Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Morpheus Database: Thinking with Computers

"Learn how to program a computer, learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think"

The Lost Interview
Steve Jobs


The Morpheus Database (Mark 2) represents a second stage in the development of an interactive archive of transformation in literature. At this point, I begin Beta Testing the database by allowing online access to the information in order to assess the viability of the program. 


Progress Report 

Since the announcement of the Morpheus Database for Critical Theory last month, the data-entry has been ongoing. Currently over 120 individual monograph chapters and articles have been entered. This provides [1] general information (titles, author, date), [2] an outline of the entry's argument (thesis, antithesis, quotes), [3] and coding to designate its relevance to other entries.

The basic structure of the archive has been based on the Morpheus Database for Literature, initiated during Mark 1 development and currently ongoing. The general data-collection has been relatively straightforward. 

The outline of the arguments is an innovation specifically geared towards the actancy of a critical theory text as opposed to a narrative that runs on characters, events, etc. This section has been very effective at capturing a snap-shot of a large quantity of information allowing for a map to be made of discourses on change within and between texts. It has however proven to require a lot of pithy summary and transcription of quotes can be time-consuming but critical to later work.

Particular difficulty has arisen in the final phase of coding: inter-connections. 


Thinking Like a Computer

The way a database is coded will reflect and determine the types of questions that it is asked. As a result, a developer must simultaneously thinking like a theorist (what do I want to know from these texts?) and also like a computer (what limits and sensors do I want to program?). 

Once these tagging mechanisms are formed, the database will go to work behind the scenes creating maps while I am working up front inputting the data. This is why it is important to consider the coding early and frequently. Working with a computer is like working with another brain. It will do things you asked it to do but you may forget down the line what your specific instructions were and what the consequences of those commands might be down the road.

In many ways, queer and disability studies prepare a digital humanist for the complicated and multiple ways of thinking required to develop a useful database. I've elsewhere quoted Disability Theorist Robert McRuer saying, "Every way of knowing is also a way of not knowing something else." This holds true for code. Despite what Science Fiction will have you believe, there is and will never be such a thing as a "Master Code" that will give you access to all computers everywhere (Sorry Neo). Likewise, no method of tagging or coding will give you all the possible information from database. Broad architecture can be built in to allow for a variety of options later, but what senses you give the mainframe determine what it sees, hears, or feels. 

It is true that certain methods of coding will work well across many hardware and software projects, but computers, like the people who use them, are all made differently. People will use source code in strange ways. They may introduce anomalies,  "glitches," into the programming. Then, as with everything else, over time things transform.


Theory v Literature

While the literary database tracing the transformations of bodies has functioned on general codes (e.g. types of change, gender, relevance to a variety of fields of study) many of this tags are either not transferable or no longer relevant.

For instance, it is less useful to try to interconnect entries based on its relation to general fields of study (such as thing theory) because the topic of a monograph will tend to lump all the chapters of a text together rather than noting distinctions. 

Furthermore, because the critical theory texts have been selected specifically for their relevance to a project on gender, sexuality and disability, nearly all the text fall into all of these three or else some combination. 

A tagging system that worked well with a general, somewhat arbitrary collection of texts and transformations is no longer useful in a more specialized study. New methods of coding must be developed.


Questioning the Database

Moving forward, the questions will arise primarily from the basic lines of thought that lead to the theory database's creation. The gender and disability focus bring together a medieval historiography on transgender within a wider theoretical framework. This will serve as a general guide for the reformatted tagging.

There is no reason to reinvent the wheel, especially when digital composition is concerned. Although coding-it-yourself is a great motto and (as stated) there are no master-codes, the digital world is highly adaptable. Borrowing and tweeking old structures are a great way to get what you want done while leaving your time and energy on the specifics rather than redeveloping the system itself.

Is this case that means adapting less useful tagging methods to make them better serve the purpose of creating connections between the entries. Previously, I installed text-boxes where a summary of the article's relevance to other research interests can be written. This data-entry form was perfect for thesis writing where each entry had a unique aspect. These connections however became largely formulaic.

