Ivanhoe: An Interface for Interpretation

Jerome McGann

The best way to understand IVANHOE is to play in the virtual and collaborative space that its software puts at your disposal (see the demos and other materials made available at: http://www.patacriticism.org/ivanhoe/index.html. If a discursive commentary about such a performance-based environment can serve a useful purpose, here is a brief prose description of the playspace and our ideas about it. (For an explication of the theory of IVANHOE, please see the essays cited at the foot of this essay.)

IVANHOE is an online interpretational playspace for exploring our acts of critical reflection. It is organized as a space where agents—students and scholars—are supplied with a set of tools for investigating the possible meanings of given sets of cultural materials. The investigations develop as lines of interpretation that the players pursue in a space they collectively occupy. The different meanings and interpretive emphases that inevitably arise unfold IVANHOE’s space of critical reflection.

IVANHOE was thus conceived, designed, and finally built as a means to expose and explain the field of interpretation at a general level. For the project to have a significant outcome, the interpretive act, the object of interpretation, and the relation between them would have to be imagined comprehensively. That traditional three-part distinction in software programming—conception, design, development—indexes the level of generality toward which IVANHOE aspires.

In its initial development stage (see the documentation at http://www.speculativecomputing.org/ivanhoe/), the normative cultural object for IVANHOE was taken to be textual (rather than graphical or auditional). It was also determined to be an aesthetic object (a poem or an imaginative fiction) rather than an informational one (an almanac or an expository essay) on the grounds that the former stands in a clear dynamic relation to the act of interpretation. Unlike informational materials, poems are not well conceived as if they were in possession of a meaning asking to be located, extracted, or put to some use; and that once these instrumental operations are carried out, the meaning circuit will be closed. Poems are the leveraging devices in autopoietic fields that maintain themselves by making possible many meanings and many kinds of meaning.

Nonetheless, we also know that the poetic field cannot be negotiated without locating, extracting, and making use of what we take to be significant informational features of the field. In this respect the poem as a field of meaning comprehends—includes as part of its operating system—fields of meaning that are proper to informational works.

The famous, or infamous, “uselessness” of aesthetic works needs to be recalled here. A poetical work is useless only in a very specific sense. We sometimes say that poems aren’t made to make something happen, or that—whatever the writer’s initial intentions—in fact they “make nothing happen”, as a famous poet famously said. But of course we know that neither of those commonplaces is entirely true. Satirists regularly write to make something happen, and many writers by their writings create very specific real-world happenings, sometimes deliberately (as in the case of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866), which generated just the kind of controversy he anticipated), sometimes inadvertently (as in the case of the lawsuits that followed the publication of Don Juan and Ulysses).

Still, the idea that poetry is useless is useful. It reminds us that we cannot measure the poetic outcome in terms of a set of specific intentions, whether conscious or otherwise, whether author’s or readers’. Intentionality pervades the poetic space, but its specific character or status waits upon the reader’s share in the interpretive exchange. You cannot have meaning without an intention for meaning. The self-subsistent “poem itself”, so cultivated in the twentieth-century, is riven with autotelic purpose and intentionality. A poem’s usefulness is therefore traditionally measured by its reception histories, which record the mutations it has undertaken and undergone over time.

No poem is an island. Its transformations emerge not just over time, but in spaces occupied by many people, each one altering that space—the poetic inheritance—in the use that each makes of it. In autopoietic systems like poetry, these changes not only do not alter the basic identity of the poem, they constitute the only means by which that persisting identity can be sustained. Understanding this, a poet will say (in a poem called “The Cloud”) that “I change, but I cannot die”, and he will simultaneously mean us to understand that this dynamic fact about the hydrogen cycle is a metaphor for explaining the dynamics of the poem. Shelley casts his poem in the first person as a rhetorical device for making that precise point and transformational relation. But the poem has to be read, and in that event—however it gets executed—the poem moves into a third person rhetoric, which becomes, simultaneously, the first person syntax of the reader. We readers understand what the poet is saying and doing because, in the field of poetry, everyone in a poetical space occupies an inner standing point.

Described in the metaphors of digital technology, IVANHOE is a second-order interface for enhancing our ability to transact the first-order interfaces of cultural materials (paper or digital or both). Do those descriptive figurations confuse? Well, book and digital scholars alike need an estrangement from our habits of thinking about the machines of representation that we think we know so well.

An essay on John Cowper Powys’ A Glastonbury Romance is no substitute for an experience of that remarkable work, which we begin to know by an act of reading an actual book, the interface that first represents its codes for us. As Wittgenstein would say, “the meaning [of that book] is in the use” we make of it. Uses range from a personal reading engagement with Powys’s original fiction to multiple secondary acts of engagement, as in this very paragraph you are reading. We learn how to read, how to use, all of these machineries.

Playing IVANHOE is more like reading A Glastonbury Romance than like reading a commentary on that work. A generalized artifacture of absorption, IVANHOE installs an environment that promotes interpretation and critical reflection at an inner standing point. As a piece of software, IVANHOE can only be learned by putting it to use. You don’t want to read about playing games of interpretation with IVANHOE, you want actually to play the games (if you want anything to do with IVANHOE in the first place).

