Jeff Rice, University of Kentucky
(Published: November 5, 2013)
If there is a single activity that defines writers and readers' interactions with new media, it might be search. All platforms—from Adobe's Acrobat to the weblog to the average computer operating system—emphasize search as the principal medium for finding information. Facebook offers the specific Graph Search to facilitate finding people across the platform; Topsy archives every tweet shared in order to make Twitter searchable. The Web, in particular, is largely defined by search; early web-based tools such as Gopher, Archie, and Veronica allowed search to organize the Web's vastness into accessible data. As the story of search is often told, the emergence of Mosaic's 1993 graphical, browser interface along with Yahoo, Netscape, Lycos, Northern Lights, and other early search engines transformed the Web from a mass of information into categories, key terms, meta tags, and other attributes that can be located and arranged for viewers to access. This story often champions Google for mastering search with its eventual invention of the "algorithm," Google's page rank "formula that analyzes the links that point to a Web page in order to discern the relative reputation of one page over another" (Stross 63). John Battelle begins his critique of Google by noting how search is, indeed, the process of aggregating linked results. Battelle calls this aggregation the Database of Intentions. Intention, we are led to believe, is with the machine's control of a given search.
Link by link, click by click, search is building possibly the most lasting, ponderous, and significant cultural artifact in the history of humankind: the Database of Intentions. The Database of Intentions is simply this: the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result (6).
In Laws of Cool, Alan Liu, too, draws attention to database thinking, suggesting that, as aggregation occurs within a tremendous amount of daily search, networked databases create "what might be called 'lateral transcendence' toward an always receding horizon." This never ending stream of information, Liu tells us, "was not like opening a file list on a disk, but like using an Internet search engine and finding thousands of unsystematic results delivered ten or twenty at a time with a button at the bottom of the page marked 'More' or 'Next'" (145-146). For Alexander Halavais, the linking, clicking, always receding horizon of information encountered via search is more convoluted and manipulated than Liu's description of finding files. Search based activity, Halavais writes, is best approached as a skill we must learn and not a practice that can be taken for granted as natural or easily learned.
The skill most likely to affect the success of a search is the ability to choose the appropriate keywords. How can you know which terms, or combination of terms, best targets the information you are after? To know how to choose the best search terms, you must understand how the search engine indexes the web, and pick terms that exploit this process (37).
Critical knowledge, Halavais argues, is central to search. Information online is manipulated, and those who perform search must understand this manipulation in order to overcome it. Such is the main thesis of Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything, in which he warns that we must be critical users of Google and other search services that store data, for we never can be sure of the services' intentions. "Faith in Google is dangerous not because of anything specific that Google does. It's dangerous because of how we allow it to affect our expectations and information about the world" (80). Critique, Halavais and Vaidhyanathan argue, is our best tool for overcoming search manipulation. Critique is also, we are told, the best way to balance information expectation, what we believe keywords and tags should provide as the result of a given search.
Each of these positions regarding search poses a challenge to the Digital Humanities. As these positions suggest, any study that utilizes contemporary search must locate search within a sense of critical awareness so that it is not merely the decision to, as Liu notes, click more or next. To understand, navigate, employ, or engage with the vast amount of information presented by search, one must be critical, one must decode or interpret the power relationships not visible to the casual user, and one must not succumb to those who might control information. What we find and what we ask to find, these positions note, are not without political influence. "Beyond a biased set of results," Halavais writes of search, "searchers may be encountering a bias in inquiry" (94). This bias, for Internet and Web icon Ted Nelson, damages our ability to filter information accurately and to use such filtering for our own purposes. "Google threatens every content industry, publishing industry, and library industry," Nelson proclaims (Nelson 182). In the Digital Humanities, it is common to investigate bias, power, and deceptive representation by revealing the mechanisms which lead to such items' existence. Writing in the third issue of the online journal Digital Humanities Quarterly, for instance, Wendell Piez writes that
The proper object of Digital Humanities is what one might call "media consciousness" in a digital age, a particular attitude analogous to, and indeed continuous with, a more general media consciousness as applied to cultural production in any nation or period.
