The DIY commentary; or, what the reference and the link told each other

  1. 1. Willard McCarty

    King's College London, Western Sydney University

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Recent perspectives on the commentary genre across cultures and historical periods show it to be radically protean (Most 1999). Furthermore, the classicist Simon Goldhill has shown (1999), it is a socially constructed form: styles of knowing and styles of glossing are intimately interrelated, and both are subject to change in fashions, even within a discipline in a single national tradition. Although the historically contingent nature of commentaries is hardly surprising, this contingency raises questions about the form we have inherited. As Goldhill and Fowler 1999 argue for classics, the standard commentary is based on largely discredited ideas of language and is inadequate to the modern conception of a “plural” text. Might computational tools offer us something better, as Fowler suggests?

In the proposed paper I explore the possibilities of computational media – not so much for realising even the most modern ideas of the commentary but, as McGann 1997 says, for imagining what it might become. Contrariwise I ask, what might the most fully developed traditional examples teach us about designing and implementing better scholarly information systems? How might an electronic commentary fit into the developing world of digital resources? Bolter 1993 argues that the commentary already provides a model for hypertextual access that can more or less readily be adapted to the electronic medium. To accept that model so readily, however, would be to perpetuate the limitations Goldhill notes and to ignore the opportunities Fowler describes.

Although the genre is not easy to define, the two principal features Goldhill names – citation and morselisation – provide a most fruitful beginning. From these, two corresponding problems in design immediately follow: modelling the referential gestures of the commentary, and making best use of its natural segmentation. A hypertextual result seems both obvious and inevitable, but very little beyond that vague qualification is either obvious or inevitable.

The paper follows two convergent paths of research, one focused on the commentary form, the other on hypertext. The first is only logically prior, however; in practice the two intermingle. As McGann 1997 notes, one's view of a traditional artefact tends to be profoundly altered by the attempt to render it into electronic form. Translation is a powerful analytic tool.

I start, then, with a detailed structural and functional analysis of standard commentaries, such as Dodds 1960 or Austin 1977, using a method illustrated e.g. by Raymond & Tompa 1988 for the Oxford English Dictionary or non-technologically by Fraade 1999 for Midrash. Such analysis identifies the component parts of the commentary and the referential gestures that interconnect them. As component parts I allow not only those that are supplied, such as introductory essay, edited text, commentary proper and indexes; I also include those that are not physically included but are explicitly referenced, such as articles, monographs and other editions, and those that are in some sense assumed, such as the relevant lexicons and other standard reference works. (In other words, I allow all those components that are clearly part of the scholar's working environment and might form the whole of an electronic edition.) Analysis shows that the referential gestures of the commentary not only delineate subtle gradations of specificity, from exact bibliographical citations to indirect allusions, but also vary by intentional force, hence significance. Since my analysis is directed toward implementation, I necessarily attempt to disambiguate, but in the abbreviated, laconic style of commentary writing, it is not always possible to say what is intended; vagueness may be deliberate. (Note, for example, the useful but often abused “cf.”, for L. confer, “compare” – in what sense? A Wunderkammer of curiosities? A list of items whose relevance is left as a problem for the reader?) Except for the bibliographical citation, and perhaps not even then, a direct rendering into unambiguous terms will as a rule not be possible without significant loss. The point is dual: (1) pragmatically to derive from these ambiguous gestures a consistent, finite set of referential mechanisms more adequate to the task than current hypertext systems allow; (2) theoretically to use the discrepancy between mechanism and gesture better to understand the phenomenon of reference.

The second path is an examination of relevant directions in hypertext research. This is a complicated, rapidly changing, highly interdisciplinary and poorly surveyed area that is characterised by a number of isolating divisions. (See the rough, evolving attempt in McCarty 2000 to bring relevant bits and pieces together as a provocation to comment.) The most serious of the divisions – which, I argue, we need urgently to overcome – is between system-builders and the various subject-domain specialists, as Nürnberg, Leggett & Wiil 1998 point out. Indeed, the isolation of domain specialists from each other works against development of better scholarly tools and the better understanding they bring.

The scholar of commentaries, especially someone familiar only with HTML, has much to learn from the hypertext system-builders: specifically the implementable terms in which to think mechanically against problems of reference illuminated by the ancient form. Relevant are, for example, abstract hypertext models, typologies and specifications, especially XML Linking; adaptive and dynamic hypermedia; structural visualisation; even, perhaps, temporal capability. (See the cited works in McCarty 2000.) These, discussed briefly in the paper, are important not only for building systems, but like the systems themselves, they are the means by which ideas about hypertext are primarily expressed. In practical terms, perhaps most important of all is the open hypermedia principle (Nürnberg, Leggett & Wiil 1998), which dictates the opening up of formerly “monolithic” design so that the major components can be accessed, and so modified or substituted, hence better fitted to specialised scholarly purposes.

The demands of the commentary form highlight particular areas of work among the domain specialists. There are three such areas to be mentioned apart from the underpopulated one to which this paper is a contribution.

