handwritten sticky notes, highlighted document pages, and grainy photographs rub against one another, forming dense and shifting thickets. the blank spaces between once-distinct districts become cluttered and close. geographically distant realms ache to converge. the bookcase furiously semaphores toward the far corner of the room. thin lines of colored paper arrive to splay across sections. the wall bursts at every seam.
Whether it be real or virtual, every research project has its own “wall”: the irrepressibly interdisciplinary network that inspires and propels the work. Populating this capharnaum are the ideas, images, scenes, and sentences that “stick to us,” to use Lara Farina’s evocative phrase. They are the “encounters” that Deleuze describes as the impetus toward work, the things that “strike” us, as Benjamin puts it, like a hammer to unknown inner chords. This affective principle of collection (what strikes you) means that the wall is an intensely personal artifact. Its unique architecture springs from a writer’s wanderings through and amidst a cultural landscape whose dimensions are stretched beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to include any text or object that clings to us, whether it be Werner Heisenberg’s letters or an episode of Breaking Bad. The writer tends to her wall with something approaching love; it is the wayward child that will one day mature into the assured final project. But the wall does not belong to her alone. Its shape is amoebic, and others will detect in its clustered fragments alternate patterns and new relations.
Although instrumental to every humanities project, the wall has a brutally short lifespan. The writer strives to reassert control by whittling down its undisciplined excesses; indeed, training to be a scholar in the humanities is in large part learning to compress and contain the wall’s licentious sprawl. We shorten our focus to a single period, place, or author, excise those fragments that fall outside the increasingly narrow range of our expertise, and briskly sever any loose ends that refuse to be tied. These regulatory measures help align our work with the temporal, geographic, and aesthetic boundaries of our disciplinary arbiters: the journals and university presses that publish our work, the departments that hire and tenure us. In an increasingly tight academic marketplace, where the qualified scholars, articles, and projects far outnumber the available positions, deviation from the standard model can seem like risky business indeed.
The institutional imperatives of compression and containment not only dictate the structural parameters of a work—its scope and trajectory—but the very texture of our writing. In a bid to render academic texts more comprehensible to their readers, modern style guides advocate plain prose. Leanness, they remind us, is legibility. This aversion to ornament was part of a larger mutiny against the scourge of obfuscation that plagued the humanities in the latter half of the twentieth century. Between 1995 and 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran a Bad Writing Contest that took this “turgid new world of academic prose” as its target, and cheerfully skewered the work of such distinguished critics as Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Fredric Jameson for their long-winded impenetrability. Unlike its prizewinning paragraphs, the Contest’s message was clear: the opaque abstractions that clogged the arteries of academic writing were no longer to be tolerated.
The academy’s stylistic strip-down has served to puncture the unseemly bloat that had disfigured its prose. But its sweeping injunction against incomprehensibility bears with it other casualties. As we slim and trim our texts, cutting any tangents that distract from the argument’s main thrust, we unwittingly excise writing’s other gaits—those twists, roils, and scintillating leaps that Eric Hayot, in his recent rejoinder to academic style guides, so beautifully describes as “gyrations in prose.” For Hayot, these stylistic excesses occur when an author’s passion for her subject becomes so overwhelming that it can no longer be expressed plainly. The kinetic energy of these gyrations recalls the dynamism of the wall; one may glimpse its digressiveness in the meandering aside, its piecemeal architecture in the sentence fragment, or its vaulting span in the photo quote. These snags in intelligibility are therefore not evidence of an elitist desire to exclude, but are precisely the moments in which the decorous surface of a text cracks open to offer a glimpse of the tangled expanses of an author’s wall. To experience them as such, the reader must sacrifice her grip on a text’s argument and allow herself to be swept up in the muddy momentum of its dance. Caught amidst a piece’s movements, the reader trades intellectual insight for a precarious intimacy, the ungraspable streaming of one into another.