Critical media consciousness is the focus of Matthew Kirschenbaum's important work on the material artifacts of computing. Studying hard drives and memory devices, Kirschenbaum argues that in the Digital Humanities, "critics and scholars of new media need to be exhibiting critical habits that are more sensitive to the mature material conditions of new media" (Mechanisms 22). In a 2010 ADE Bulletin essay, Kirschenbaum extends this conversation from the material (such as a hard drive or computer memory) to specific search platforms within academia, Voyeur and the University of Maryland's Shakespeare Quartos Archive, in order to clarify key elements that define Digital Humanities' interest in textual discovery ("What is Digital Humanities" 2). Textual discovery, and the critical consciousness it requires, becomes refined in platforms like those Kirschenbaum mentions as well as in more general applications like Google's Ngram Viewer,1 a search engine that graphs the appearance of searched words and phrases in books scanned in Google's digitized collection. For some writers, like Historian Dan Cohen, "there are precious few easy-to-use tools that allow one to explore text-mining patterns and anomalies" and Ngram is one.2 Ngram showcases the keywords relevant to a given search. A searched term, word, or phrase returns a series of temporal patterns across the Ngram timeline (from the years 1800-2000), patterns which indicate an as of yet unknown knowledge regarding the initial search. These patterns, we are to believe, allow for a certain type of textual discovery and thus, critical awareness, as new ideas are revealed. Within the Digital Humanities, David Berry writes in his collection devoted to the topic, "pattern and narrative are useful analytical terms that enable us to see the way in which the computational turn is changing the nature of knowledge" (14).
On his weblog Wine Dark Sea, Renaissance scholar Michael Witmore offers a more nuanced approach to such critical awareness by drawing attention to not just the material artifacts of search (the text itself, engines, computer memory, machines, programs) or event to patterns but to the ways information is coded, tagged, and allowed to be organized. In a post titled "Text: A Massively Addressed Object," Witmore writes that archival search of collections means rethinking texts so that they are not just "things" but are computational objects. By computational object, we might imagine a search that produces something else (i.e., a computation). A text, generally, is what addresses or is addressable, Witmore argues, and "a text can be queried at the level of single words and then related to other texts at the same level of abstraction." Thus, critical awareness, in itself, is not a sufficient approach to search, the reading of archived matter, and one might assume, the writing of such matter. One must also address via query. Single words, or we can say, single ideas, can be related to other queried ideas so that abstract thought is achieved.
To be aware of information reception and work at the level of abstract thought is to be literate. Linking. Clicking. Keywords. Addressing texts via other texts. Never ending horizons. I understand these ideas as keywords raised by scholars of the Digital Humanities and search as heuristics for writing, the basis of literacy practices. In that sense, the challenge I see for the Digital Humanities and search does not reside in the need to be critical of how and where one searches, as the writers I survey claim; nor do I see the challenge entirely with understanding past literacy practices or reading habits (as much of the discussion of archival matter focuses on). Instead, I am more interested in the activity of linking and clicking through keywords that seem to have no end, that allow query to relate to other queries, that transform a given archive or set of archives into a search-based writing, and that, following Berry, allow for pattern and narrative. I am, in essence, interested in rhetorical invention as a contemporary literacy practice. In particular, I am interested in posing search as a type of practice we might call new media literacy because of how it allows writers to generate, arrange, and deliver ideas in online environments in ways we have not previously encountered. Instead of search being only a question of how to understand anew Medieval manuscripts, Shakespearian folios, or Renaissance texts, I want to explore search as way to understand new forms of composing.3
Pedagogy is the place to formulate such composing practices. On the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory weblog (HASTAC), pedagogy is often a point of discussion. In one HASTAC post, prominent Digital Humanities advocate Cathy Davidson outlines a syllabus for a Spring 2011 course she will teach entitled 21st Century Literacies.4 On the syllabus, Davidson establishes a taxonomy of what she calls 21st Century Literacy, a list that includes such features as Attention, Participation, Collaboration, Narrative, Learning, Unlearning and Relearning and Critical Consumption of Information (along with others). Nowhere does Davidson include search, but we might assume that some of these activities feature or require some degree of search at some moment. Juxtaposing scholarly interest on search with Davidson's pedagogical framing of new media literacy, can we create a type of invention practice that is search based? What if search, then, is not a skill one masters in order to overcome problematic representations, to reclaim lost texts, or to recognize bias in information aggregation (as my initial survey suggests), but is, in itself, a form of literacy acquisition we might simply call "writing"? In that way, to perform a search might be to write a text; the linking, clicking and keyword following search allows for would be rhetorical strategies writers engage with when inventing and composing ideas within ever receding horizons. One way to explore this type of literacy practice might be to borrow an already common feature of literacy, the telling of a story, and to use that practice to suggest a type of writing based on search. In what follows, I will do just that; I will follow a query that will allow me to discover a type of writing based on search.