While most entries had some variation in their interconnections, most drew from a general vocabulary of key terms (e.g. transvestite, prosthetics, transsexual, operation, transgender, madness, etc). A redesign could look to the terms that emerged and change the text-boxes into tabs (with yes/no options). This would allow later inquires to be ran where all texts that connected with the "eunuch" node to be selected, or all critical theory that may be applicable to a reading of "the Book of Margery Kempe."

By choosing to adapt rather than create a whole new method of tagging (at this juncture), I will save time and energy. Revisions can be made to each page in relatively short order because I would not be re-reading and re-entering data but rather looking at the information in the text-box and selecting the appropriate yes/no tabs that correspond. With these tabs in place, future coding will easily slide among the other entries and later this summer larger trends can be mapped.

That's all for now, let me know what you think!

Explore the Theory Database!

Sign up to be an authorized Beta-Tester! Add to the conversation about transformation and critical theory!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Mad Turn to Medieval Disability @ #NCS14

"What exactly does a medieval disability studies investigate?"



The following is a transcript of "Crip Christianity"
in Reykjavik, Iceland 16 July 2014 - 20 July 2014

Many Happy Returns

In this paper, I respond to the pre-circulated papers for Reorienting Medieval Disability Seminar (including my own: Mad for Margery), a collection of shared readings, and attempt to provide comments and questions that might help articulate what this burgeoning field has been and what it might become. In the process, I will contextualize my own participation as a medievalist in the trans-historical work of crip theory, trans studies, and liberation theology.

After the transcript, I have included a Storify of Tweets from the NCS Congress (#NCS14) that concentrated on the Seminar (#7D) or on themes of #Disability in general. Note: Don't forget to press "Read Next Page" in order to get the whole story. Please feel invited to read through the conversations as they unfolded and to investigate on your own by using the hash-tags for the conference and sessions.

Special thanks should be given to Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski for organizing and moderating the seminar. Praise should be given to all the participants and their papers, including: Brantley Bryant ("Wild Words: Disability and Truth Telling in Late Medieval England"), Leah Pope ("Spiritual Prosthesis: Bodily Aberrance in Medieval Hagiographical Narrative"), John P Sexton ("By Any Other Name: Negotiating Difference in Medieval Disability Studies"), and Haylie Swenson ("Attending to the 'Beasts Irrational' in Gower's Vox Clamantis"). Also, as Twitter and the Storify will attest, the seminar would not have been such a success without the invested interest and critical contributions of its many attendants.



Return to Madness

The disability turn in medieval studies does not signal the creation of an entirely new creation (ex nihilo), but a return to who we are and what we have been doing for a long time. The critical difference is that by bringing the insights of disability studies to bear on our work, we discover madness where we never thought to look for it and mad houses where we never thought of making them. By attending to bodies and contexts (wholly or partially) damned to be locked away and forgotten, we discover the potential for better relations, greater creativity, and wider liberation. 

Let’s return to two women in a madhouse. The first woman may once have worn a white dress. The year is perhaps 1938. Diverse doctors would call her a "schizophrenic," a "narcissist," a "psychopath," a "hermaphrodite," a mad woman, a string of disorders that have come to be classified by the term: transsexual ("Pyschopathia Transexualis," David O Cauldwell, 1949; "Transvestism and Trans-sexualism," John B Randel, 1959; "The Transsexual Phenomenon," Harry Benjamin, 1966). While trans* identities have since tried to put some critical distance between the gender identity and the psychological diagnosis of "gender dysphoria" (DSM 5, 2013) as a form of madness, there remains critical slippage. Historically and politically, transgender remains a part of the long history of madness.

Let’s return again. The second woman once wore a white dress. The year is perhaps 1438, or then again, perhaps it is 1938. Diverse authorities would call her a "schizophrenic," a "narcissist," a "psychopath," a "mad woman," a string of disorders that one doctor classified by the term "transvestite" (Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, pg 148, 1999). 
We do not know the name of the first woman, she is lost to us, but we all may know the name of the second. While few scholars have taken up Margery Kempe as trans or celebrated her madness, these two marginalizing terms resonate with a critical appropriation in present scholarship and with an intermeshed history of inconstant, dysphoric, and artificial bodies. To return to return to the madness of Margery Kempe is to open up critical space for a turn to trans studies in the medieval period. Together, this crip-trans alliance allows for a new investment in our co-extensive, co-creative, co-liberation. 



