Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Jenkinsian Revamp of McGann's "Radiant Textuality"

Published in 2001, Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web, smacks of outdatedness, a fact that is confirmed by the title itself as well as this telling line that reads, “We no longer have to use books to analyze and study other books or texts. That simple fact carries immense, even catastrophic, significance” (168).  While the book aches with its antiquated relishing of the potentialities offered by the “World Wide Web,” I do not propose a rejection McGann’s claims outright.  Instead, I propose an extension and renovation of his ideas through Henry Jenkins.  Hopefully, an application of his concepts to a more contemporary conversation will provides us the tools with which to discuss McGann’s claims without rejecting them outright. 

First and foremost, I took issue with McGann’s approach in which he heralded the potentials of hypermedia and hypertext for its extension and revolution of the book—a claim he himself seems to realize as too lofty.  Though that is true, he insists on touting the digital environment for the potentials it can offer a reader in terms of active participation.  He further emphasizes the ability to update and renew content of digital editions.  He writes, “When a book is produced it literally closes its covers on itself. If a work is continued, new edition, or other related books, have to be (similarly) produced” (69).  He discusses the way hypertext breaks out of both of these molds by offering 1) a “noncentralized structure of complex relationships” (72) as well as 2) a presentation of options “for the reader’s choice” (73). He continues with this thread throughout the book, asserting time and again how a “hypermedia ‘edition’ or ‘archive’ would make it possible to study literary and aesthetic works in entirely new ways” (140).  While I do not necessarily disagree with this claim, McGann seems bound by an idea that defines the digital edition as one contained on one platform. Yes, there will be new pages for one to navigate to and between, but ultimately, the digital edition exists as a linked hypertext document.  

The fact that he bases many of his claims on this assumption (as the Ivanhoe Game, too, is contained within one platform) threatens to make his larger claims almost irrelevant in a contemporary situation defined by, to borrow Jenkins’ term, transmedia texts.  Originally addressed in an article for MIT Technology Review and later expanded on in his own blog and in Convergence Culture, Jenkins defines transmedia storytelling as the enrichment of a story world through the expansion of a story to multiple media platforms, allowing each platform to “do what it does best.” This offers fans a more fulfilling and enriching experience as well as creates multiple opportunities for merchandising and franchising.  As Jenkins writes, “Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. In a world with many media options, consumers are choosing to invest deeply in a limited number of franchises rather than dip shallowly into a larger number.”  As such, one can see quite easily how literature after the “World Wide Web” and after 2001, involves multiple-platforms.  As such, our conversation this week would benefit from considering how this changes McGann’s ultimate stakes in his project, stakes based on the potentials offered by the ability to analyze all of the data that is collected on one platform, a task that cannot be currently accomplished in an internet that thrives off of the use of multiple platforms, ones often created by users themselves. 

He discusses how the transfer of literary texts into cyberspace lays the text open for participations that are no longer passive and “readerly” (159).  To me, his use of the word readerly automatically calls to mind Barthes’ distinction between the readerly and the writerly text. Though that is true, McGann fails to identify the type of interactivity he credits to the Ivanhoe Game as “writerly.” I think he is right in this evasion because the participation and production in the Ivanhoe Game is definitely not writerly, but I wonder how he would define the potentials it does offer. (Though, let us please not dip into a discussion of Fiske’s producerly text.)  McGann seems to prioritize the “performative and dynamic intellectual space” (221) created through these avenues of participatory engagement and I find it interesting, then, to discussion how these performtive spaces manifest themselves in our contemporary moment of participatory culture, one defined by acts of (to borrow from Jenkins’ Convergence Culture) collective intelligence (pooling of resources and knowledge in discussion groups), fan fiction and slash fiction, etc.  Participation like this, though, decentralizes the position of a text in a way that makes it impossible to collect and analyze data or the nature of those participations.  If that is the case, how does our overly networked web and participatory culture change McGann’s goals? Are they goals that can be accomplished? Is there simply too much decentralized data now? Is the purpose really then to be able to analyze the data from these spaces, or is it just to cultivate effective spaces that open themselves up as performative and intellectually dyanamic?


  1. I’m interested, here, in the slippage between—or is it, in truth, the colonization of—DH and(/by) new media. What, after all, is the difference? Two possible answers: (a) NM and DH aren’t really distinct. The separation is political/rhetorical. (b) It’s a question of use. Here McGann might object: NM ought to be classed with other aesthetic objects, while DH doings are toolish, secondary, means to particular, limited/limiting ends.

  2. Any slippage between DH and NM was unintentional in my post because I do in fact think they are distinct. (As we pointed out in the first day, NM is doing old things to new texts, DH is doing new things to potentially old texts.) The question I was raising, and perhaps I should be more clear about this, is how the changing field of NM (NM that offers possibilities beyond the realm of hypertext) changes the types of things DH can do and to what effect.

  3. Rather than as a corrective to McGann, mightn't it be possible to read to read the two as in a deeper harmony? Isn't the IVANHOE game a sort of (as Adam implicitly wonders in his post for this week) fan fiction? Is it worth noting that, in fact, the IVANHOE game (whatever it is) is not tied to any single media? And while the focus of the book is very much on hypertext, it is hypertext as a potential platform of convergence...

    So, maybe what I'm asking is: are the developments of the last decade such that they not only outpace the particular technology McGann seems most interested in (hypertext) but even the reasons he is interested in hypertext. Stated in other terms: you seem to be saying that you think the shift is essential rather than mere accidental; is that right?

  4. Yes, you're correct in that reading of my post. I was not discounting his claims on hypertext, just re-casting his argument in a more contemporary context. I think he has a lot of good ideas- and ones that have contemporary importance that can extend beyond his claims surrounding the IVANHOE game.