Highlighting limitations

In his blog post, Alex mentioned that we’ll soon (I think today) be coming face to face with the Patacritical Demon – that is, we’ll be doing the exercise that awoke the demon – in all of its highlighted transparency glory. I have been desperate to do this with the group since Bethany first mentioned it. Partly for a reason Alex mentions in his post in that I never highlight literature as I read. I don’t necessarily have the bibliographic prejudice against it that Alex does, but highlighting literature goes against all of my instincts. I highlighted in my science, math, and history textbooks because they offered rules, laws, facts, and dates to be memorized. I highlight criticism now because there’s a similar feeling that you’re being offered more straightforward information that you’re not necessarily interpreting. The critic, of course, is interpreting a text and you interpret the critic’s argument to determine its validity or usefulness for your own purposes, but I feel more comfortable highlighting criticism because there’s a sustained, usually (hopefully) unified argument, and thus there’s less of a chance that I will return to it later with a different reading or highlighting for different things. Also, in those cases, I only use one highlighter because I’m not necessarily categorically interpreting the information I’m reading.

When I read literature I will obviously mark for certain things, only rather than highlighting, I create headings in a OneNote notebook page and then add quotes and page numbers for passages or lines that I feel the need to make note of or categorize. This way my notes are always in flux: I can add new categories as they strike me as necessary without the fixed mark of what I thought was noteworthy in my first reading, and without the worry of running out of highlighter colors.

Prism addresses my highlighting fears in an interesting way. The highlights are fixed and preserved, yet also necessarily in flux because they’re not being evaluated or examined on an individual level (and there’s even the possibility of having users mark texts over time). The highlighter colors are limited, but only so as to allow for maximum “aesthetic provocation,” as Bethany once said, and interpretive possibility on the user end. Even as I write, there’s a conversation happening in the grad lounge about whether or not people would be able to mark a piece of text with multiple highlighters, and how that could be visualized. I think one way of generalizing some of these debates  is a fear of limitation that ignores or undermines nuance, a practice that most humanities scholars are very uncomfortable with, even at the most basic level of highlighting a novel at home with the four or five highlighters that come in the pack. Alex uses light pencil-marks, I use OneNote, whatever the strategy there are many ways of noting  and interpreting the nuance and complexity of a literary text, but what I’m struggling with (and what the group seems to be working towards) is devising a way to productively limit the texts in question, and productively limit Prism itself, and be comfortable with it as a group. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m hopeful.

Brooke is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow and MA candidate in the Department of English. She is currently working on a thesis which investigates Virginia Woolf's moment of being as a biographical, historical, and narrative phenomenon in Woolf's fiction and essays. Brooke is also a graduate research assistant in IATH, working on Alison Booth's Collective Biographies…

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