Lab 2 calls for the encoding of a letter in XML using a schema that incorporates a number of customizable elements that determine the shape of the interpreted document.

My approach was to be as specific and informative as possible in marking up my letter. To that end, I consulted the original manuscript as much as possible in order to discern any emphases or typographical quirks that might be of use to a reader making use of my mark up. I also applied tags to anything that stood out as being useful to easily query. This meant marking the names of groups, documents, and persons that appear in the letter. I employed the list provided in the lab materials to make sure I was using tags that matched my intention for each notation. For example, I selected the element in marking the mention of the “13th Resolution” and used the rendition “legislation” to provide a beacon in the text for any reader interested in finding mention of that particular law or any mention of laws passing through the Rhode Island legislature in the early 19th century.

This rundown of procedure leads me to comment upon the apparently-rhetorical nature of xml and the nature of coding text. My concern has a great deal to do with the ways in which we as contemporary readers consider authorship and how coding might change that. To elaborate (and this applies only in the very limited scope of my knowledge of XML), what I was did during this lab was transcribe a manuscript into a scheme designed to present the data of the document in a searchable format for any digital researcher. My choices determine what that researcher will see when she searches, for example, references to the Constitutional Party in 19th century New England. It strikes me that encoding text feels a lot like authoring a parallel text that informs the former (and increasingly defines it).

Scholars of literature have offered differing perspectives on the role of the author in interpreting text, ranging from historicist accounts that emphasize awareness to New Criticism and the author’s death. In committing William Wheaton’s letter to code, I become the author of an entirely new document. One might argue that all I have done is mechanically reproduce it. However, that would be to miss the consequence of my coding. In strategically selecting elements to characterize various points in the text, I determine which words and phrases will draw the attention of the reader. The big difference between this and base plagiarism is that what I am authoring is an epistemic pattern that includes the text rather than the text itself. I do not determine what the letter says per se, but I do determine what it will say to a certain reader looking for a certain thing.

I will suggest that the result of encoding texts is an entirely new concept of authorship, one that is far more collaborative than would have been possible considering pre-digital mediums. Too, the notion of reading must also change to characterize this new form of writing. What one “writes” when one encodes text is a roadmap of meaning that traces not only his choices but the choices of all those that recall that code for the purposes of examining the text. In marking the letter, I co-author a perspective with anyone that chooses to search the document and find my emphases. One might ask how this is any different from writing a sonnet and having it interpreted 400 years later. My response is that, in this latter case, syntax and grammar crystallize that text in a way that precludes the fluidity possible when using code. The author chooses a particular arrangement of words and syllables and the reader reacts to it without any guidance. I say code is more fluid because it has the ability to connect reader and coder in the act of reading itself. I read the letter and code it according to my scheme. The reader then encounters my code by way of a database search and experiences my text as I designed it to be experienced. There can be no mistaking my choice to call the 13th resolution legislation, whereas a rose may signify just about anything given the right reader.

It follows that encoding this letter gives me a great deal of power over how it is interpreted. I am a translator and my language is choice.