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"If Meaning, Shaped Reading, and Leslie Scalapino's Way"

Page history last edited by MJ Davis 12 years ago


Research Report: "If Meaning, Shaped Reading, and Leslie Scalapino's way"


By MJ Davis, Animation and Audio Poetics as Process Team



Samuels’s “If Meaning” builds on the project of “deformance” developed by Samuels and McGann in “Deformance and Interpretation.” Informed by post-structuralist and deconstructive theory, deformance engages reader and text through re/de-structuring, re/di-vision, and play. Samuels offers her approach, “shaped reading”: unwilling to “hold the language still and paraphrase how and what it means” (185), Samuels deforms Scalapino’s way by “isolat[ing] words and phrases and putting them into new forms and orders” (188). As much critical gesture as artistic interpretation, “shaped reading” and other deformative processes “carr[y] practices of theory…further into the work of art” in order to “activate the textual field to new relations” (187). 



In this article, Samuels builds on the concept of “deformance” that she and McGann coined in their earlier article,“Deformance and Interpretation,” providing a demonstration of deformance as the “physical re-ordering” of a poem (a process that she refers to as “shaped reading”). Informed by post-structuralist and deconstructive theory, deformance engages reader and text through re/de-structuring, re/di-vision, and play--essentially, attending to the "object"-ness of a text, not as "stable" and "inviolable" (180), but as material, physical, and therefore able to be de- and re-assembled.  Samuels resists the “apposition” of the critical object (critical text) with the original object (literary text). Such disparity between art and criticism, Samuels posits, “suppresses that which is excessive and anarchic in works of language art” (180-1). It is this form of suppression that Samuels seeks to avoid, developing a method of criticism that works with a literary text rather than on or against it. Instead, she encourages readers to “engage critically with the changefulness of literary and critical signs, with the inherent dynamism of language,” “focus[ing] on questions and uncertainty” rather than static meaning or answer-finding (183).


Samuels chooses contemporary poet Leslie Scalapino’s way as her text par excellence, noting that the poem is particularly self-aware: conscious of its own “fragmentation,” “dynamic meaning,” and multiple perspectives at play (186). Like deformance as a critical technique, way demands that readers “turn…into different kinds of experiencers” in order to attune themselves to “the natures of ‘knowing’ and ‘meaning’” (186). Samuels calls the particular method of deformance that she utilizes in her experiment with way “shaped reading”:


I have gone through the relevant twenty pages of Scalapino’s way (115-34) in progressive linear order, isolating words and phrases and putting them into new forms and orders. I make no deliberate changes in spelling, grammar or punctuation, but because I leave out words, phrases and punctuation that come between the selected parts, the result nonetheless produces changes in grammar and, particularly, in syntax (188).


Noting that “different selections are of course possible,” Samuels writes, her readings are simply “illuminations," not "replacements for or “de-coding answers” to the poem” (188). “The “being” of an artwork is precisely variable,” she states. “[O]ne of the particular freedoms of verbal art…is that observers can engage with it by physically transforming its given properties” (194, italics hers).


Samuels concludes her article by alluding to the potential of electronic text in the deformative process: “Perhaps because we have only begun to theorize the possibilities of electronic media and are keenly aware of being in a new space…structure and medium are up for grabs” (197). In any case, Samuels advocates deformance as both a destructive and constructive process, “dismantling meaning to point to how it is being made” (197).



Samuels notes the inability of print as a medium to capture both 1) deformance at work, and 2) the myriad possibilities it must yield in order to claim consistent and effective critical practice. Publishing her article in a print journal, Samuels's text exists in fixed form, exactly contra to the deformative creed. Samuels's conclusion of "If Meaning" can be viewed as a call for electronically-based experimentation using the deformative method. "Being in a new space," she calls it, and it is the "ing" of this manner of existence that seems to yield the most effective medium for deformative practice. Being--existing--is no longer just a presence, but a process, and this is why animation, sound, and deformation work naturally to the same effect. Appealing to the senses in a multi-layered way, the poetic deformation is brought even further beyond the confines of conclusion and into the realm of impression and effect. In "Deformance and Interpretation," Samuels and McGann note their interest in no longer representing reality as "THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things" (38); in "Animation and Audiopoetics," we will attempt to open up the "between" space in Wordsworth's "Old Man Travelling; or, Animal Tranquility and Decay," as it exists in its three variant forms. 


In electronic space, texts are made accessible in three new ways: in addition to text, sound, images, and movement become signifying dimensions of possibility. When a critical article attempts to describe the motion, energy, or sound of a poem, it must do so in just that way: through description. In contrast, the addition of these three new dimensions have the potential to explore, represent, and re-imagine that "in between space" that exists between words. Choosing a poem with no authoritative or fixed form will allow us to explore the evolution of the text, from manuscript to print, from the first print to the second, to the third, and so forth. 


Resources for Further Study

Flanders, Julia. “Detailism, Digital Texts, and the Problem of Pedantry” Text Technology: 14.2 (2005): 41-70. Web.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Samuels, Lisa. “If Meaning, Shaped Reading, and Leslie Scalapino’s Way.” Qui Parle 12.2 (2001): 179-200. Web.

Sample, Mark. “Notes towards a Deformed Humanities.” Samplereality.com. Web. 7 May 2012.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” Foundhistory.org. Web. 9 May 2012.


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