Successfully striking a balance between the technical and non-technical aspects of its subject matter, James Cummings’ article on the Text Encoding Initiative presents to its reader a complete picture of standardisation in electronic scholarly literature. The author blends historical, technical and academic contexts to ensure that he can provide as full an understanding as is possible to both literary scholars, who are generally not technically adept, and conversely, to technical individuals, who might not fully comprehend the more literary aspects.
Cummings eases his reader toward that material which they might consider somewhat more incomprehensible, beginning with an outline of those principles on which the TEI was founded. Having done so, he begins to introduce more overtly technical elements, but to the author’s credit, he always keeps such details within the context of the piece. Cummings refrains from losing sight of the central issue, the study of literature, refraining from the provision of irrelevant technicality, a trap that many commentators who possess expertise in this field can often fall into.
Where the language does become increasingly technical, Cummings alleviates any possible conceptual difficulties by providing relevant coding examples. In doing so, he presents his piece as somewhat daunting upon first glance, but when examined more closely, it turns out to be far more accessible than similar accounts of standardisation in electronic literature.
Throughout the article, Cummings supports the need for standardisation, but provides a balanced discussion in relation to the strengths and weaknesses of the TEI. However, as is alluded to by the author, such weaknesses can be addressed by the evolutionary nature of the standard. It is true to say that, as technology continues to advance, and in turn, more varied and distinct implementations of that technology continue to emerge, the TEI’s standardisation will face difficulties in terms of its application. However, this standardisation is not static, but rather reactive, and as such implementations emerge, appropriate sub-standards can be devised as a response to the sphere’s fluctuating demand. Effectively, standardisation will evolve.
As Cummings continues, he draws profound comparisons between the technicality of mark-up languages and the literary theories of Barthes, Foucault, Bakhtin and Derrida. Perhaps it is in digital scholarship that supporters of Derrida’s thesis can find further evidence to support his deconstructionist claims: electronic texts can often be a remarkably practical example of the notion of the signified always containing a signifier within itself. Furthermore, digital scholars are advantageously placed to examine the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships in a text, and may even be positioned to expand on the thinking of the aforementioned theorists. Essentially, in studying mark-up language, we can study structure, something which Cummings claims that the TEI have recognised: “The desire to have markup be of use in helping to elucidate the nature of the text is entirely reasonable. While XML allows the easy marking of most textual structures of interest to the study of literature, the specification which defines XML creates certain limitations with regard to the encoding of multiple overlapping hierarchies.”
As Cummings draws his analysis to a close, he further champions the TEI cause. He rejects the ad-hoc approach taken by Project Gutenberg, where texts are digitised, but not standardised. By taking such an approach, individuals are again faced with the daunting prospect of having to scratch their way through the unconstrained growth of the mark-up jungle. To me, taking such an approach to electronic literature is akin to handwriting physical editions, and so I would be firmly on the side of Cummings. In addition, a lack of properly sourced materials renders the Gutenberg editions as less than scholarly, defeating what, too many, is the entire purpose of the digital project. The requirements of academics must be met: sources must be consistently and correctly cited, content must be verifiable and structure must be uniform. Otherwise, the value of electronic editions will dwindle. The mission of the TEI is to ensure that this does not happen, something which will be infinitely beneficial in the study of literature.