Sonifying Hamlet is an app that facilitates the exploration of Hamlet’s textual data through sound. The seven sonifications that compose this project each create acoustic spaces in which to listen to the iteration of the text’s character and thematic networks as they unfurl in time, and as inflected by a given constraint. In their aims and their results, these sonifications are deformations of the text residing somewhere between empirical data display and a more ludic imaginary. Here the literary object, Hamlet, is understood to be an algorithm for the organization of digital sound. As such, textual features such as the frequency with which characters speak and the dispersion of topics throughout the text are here mapped onto electronic instruments and together made to sound out the text’s patterns of presence, absence, enunciation and silence. Through its imbrication of literature, computation, and abstract sound, Sonifying Hamlet experiments with the remapping and (re-)potentialization of a familiar text through the production of affective and indeterminate acoustic texts.
Sonification is the aural display of data through non-speech sound such that correlations between data and audio are rule-based and reproducible.1 It is a technique of data display originating in the sciences and used with increasing ubiquity to facilitate data exploration and trend identification, ambient monitoring of listener environments, and artistic practice. Through sonification, Sonifying Hamlet leverages the aptness with which sound conveys temporal data in order to construct a spatial environment through its blending with the other intonations of a place. As this spatial environment is itself a new text, nonlinguistic sound enables Sonifying Hamlet to go beyond just translating and representing its base text, and to instead build a new literary-acoustic-computational hybrid with whom the reader-listener may engage, interpret and deconstruct in their turn.
As nonlinguistic sound affords the ability to abstract out the patterns of a narrative while maintaining their temporal exposition, it likewise affords a foregrounding of the play of erasure and recovery through which textual data connect, echo and contend with one another, and of the gaps in sense, the silence, residing in the interstices between data. These textual abstractions, while potentially recoverable through other means, are here granted a sensuousness that allows the text to here envelop and touch the reader through the physicality of sound. Promiscuous in its mixture with the ambient sounds of the external world, with the sounds of the reader's own body attending to itself, and with the reader-listener's acoustic attention just then, the textual environment thus composed consists of the full acoustic moment, as much the sounds produced by the machine as the sounds arising out of the location in which the reader listens. This acoustic text evolves moment to moment as changes in the program state, the reader and the location iterate its form in that instance.
To an extent this process of being as becoming would be true of any text, regardless of its medium. The experience of an object, be it sonic, visual, tactile, linguistic, etc., is ever contingent on the experience of the objects that are immediately adjacent to it. Nonlinguistic sound is semi-unique in that it affords the dissolution of boundaries between like media. Where the sight of two adjacent books does not impair one’s ability to distinguish one from the other, the sound of two adjacent acoustic phenomena may obscure the boundary between them. Within Sonifying Hamlet this affords the ability to layer textual patterns such as to create a diversity of semi-unified acoustic objects, each of them a possible world of intersection and hermeneutic collusion. Thus, through each of these worlds, this acoustic text renders a different potentialization of the narrative’s temporality within the physical space of the reader-listener. Where Thomas Rickert advocates for a rhetorical theory and practice that foregrounds and affirms the ambient composition of the human and her ecological entanglement, Sonifying Hamlet leverages code, sound and text in order to perform the emergent potential of that ambience.2
This re-potentialization of Hamlet’s narrative expands the hypertextual, hypersensual world that is the body of Hamlet scholarship, the play’s creative remediations, and its circulation within popular discourse. Through this, Sonifying Hamlet opens Hamlet up to new interpretations and uses, while simultaneously standing on its own as a aesthetic object subject to novel use and interpretation. In this way, SH is of a kind with the play’s mass media incarnations, its innumerable scholarly glosses, the pre-Shakespearean legends from which Hamlet originates, and the differences between the folios themselves. Specific to its use of computation, Sonifying Hamlet belongs to the field of the digital humanities and, within that, to the practices of deformation and algorithmic criticism.
Deformance is the decomposition of a text in order to reconstruct it as a site for fresh interpretive insight. This definition comes from Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels who establish the term and argue for its neglected utility within the academic-critical arsenal of interpretive tools.3 For them, deformance enables the
[reinvestigation of] the terms in which critical commentary will be taken.4 That is, in addition to engendering renewed textual novelty, deformance supports a meta-awareness of how and why one interprets a text as one does.
