Having called for more and more systematic description of literary texts, just what do I have in mind? A variety of things, of course, a variety of things.
First I want to mention work I’ve done on canonical texts of English literature, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. Then I want to look a tables I developed in analyzing pop cultural materials, two manga by Osamu Tezuka, and two animated feature films, Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence by Mamoru Oshii. I end by suggesting that the future of research in literature and film depends on setting up online collaboratories where people can work on building up a body of descriptive materials for both canonical and non-canonical texts.
One thing in particular, is an account of parts, and parts within parts. At the sentence level linguists call this constituent structure.
Poems often consist of multiple stanzas. Those divisions are obvious as they are marked in the text by a line break. Poems with several to many stanzas, especially long narrative poems, will often have stanzas grouped into larger units, which may or may not be explicitly grouped into larger units. And stanzas generally have internal grouping as well. My papers on “Kubla Khan” (pp. 9-39) and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (pp. 31-35, pp. 41-49) undertake this kind of analysis; the “Kubla Khan” paper is especially detailed.
My working papers on Heart of Darkness contain a great deal of descriptive work of various kinds, though it is not always demarcated from more speculative and interpretive comments. Paragraph Length in Heart of Darkness: Some Basic Numbers and Charts is pure description of a fairly simple kind, as is Periodicity in Heart of Darkness: A Working Paper. I suppose, since I used a computer to compile the counts in those papers, I could even claim them for digital humanities, though that’s secondary. In The Nexus in Heart of Darkness: A Working Paper I comment in the content of a single paragraph in the text; it’s also the longest paragraph and it’s a bit after the middle. The commentary is informal, and perhaps a bit interpretive in that I single out certain things and make connections with other sections of the text; but I do not seek to infer any hidden meanings here. Much of the work in those three papers is also in Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales, and there is other descriptive work as well, but I would call particular attention to the postscript, where I discuss a hypothetical handbook for Heart of Darkness. Much of such a handbook would be devoted to description.
I do not regard my descriptive work on any of those three texts, “Kubla Khan”, “This Lime-Tree Bower”, and Heart of Darkness, as complete. I don’t know what that would be, complete. But it is extensive and contains observations you won’t find in the standard literature. Just how important those observations are, well, that remains to be determined. And an important aspect of figuring out what’s important has to do with comparing texts with one another. What features do they have in common? Where do they differ?
We must do a lot of description. That’s the only way we’ll know what we’ve got.
Several years ago the late Mary Douglas got me interested in ring form, where texts will be organized like so: A, B, C,…X…C’, B’, A’. The last episode mirrors the first, the next to last mirrors and second, and so forth around a central episode. At the time I was interested in some early manga by Osamu Tezuka, Metropolis and Lost World.
I suspected that Metropolis had a ring-form. But how could I find out? It was one continuous text of 150+ pages with no marked divisions. I had to undertake some analytical and descriptive process While I could make marginal notes, that didn’t seem very promising.
I decided to create a simple table in MSWord. It had three columns, but didn’t actually use the first column in the main table, though I used it in a summary table. I placed page numbers in the second column and descriptive comments, even bits of dialogue, in the third column. I then went through the entire text from beginning to end, and made an entry for each scene. By inspecting that table I was able to determine that, yes, Metropolis had a ring form, which I outlined in a summary table.
I undertook a similar analysis for Lost World. Tezuka had divided the text into short chapters so I made a single row for each chapter. I couldn’t see a ring-form there so I didn’t bother to describe internal structure for the chapters.
I’ve placed these two tables online as a document on Google Drive: Tezuka Tables draft. While I’ve cleaned it up a bit and added some explanation that document is basically a document I created for my own use, not for publication. I’ve published the Metropolis results in an edited volume: Tezuka’s Metropolis: A Modern Japanese Fable about Art and the Cosmos. In Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, Steffanie Metzger, eds. Heurisiken der Literaturwissenschaft: Disciplinexterne Perspektiven auf Literatur. mentis Verlag GmbH, 2006, pp. 527-545.
Sita Sings the Blues
Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues has been all over the world and won many prizes. It’s a wonderful film and technically innovative. One of the things Paley did was to present different narrative stands in different animation styles. In order to get a handle on that I created a table in which each I had a row for each scene.
The table has four columns. In the first I list the beginning and end points for the scene and I indicate the scene’s duration (in seconds) in the second column. In the third column I indicate which of four styles Paley used in the scene while the fourth column has a brief description. The table is here: SSTB Overall Organization2 (color-coded). The table shows that Paley blended her visual styles after one particular episode, the Agni Pariksha, which is in a fifth style. I discuss that blending and its significance in The Agni Pariksha in Context and in Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 3 - Shakespearean Resonance.
Given the importance of the Agni Pariksha episode (trial by fire) I created a table for that one episode and determined that the episode had twelve segments. Here’s the table: SSTB Agni Parkisha org. I analyzed The Agni Pariksha episode in a post for The National Humanities Center, Cultural Evolution, where I conclude:
By making this segment visually different from anything else in the film Paley is giving the film itself a ritual dimension – though the part of me that is a child of the 60s is thinking “altered state of consciousness” (cf. Fischer 1975). She’s not merely showing a ritual, depicting one in the film; she is inviting us to enact a ritual by experiencing the visual world in a way that is radically different from what we experience anywhere else in the film. This segment of the film IS ritual.
Now, one could analyze and describe each scene in the film in the same detail I’ve given to this one scene. One might do so with a specific objective in mind, or one might do so on general principle: this is an important piece of work, therefore it is important to have a good description of it.
One could conceivably drive the description of a film down to a frame-by-frame description. And one might also want to take sound track music into account, as well as a detailed transcription of dialog. Description is an open-ended process.
Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2 (Innosenzu in Japanese) is a text in the Ghost in the Shell franchise; the franchise started as a manga and has since sprouted two feature films, a TV series of half-hour episodes, a video game, and a novel – that’s what I know of off the top of my head. There’s probably more.
These stories are set in a near future in the science fiction noir style popularized by Blade Runner. In this world humans and machines are intimately intertwined, with most people having some degree of ‘cyberization’ applied to body and brain.
About two-thirds of the way through there’s a 17 minute sequence set in and near a mansion called Locus Solus. More or less the same set of events happens three times. It’s the “more or less” that interests me. The sequence isn’t the same, but it’s so fast and complex that you can’t figure out what’s going on without, well, you know, doing something.
And so I did what I know best. I made a table. It’s a three column table where the first column contains the time a segment begins. The second column contains a short descriptor and the last has a summary. Here’s the document: Ghost Locus Solus Transit DRAFT.
So far I haven’t done anything with that analysis beyond constructing the table.
Crowd-Sourcing Descriptive Work
My first point is this: description is exacting and open-ended, but it’s not so-called rocket science. Anyone who is interested and dedicated can do it and do it well provided that they have examples to follow and perhaps a bit of coaching along the way. This is something you get better at the more you do. Experience counts.
That’s important because I’m all but convinced that the future of the humanities depends in part on developing a rich body of descriptions of primary texts, literary works and films, but also musical scores, paintings, and so forth. The kinds of descriptions we need have to be done by knowledgeable humans. Biology has depended on and benefitted from the fieldwork and descriptive skills of dedicated amateurs. The humanities now need to follow biology’s example.
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You can now download this post plus the example tables (for the two Tezuka texts, and the two films) as well as some other posts on description in a single document: Description 2: The Primacy of the Text.