Nonetheless, a bookspace like this one has, like Ahab, its humanities. It can help to clarify the conceptual and design foundations of IVANHOE and hence to think about and assess those foundations. IVANHOE is more than a device for “Interpretation in a New Key”, it is a project for investigating the interface mechanisms that are needed to promote and execute those interpretive functions.

First of all, it’s important to know that IVANHOE can be played, has been played, on paper. Indeed, its historical roots are as ancient as any of our inherited cultural works. Genesis translates and transforms earlier creation stories, and Homer’s epics are each carefully tailored selections drawn from a large corpus of heroic legend and history. The Iliad is what Rob Pope would call a “textual intervention” in The Matter of Troy (see Rob Pope, Textual Intervention: critical and creative strategies for literary studies (1995)).

These examples represent alterations of the form and content of inherited materials. Digital IVANHOE installs as well a procedural intervention that forces one to reimagine the notions of “textuality” and “intervention”. If it is true—and I think it is—that “The best way to understand how a text works. . .is to change it” (Pope, 1), the best way to understand how that changing action works is to change it. In this case, to recast the intervention machinery from textual into digital form. Into the IVANHOE application.

To imagine such an application you start by imagining what it looks like to play or implement a session of IVANHOE, with or without a digital environment. A group of people, two at a minimum, agree to collaborate in thinking about how to reimagine a particular work, say Ivanhoe. The agreement is that each person will try to reshape the given work so that it is understood or seen in a new way. The reshaping process in IVANHOE is immediate, practical, and performative. That’s to say, the interpreters intervene in the textual field and alter the document(s) by adding, reordering, or deleting text, and by marking patterns of relation that these interventions generate. The interpretive moves are meant to expose meaningful features of the textual field that were unapparent in its original documentary state. Interpreters will also look for ways that their interventions might use or fold in with the interpretive moves of others working the collaborative session of IVANHOE.

Some analogies may be helpful. IVANHOE’s interpreting agents approach their work much as performers or conductors approach a piece of music, or the way a director approaches a play. The performance in these cases fashions an interpretation of the original work, and the result is what Gertrude Stein, in a slightly different sense, called “Composition as Explanation”. Performative interpretations of all kinds—translation, for example—have much in common with IVANHOE. Book artists and illustrators work along similar interpretive lines, and we have many cases where authors themselves illustrate or design the embodiments of their own textual works, thereby glossing them with intervening sets of interpretive signs. Some notable figures integrate text and visualization into a composite or double work—in England one thinks immediately of Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll. Or consider how “The Matter of Arthur” or “The Matter of Troy” are conceived and elaborated. A set of legends centering in the Trojan war and in King Arthur multiply as versions and variants that expose fresh ranges of meaning resting latently in the materials. The interpretive transformations that unfold in a session of IVANHOE seek to exploit a logic of interpretation of those kinds.

IVANHOE is not like a “creative writing workshop”, however. Its textual transformations get executed in a frame of reference focused on the significance of the changes in relation to the originary textual field and the changes that one’s collaborating agents make to that field. The presence of the initial state of the text(s) is always preserved because the point of IVANHOE is to study that field of relations as it provokes or licenses its readers to reimagine its implications and textual possibilities. Interpreters are expected to keep a journal in which their interpretive moves are justified and explained in relation to the originary work and/or the moves made by the other agents.

Though they have much in common with Oulipian exercises, IVANHOE’s textual transformations promote what Coleridge called “Aids to Reflection”. If it should be seen as a Perecian “User’s Manual”, as I think it should, the users have been imagined from the outset as students and scholars.

IVANOE is thus a proposal for reading and thinking critically about textual fields, especially traditional works of literature and culture, in the historical context of the late twentieth-century, when such works found themselves in a collision with born-digital textualities. The volatile convergence of these two semiotic machineries has made possible a new set of parameters for studying and using expressive forms, paper-based as well as digital. IVANHOE is not, however, a new “theory” of textuality. It is a practical mechanism—a kind of laboratory—for experimenting with these ideas and refining our understanding of them, and of their relevance to the general inquiry they have set us upon.

NOTE: The IVANHOE software is only one of several pieces of software we are developing to enhance our efforts to study and explore cultural materials of every kind. More information about our other tools, as well as the overarching NINES project, can be found at the following two websites: ARP http://patacriticism.org/index2.html and NINES (http://www.nines.org/).

McGann, Jerome. “Texts in N-Dimensions and Interpretation in a New Key” (Text Technology 12 (2003): http://texttechnology.mcmaster.ca/pdf/vol12_2_02.pdf.

Drucker, Johanna and Jerome McGann. “IVANHOE: Interpretation in a New Key, with Special Reference to Byron’s ‘Fare Thee Well!’”: http://www.rc.umd.edu/pedagogies/commons/innovations/mcgann3.html.