By polishing over these openings under the edict of legibility, plain prose breeds a restrictive form of “plain” reading, in which the reader’s role is to receive and judge discrete parcels of information, rather than move and be moved along with the rollicking contours of a work. In Latin, the verb for reading, legere, from which “legibility” derives, means to pluck, gather, and choose; it is a verb that models reading as a series of active engagements, evident in the oft-quoted Senecan figure of the writer as the bee who makes literary honey by flitting desirously from text to text. During the Renaissance, humanists adapted this classical figure to cast reading as a pleasurable gustation and digestion of ideas, the process by which the reader absorbs a text into her life, sometimes literally cutting passages and pasting them into a commonplace book for future appropriation. Over the last three decades, the rise of the web, new media, and book history has reinvigorated interest in this materialist concept of reading as an active form of gathering, making, and curation. Within this textual praxis, reading is not the passive consumption of legible information, as we see it patterned by prose standards today, but rather is tied up with the impassioned act of composition, of collecting and reconfiguring the fragments that stick.
At stake in advocating for a plurality of readerly and writerly practices is an ethics of criticism. The institutional apparatuses that shape our critical practices instruct us to erase all traces of the serendipitous, sticky gyrations that constitute our writing and reading, and erect in their place a set of boundaries that keep our work in check. Yet our habits of critical inquiry are irrefutably subjective and collaborative. All writing is an ensemble piece that the author crafts in conversation with the multitude of remembered voices, ideas, and experiences. We know and have always known this. From medieval florilegia and early modern commonplace books, to the much celebrated “death of the author” in the twentieth-century, the text has always been a “tissue of quotation drawn from innumerable centers of culture.” Single authorship is an invention of academic institutions that demand individuation. By an ethics of criticism, then, we mean a methodology that owns up to the collaborative, improvisational, and partial qualities of all interpretive work – and knows that it is precisely here that the value of the humanities resides.
In an effort to move toward such a methodology, we ask: What forms of scholarship and knowledge become possible when we reconceive of the spaces between readers, writers, and texts as thresholds rather than boundaries, that is, as contiguous zones of embroilment? How would our critical apparatus mutate if we ascribed value to the shifting sprawl of the wall and make public the processes that constitute our writing and reading practices? How can we help to construct new creative, critical, and citational practices that eschew disciplinary boundaries in favor of openings and traversals?
To put these questions into action, we have created thresholds. We solicit work that a traditional academic journal may deem unfinished, unseemly, or otherwise unbound, but which discovers precisely in its unboundedness new and oblique perspectives on art, culture, history, and philosophy. Along with her piece, the author also submits the textual, visual, and audible fragments that provoked and surreptitiously steered her work. We the editors then collaborate closely with the author to custom-design these pieces for the platform’s split screen architecture. The result is a more open-ended, process-oriented webtext that blooms from, but never fully leaves, the provocative juxtapositions of the author’s wall.
The split screen design aligns thresholds with a long history of media that splits content and divides the gaze. In film, the split screen has long been used to splice together scenes that are temporally or spatially discontinuous. This divided frame disrupts the illusion that the camera provides a direct feed of information and so reveals film to be an authored and infinitely interpretable object. The split screen developed under a different name in HTML: the frame element. Now considered a contrivance due to its overuse in the late 90s, Netscape Navigator’s development of the frameset nonetheless marked a major development in the history of the web. For the first time, designers could load multiple documents in a single visual field, each with their own independent actions and scrolling.
Of course, both the cinematic split screen and the HTML frameset gesture toward a much older material threshold: the gutter that divides the pages of the codex. Since most of its content is presented and read linearly, we rarely consider the book as a split form. However, many writers and poets have played with the gutter as a signifying space. In Un coup de dés, a late nineteenth-century poem that inspired much continental theory and philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century, Stéphane Mallarmé uses each two page spread to rhetorical effect, jumping and twirling the reader's eye around and across the gutter. Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay in their self-published, avant-garde artist’s book La Prose du Transsiberien (1913) similarly create a “simultaneous” aesthetic that pairs image and text through an accordion fold. These early instances have more recent cousins in the textile art of Eve Sedgwick, the extraordinary visual poetry of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the work of artists like Fred Hagstrom and Heather Weston, whose multidimensional artists’ books spur new ways of looking at and thinking about texts.