Building on McGann and Samuels, Stephen Ramsey advocates for an ‘algorithmic criticism’ whose heart lies within deformative procedure. For him, this criticism
employ[s] the rigid, inexorable, uncompromising logic of algorithmic transformation as [a] constraint under which critical vision may flourish through the generation of new contexts for reading and writing.5 In his formulation, algorithmic criticism is of a kind with the ludic imaginary of Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics and with the experimental formalism of Oulipo and, as such, it
is concerned not with determining the facts of the text, but with the implications of the text in its potentialized form.6 In this way, pataphysics, Oulipo and algorithmic criticism are all three extreme instantiations of the core of humanistic inquiry, which
relies on a heuristic of radical transformation [where the] critic who endeavors to put forth a 7 In other words, to subject a textual object to the strictures of computation is to necessarily create a new textual object that both comments on its predecessor and stands on its own as an aesthetic object replete with sites for interpretation and critique.
reading puts forth not the text, but a new text in which the data has been paraphrased, elaborated, selected, truncated, and transduced.
Drawing further on McGann, Samuels and Ramsey, to engage in deformative criticism is thus to move from a declaratory perspective that diagnoses the text and its worldly context, to an inquisitive perspective that speculates on forms the text could take and its world could take in relation to it. This is a move from if-then to what-if that facilitates the reconsideration of communal norms of reading and the uses for a given text, while rendering the constructedness and contingency of any given position visible. Yet, despite its utility, a move to the what-if of novelty is only transiently potent, for with the daily abuse of habit, each nascent view soon finds its disjunction and its strangeness obscured by its own successful propagation. Thus, deformance as a communal site of scholarship requires perpetual experimentation with new methods in order to seek out the continued estrangement of the world as encountered through its texts.
In pursuit of such fortuitous awkwardness, Sonifying Hamlet, decomposes its base text into decontextualized tokens, word counts, and the simple appearance of forms (with no concern on the part of the computer for the meaning of those forms). In so doing, SH sets aside all narrative functionality, and instead places the text’s characters, situations and themes in the service of algorithmic music and its exigencies. Whether one once understood Hamlet to be a hero or a villain, accelerating the play’s course of events, or impeding them, his functions within the narrative are altogether different within the medium of sound. Here his function is to keep time, to iterate the text’s patterns of sonic difference and self-similarity, to assist in the organized chaos of Chance I and II, and to determine the topic priorities of the text in Themes III. He shares these functions with the other members of the main cast. To engage with him as he singularly functions within these sonifications, one might say that Hamlet, in his verbosity, exists as a black hole rivaling silence behind which all other character sounds are eventually subsumed. That is, in these sonifications he works to produce an acoustic antithesis to nothingness that is still nothingness for everyone around him. Each of the characters and themes that catalyze Sonifying Hamlet’s movements are here subject to renewed interpretation. And as one listens to their rhythms as constrained by textual patterns, one is not listening to the play itself, but to a new thing that is (hopefully) productively odd in its commitments.8
The textual estrangement of SH’s sonifications, exists only insofar as the project achieves its own insufficiency. That is, it must fail and foreground that failure as a hermeneutic good. Here the terms of success are set in equal measure by the empiricist underpinnings of computation, and by the more explicitly hermeneutic goals of humanistic inquiry such that neither is dominant and thus neither is fully satisfiable. Within code, to be successful is to ‘correctly’ render the flows and processes of a given thing in mathematical form. But what is the ‘correct’ mathematization of the humors that permeate the play’s narrative, or of its intertextual relationship to Judeo-Christian religion? Within the humanities, reading is the pursuit of context with which to organize the real. Yet, what human context can make the real of machinic ‘knowledge’ any less alien, when it lacks both the self-reflexive experience of its own limitations and the affective capacity to make those limitations mean something? Further, Joanna Drucker has argued cogently that even the idea of data is slippery insofar as to reduce a situation to data requires excising the majority of its information.9 That is, data begins with an interpretive choice of what to count and how to delineate the separation between objects that are in actuality contingent and continuous. One could have always chosen otherwise, and thus, working from data no more ensures a ‘correct’ representation of a situation than a more discursive rendering would. By privileging neither humanistic nor empiricist knowing, and recognizing the nonobjective nature of data in all its forms, SH ensures that its deformations are multilateral in that its humanistic and empiricist tools constrain each other in equal measure. That is, as the rigidity of code and the machinic correlations of topic modeling constrain the production of sound and thereby render it semi-referential, the temporal and spatial dispersion of sound and its tendency to blend with itself, deforms this very rigidity and performs the continuity and contingency residing at its core. Further, as the play’s textual features determine many of the limits of what may be selected, both code and sound constrains the utility of those features. Through this multilateral deformation, the sonifications found here foreground what their epistemological foundations attempt to remainder.