Return to Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe returned to the modern world amidst a eugenic war on madness. Within a couple years of the re-discovery and re-publication of the Book of Margery Kempe in the early 1930’s, the creature of the text immediately begins to be defined in contemporary terms of disability and madness. 

In 1934, in a letter to the Times, medievalist and feminist scholar Hope Emily Allen described the newly rediscovered Margery Kempe “neurotic” and subject to an “unconscious humour” (Quoted in "Reading and Re-Reading the Book of Margery Kempe," Barry Windeatt, pg. 2, 2004). The early 20th century was a period of intense eugenic interest in science, government, and the burgeoning fields of psychoanalytic and psychiatric studies. By knowing what makes a thing and what things are mad, eugenics promised to sort of the higher men from the "feeble-minded" (Eugenics and Other Evils, GK Chesterton, 1917). There is then an ominous subtext describing Margery in the terms of disorders being used in the 1930s and 40s to identify, collect, sterilize, and exterminate thousands of lives across Europe and America with the same technologies that were being adapted in German extermination camps (Cultural Locations of Disability, Sharon L Synder and David T Mitchell, pg.100-129, 2006). 

Having just been resurrected, Margery finds herself at risk of imprisonment and death yet again. While she never met our first woman, the transsexual and transvestite find each other sharing the dwelling space of the madhouse. Granted these dangers, it may be little surprise that scholarship on the Book of Margery Kempe by feminists and queer academics has since tried to shed claims of madness and disability. Yet despite the flight away from the mad body, the ground seems to ever move beneath us, revealing the crippling contingencies, dependencies, and inconstancies of bodies that refuse to become immaterial signifiers. The material making and remaking of the body, the monster that is disability discourse, continually returns.



Return to Medieval Disability

The disability turn in medieval studies is thus in many respects a return to disability, but on and with new terms. In some respects, this move follows a script.

Following in the wake of late 1980s and 90s gender studies (Example Questions: Can we talk about medieval gender? Where are women in medieval literature? What defines a woman? What does gender do?), then the late 1990s and 2000s queer entre into medieval studies (Example Questions: Can we talk about medieval sexuality? Where are the queers in medieval literature? What does queer mean? What does it do?), disability studies in the last few years is working out the process of identifying who and what can be thought of in terms of disability and how the terminology of impairment, disability, as well as specific diagnostics or sciences can or cannot be adapted, analogized, or historicized.

Margery Kempe has been a part of this movement already, such in Tory Vandeventer Pearman’s book on Women and Disability in the Middle Ages, where the creature’s inconstant body works with established models of gender in the period that took women as the defect to men’s perfection. 

In this mode, Margery becomes a site for what Tobin Seibers in Disability Aesthetics calls the threefold contribution of disability studies: (1) critiquing the norm’s naturalness, (2) critiquing the marginalization of disability, and (3) looking for alternative structures that disability offers up. This identity based methodology remains for many a model that medieval disability studies can embrace, where formerly stigmatized categories are contextualized and embraced. The hope is that disabled bodies, like mad women and lepers, may be freed from mad houses even as they remain defined by them.



Return to Christian Liberation

In Mad for Margery, I begin by examining the Book of Margery Kempe by working the diagnostic offered by Kempe when she calls herself a “mad woman, crying and roryng” and the framing mechanism of the Lazar House, what Michel Foucault (Madness and Civilization) and Lynne Huffer (Mad for Foucault) identify as a foundational marker of the genesis of madness and "the Great Confinement," by taking the marginalized figures and putting them in the center of our thought. In other words, Huffer writes, madness reveals “thought thinking itself.” (103)

When Margery prays to see the Imago Dei, in response Christ “drow hys creatur unto hys lofe and to mynde of hys passyon that sche myth not duryn to beheldyn a lazer er an other seke man, specialy yyf he had any wowndys aperyng on hym. So sche cryid and so sche wept as yyf sche had sen owr Lord Jhesu Crist wyth hys wowndys bledyng” (Staley, 74.4178-4182). She asks to see the image of God and is shown the faces of lepers and the sick, she begins a ministry that turns her world’s value system inside out, seeing Christ in the poor and marginalized. Receiving her revelation, Margery “went to a place wher seke women dwellyd whech wer ryth ful of the sekenes and fel down on hir kneys beforn hem” (Staley, 74.4292-4193). This initial move in the paper historicizes the term “mad” as an active hermeneutic of social discipline and potential resistance in the 15th century, thus speaking to the medieval disability studies project of identity formation for subjects within the period and for scholars within a newly developing field. 

