Tuesday, April 14, 2009

60. On the Document Academy

The Document Academy has met for two years in Madison, WI, a pair of meetings that I have been fortunate enough to attend. The Document Academy is an interdisciplinary group of scholars. Their object of study is complex – a complexity illustrated by the use of the word “document” to signify the object of study. “The document” (the physical object) can be studied. At the same time, “to document” is a verb, of course, tied to the production of at least some documents (including, perhaps, documentary film). When scholars claim to study the document, then, they study a phenomenon that is at least partially polysemous as it represented in the terminology.

Document studies is not the only discipline with a polysemous keyword set. Scholars in “Writing Studies” both teach writing (the act) and study writing (the artifact). Scholars in Communication Studies both teach rhetoric (the practice of speaking) and the artifact (the rhetoric of political figures, for example).

I point to the analogy with rhetorical studies because I think that some of the well-worn paths in rhetorical studies are being traced by scholars in document studies. Rhetorical studies is commonly described in terms of three key terms: ontological, epistemological, and axiological frameworks. I'll address two of them below (ontology and axiology).

Ontological Aspects of Document Studies: What is the Document?
Ontology essentially poses the question of what, exactly, it is the theorist is examining. Most of the groundbreaking work in document studies explores the ontology of the document. Briet’s central example of the antelope served to define what the document is. And Michael Buckland has continued that exploration in key papers. They have framed the ontological exploration thusfar.

At the Document Academy, questions of the ontology of the document are addressed in two ways: in papers that explore the question primarily through a theoretical lens (with occasional reference to examples) and papers that explore the issue primarily through a critical exegesis of an exemplar document.

Theoretical Examinations of the Ontology of the Document
At the 2008 DocAm, Michael Buckland (“Keynote”) addressed the conference attendees with a synthetic discussion of theoretical works on the document, descended from both Briet’s and Otlet’s works. He reached largely the same conclusions that Briet did (or that he himself has reached in print publications). Buckland outlined, if you will, the state of the art in document theory.

In 2009, Bernd Frohmann continued a dialogue with Buckland begun at the 2008 DocAm, continued in print in the Journal of Documentation, and reaching an apotheosis in his keynote address on “documentality.” If Briet and Buckland are indicative of a kind of analytic tradition in document studies, Frohmann is the continental alternative – moving beyond analytic categories into the realm of the postmodern. (Frohmann did similar work in 2008’s “What Can We Learn from Recent Social Scientific Approaches to Documentation?”) Frohmann reads Foucault and Deleuze and Latour with an eye toward destabilizing the document (and the systems of power that, in Briet’s tradition through Buckland, have come to bestow meaning on the pieces of paper that are documents).

I took a stab at such arguments in my 2008 paper, trying to differentiate, on largely theoretical grounds, the “text” from the “document.” Using Roland Barthes’ conception of the Work and of the Text as a starting point, I then turned toward Briet and other sources to differentiate the Work (defined and delimited by scholarly interpretation by virtue of its canonical status) from the Document (defined and delimited by the institutional mechanisms of the archive) from the Text (the impossible, post-structuralist dream of a text as a field completely open to interpretation).

Theoretical explorations are rare, to be sure, at the Document academy, and they sometimes function primarily as polemic.

Critical Examinations of the Ontology of the Document
A number of papers begin not with theory but with critical practice. Most prominently, new technologies figure heavily into the exploration of the boundaries of the document. Niels Lund (in 2008) outlined a project for a synchronous global orchestra performance, in which each musician played remotely from locations around the world, connected by the Internet. Such a project destabilizes what we would normally consider a document (in part by destabilizing what we normally consider an event). Brian O’Connor raised similar issues in 2008 (in “Verisimilitude and the Representation of Realia”) and in 2009 (with his co-author, Ethan M. O’Connor, in “Utterances and Photolocutionary Acts”).

I argued (with my co-author Elizabeth Nelson) that the same pieces of paper could, at different points in their history, be best described as “texts” and as “documents.” The exemplar case, the papers and tapes of the People’s Temple (Jonestown) were “texts” in the years before the mass suicide; Nelson, as a young scholar, retrieved these texts from a drawer next to a phone in the private home of a donor to the Temple. The texts were an open canvas for what rhetorical critics call an “emic” criticism, an immanent criticism rooted in immersion in the texts. After the suicide, the flyers and newsletters and audio recordings of the People’s Temple become documents: framed and domesticated and controlled by the institutions that control access to them and utilize them. They are forensic documents in the hands of the FBI, and they are documents in service of professional arguments about the sociology of religion. The further the texts are embedded in institutions, the more they become “documents” as Briet and Buckland would describe them.

