on deep literature, place, and action

I was prompted to re-read parts of Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Differend: Phrases in Dispute last night, and I realized that, in many ways, he gets at much of what’s been troubling me about the place of language in humanities…as well as what has been influencing me on the road through online collaboration, open educational resources, open courseware, distributed learning, and an exploration the potential of Digital Environmental Humanities approaches to curriculum design and student learning.

Though by now fairly well-trodden territory, I am drawn back to  The Differend because, among the discussions of anitstrophon and litigative impasse, Lyotard reaches time and again for his lexical touchstone:

The differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to put into phrases cannot yet be.

This resolutely post-semiotic turn urges us to look at experience and events and ideas that language simply cannot (yet?) address. I eagerly follow Digital Humanities discussions that suggest tools to help get us toward that goal.

Lyotard reminded me, too, of Ted Nelson‘s early, innovative (yet ultimately implementationally-challenged) concept of a Deep Literature and a breaking down of boundaries between individual web pages and files. Nelson’s premise for the now dormant Xanadu project was to question why the World Wide Web is based on discrete pages and documents when the technology could yield a more seamless and fluid knowledge environment. The systems and interconnections among different pages, each of which effectively acts as its own signifier, remain more-or-less linear as users are compelled to move from one ‘page’ to another.

The proliferation of  network visualizations–and the development of the Semantic Web–are steps toward Nelson’s ideal, yet only as a meta-construct–a mapping of interrelationships among pages, which, despite their now content-driven (rather than originally form-constrained) architecture, remain only a few layers deep.

We are driving toward, it seems–in post-semiotic representations of concepts, ideas, interpretations, literature beyond textuality, and other creative endeavors–a way to represent pages and places and ideas *without* the constraint of what is still a text-based and relatively static form.

Much of this thinking continues to lead me to question whether (and how) it may be possible for writing and action to co-exist in the same moment or place.

Reading Jentery Sayers’s post on Making Things in the Digital Humanities helped to frame this question in terms of an almost Thoreauvian drive toward immersive experience:

To be sure, critical distance is necessary in order to consider multiple perspectives, replicate methods, and produce abstractions (e.g., prototypes, diagrams, and maps). Yet we need immersion, too. Call it play. Or tinkering. Or hands-on learning, if you wish. It’s all serious. It’s also no more immediate, or authentic, or legitimate than its abstract counterparts. Rather, it’s one modality among many.

The experiential education model that frames our College’s curriculum attempts to balance writing and action, yet almost by nature separates the writing from the experience to have writing serve as a tool for reflection (an essential tenet of David Kolb’s learning cycle).

How, then, to mine that moment of interactivity and experience for the writing–or other expressive media–perhaps it is something other than words–that “instant of language wherein something which must be able to put into phrases cannot yet be”?



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