’s art, and will include an invitation to the Faulknerians at the conference to join the national team of scholars already at work on the project.

Stephen Railton is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and the author of a number of books and articles on American literature.  For the last 16 years he has spent a lot of his time in virtual reality, creating online archives.  These include “Mark Twain in His Times” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture,” as well as the Faulkner sites Absalom, Absalom! An Electronic Interactive Chronology and Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive (which had its launch at the 2010 Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference).  

“Journey to the Center of Yoknapatawpha: An Experience of Digitizing Faulkner’s Fiction”
Taylor Hagood
This paper will discuss the experience of digitizing a short story for the Digital Yoknapatawpha project. Questions this paper may raise and answer include: What challenges does this project and its methods pose and how are they overcome? What is gained and what is lost by digitizing Faulkner’s work in this way? What is it like to collaborate with others, many of whom are strangers to each other? (Is collaboration all that it’s cracked it to be?) What about the project’s audience and users–who do has the most to gain from it? How might “Digital Yoknapatawpha” be used (for research, pedagogy, or for non-academic purposes)? What might “Digital Yoknapatawpha” contribute to the field of digital humanities? (Since work has not started on the DY project, there’s not much to write about in the abstract. But progress will have been made on the project and experienced gained by the time the conference takes place.)

Taylor Hagood examines the literary and cultural production of the United States in an approach informed by postcolonial theory, theorizing of social interaction via secrecy as a cultural item, and disability studies. Fields of specialization include the writing of William Faulkner, African American literature, and literature and culture of the United States South. Hagood has written two books, Faulkner’s Imperialism: Space, Place, and the Materiality of Myth (2008) and Secrecy, Magic, and the One-Act Plays of Harlem Renaissance Women Writers (2010). Additionally, he has published articles and reviews in numerous journals, including African American Review, College Literature, European Journal of American Culture, Faulkner Journal, Literature Compass, Southern Literary Journal, Studies in Popular Culture, and Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. He is also a collaborator on the Digital Yoknapatawpha project.

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