Drawing inspiration from these exemplars, thresholds brings the creative affordances of the split screen to the web, and to scholarship. Think of it as an artist’s browser that hearkens back to the early WWW; or imagine in its recto/verso design a speculative future for the post-digital book. Here, the eye not only flows along (with) the split screen’s vertical scroll, but also cuts distinctive lateral lines between each piece as the reader bumps left and right through an issue, one half-screen at a time. In these crossings, how the reader decides to characterize each threshold determines the interpretive freight its traversal can bear. To conceive of it as a bifurcating split is to imagine both sides as originally one, decanted into two; whereas to characterize it as a seam is to imagine the essay and fragments as two, patched into one. As the reader navigates horizontally through an issue, she may invent new roles for the threshold: it is a permeable membrane vulnerable to cross-infection, a teeming passage to become lost within, a fortified barrier to be rushed, or a sluice gate one must operate with care. By inviting, even demanding these movements, the design of thresholds returns agency to the reader—or, more truthfully, prompts her to realize the agency she has had all along, as she learns to play the platform like a musical instrument.
Although thresholds is rooted in practices that are possible across a variety of platforms, it is worth emphasizing the role of digital media in conceiving and developing the site. The open networks of the web have enabled a publication model based on public sharing and collaboration, which has in turn increased the cultural value of process, as well as of works that are “in progress.” Increasingly, scholars share their incipient research ideas on blogs and wikis, and look to the comments sections for peer review. On a larger scale, these moves toward a collaborative process of knowledge-making are visible in the editing policies of Wikipedia; in FemTechNet’s Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC), an open repository for course materials; and in creative new open access imprints like the Dead Letter Office of punctum books, which publishes abandoned scholarly projects. This turn to process, spurred on by digital platforms, has put pressure on the gatekeeping mechanisms described at the beginning of this essay. Joining the examples cited above, thresholds not only advocates for the role of process in humanities scholarship but also helps accrete tangible value to the more piecemeal, contingent aspects of knowledge creation. There is a place, thresholds implicitly argues, for the fragmentary in our collecting and collective practices; for opacity and disorientation; for the wall’s sprawl within the more regimented systems that order our work.
To reach this place, criticism might begin at the threshold. The threshold is the zone of possibility that lies betwixt and between writing and reading, text and reader, and between texts themselves. It is restless and unruly, its dimensions under perpetual renegotiation. To begin here requires that we acknowledge that criticism does not rest on solid ground; it too is a restless and unruly set of practices given to proliferation and digression. To begin here is to enter into a set of generative traversals that forge fragments into new relations that in turn push against the given limits of our inherited architectures of knowledge. To begin here is to relinquish the fantasy that a text or texts may ever be fully, finally known, and reconceive of our work as a series of partial engagements and affective encounters that participate in texts’ constant remaking.
We — Fran and Whitney — have been talking about thresholds, in one shape or another, for more than three years. In its early incarnations , hashed out between fevered co-writing sessions, the journal was to host writing that refused the critical imperative to “clean up” its prose. We were attracted to work that traditional scholarly journals and presses might consider to be unfinished, unseemly, or otherwise unbound. We admired work that was dared to “try out ideas before the paint is dry,” to borrow Eve Sedgwick’s evocative expression.
About a year ago, we wrote an essay about thresholds that set forward the critical ethos and design of the journal. The essay, like its nascent subject, was written in a split-screen mode, with the fragments of our interlocutors populating the right side of the document. Through this structure, we argued for the plurality of form in academic writing. The editors who had commissioned the piece were supportive of the work, and we remain grateful for their willingness to consider it. Unfortunately, the press was unable to accommodate the split-screen format either in print or digital media, even by MacGyvering existing layout tools such as columns or tables. This experience renewed our commitment to designing an elastic digital space that would carve out wide, generous spaces for undisciplined thought.
After finishing work on the first issue of thresholds, we returned to our troublesome little essay, and found in it our manifesto. It is published for the first time here.