Kym McCauley, 'Genealogy, History and Hypermedia Authorship' : Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

Home: Conferences: Virtual Histories July 1999: Kym McCauley

© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

Genealogy, History and Hypermedia Authorship

Kym McCauley

In this paper I would like to draw on the title of this symposium ‘Virtual Histories: Knowing and Teaching the past in the Digital Age’, to discuss how some of my own shifting perspectives of ‘the past’ have influenced my approach to editorial conventions and the use of hypermedia archives for teaching.

Having spent the last few years of my life juggling the writing of a PhD (both in and on hypertext) with increasingly heavy teaching loads, my preoccupations have centred not so much on ‘the past’ as they have on prioritising the demands of the present and the future.

Lately my priorities have been recast by the discovery that my old family photos, slides, movies and reel-to-reel tapes were in danger of being lost, mouldering away in cardboard boxes in my parents’ shed in Adelaide. I decided that I must make some time to go through these items, archiving and preserving what I can by storing them in digital formats. Approaching these items from my childhood as fragile and endangered, I have been struck by feelings that there is something ‘unreal’ or ‘simulated’ about uncategorised and unofficial family artefacts, as opposed to certificates and other official records. These feelings have intensified as I’ve thought of ways in which I might go about organising, categorising and transforming this haphazard collection of items into coded, multimedia files.

Possibly as a result of my interest in bibliography and editing, my approach to the past and to my family history has been focused primarily on documentation – my carefully stored birth certificate, report cards, references etc. which I take out whenever I need to prove to someone in authority who I am. I wonder if my interpretation of these rediscovered sounds and images from my past as a simulated or de-facto form of reality might be what we are motioning toward when we use the term virtual histories in the context of today’s symposium? Do we automatically make distinctions between histories which are certified as authentic through ‘official’ documentation (ie. documents which we can trace, touch, frame and feel), and those cloudy and often unreliable fragments which we assign to our subjective memories? Is it our imperfect memories which confer upon family photographs and home movies only the appearance of ‘reality’ – making them part of a virtual reality if you like? In other words, is the past only real if it can be tied down and substantiated by official documentation including details of names, dates and places?

Knowing the Past: Genealogy and Editing

These are too many questions to address here today. One question which particularly interests me though is how might we ‘know’ our personal histories differently in this ‘digital age’ by having the opportunity to combine traditional genealogical studies (going through extant ‘official’ documents and putting them in chronological orders on family trees for future generations) with relatively unreliable memories stimulated by sounds and images which we are now able to preserve as ‘multimedia’?

I’d like to address this question by drawing some parallels with traditional methods for preparing printed ‘critical’ or ‘scholarly’ editions of canonical texts from extant manuscript states and the more recent procedure of assembling electronic literature databases, such as Jerome McGann’s Hypermedia Research Archive, The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

While electronic or hypermedia archives can include different authorial versions of a text, they don’t necessarily provide hypotheses about what an author may have intended, with the extensive contextual materials and explanatory notes usually included in printed scholarly editions. When I began my PhD dissertation I had planned to do this research myself by preparing a printed scholarly edition of Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils. Working hypertextually has made me reconsider ways in which Lawson’s materials might be represented online and how the archive might be designed as both an archival site and a flexible learning resource. My approach to the online archive I eventually prepared (I assembled different versions of Lawson’s short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’) drew on theoretical metaphors introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Deleuze and Guattari’s work, influenced by the workers’ and student strikes of May 1968, reacted against dominant ideologies, specifically psychoanalysis and Marxism. They argue that ‘[l]iterature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and never has been’. They offer their rhizome metaphor as a way of working through and beyond what they see as ‘[b]inary logic and biunivocal relationships . . . [which] . . . dominate psychoanalysis . . . linguistics, structuralism, and even information science’.

I think of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – a subterranean network of meandering roots – in connection with various hypertextual possibilities: flows of materials, multiplicities of meanings, a deterritorialising and a reterritorialising of knowledge promised by multimedia and information technologies. An alternative to the rhizome model is the traditional arboreal model. Deleuze and Guattari describe this arboreal model in terms of ‘root’ or ‘tree logic’. While they take examples from Chomsky’s grammatical trees, I chose to focus on traditional Anglo-American editing traditions which trace textual descent and authorial intentions by drawing tree-like stemmata to organise and analyse manuscript and printed states, derived from Karl Lachmann’s methods developed last century. This methodology is similar to that which is currently used to organise variation in manuscript states into ‘families’ for computer collation through programs based on cladistic or phylogenetic models. I find Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome model useful for rethinking the notion that authorial intentions can be traced back to a logical stemma and that authorial presence can be organised within various hierarchies.

