Alan Liu recently gave a talk at UNC-Chapel Hill entitled “Key Trends in Digital Humanities: How the Digital Humanities Challenge the Idea of the Humanities.” It culminated in a discussion of the hermeneutics of the digital humanities. He showed how certain long-standing epistemological modes, such as mimesis and similitude, have exploded into new modes in this new discipline. I want to explore one of those traditional modes, similitude, as it relates to the Blake Archive. At the front end of the Archive, the mode is familiar. At the back end, it becomes unrecognizable and forces one to rethink what it means at the front end.
Liu explicitly referenced Foucault’s “The Prose of the World,” in which Foucault discusses four types of similitude that once made possible the knowledge of things. Four types, all of which are represented to a significant extent in the editorial paradigm of the Blake Archive. Under the first, convenientia, things mean by virtue of being placed next to each other. Disparate objects grouped together in an instance of the virtual lightbox.
Under the second, aemulatio, meaning is “freed from the law of place,” and things are by virtue of being imitations of each other no matter the distance between them. Copies of an illuminated book. They emulate each other, they mirror each other regardless of what separates them: miles between museums or colors and minute particulars.
A conflation of the first two types of similitude, analogy allows meaning to cross space, but it still demands “adjacencies, bonds, or joints,” “resemblances of relations” that threaten to proliferate out of control. Luckily, they are reined in by active perception, what Coleridge calls the secondary imagination. For example, objects containing similar designs and hailing from different works. Similar designs—one can imagine this term to be loosely defined. But the mind will eagerly limit the definition, though not so much that it equates to the definition of copy. Deaths Door and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Plate 21: not of one family nor of one species but of one genus. Let us examine their descriptions. Deaths Door: “A nude male with short curly hair sits or kneels above the tomb.” The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Plate 21: “A curly-haired and youthful nude male with his head up to the right sits on a hilltop or mound.” Not of one family nor of one species but of one genus.
The fourth type of similitude, sympathy, “a principle of mobility,” comes with its opposite, antipathy, and the pair “resume and explain” the first three. Says Foucault, “The whole volume of the world, all the adjacencies of ‘convenience,’ all the echoes of emulation, all the linkages of analogy, are supported, maintained, and doubled by this space governed by sympathy and antipathy, which are ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart.” Ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart—related objects in the Blake Archive wanting to be one yet ever cloven by differences minute and massive. Like star-crossed lovers.
Without these similitudes forming the episteme of the Archive, what is it but a cabinet of curiosities?
This, all at the front end. At the back end, the four types of similitude appear strange. Those objects grouped by convenientia within the visible borders of the virtual lightbox are really grouped in time. They persist together as long as Java is running on a client’s machine. The copies, governed by aemulatio, are not actually freed from the law of place. Their relationships are encoded in specific XML attributes and elements, which are delimited by a DTD, a sort of key to the sitemap of the digital geography of the Archive. So too are the relationships between objects containing similar designs, and these objects, which were once connected by a willful act of human perception, by only a willful act of human perception, are no longer. That perception has been detached from the human and hard coded in the machine. What do we call it then, the similitude? I don’t know yet, but certainly not analogy. And finally, what appear to the user to be relationships simultaneously sympathetic and antipathetic, to the machine are neither. After all, what does a machine, devoid of contradiction, know about love? Then again, Liu might say (in the spirit of having the digital challenge the human), what do we?