Roswitha Skare addresses the problem of the integrity of the document in “Nanook of the North: What Difference Does the Paratext Make in Understanding the Film?” at the 2009 DocAm. Using Genette’s distinction between peritext (the text bound within the pages of a book) and epitext (the germane texts that accompany the text: biographical data, interpretive criticism, contextual information, articulations of genre conventions, and so on), Skare anatomizes the document efficiently and effectively. Similar work, from the same deep well of French critical theory typically underutilized in the United States, is Rojas’ “Digital Web Wreadings, new figures of reading, text and writing: From Semio-Technical Forms toward a Social Approach of Digital Practices” (2008).

Synthetic Comments: On Not Defining the Document
Frohmann, in “Revisiting ‘What is a Document?’” sets out a philosophical argument, rooted in philosophy of language, to avoid defining “the document” in a way that circumscribes unnecessarily what could be analyzed in terms of document studies. In reviewing the diversity of approaches to defining the document in this section of this summary, I’d like to point to the similarities between the work in document studies and work in rhetorical studies.

In the 1960s, at the height of the rediscovery of rhetorical studies in both Departments of English and of Communication, definitions of rhetoric were swelling to incorporate more and more terrain. Kenneth Burke offered a persuasive claim: Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is persuasion. The globalization of definitions of rhetoric would burn in the field, in varying ways, for more than thirty years. After all, it seemed, if everything was rhetoric, what power does rhetoric have as an analytic term.

R. L Scott wrote a persuasive essay arguing (mush as Frohmann does) that defining rhetoric may be less useful, intellectually, than simply engaging intellectual work in rhetorical studies. He effectively makes a call to cease arguing about what rhetoric is and advance the analysis of it. Ed Schiappa would later claim, following in Scott’s tradition, that Rhetoric is any phenomenon that can be usefully study from a rhetorical perspective, a position that I think is mirrored in the work of the Document Academy. While certain papers may always attempt to circumscribe the document theoretically, the better work begins with the criticism and analysis of the document.

Ontological Aspects of Document Studies: What is the Document User?
The exploration of ontological dimensions of document studies does not only define the document. They also define the document user. That body of research remains underdeveloped at the meetings of Document Academy.

Document User as Autonomous Subject (Prior to the Document)
One strand of research sees the document user as a traditional, Cartesian subject – the free will that acts upon the document or upon the world to create the document. This strand of research is visible in Arnott Smith (“The Subject in Spite of Himself: Lancelot Hogben and the Self-Documented, Self-Reported Clinical Trial”), who describes a patient’s struggle to document their own symptoms. In Arnott-Smith’s work, then, the creator of the document is an autonomous agent, one capable of creating knowledge about their own condition.

Similarly, in Quan Zhou’s report on QuikScan (“QuikScan: Innovative Document Formatting for Fast and Selective Reading, DocAm 2009), Zhou outlines the reader as a largely autonomous subject, searching the document for information to use (for business, for example). Similarly, Elizabeth Davies mapped out practices for the use of documents in the theatre (“The Script as Mediating Artifact,” 2008), and Nathan Johnson has engaged a longer project exploring the documents created by technology specialists (“The CSS Standard: Documentation’s Influence on Rhetorical Agency”) and information scholars (“Documenting Information Education”) with an eye toward .the documents as created by autonomous subjects seeking to persuade. In these provocative case studies, the subject exists as document user, with minimal influence of the document in defining the subjectivity of the user.

Perhaps the most dynamic example of the document user as autonomous subject is the artist and scholar Jac Saorsa, who presents her artwork as part of an ongoing project to explore both the process of documentation (as her works becomes documents or stand in relationship to other works in a documentary fashion; see “Documenting the Stone,” 2008). In her 2009 paper (“Transfiguration through Art), Saorsa explores the development of her own subjectivity, as an artist, through reference to a Deleuzian vocabulary.

Document User as Subject Constituted by the Document
In some papers (for example, Vo Thi-Beard, “Documents and/of Identity: The US Census,” 2008 and Vo Thi-Beard, “Documenting the Readership of Audrey,” 2009), the documents act upon the user and can be said to begin to constitute the subjectivity of the user. Documents as apparently innocuous as magazine advice columns and as important as the US Census can have formative influences both on the self-identity of the document user and the identity bestowed upon them by others around them (who also internalize the identities created in the documents).