The first area is annotation and its generalisation to the digital library. As Marshall 1998 points out, annotation is fundamental to hypertext, though a minority interest to date; focus on it brings out problems of considerable importance to the electronic commentary, which is an annotative genre. Although the real-world practices studied in Marshall 2000 are not scholarly, the questions raised there point to the possibility of collaborative annotation, techniques for which could be of use in some kinds or applications of commentary. Digital library research and its extension to online research communities include such concerns within the broader context of printed and distributed electronic materials. In the subject area of the classical commentary the Perseus Digital Library persuasively demonstrates some of what can be done on a large scale to form a dynamic research environment (Smith, Rydberg-Cox & Crane 2000). With the help of such work we can begin to imagine what a distributed commentary might be like.

The second area is argumentation and rhetoric, which emphasises the academic writer's use of hypertext for persuasion. Two approaches: writerly requirements for hypertext systems (Rosenberg 1999; Kolb 1997), and strategies for the use of generic hypertext (Carter 2000). Carter notes that non-sequentiality problematises argumentation but goes on to show how arguments can be managed in a reader-determined order of presentation. Although traditional commentary makers write in a genre that explicitly caters to such non-linearity, they are still writers using language deliberately to direct and shape the reader's attention. Thus the relevance of work in this domain to the problems of the electronic commentary.

The third area is textual editing, whose current state in the new medium is well represented by Robinson & Gabler 2000. If electronic editions are designed to be interoperable components in a larger digital environment, just as commentaries should be, then the commentary maker can choose which edition or editions to incorporate, i.e. link to. If, as Robinson advocates, electronic editions are built from an eclectic base-text, which serves as “the best starting point for the reader's own explorations of the text” (2000: 10), then we must question what the relationship between commentary and edition will be, in fact how we define “commentary” and “edition”. This ontological matter leads to the larger question implied by my title: can we envision a do-it-yourself commentary?

The basic idea arises from the increasing availability of digital resources for scholarship online, such as texts, lexicons, grammars and the like, and the push toward interoperable components and the operating environments in which to combine them. Might it then be possible now to begin imagining a DIY commentary, or more accurately, interface to multiple commentaries that would better represent the plural text? In conclusion I will briefly explore the implications of such a form for scholarly communication.


[Austin 1977] Austin, R. G., comm. 1977. P. Vergili Maronis, Aeneidos Liber Sextus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[Boulter 1993] Boulter, Jay David. 1993. "Hypertext and the Classical Commentary". In Jon Solomon, ed. Accessing Antiquity: The Computerization of Classical Studies. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Pp. 151-71.

[Carter 2000] Carter, Locke M. 2000. "Arguments in Hypertext: A Rhetorical Approach". San Antonio: Hypertext '00., 26/11/00.

[Dodds 1944] Dodds, E. R. 1944. Euripides Bacchae, edited with Introduction and Commentary. 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[Fowler 1999] Fowler, Don. 1999. "Criticism as commentary and commentary as criticism in the age of electronic media". In Most 1999, pp. 426-42.

[Fraade 1991] Fraade, Steven D. 1991. From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy. SUNY Series in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[Goldhill 1999] Goldhill, Simon. 1999. "Wipe your glosses". In Most 1999, pp. 380-425.

[Kolb 1997] Kolb, David. 1997. "Scholarly Hypertext: Self-Represented Complexity". Southampton: Hypertext '97., 26/11/00.

[Marshall 1998] Marshall, Catherine C. 1998. "Toward an ecology of hypertext annotation". Pittsburgh PA: Hypertext '98., 26/11/00.

[Marshall 2000] Marshall, Catherine C. 2000. "The Future of Annotation in a Digital (Paper) World". In Harum and Twidale, Successes and Failures of Digital Libraries. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press., 26/11/00.

[McCarty 2000] McCarty, Willard. 2000. "A serious beginner's guide to hypertext research". Preliminary rough draft 11/00.

[McGann 1997] McGann, Jerome. 1997. "Imagining what you don't know: the theoretical goals of the Rosetti Archive". Charlottesville VA: IATH., 26/11/00.

[Most 1999] Most, Glenn W., ed. 1999. Commentaries -- Kommentare. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

[Nürnberg, Leggitt & Wiil 1998] Nürnberg, Peter J., J. J. Leggitt & U. K. Wiil. 1998. "An Agenda for Open Hypermedia Research". Pittsburgh PA: Hypertext '98., 26/11/00.

[Raymond & Tompa 1988] Raymond, Darrell R. and Frank W. Tompa. "Hypertext and the Oxford English Dictionary". Communications of the ACM 31.7 (July): 871-79., 26/11/00.

[Robinson 2000] Robinson, Peter. 2000. "The One Text and the Many Texts". In Robinson & Gabler 2000, pp. 5-14.

[Robinson & Gabler 2000] Robinson, Peter and Hans W. Gabler, eds. "Making Texts for the Next Century". Special issue of Literary and Linguistic Computing 15.1 (April).

[Rosenberg 1999] Rosenberg, Jim. 1999. "A Hypertextuality of Arbitrary Structure: A Writers Point of View". Darmstadt: Hypertext '99., 26/11/00.

[Smith, Rydberg-Cox & Crane 2000] Smith, David A., Jeffrey A. Rydberg-Cox & Gregory R. Crane. 2000. "The Perseus Project: a Digital Library for the Humanities". In Robinson and Gabler 2000, pp. 15-25.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC