20.072 minding the gap

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2006 07:07:28 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 72.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2006 06:57:20 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: mind the dehiscence

In his book, Radiant Textuality (2001, p. 103), Jerome McGann asks if
our purpose as scholars is not better served by questioning the gap
between a cultural artefact and its digital representation rather
than concentrating on its closing: "What if the point were not trying
to bridge that gap but to feed off and develop it?" Recently I've
been using the image of a cornucopia to express the fruitfulness thus
opened up to us, but earlier this week I discovered the following
delightful image in Catherine Liu's fascinating book, Copying
Machines: taking notes for the automaton (Minnesota, 2000, p. 138):

"One of the reading machine's finest skills is its ability to find
and peel away with myopic intensity the dehiscence already at work
between grammar and rhetoric." (p. 138).

'Dehiscence' is defined in the OED as "Gaping, opening by divergence
of parts, esp. as a natural process: a. Bot. The bursting open of
capsules, fruits, anthers, etc. in order to discharge their mature
contents." (Etymologically the word is from modern Latin,
specifically Linnaeus, who is quoted as writing, "quum fructus
maturus semina dispergat".)

So from the gap bursts forth thought-seeds rather than fruit ready to
eat. Better, I think, for the results we get and what we do with them.

In classical Latin, however, we find the root verb 'dehisco' with
very different but equally useful imagery. In Met 13.882ff, for
example, Ovid describes the rage of Polyphemus, who smitten by
Galatea attempts to kill her lover Acis with a huge piece of rock
wrenched from the side of a mountain. Only a small fragment of the
rock reaches Acis, but even that is sufficient to crush and bury him.
Galatea intervenes, causing Acis to assume his ancestral powers as a
river-god. The blood trickling out from beneath the rock becomes water,

...tum moles iacta dehiscit,
vivaque per rimas proceraque surgit harundo,
osque cavum saxi sonat exsultantibus undis,
miraque res, subito media tenus exstitit alvo
incinctus iuvenis flexis nova cornua cannis,
qui, nisi quod maior, quod toto caerulus ore,
Acis erat...

"Then the mass that had been thrown cracked wide open and a tall
green reed sprang up through the crack, and the hollow opening in the
rock resounded with leaping waters, and, wonderful! suddenly, his
new-sprung horns wreathed with bending rushes. It was Acis...." (Loeb
transl.; my thanks to John Burrows for pointing me to this passage.)

And so the forceful attempt by jealous monstrosity to crush the lover
fails in a great eruption of erotic energy. Or, one could say, we
need a Polyphemus in order to effect the transformation of rather
ordinary stuff into miraculous being.

Ah, the play of metaphor.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44
(0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Fri Jun 23 2006 - 02:34:38 EDT

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