Gregory Ulmer writes that narrative (one of Davidson's 21st Century Literacy items) provides a method for exploring the logics and rhetorics of new media. Specifically, Ulmer's directive for digital writing is "Compose a 'diegesis'—an imaginary space and time, as in a setting for a film—that functions as the 'places of invention,' using this phrase in the sense associated with it in the history of rhetoric" (Heuretics 48). Early search engines created places of meaning by categorizing the Web into lists or what Sean Cubitt calls catalogs, a contrastive feature of narrative writing. "It is important to understand," Cubitt writes, "that, for Web surfers, the 'catalog' function of search engines is more fundamental than, for example, the storytelling function of popular fiction, news journalism, or film and television narrative" (176). Cubbit wants to reintroduce narrative to the Web and search. In Electronic Monuments, Ulmer places narrative, and the places of invention, within the context of political exigence in order to search out and further explore the role of invention as a Web-based problem solving tool. Ulmer's response is not an argumentative approach to problem solving (i.e., identifying the best argument for purposes of persuasion), but rather endorses narrative as an imaginary space where a problem can be queried. Problem solving often concentrates on the political, or what Bruno Latour calls "the progressive composition of the common world" (18). Indeed, the very projects outlined by writers like Battelle and Halavais reflect the political as progressive: how to consult and overcome the ways search is controlled by economic, governmental, and ideological concerns. As Chris Anderson writes in The Long Tail, "Since nothing on the Web is authoritative, it's up to you to consult enough sources so that you can make up your own mind" (190). To make up one's mind, so to speak, one would need some sort of catalog to search through. There exist events, moments, people, and texts to navigate and consult in order to address a given political story. The writer's task is to identify them in various archival places and to use them for composing. Narrative can serve as that compositional space.
"What may we learn about consulting from narrative?" Ulmer asks (164). For digital theorists like Ulmer, narrative, rather than argument or critique, becomes a method for exploring a given problem that might be cataloged in all types of ways. Ulmer's political exigence is child abuse (the horrific 1989 murder of Bradley McGee). To pose search as a form of digital writing (and to demonstrate that writing here), I want to continue the practice of beginning with a political exigence, but I want to opt for another kind of issue that will spark a search as a writing moment for me. The political exigence that motivates my query into search is the 2010 decision by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson not to pardon famed outlaw Billy the Kid.5 My reasons for focusing on this one event are based on a simple notion much of Digital Humanities scholarship has not addressed regarding search even though the keyword "query" is often stressed: I am curious. I am curious how a criminal, dead for over 100 years, can become a topic of political discussion and debate. I am curious, and I want to allow curiosity to advance an exigence via query.
Specifically, I want to shift research attention away from what one might be invested in (i.e., a situation close to where I am because of professional, emotional, or scholarly interest) to what one has no personal investment in but can still be curious about. My sense of the political, then, is not motivated by a personal attachment to an issue (child abuse, global warming, violent campaign rhetoric, gun control, hegemony, neoliberalism, or even Billy the Kid.). It is a non-invested curiosity. In performing this type of politically motivated search, I can explore how such moments are shaped by what Lloyd Bitzer famously called the rhetorical situation, "the context in which speakers or writers create discourse" (1). Bitzer writes:
Let us regard rhetorical situation as a natural context of persons, events, objects and relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance; this invited utterance participates naturally in the situation, is in many instances necessary to the completion of situational activity, and by means of its participation with situation obtains its meaning and its rhetorical character (5).
In fact, Bitzer begins his canonized essay by contextualizing the rhetorical situation with a moment of danger. "If someone says," Bitzer starts, "That is a dangerous situation, his works suggest the presence of events, persons, or objects which threaten him, someone else, or something of value" (1). In the late 19th century Wild West, Billy the Kid was that dangerous situation. In 2013, he becomes my dangerous situation as well as I situate him as one place of invention within a larger narrative about search. With my political exigence located, I can, then, begin my search by querying "Billy the Kid."
Searching for Billy the Kid
In 1879 New Mexico Governor Lee Wallace supposedly promised to pardon Billy the Kid, but he never did. In what many viewed as a stunt to promote tourism to New Mexico, in 2010, then New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson became entangled in a public discussion that suggested he would finally fulfill Wallace's promise. Between these two moments of indecision, the so called "dangerous situation" is quickly put at ease by the notion of the pardon even though the initial crime may not have been fully accounted for. Thus, the pardon provides a political exigence for a search I might perform. The purpose of the search would be to learn more about this exigence, but also to write my own narrative of Billy the Kid that is not historical nor biographical, but rather search based query. To do this query, I must engage with the rhetorical strategy set out by scholars such as Liu and Witmore; I will link, click, and follow keywords that address connected ideas. This addressing might operate according to its own algorithm of pattern formation. Much as Ngram functions by patterns or Berry advocates patterns, Katherine Hayles argues that controlling information is about locating patterns. As she describes Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, when information passes through a machine, "the information is abstracted from it, transfigured into a pattern of pure binary data" (120).
