Comment on Milton Revealed


From Digital Hermaneutics: a Platform for study of interpretation in times of big data July 8, 2018 by

On its “About Us” page, Milton Revealed (MR) describes itself as “a collaborative project to collect audio-visual materials related to John Milton and his work, to re-examine his relation to theatricality, and to develop teaching approaches to Milton that use performance across a variety of media.” This description reveals the project’s two-pronged pedagogical and interpretive approach toward the writings of John Milton, a prominent seventeenth-century poet, dramatist, Christian theologian, and political pamphleteer. (Anyone who majors in English literature is required to study Milton, typically in literary-historical survey courses.) On the one hand, MR tries to reinvigorate the study of Milton’s work by collecting supplementary videos and visuals (which I will explore in more detail below). On the other hand, MR reinterprets Milton’s writing in light of digital media and the resurgence of interest in adapting Milton’s works for modern audiences, with special attention to the underappreciated “theatricality” and performativity of Milton’s greatest poetry (i.e., Comus, Lycidas, Paradise Lost). Thus, MR not only enables teachers to show Milton’s intellectual and aesthetic vitality; more importantly, it assembles digital materials that can lead to new literary-critical questions and insights when explored alongside Milton’s poetry and prose.

To fulfill its pedagogical and interpretive goals, MR organized a wealth of auditory, visual, and textual assets into six tabs: Images, Videos, Audio, Blog, Bibliography, and Related Sites. In “Images,” one can find visuals ranging from etchings of the young Milton, to paintings that illustrate scenes from Milton’s poetry, to pictures of places that have special import in Milton’s life (e.g., an image of Christ’s College in Cambridge University, where Milton studied). In “Videos,” one can watch performances of scenes from Milton’s dramatic works. In “Audio,” one can find a voice recording of Paradise Lost, Milton’s magnum opus. “Blog” features updates about events and projects related to MR, and “Bibliography” lists critical readings that supplement MR’s . Finally, “Related Sites” directs users to other sites that would enhance one’s understanding of Milton.

MR is not driven by any formal research questions. Although MR is deeply invested in Milton’s theatricality, it mainly functions as an archive: instead of analyzing data sets, MR enables users to explore Milton’s life and writing in a digital space, making the personal and intellectual aspects of Milton’s life more tangible to modern readers. Each asset corresponds to a text in the Miltonic corpus, and is always accompanied by a caption that elucidates this connection. Allow me to discuss two of MR’s audio-visual assets to clarify how it has collected, organized, and presented its data/assets. Consider the famous scene in Comus, a masque that Milton wrote for John Egerton, the first Earl of Bridgewater. In this scene, Comus, the villain of the masque, casts a spell on the newly-captured Lady, binding her to an enchanted chair. Comus attempts to entice the Lady into drinking from his magical cup, which would transform her into one his debauched and hedonistic followers (see the monstrous troupe behind the Lady). Most literary discussions of this scene focus on the language that the Lady and Comus deploy in the moral debate that ensues, in which the Lady steadfastly defends temperance and Comus slyly advocates self-indulgence. What this image emphasizes is the gender politics that frame the scene (a Freudian critic could probably have a field day with this image!). Why does Milton rely on a frail female character to defend chastity, and a powerful male sorcerer with a magical wand to detain and seduce her? The image brings this gendered question to the fore more immediately than text-focused discussions.

Consider also the scene which stages Adam and Eve’s tasting of the forbidden fruit in Paradise Lost. Like the image that allows readers of Milton to visualize the Lady and Comus as living bodies, this performance of the Fall highlights the emotional nuances of Milton’s Adam and Eve, reinforcing the depth that distinguishes Milton’s Adam and Eve from the characterological flatness of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3. By enabling readers of Paradise Lost to experience this scene through a dramatic performance, MR underscores Milton’s aesthetic departure from Genesis in his representation of the doctrine of original sin. Through a progression of monologues and dialogues, Paradise Lost resists the misogynistic assumption of Eve’s inferiority to Adam, developing her linguistic and imaginative capacities. Although she is still the first to bite the forbidden fruit, the poetics of her private reflections and conversations with Satan and Adam challenge antifeminist traditions that wholly condemn her as the essential cause of humanity’s sinfulness.

Although it might seem at first glance that MR fails to carry out any literary-critical interpretation, the processes of selection and organization are always interpretative, resting on assumptions about what deserves attention, and how such content should be presented to the public. Keeping in mind MR’s goals, organization, and data, let us therefore conclude with the strengths and limits of its hermeneutic framework. MR’s intellectual significance shares engagement with two key concepts in Professor Van Nuenen’s lectures on hermeneutics: 1) the hermeneutic circle and 2) the integration of the unfamiliar into familiar territory, or what Gadamer called the “horizon of interpretation.” How does MR fit within the vacillating scales of perspective that constitute the hermeneutic circle? MR’s assets can be understood as digital fragments, or (re)mediated parts, that can inform and transform one’s understanding of entire texts and even the Miltonic corpus as a whole.

As I illustrated above, MR’s visuals and recordings can broach questions that sustained close readings might under-explore or neglect. Individually and as a collection, MR’s assets can shift one’s understanding of excerpts from Milton’s writing, and this revised understanding could, in turn, lead to broader questions about Milton’s theology, politics, and poetics. In addition to its facilitation of movement between close and distant readings, how does MR exemplify Gadamer’s “horizon of interpretation”? MR augments Milton’s accessibility to modern readers by presenting his life and works through media that are familiar to students of the Digital Age. Because Milton’s writing is so historically distanced from the epistemologies that have emerged from the rise of information and communication technologies (i.e., what education scholars call “multimodal learning”), traditional methods of studying Milton may prove ineffective, or at least suboptimal, if the goal is to gain a robust understanding of Milton’s enduring relevance in literature, theology, and sacred history. Given the increasing relevance of visual literacy, and the accessibility of all kinds of information through the Internet, MR augments Milton studies by allowing readers to confront an unfamiliar corpus with familiar tools and ways of acquiring knowledge.

Nevertheless, more work lies ahead if MR wants to fully leverage the computational capacities of computers not only to gain new insights about Milton, but also to transform traditional methods of reading literature. On its “About Us” page, MR concedes, “[O]ur group might aspire to its own programming and initiatives to confirm Milton’s modern significance and accessibility. Suggestions are welcomed.” I wonder how MR could transition from archiving to critical digital humanities research. Perhaps MR’s collaborators could create algorithms to track which resources are most engaging and informative for users. Or, instead of merely supplementing Milton’s writing, they might use an array of computational methods (e.g., word embeddings, word collocations, stylometry) to analyze the theatricality of Milton’s work in ways that traditional methods cannot. Instead of shifting the onus of interpretation to its users, MR can do more to uncover new patterns in the Miltonic corpus; provide new directions for literary, theological, and historical research on Milton; and, fundamentally, develop new ways of acquiring literary knowledge.