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Reading’s Black Boxes

One of the bigger challenges facing the humanities today with the changing nature of our reading interfaces is the problem of technical opacity, what goes by the colloquial name of the black box. Do we need to know how computers or computation work to understand an electronic text? Or can we assume that the meaning of the text resides at the level of human experience?

Here again the history of books can provide a useful framework. As Trevor Owens writes in a great recent blog post, as humanists gradually begin to adopt more computational analytical tools there are risks in not understanding the operations they are using to draw conclusions with. They don’t know what’s inside the black box.

And yet, textual interpretation could go equally astray when the interpreter did not understand the conditions of how the bibliographic text was produced either. The most famous case was D.F. McKenzie’s critique in “Making Meaning” of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famed “intentional fallacy” piece. Reading a paperback reprint led them to make claims that did not align with the material record of the text’s past. Not understanding the history of textual reproduction led to a misunderstanding of the meaning of the text. In my own field, the Goethe scholar Erhard Bahr finally had to write an essay begging people (especially students) not to cite the Hamburger Ausgabe if they were talking about The Sorrows of Young Werther — because it only contained the second edition which was significantly different from the first and claims about the one were not necessarily transferable to claims about the other.

The history of literary interpretation is deeply tied to the knowledge of technological reproduction, something that was largely forgotten during the days of new criticism and its various theoretical aftermaths to which McKenzie and his material text followers were responding. The rise of bibliography as a modern discipline seems to have led to the rise of an immaterial literary criticism, a split that is only now being repaired.

Understanding the digital conditions of making textual artefacts will be no less important, but is by no means a novel problem. We are fortunate in that we have a large body of recent scholarship to identify strategies for thinking about the connections between materiality and semiosis, objecthood and signification, just as we have a very long record of humanists wrestling with the material nature of their texts and how that impacts their meaning.

The black box was initially used to refer to coffins, but only came into widespread use during the second world war to refer to navigational equipment in bombers. In both cases, it signaled something we felt we could not know. One way of distinguishing the kind of knowledge that the humanities produces in distinction from the sciences is a desire to open the black box and see what’s inside rather than just use it to bury the dead.

Of course, we also have a lengthy record of cautionary tales about peaking inside of boxes, whether they be books, chests, or rooms.

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