I am not going to tell the story of Billy Kid; I am going to tell a search based story of Billy the Kid whose patterns of data are discovered as I search. Might such a search provide a method of invention regarding political moments (i.e., how to respond to the pardon by neither arguing for it or against it) that critique or analysis would not allow? Might this method, then, become one that challenges the Digital Humanities to more fully explore the role of invention in the digital via the concept of search so that a new pedagogy of writing is discovered? The Digital Humanities, Kirschenbaum tells us, is, after all, "more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific stet of texts or even technologies" ("What is the Digital Humanities" 2). In this essay, I explore one such methodology—searching via tagged keywords.
The way to discover a method for search is to perform a search based narrative of Billy the Kid as example. The search should employ Google, a dominant force within search, but it should also engage with the methods and archives many Digital Humanities scholars turn to or endorse in a variety of ways. These archives could be library based (Jstor, Project Muse, sites dedicated to archived texts or scholars' work, etc.); library based resources, however, do not have to dominate material found elsewhere online that operates in accordance with Digital Humanities' endorsement. Open source, accessible databases, and Creative Commons are often showcased by Digital Humanities scholarship, and thus, databases represented by such archives become viable sources for my own search. While I am not using techniques or markups related to search such as the Text Coding Initiative, XML, or topic modeling—techniques that provide Digital Humanists with tools for identifying and tagging texts for searches—I am working within a broader conceptual model of the coding and tagging of information these practices support. Topic modeling, for instance, focuses on identified patterns in a text or series of texts in order to locate trends, unknown ideas, and new perspectives that previous readings have not yet identified. As David Blei describes topic modeling, its algorithms "analyze the texts to find a set of topics—patterns of tightly co-occurring terms—and how each document combines them." Ted Underwood describes topic modeling as a "way of extrapolating backward from a collection of documents to infer the discourses ('topics') that could have generated them." In this inference, "the tendency for topics to concentrate on particular words and documents will eventually be limited by the actual, messy distribution of words across documents" (Underwood).
To do this type of messy work in my search, instead of using an algorithm or topic modeling software such as Mallet, I use already established tags common to searches on Google or other databases: politics, history, popular culture, writing studies, and the personal. In other words, tags will allow me to model my narrative. I choose these tags for no reason other than their generic qualities, their likely usage in any number of daily searches. Tags are markers of information. Tags, "let you remember things your way," David Weinberger writes (92). While tags may seem to be indiscriminate markers of information, "intersect a tagging system with an online social network and much of the context that tags ignore can be brought back in" (Weinberger 167). Thus, I want to apply my tags to a generic network of open source, easily accessible databases—Google, YouTube, Wikipedia—in order to write my search, in order to demonstrate a way context can be brought back in to a search based narrative. I use tags to guide and direct my search because, despite Halavais and Vaidhyanathan's concerns with control, I want some sense of control to the narrative I will develop. The juxtaposition of what I find, I contend, will allow me a response to my exigence I would not have imagined prior to the search.
This search might start with a document (motivated by the tag called "history") found in one archival source, Google Books. In Google Books, I find Pat Garrett's biography of Billy Kid, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid: The Noted Desperado of the Southwest. Garrett is the famed one time Kid associate who later, as sheriff, arrested and killed Billy the Kid. The origin of Billy the Kid's violent behavior, Garrett narrates, is based on the throwing of a rock.
As Billy's mother was passing a knot of idlers on the street, a filthy loafer in the crowd made in insulting remark about her. Billy heard it, and quick as thought, with blazing eyes, he planted a stinging blow on the blackguard's mouth, then springing to the street, stopped for a rock. (10)
Despite this aggressive beginning, Garrett's memoir describes a Billy the Kid who was gentle and polite. "There is an impression among some people that Billy was excessively gross, profane and beastly in his habits, conversation and demeanor. The opposite is the case" (Garrett 22). Thus, we can imagine a Billy the Kid who tells the truth, who does not curse, and who does not lie. If we are to believe Garrett's story of Billy the Kid, or more specifically of Billy the Kid's demise, we learn that despite his respect for the outlaw's politeness, Garrett shoots a barefooted Kid in a darkened bedroom without properly acknowledging that he has come to arrest him. Garrett deceives his one time friend. According to Garrett, because it was dark, Billy the Kid died without knowing who shot him.
It will never be known whether The Kid recognized me or not. If he did, it was the first time, during all his life of peril, that he ever lost his presence of mind, or failed to shoot first, and hesitate afterwards. (130)
The narrative, or diegesis, of this important event is not a satisfactory one. How could a marksman not know he was about to be shot? Ulmer ties the notion of a digital diegesis to the logic of film because of how in the digital space, like in film, fragmented associations connect to create a story (Heuretics 98). In my search, one fragmented moment I tag as "film" is Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The movie features Bob Dylan (tagged as "music") who plays Alias, the former printer turned sidekick. In the song he wrote for the film, "Knocking on Heaven's Door," Dylan sings as a sheriff who can no longer lie or bullshit ("Mamma, take this gun from me, I can't use it anymore"). In the film's trailer, archived on the open source site YouTube,6 Billy the Kid has no problem using his gun; he shoots a man in a duel before the man turns around. That's bullshit, we might yell as if echoing Pat Garrett's twisted reminiscence of killing Kid, that one should only fight honorably and "on the square" (Garrett 134).
