My9s

Juxta and excess: The case of Aimé Césaire

(Guest post by Alex Gil – cross-posted at Juxta)

I’m a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia currently working on a digital edition of Aimé Césaire’s early works under the sponsorship of  l’Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie and ITEM. Some of this work also moonlights as my rather schizoid dissertation (read French poet/English Department) and I consider it part of my long-term goal of generating and sustaining enthusiasm for reliable digital editions of neo-canonical Caribbean literary texts. I am rather new to this blog, but not to Juxta. I started working with Juxta around the time when I started working with Aimé Césaire’s signature poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, roughly 2 years ago. At the time, Juxta saved me enormous amounts of time proofreading my retooled OCRs and generating an apparatus. It was later, when I started working with Et les chiens se taisaient, a longer text with substantially more variants and transpositions, that Juxta revealed to me both its current shortcomings and its ultimate promise.

We could say that Aimé Césaire was a migratory poet in the fullest sense: He had perfect pitch for context and used it to quickly adapt his voice to new audiences as his work traveled around three continents. As a student of literature he was as much a product of his Paris education as he was of the journey that brought him there and back to his home base in Martinique. His major works, and the many revisions they were subjected to during his lifetime, provide the final testimony to his restless poetic trajectory.

To the textual critic who approaches this corpus for the first time, one feature stands out above all others: The sheer number of transpositions from one version to another. In past conversations, I have likened his stanzas and lines to Lego blocks in order to quickly explain how he seems to have an utter disregard (or is it exactly the opposite?) for sequence. In the case of Et les chiens se taisaient the text begins its life as a three-act play on the Haitian Revolution, has an adolescence as a poetic oratorio with heavy Christian overtones and grows up to be a heavily abstract play about the struggle between universal Slave and Master figures. Throughout this transformation, stanzas and lines are bandied about without care for consistency, sometimes going from one speaker to his or her antagonist in a later version.

When I began using Juxta for Et les chiens se taisaient, I only expected the same functionality that was perfect to the T for Cahier d’ un retour au pays natal, but as soon as I started working with the first two instantiations of the text, the manuscript and the oratorio, obstacles and yearnings started cropping up. In its current build (1.3.1), Juxta struggles with long texts with many transpositions. After several meetings with NINES and Nick Laiacona, it became clear that a memory issue combined with the graphic rendering of connectors was the culprit. Apparently, Juxta has a built-in limit to the amount of internal memory it uses from the machine, and rendering the graphic connectors puts substantial pressure on these resources.  To account for transpositions, Juxta allows you to mark “moves” manually from one text to the next, creating a list of these moves as you go along in one of the bottom panels. This system is intuitive and easy to use, and complements the automated functions nicely, but it becomes unwieldy in a collection with heavy traffic. While Cahier d’ un retour au pays natal had a total of four, albeit significant, moves in its four major versions, Et les chiens se taisaient has an overwhelming 64 moves just between the manuscript and the first published version!

Fig.1 Screenshot of the moves function in JuxtaFig.1 Screenshot of the moves function in Juxta

In its beginnings, Juxta was designed to fully automate the tasks of collation, in a sense reducing the role of the editor, but as its user base grew and scholars began voicing their needs, it became evident that Juxta needed to relax its grip on the text. This is how functions such as ‘moves’ and  the ability to cull and compare selections from larger files came about. One of the most important agenda items to come out of our meetings was precisely the need for Juxta to give even more power back to the editor. The ability to control whether to have connectors display or not, for example, would solve the problem with lagging that I was having, without having to tweak memory demand too much. Furthermore, and more importantly, stopping the software from automatically collating, allowing the editor to select the text and moves she wants compared before Juxta does its magic, would not only spare Juxta the RAM-ache of long, ultra-variant texts, it would really put the ball back in the editor’s court. While choosing segments using the Files feature and comparing those individual instances can be enough of a solution for smaller tasks, the ideal would be to have the whole text available while making selections at all times. In my current predicament, I am obliged to use the Files features in order to build my apparatus, but I can vouch that this approach can put quite a strain on your nerves.

Graphic representations of ‘ moves’  was second from the top on our list of topics. At the moment, the closest thing we have to a graphic representation of moves in Juxta is the interface itself and to a lesser degree the automatically generated apparatuses. I knew how useful a graphic representation of editorial metamorphosis could be from using a Visio generated transposition schema in a seminar on Césaire I offered in the French Department a few years ago. Using the image below, students were quick to grasp the nature of the changes, easing the burden to understand how these changes affect the overall hermeneutic effects of each version.

Fig.1 Visual representation of moves in the Cahier

Fig.2 Visual representation of moves in the Cahier

As you can see from fig.2, a macroscopic representation of a poem’s transformation can be easily communicated using a simple combination of boxes and colors. Juxta is perfectly poised to generate these sorts of visual aids since it is already doing all the legwork behind the scenes. To better appreciate the power of a graphic representation to make light of schematic complexity, here is a representation of the moves from the manuscript to the oratorio version of the more pliable Et les chiens se taisaient:

Fig.3 From manuscript to oratorio

Fig.3 From manuscript to oratorio

The task of making these representations using Visio is long and tedious, and not at all exact in its grasp of proportions. Juxta could easily make these schemas with mathematically-precise proportions that would better emulate the physical extent of the text on the page. Combined with Housman’s injunction in “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” to nurture decision-making editors, Juxta could become quite the flexible powerhouse, generating texts and visualizations in many forms.

After our talks, the NINES team was excited to move in the direction of a more editorial and pedagogically friendly tool. At the moment, Nick and his programmers are getting ready to move into the next build, including a transition to a web-based app, conversant in XML forms, including TEI. If best intentions crystallize into tangible reality, and they seem to do so over at NINES, we should expect great things from Juxta in the near future.

One response to “Juxta and excess: The case of Aimé Césaire”

  1. Juxta » Blog Archive » Juxta and excess: The case of Aimé Césaire

    […] (Guest post by Alex Gil – read full entry at NINES) […]

Leave a Reply