Kosciejew’s paper (in 2008) on “Crossing the Documentary Rubicon: The Reconstruction of Apartheid Identities in Botha’s South Africa” makes the case for national identity papers as documents, constructing the identity of minority cultures. Ndirangu Wachanga’s 2009 paper on “Metaphors as Documents of Narrative Constructing” explores the role of the mass media in constructing identities for minorities in war-torn countries. Li’s “Website as Documentation: Its Representation of National Political Freedom” did similar work in 2008.

Similarly, but without the complex inflection of racial politics, Ciaran Trace (“Preparing for Life as an Adult and Citizen: Records and the 4H Club,” DocAm 2009) outlines the ways that the documents (record books completed by 4H members) helped create good citizens. In real ways, the documents help constitute the readers. Trace explored similar avenues in “Notions of Membership and Resistance: The Relationship between Formal and Informal Records in a Child’s Life” (2008).

Synthetic Comments: On the Nature of the Document User
The exploration of the document user is a tricky one, caught in a chicken and egg problem. On the one hand, in the case of the Census, for example, as Vo Thi-Beard tells us, it seems clear that documents can circumscribe an identity. At the same time, we come to the document as literate beings – we are already subjects when we put pen to paper. Krista Ratcliffe gave expression to a similar tension in rhetorical studies. Rhetoric, she decided, is the study of how we use language and how language uses us.

In various forms, with various articulations (derived from critical theories of the subject as diverse as those of Althusser and Foucault Spivak and others), rhetorical theorists have tried to explore the question of the relationship between the rhetoric we speak and consume and our subjectivity. It may be time for scholars in document studies to begin more systematic investigation of how we use documents and how documents use us

Axiology is concerned with questions of evaluation: these can be measured on a technical scale and on an ethical or critical scale. Several scholars at DocAm 2008 & 2009 explore the axiological dimensions of documents.

Evaluating the Efficacy of Documents
Quan Zhou’s paper on QuikScan is notable as the exemplary foray into effective document evaluation. By conducting user testing, Zhou was able to assert the clear superiority of QuikScan-formatted documents over other documents with the same information, without the strategic formatting.

Evaluating the Ethics of Documents
On the ethical or critical scale, Wachanga, Li, Kosciejew and Vo-Thi Beard each address issues of the representation of ethnic minorities via documents. Wachanga calls our attention to the metaphors used in the media in Rwanda, drawing attention both to the power of documents to engage in dehumanizing, unethical work. At the same time, because the most powerful form of media in most African nations is radio, Wachanga’s paper raises questions about how ephemeral texts like radio broadcasts might constitute documents. Kosciejew raised similar issues about the documents in South Africa in the time of Apartheid.

Earlier, I noted that Vo Thi-Beard explored the ways that documents construct ethnic identity in the United States. The systems of representation for ethnic identity, ranging from identity cards in South Africa to the Census to popular magazines, are always rife with ethical dilemmas. No representation of an ethnic group, after all, can reflect the diversity of the members of that group.

Ulrika Kjellman, Joacim Hansson & Mats Dahlstrom raise the question of the relationship between the digital document (or facsimile) of an artifact and the obligations to return an object taken from another nation in time of war. By discussing the digitization of a medieval Bible, they raise the question of universal digital access to materials as an alternative to repatriation of art objects taken from a country in time of war. Robert Riter (in “Relationship between Original Sources and Documentary Editions / Archive”) spoke more directly to professional, ethical obligations.

Hybrid Evaluations: Ethics and Efficacy
Elizabeth Davies and Pamela Mackenzie (“Charting the Course of True Love: Guides to Wedding Planning as Documentary Tools for Time and Information Management”) offer evaluation of documents on both of the axiological axes. On the one hand, they are sharply critical of the technical weaknesses of the documents (the haphazard way in which some instructions are delivered in the guides, and the ways in which the documents, designed for the first-time bride, fail to meet the first-time user’s needs). At the same time, they are exploring a provocative set of claims about the representation of time in the documents. The bride’s calendar is constructed in these documents, and there are ethical and critical implications to that act of the representation of time – implications that they are just beginning to tease out.

Synthetic Comments: Is There an Ethics of Documentation?
The axiological and ethical dimensions of document study are only being explored, tentatively, and are worth greater examination in 2010.

Conclusion: Looking Forward in Document Studies
The 2010 Document Academy will be held at the University of North Texas, where again these intellectual issues will no doubt be raised again.

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