One might say that Dylan's billing compared to his actual role is a promotional lie, or bullshit. Too much credit is given the singer and the character he plays as important to telling the story of Billy the Kid, particularly for a role that has few lines. The same might be said of the mythical 19th century Western outlaws whose reputation always exceeds their lives (and thus can spark a 130 year old pardon as news). Those exploits can be found as well in an 1881 Harpers New Monthly Magazine7 essay (tagged "journalism" and also archived on Google Books), in which the anonymous writer recounts buying on a train in Arizona a "crimson pamphlet purporting to contain an account of the exploits of Billy the Kid. He had committed a score at least of horrid murders" ("Across Arizona" 499). For a man who stood five feet seven and weighed 125 lbs., as a wanted poster found on Google Images describes the outlaw8, the fear associated with Kid seems excessive. In a 1959 Life Magazine reprint of The Las Vegas Gazette's 1880 profile "The Kid" (also tagged "journalism" and found in Google Books), Billy the diminutive Kid escapes from his first arrest while eating9. The Gazette wonders over the moment. "As time passes," the article states, "and further facts concerning the Kid's escape come in, the more wonderful and daring it appears. The handcuffs had been taken from [Billy the Kid's] left hand, to allow him to eat supper" (92). Allowed to eat, Billy the Kid strikes his handler and gets free. Leaving a prisoner unbound, however, is hardly daring. Exaggeration is a marker of the rhetorically excessive.
According to Wikipedia's editors (Wikipedia exemplifying the "participation" and "collaboration" tags of Davidson's syllabus; the space where users do both as they contribute content), Billy the Kid was killed in the fairly non-dramatic manner Pat Garrett recounts. As Garrett also tells the story, whatever hyperbole that is attached to his life was not repeated in his death. In the Wikipedia version,
McCarty [a.k.a. Billy the Kid] entered carrying a knife, evidently headed to a kitchen area. He noticed someone in the darkness, and uttered the words, "¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?" at which point he was shot and killed in ambush style.10
In the Gazette version of the shooting, "[Billy] came over the house with a knife in his hand to cut some meat from a carcass hanging on Maxwell's porch" (100). On his way to fix a late night snack, Billy the Kid is killed. He is killed without a shoot out or hyperbolic battle. One can only whisper, "bullshit." This is not how outlaws die. This is not the filmic diegesis we have come to expect. In Peckinpah's filmic diegesis, also archived on YouTube11, Billy the Kid is armed, sees Garrett waiting for him in the dark, and smiles before Garrett shoots him. In Peckinpah's version, Kid recognizes Garrett. In the next scene, as Garrett rides out of town on his horse, a kid throws rocks at him.
Billy Joel (tagged as "music") tells us something about Billy the Kid as well. On an archived YouTube video of Joel performing live, Joel begins his 1976 "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" by saying, "This is one of those bullshit songs."12 While the song begins with an allusion to the Kid having a "six gun in his hand," Joel ends his ode with a tribute to himself, singing of "a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island" where "rode a boy with a six pack in his hand." The move is from object of study (the famed outlaw) to the personal (the singer). The textual search outward eventually goes inward in order to emphasize the personal within any type of writing. Some of the bullshit Joel frames the song with might be read as my own frustration when I try to embed the Billy Joel video on my own website, and YouTube tells me that embedding is disabled. My frustration erupts, as in, "THIS IS BULLSHIT." Indeed, the "this is bullshit" response we might feel after reading about Billy the Kid's uneventful demise or our inability to embed a video is a fairly common one within new media scholarship where privacy, access, and representation are often found to be the basis of problematic practices, as my initial survey of scholarship on search attests. Users feel this bullshit when they cannot use what is, on some level, accessible (such as a YouTube video) in order to exemplify or illustrate a point in their own writing. Users, as well, want to opt out of Facebook or MySpace when they feel this sense of bullshit, that the personal is being violated, when common web searches reveal personal information shared on a social networking site, and when users want that revelation disabled.13Yet the personal is a focal point of my own search, and I do not feel that I can disable this aspect of information acquisition. My search is motivated not by an objective search query, but rather by the selected items that make up my world in a given moment, items that I don't want private from my query. So far, those moments have included history, film, music, and journalism. I could also add the tags "personal" and "place" since I conducted this search from where I once lived in Missouri, home of an additional hyperbolic, and legendary, outlaw, Jesse James. James, another Wikipedia entry tells us, died while dusting, another non-dramatic moment.14
Noticing a dusty picture on the wall, [Jesse James] stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford shot James in the back of the head. James' two previous bullet wounds and partially missing middle finger served to positively identify the body.
Another item Davidson tags as part of a 21st Century Literacy is attention. Jesse James paid attention to dirt. Pat Garrett paid attention to a figure in a dark room about to prepare food. Billy the Kid did not pay attention to Garrett. The narrator of Dylan's ode to Pat Garrett pays attention to his own looming death ("Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven's door"). In addition to paying attention to these collected tags, I pay attention to my own personal place within this narrative I am building. The personal, as Garrett notes in his conclusion to his story of Billy the Kid, is an essential part of any narrative, even if it seems, at first, to be excessive.
Perhaps, however, some of my readers will consent to follow me through three or four additional pages which may be unnecessary and superfluous, but which I insert for my own personal gratification. (132)
Garrett moves from the profession of outlaw to sheriff. My professional place is in rhetoric and writing studies. I began this narrative by noting how Billy the Kid offers a political exigence with no personal connection other than it interests me. As a moment of writing, my search is personalized much in the way Billy Joel personalizes his tribute to Billy the Kid or that Garrett personalizes his biography.
Thus, with this pattern of writing (biography and song writing), I tag this final part of my search "writing studies" and search Jim Corder, who personalized rhetoric more than most writing and rhetoric theorists have done. Corder's Lost in West Texas (archived in the traditional format of a book) traces his memories of Texas via the combination of memoir and excerpts from scholarly articles he previously published (thus mixing the personal and the professional). The book includes one story of an outhouse located somewhere in what we might call a version of the Old West.
When I was young and all the family gathered on a holiday – Christmas, say – at my grandparents' farm, the outhouse there was the centerpiece for a regular entertainment. (22)
As a child, Corder and other kids would throw rocks at whoever was in the family outhouse. In the same section of the book, Corder ties this moment of nostalgia with a dominant feeling of nostalgia that accompanies the rhetorical reliance on anecdotes when we discuss pedagogy. "I'm usually a little doubtful when I hear someone who is caught up in reminiscence begin a sentence with 'We'd always. . .' Not much anything is always" (23). Corder writes that, as we search memory for a given moment's meaning, we tend to take "an event that occurred sometimes and elevate it to a standard ritual, just as we're likely to take ourselves and our memory as the measure by which we know things" (23). The legend of Billy the Kid is obviously one such memory; he is ritualized as a hyperbolic outlaw. The importance of a specific artifact (essay, journal article, book) for research purposes is another memory or ritual. The need to include representational items in a researched piece of writing and not to include, for example, figures that seem to have no clear connection to the object of study (such as Jim Corder in an essay on Billy the Kid that is really about search and the Digital Humanities) is another nostalgic memory. We remember the activity as a "we'd always" type of moment ("we'd always do research in this way. . ."). These memories are archived and searched as rituals that become practices. In digital search, we have to reconsider such rituals if they no longer assist invention and digital writing.
My narrative, then, shows me that if we don't perform such a reconsideration, we run the risk of nostalgia, nostalgia for memory of outdated practice, or nostalgia shaped as a pardon for a legendary and hyperbolic figure who did, after all, kill people. One could, for instance, rewrite Corder's critique of pedagogical nostalgia from "we always knew how to study in my day" to "we always knew how to search a library's archives" in our day (Lost in West Texas 24), and we'd find the sense of bullshit that is making its way through my own new media styled search. Memory—from a killer's legacy to a research practice—is not enough to demonstrate meaning or methodology. As Corder writes, "When you set out to explain or probe, soon you come up against what you can't know" (Chronicle of a Small Town 15). Search has long been posed as knowing or acquiring to know. "Are search engines making today's students dumber?" Edward Tenner asks in a New York Times Op-Ed. Yochai Benkler feels differently, arguing that "The digitally networked environment makes. . . its capacity to increase the efficacy, and therefore the importance, of many more, and more diverse, nonmarket producers falling within the general category of Joe Einstein" (54). In a database of intentions or memories, we are supposed to become a type of Einstein. In this Einstein achieving time period we inhabit, Axel Bruns boldly proclaims, "the traditional expert-based paradigm of classification according to a fixed schemata is unable to cope with the range of information and knowledge now available within the global knowledge space" (192). In this environment of searching and finding, we are supposed to become all knowing rather than all asking. Corder, however, directs search back to not knowing.