The "Mad" of Margery and for us in this sense functions as an adjective (“uncontrolled by reason” or “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm or desire; wildly excited” OED), qualifying the persons they describe and allowing for generative, alternative, liberating associations and slippages to be drawn: between past and present, between man and woman, between God and human.

When these intersections take a more active turn, moving from the ontology or epistemology of terms like impairment or disability to critical transformations, suddenly an unexpected agency and actancy begins to reveal itself in our medieval relics. That is the point that I argue in stressing the more pervasive meaning of “mad” for Margery: the act of making. 
With 135 instances, the creative use of the “mad” is the primary way the word is used in the Book. The story of “the creature” is a story of creation, with a litany of things “mad” for Margery or “mad” by her.

While disability comes from terminology from the 20th century that tacitly finished the statement: able- or disable- with the imperative “to work,” madness in Margery engages the pun, the double-meaning, the resonance between madness as unreasoning and madness as creative to suggest that in the Imago Dei we see a creator bound up in creation with a diversity of results that exceeds reason’s ability to predict and madness’s disability from limiting. 

Mad (like Crip or Queer) becomes a verb (participating in the act of creation, i.e. being “made,” OED), an imperative to make with a creativity exemplified by Margery’s vision that adds Christian Genesis back into our texts on madness, but disturbs Christianity for medieval and contemporary liberation theologians. Margery articulates a vision of the Imago Dei proposed by Thomas Reynolds’s Vulnerable Communion“To be created in the image of God means to be created for contributing to the world” (177). The Book is a mad machine, “thought thinking itself” but one that gestures beyond the image of a “mad woman,” through devotional acts mad for the Imago Dei (Huffer 103). The Book, draws us to glimpse God’s “madness” making itself.



The Turn to Transgender

Let’s begin again in the mad house. Disability shall always return if ever we try to shut the case or close the book, a recursive act that always turns away from the expected, resisting logics desire to close the loop of widening gyre with a center that could not possibly hold, where things do not simply fall apart but where things transform. Madness turns back on itself but always includes more than it had. The encounter of these differences fundamentally breaks open new possibilities for co-creation, how things are mad and what they may make. In this way, madness extends creative opportunities through co-liberation. 

At this point of inconstancy and trans formation, unreasonableness and making, I call for a turn towards the history and creativity of madness in the middle ages that offers possibilities for trans lives and politics. Carolyn Dinshaw called Margery as "transvestite," desiring to change into the clothes of a virgin body society insisted she could not have, but we might see in her madness the makings of a transsexual with the lepers falling apart body, or the hermaphrodites mystical co-extension across body genres or genders (Dinshaw, Getting Medieval). 

Margery challenges the exclusionary logic of the Lazar House by crossing its threshold with a gesture of community. Seeing madness from the inside, Margery offers no rational answer to the woman’s ills, but remains with her, “Comfortyn hir ” (74 . 4204 ). We all might make such a move by identifying madness not as a repressed internal defect or a deviant body to be excluded, but to see Creation as a mad house. Margery points us to see one another (even God) as co-creators in an unreasonable process of becoming where everything becomes implicated in the makings of everything else. Comfort heartens madness as community making that defies the limits of reason. “Creative power,” writes Reynolds “is essentially a relational power.” (180). 

Yet before we lay down the prayer mat in the mad house, a critical difference exists between our two women. Margery enters the Lazar House, prays there, finds comfort and leaves. In this instance the unnamed transsexual will never leave. In this year, this mad was a gas chamber, where the German government had accelerated the extermination of disabled, mad, and trans bodies. The mad house is at once a church and a hell hole, interiority and exclusion, a hospital and prison from which the only escape may be death. My question then as we turn to a mad Christian alliance for medieval trans bodies: when is it enough to identify and sit with disabled bodies, a liberation of the spirit and when do we need to change our systems of incarnation so as to liberate the body? 


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