This remainder, this surplus meaning is Sonifying Hamlet’s failure and its strength. It is a point of indeterminacy, born from the inability of SH’s component parts to fully account for, collude with, or dominate one another. In her descriptions of the productive capacity of intersecting literary, political, and otherwise social forms, Caroline Levine writes that
‘[literary] form does not operate outside of the social but works among many organizing principles, all circulating in a world jam-packed with other arrangements. [Within a text or environment] each constraint will encounter many other, different organizing principles, and its power to impose order will itself be constrained, and at times unsettled, by other forms… New encounters may activate latent affordances or foreclose otherwise dominant ones. (emphasis mine)10
Intersecting forms thus create a set of potentialities whose possible outcomes cannot be fully accounted for by any of their individual organizing principles. That is, through the excavation of one another’s subterranean affordances, code, text and abstract sound here create a situation in which new realities may be forged. That this renewed potentiality is here conceived of in terms of failure is drawn from Eldritch Priest’s work on the aesthetics of failure in experimental music. He states that the remaindered meaning foregrounded by failure,
exposes a culture’s limits and absurdities, its structures of desire and orders of the real…[and it] directs judgement towards something non-functional, something that creates an irresistible alliance with a network of significations…11 To fail is thus to reveal the constructedness of any given position through the production of equally seductive alternatives. It is to engender a hermeneutic abundance that deconstructs the received valuations of our objects, activities and organizational schemes. Further, as
failure has no particular point, [as] it is radically perspectival and, ultimately, despite the regularities that restrict its measure, radically indeterminate, it is thus a period of free play within the enclosing epistemologies that demarcate ‘success.’12
That Sonifying Hamlet renders its (re-)potentializations of Hamlet’s narrative as affective and indeterminate acoustic texts foregrounds the background intelligibility from which ideas and objects emerge, while deconstructing the appearance that such emergence was necessary. Where Rickert would cast this in terms of a platonic chora, Priest might describe these potentialized spaces as aural sigils, constructing the known world and incanting a sense of its contingency, contradiction and
sensuous infinity.13 14 In either case, these acoustic texts posit a form of ‘reading’ that is the construction of a physical environment redolent with inessential and remaindered hermeneutic potential. This ‘reading’ is thus a failure to read, a failure to delineate and order the quanta of the real. In reference to the limitations of the Turing machine and the conceptual revolutions borne of it, Ramsey asks
how more gloriously and fruitfully [algorithmic criticism] might fail and in failing foment the humanistic practice of ever generating new questions and perspectives.15 How indeed.
1. Hermann, Thomas, Andy Hunt, and John G. Neuhoff, eds., The Sonification Handbook. (Berlin: Logos Verlag, 2011.)
2. Thomas J. Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).
3. Jerome McGann, and Lisa Samuels, “Deformance and Interpretation.” in Poetry & Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, eds. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.), 151-180.
5. Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 32.
6. Ibid., 67.
7. Ibid., 16.
8. Mark Sample argues that the term deformance is a hedge that privileges how the new text calls back to and reconstructs the base text, over and against how the new text stands on its own as critical-aesthetic object. In its place, he offers the stronger term, deformation, which privileges how the new text stands on its own and invites the same critical attention as the base text. I use the terms interchangeably here, though my thought is perhaps closer to Sample’s. See: Mark Sample, “Notes Toward a Deformed Humanities.” samplereality.com. 2012.
9. Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), kindle location 2342, and “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no 1 (2011).
10. Caroline Levine. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 7.
11. Priest. Boring Formless Nonsense, Kindle Locations 204-205 and 239-241.
12. Ibid, Kindle location 218.
13. Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric.
14. Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense, Kindle Location 803.
15. Ramsay, Reading Machines, 68.