I found myself wondering, again and again, what I would have learned, what would have startled me, what I
could have seen in a new way that I had misremembered, if only I could read the missing papers. There are always missing papers. (Chronicle of a Small Town 17)
In my own search, I readily accept that there are always "missing papers" regarding Billy the Kid and the pardon that I will never find, even via Google or some sense of topic modeling. I don't need to find everything as I outline this narrative of how a meal, rock throwing, and death are related to a discussion of search or a killer's eventual pardon. In fact, my writing is not based on that type of totality. Instead of solving the political problem of Billy the Kid's pardon, I have found patterns that assist me with my query and curiosity, even if they don't resolve either for me. The patterns are not forced – even if they may appear to be – they were discovered as I moved through the generic tags that guided my exploration. My focus, via this narrative, is not critique (totality) but rather exploration (heuristics).
From Knowing to Wanting to Know
The obvious connection I address here via this final tag called "writing studies" is shit (outhouse) and bullshit (nostalgia). This connection, in fact, motivates the final part of the narrative I am telling. We might call the claim that search's focus is about knowing as bullshit as well. Such a claim is a hyperbolic framing of information, texts, and technology, it is a focus on totality. At some point, this claim attests, we will know everything (instead of merely wanting to know). The writing moment I identity in this claim is the one that communicates not a story of finding out, but a grand narrative of what something must be. And as my own search is revealing, the quest for what something must be is, in fact, a lie or bullshit moment. For James Fredal (tagged also as "writing studies" in the academic journal College English, which I access online), bullshit's role in communicative practices involves maintaining some degree of the human.
Language, in other words, is unavoidably phatic, and is used not simply to say true things about the world or convey meaning to one another, but to maintain and enhance human relationships. (252)
A phatic gesture, like a search through various, possibly unrelated categories, does not necessarily demonstrate content, resolution to a problem, or some other definitive moment. Throwing rocks at an outhouse or shooting an outlaw while he is making a snack may not share meanings beyond the fragile pattern that connects them as an address relating to other texts at the level of abstraction (as Whitmore calls for). Fredal calls bullshit "a function of social encounters" which include "virtual encounters" (253). Fredal adds, "Bullshit usually includes a sense of surprise – the slight is felt to be underserved and unexpected – and it arises in encounters with asymmetrical power relations" (254). The search I am performing here is, too, a virtual encounter; it exists in this composition and not in a specific browser or engine. It surprises me as I discover patterns not initially evident when I encountered my political exigence. To address Richardson's pardon, I did not anticipate meeting Billy Joel, a 19th century Harper's essay, Bob Dylan, Jim Corder or any of the other texts I encountered. The search offers me no "all knowing moment" but instead turns up specific patterns that I might encounter anew. And it surprises me by being mostly about bullshit.
The generic search one might perform, too, is a type of bullshit. I am not providing an argument for Billy the Kid's pardon, against the pardon, or in reference to the specific politics at stake in New Mexico in the year 2010. The power relations I play with, in contrast to those I begin with in the survey of Halavais and others, are what exist among specific online archives, the keywords that I follow (Dylan, Billy the Kid, bullshit, rocks, attention), the tags I identify as markers of the information I search through, and the narrative I begin to tell. My search is not the power grab Battelle concludes his story of search with. "At the heart of the next battle is your attention," he argues.
Microsoft, Yahoo, and others want that attention, and they see search as the way to get it. And while Google has extraordinary algorithms and the best paid search infrastructure by far, Yahoo and Microsoft have far more experiencing selling advertising the more traditional way. (294)
Advertising, as critical analysis or media consciousness shows us, can direct search. But so can method. So can the sources we navigate as our searches transform into writings. Corder, searching for a lost newspaper that is not archived in his university or town's library, questions nostalgia for the places we store our ideas and then search through. Institutionalized archives, he tells us, are markers of nostalgia. They do not necessarily make us all knowing or contain what we need in order to want to know. This nostalgia dictates one kind of search or one place for search to be practiced within. "It occurred to me that a scholar's reputation, supposing he had one, could be ruined if the world found out that he had discovered his sources at Aunt Mary's house" (Chronicles of a Small Town 5).
What my search tells me is bullshit. Reputation should not be damaged. Colleagues, from the Digital Humanities or from elsewhere, who read this essay might skim through my archival resources and say "bullshit" as well, as if I am only finding information via a metaphoric Aunty Mary's house; that is, an unacceptable site of information acquisition. The author cites too many Google sites, too much Wikipedia, and too much YouTube; these are not the sources that demonstrate scholarly reputation, such a colleague might declare. Or they may object to my patterns, accusing me of pre-loading the keywords to fit the search, as if I am practicing the very manipulation critique warns about regarding search. Or they may think I am merely bullshitting, performing this search in order to mock digital scholarship and its critical focus on control and hegemony, a focus that often ignores rhetoric, narrative, and invention strategies. Some or none of these objections, of course, may be true.