Teaching the Past: Trees and Rhizomes

Textual critics have a unique vantage point from which to survey the emphasis – even the celebration – of ‘subjectivities’ in recent poststructuralist and hypertextual discourses. These discourses emphasise contemporary dilemmas faced by editors of canonical texts who are engaged in what George Landow dismisses, whether fairly or not, as ‘the old fashioned job of traditional scholarly editing – the creation of reliable, supposedly authoritative texts from manuscripts or published books – at a time when the very notion of such single, unitary, univocal texts may be changing or disappearing’. Stuart Moulthrop shifts the emphasis, asserting that ‘[h]ypertext and other emerging technologies mark not a terminus but a transition’. I believe that the uneasy relationship between poststructuralist theories, editing and hypertexts need not involve collision, but may involve collusion so that existing editorial methods and traditions can still be taught – and new strategies developed – to take advantage of emerging hypertextual opportunities.

Editorial evaluations of hypertexts and poststructuralist theories often share concerns about losing control of ‘the text’, both in the stages of its preparation and in its eventual publication in print. They feel that empirical research methods are being undermined by celebrating the existence of the very issues which traditional editorial procedures have sought to harness or check: desire, permeation, transgression and metamorphosis.

In positing their rhizome model for thinking about literature, Deleuze and Guattari encourage approaches which take into account dynamic social and political contexts. They see literature as continually assembling and reassembling over time, taking directions which cannot be anticipated or directed. They resist notions of closure around an ontological, authorial centre. Editors who trace authorial intentions by plotting relationships between extant manuscripts on trees or stemmata follow a traditional ‘tree-logic’ which is at odds with Deleuze and Guattari’s argument that literature is a dynamic assemblage, constantly in motion. They insist that ‘tree-logic’ depends on ‘tracing and reproduction’, on the hierarchical organisation of knowledge.

Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical models can also be applied to the academic forum in which critical discussions about literature take place. In The Death of Literature, Alvin Kernan suggests that ‘we are watching the complex transformations of a social institution in a time of radical political, technological, and social change’. Kernan discusses different ways in which Western civilisations have evoked tree metaphors as models to systematise the attainment of ‘knowledge’ identifying the university as ‘not just an instructional institution but a living knowledge tree, a practical and active way not only of recording the official order of knowledge but for reviewing new claims to epistemological authority and adjusting the knowledge paradigm to developing concepts’. He argues that ‘[t]he university not only in general objectifies human intelligence . . . but, in the divisions and departments of study, certifies certain modes of knowledge as genuine . . . and orders them in relation to one another’. Within the power dynamics which Kernan sees as operating in universities, ‘the department’ is ‘an official mode of knowledge’, the source of authority of what is known and what it is important to know.

Yet even officially accepted categories of scholarship or ‘reality’ have ellipses and opaque areas. In particular, it is difficult to assign ‘textual scholarship’ to any specific discipline. David Greetham (a well known editorial and hypertextual theorist) contends that textual scholarship, which borrows concepts from disciplines as disparate as law, philosophy and biology, ‘exemplifies the postmodernist breakdown of the “master narratives” of intellectual discipline’.

Greetham’s comments about textual scholarship might also be usefully applied to cross-disciplinary academic interests focused on critics’ subjectivities. Women’s studies, gay studies and black studies remain politically marginalised through ‘the academy’s’ refusal to expand – or even to abandon – its own established departmental hierarchies. One way to work around the hierarchies is to create specialist studies centres or programs affiliated with an academic department or network of departments. Kernan suggests, however, that strategies for connecting specialist studies centres with established disciplines are self-defeating. He insists that in the long run,

[o]nly full departmental status confers a place in the knowledge tree, and to be made a center or a program . . . is to be marked as occupying a subsidiary place in the scheme of knowledge and of reality as defined by the university curriculum.

So while ‘the knowledge tree’ prevails as an organisational, conceptual and material apparatus, it seems that any interventions will retain a subordinate status, able to be withdrawn at any time without damaging the structure or the foundation of the tree itself.

David Greetham: Trees, Rhizomes and His Great-Aunt Florence Ada

In his study, ‘Phylum-Tree-Rhizome’, David Greetham acknowledges his concerns about trees and about finding an alternative. He addresses his concerns by focusing on his own shifting subjectivity, and on something he had thought was more fixed, his ‘family-tree’. On that tree, his great-aunt Florence Ada Barton, formerly considered a ‘dead-end’ in the sense of being without issue, turned out unexpectedly to be a rhizomic offshoot on the patrilinear family trees of both Greetham and his new-found Barton cousins. The knowledge of his great-aunt Florence’s Barton descendants produced the following reaction in Greetham:

their massive presence on my personal map of who I am is disturbing: it changes the balance, disorients my sense of place and filiation, even though none of the relationships I had previously been aware of has been changed by the discovery. My patrilinear descent is still intact.

Greetham draws a parallel between his discovery and conventional, stemmatic approaches to editing multiple-witness medieval works:

I think it is still accurate to say that one of the first tasks that an editor of a multiple-witness medieval work will undertake is to distinguish the Bartons from the Greethams and to reduce the Florence Adas to collateral but inherently contaminated witnesses to the patriarchal name.

If his great-aunt Florence Ada’s presence can be so easily discounted as not authoritative – a ‘contamination’ in relation to the Greetham patrilinear tree – why should her Barton offshoots unsettle Greetham’s ‘personal map’? Greetham acknowledges that this map can’t be so easily confined within the neat arboreal model he has used to chart his patrilinear evolution. In other words, stemmatics fail to acknowledge an important issue: Greetham’s biological evolution cannot be traced to one patrilinear source. Instead, it involves a multiplicity of various relationships.

It seems, then, if David Greetham is right, that a choice must be made: edit with traditional stemmatic models and aim for one stable text, or embrace Deleuze and Guattari’s strange new rhizome model and end up with hypermedia labyrinths. However, this conclusion tends to overlook Deleuze and Guattari’s suggestions that rhizomic and arboreal models can interact productively. Acknowledging that arboreal models will continue to appeal and to operate within a variety of contexts, Deleuze and Guattari call for us to ‘[p]lug the tracings back into the map, connect the roots or trees back up with a rhizome . . . If it is true that it is of the essence of the map or rhizome to have multiple entryways, then it is plausible that one could even enter them through tracings or the root-tree’. These possibilities for combining arboreal and rhizomic models offer challenges both for hypertextual editors and genealogists. How can we facilitate the needs of some users (even our own family members) who want to follow clearly-defined paths while anticipating those more radical folk who may want to meander rhizomically beyond those paths, and even include a few paths of their own? And what really fascinates me is how does the compiler’s subjective presence shape a hypermedia archive?

Kym McCauley and His Family Rhizome

The discussion of Greetham’s great-aunt Ada brings me back to the question I asked earlier: how might we ‘know’ our personal histories in this ‘digital age’? The approach I’m taking to assembling my own family archive has been influenced by my study of arboreal methods for tracing textual histories and by the work I’ve been doing in hypertext.

‘Scholarly’ editors (particularly those of literary texts) have been used to drawing a curtain between themselves and the subjects of their academic research. In the name of ‘objectivity’, their aim has been to trace textual variants back to the author’s intentions in order to eradicate the narrative of non-authorial ‘contaminations’. The fantasy, if you like, has been to reconstruct or restore the narrative so that it exists as a stable, unitary entity: one text, one authorised version, one subject of speculation and eventual articulation. Hypertextuality, with its potential to store unlimited versions of any narrative, keeps yanking that curtain back.

This is the challenge I have confronted in assembling a hypermedia archive of extant sounds and images from my parents’ cardboard box as opposed to tracing my family tree through extant and ‘official’ documentation. My desire for structure and order can be satisfied in the archive by encoding each digitised file with a meaningful tag so that they can be searched and retrieved by different users (and for this I might use a Standard Generalised Markup Language – SGML). This would enable those interested in retrieving information about Aunty Joan, for example, to display each file that includes her in it.

Thus, on one level I am able to confer a hierarchical and arboreal framework upon the archive. To some large extent I am entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting the files so that I might encode them ‘meaningfully’. But what I find really exciting about working hypertextually is that the archive also operates rhizomically by resisting a central narrative: what I like to call the family version of ‘the party line’! Unlike expensive documentary type films of family histories in which extant sounds and images are woven around an often sentimental and lyrical narrative including Enya music and such key events as births, birthdays and weddings, the multimedia family archive becomes a searchable resource for future generations detailing not one idealised and authorised version of a family’s ‘life’, but a multiplicity of complex and ever changing dynamic relationships, constantly assembling and reassembling over time and capable of endless updating. This is something that I find challenging but also a little scary, given that I have relied until now upon ‘official’ family documents and records and objective research methods to construct an authoritative narrative of who I am.

Traditional genealogists, I believe, share similar fantasies with scholarly editors. To some large extent those fantasies can be realised in an official record tracing the evolutionary progression of both a family tree and a tree recording the textual transmissions of a literary narrative. I am not suggesting today that the annotated family photo-album, the family bible and the scholarly edition are now redundant. What I am interested in exploring is how we might take the arboreal conventions and traditions of both genealogical studies and scholarly editing to assemble something far more complex and challenging but with much less resolution: an online network or rhizome of twentieth century family lives.