I compound this confusion by concluding my search with another debatable online source, Google News, where a search tagged "politics" yields a Forbes.com story on Richardson's decision not to pardon Billy the Kid.15 William Barrett's commentary on the issue notes that, while he declined on the Kid pardon, Richardson did issue an executive clemency to businessman Edward Gilbert for financial crimes committed prior to living in New Mexico. The order restored Gilbert's right to own a gun in New Mexico, Barrett tells readers. Gilbert's nickname was The Boy Wonder of Wall Street "for his hostile takeover of hardwood flooring maker E.L. Bruce Co." (Barrett). Gilbert held dinner fundraisers in Richardson's honor, and thus, for writers like Barrett, Richardson's clemency created the image of political wrong doing or outlaw behavior.
Kid. Boy. Guns. Food (from Billy the Kid's death to Gilbert's dinners). A constituency that cries "bullshit" as campaign donors receive favors that dead outlaws cannot. These are the continuations of patterns search reveals. They are the patterns that form my response to the rhetorical situation I begin with, that show me an unfolding narrative that is the search itself and a response to a political exigence. My dangerous situation is Billy the Kid, but it is also a pedagogical dependence on ritual and memory, the belief that search must be conducted in specific places as opposed to the inventive places of meaning. Tags, such as the ones I use, are the inventive places of meaning when they guide a search. My dangerous situation is also the warning that navigating categories and figures who have no apparent causal relationship will not end well when my essay is eventually read. My scholarly colleagues may not pardon my method.
Still, these are the patterns I do not have to end with, but that I can pose as part of a larger search query encourages, a query which is at the heart of invention and digital writing, a search which creates its own type of computation. If there is a 21st Century pedagogy in this narrative it is the teaching of tagging, keywords, and search as writing (as I have done here in my example). The writing is found in the patterns. They are the patterns of the Digital Humanities, performed from research done from my computer (from where I requested the Corder books from interlibrary loan as well). These are the places of invention where I can be found reading still about Billy the Kid, identifying more patterns, eating a snack at my computer, crumbs on the keyboard, contemplating search anew and finally requesting a pardon as I burp. "I beg your pardon," I say to no one in particular.
3 I have chosen these three types of textual studies as exemplary of Digital Humanities work. They were picked by scanning the table of contents of one outlet for Digital Humanities scholarship, the Oxford journal Literacy & Linguistic Computing.
"Across Arizona." Harpers New Monthly Magazine. March 1883.
Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2008.
Barrett, William. "To Win Clemency, Billy the Kid Should Have Given Politically." Forbes.com. Jan 10, 2011. http://blogs.forbes.com/williampbarrett/2011/01/10/to-win-clemency-billy-the-kid-should-have-given-politically/?boxes=Homepagechannels
Battelle, John. The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. New York, NY: Portfolio, 2005.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press: New Have, 2003.
Berry, David, ed. Understanding the Digital Humanities. Palgrave MacMillan. London, 2012.
Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric. January 1968 (1-14).
Blei, David. "Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities." Journal of Digital Humanities. Vol. 2 No. 1. Winter 2012. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/2-1/topic-modeling-and-digital-humanities-by-david-m-blei/
Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. Peter Lang: New York, 2008.
Corder, Jim. Chronicles of a Small Town. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.
_________. Lost in West Texas. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
Cubitt, Sean. "Multimedia." Unspun: Key Concepts for Understanding the World Wide Web. Ed. Thomas Swiss. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000.
Fredal, James. "Rhetoric and Bullshit. College English. Vol 73 No 3 January 2011 (243-259).
Garrett, Pat. The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid: The Noted Desperado of the Southwest, Whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico. Santa Fe, New Mexico: New Mexican Printing and Publishing, 1882.
Halavais, Alex. Search Engine Society. Malden, MA: Polity, 2009.
Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.
________________. "What is Digital Humanities and What's It Doing in English Departments?" ADE Bulletin. Number 150, 210 (1-7).
"Last Days of a Gunman: The True Story of Billy the Kid." Life. May 4, 1959. 87-100.
Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Nelson, Ted. Geeks Bearing Gifts. Mindful Press, 2009.
Piez, Wendell. "Something Called 'Digital Humanities.'" Digital Humanities Quarterly. http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/2/1/000020/000020.html
Stross, Randall. Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know. New York, NY: Free Press, 2008.
Tenner, Edward. "Searching for Dummies." New York Times. Marc 26, 2006.
Ulmer, Gregory L. Heuretics or the Logic of Invention. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Underwood, Ted. "Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough." The Stone and the Shell. 7 April 2012. http://tedunderwood.com/2012/04/07/topic-modeling-made-just-simple-enough
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2011.
Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York, NY: Times Books, 2007.
Witmore, Michael. "Text: A Massively Addressable Object." Wine Dark Sea. December 31, 2010. http://winedarksea.org/?p=926