Thinking with markup: the case of personification

Willard McCarty
Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
London, England WC2R 2LS

In this paper I use the specific case of personification in Ovid's Metamorphoses to test the notion that encoding is an intellectual act which affects how we understand a text.

I begin by considering the role of the machine in the act of encoding, arguing that the sorting capacity of the computer, by bringing all tags of an identical type together, tends to result in a degree of systemacity not known or perhaps possible before. It becomes practical to work at a very fine level of detail over a large text because individual interpretations can so easily be brought together. Because only identical items are sorted together, reduction of variety to a limited set of categories is strongly rewarded, and so consistency is enforced. The inability of the machine to handle anything not completely explicit means that encoding is a starkly declarative process. Thus all ambiguities to be encoded must be completely resolved. The interesting matter is not simply that the encoder is forced to make difficult, highly interpretative decisions which the conventional literary critic can and perhaps should avoid; he or she is apt to see problems that were not apparent as problems before.

Personification (lit. "person-making") is a case in point. In the paper I show how the twin computational imperatives of completely explicit and rigorously consistent representation, by framing the mental operations of rendering personification into a computational metalanguage, change how and what we think about it.

I approach the trope as a phenomenon for encoding against the background of its long rhetorical and literary-critical tradition (Paxson 1994; McCarty 1993; McCarty 1994). Curiously, this tradition seems almost entirely irrelevant to a computational approach - precisely because computation changes what we see and how we are able to think about it. Instead of looking at the roles personificated characters play in the stories where they occur, as scholars have done for the past two and a half millennia, the encoder focuses on how even the most minor personifications come into being linguistically.

After a brief introduction to the Metamorphoses and the ontological context it provides for personification, I describe my descriptive grammar of the trope. Then I examine in detail specific instances under three categories, considering each candidate against the criteria defined in my grammar. These criteria consist of local features in the language modified in their effect by 5 different types of context.

The first two categories cover uniquely personified instances and those with an uneven history of personification, respectively; the third, entities that are evidently personified by the influence of an anthropomorph, such as Medea or Orpheus. I show that in addition to the local factors (which I take as primary) each category manifests a different range of dependencies on various of the contexts described in the grammar.

A fourth category is reserved for a significant exception to the rule that personifications are created through some alteration of a sub-human entity. It identifies entities ontologically unusual by nature rather than through change. I include them because they are products of the human imagination, therefore closer to humanity than actual beasts and so implicitly personified. They also exemplify the commanding role of interpretative decision in the absence of direct evidence.

In addition to the successful personifications, I also focus on liminal cases so as to emphasise the computationally unjustifiable, hence arbitrary, interpretative nature of the encoding decision. I show how by excluding them two things are accomplished: we gain a delimited and therefore useful set of phenomena, and precisely by excluding the problematic cases we throw strong light on the workings of ambiguity in the poem. Thus markup simultaneously mistranslates and illuminates.

I argue in the paper for the idea that a coherently rendered metatext is a modifiable interpretative representation of its text, i.e. a model, and that as is common to the practice of modelling, its mutability is essential to its purpose. I show how, in the specific case of personification, the problematic cases invite disagreement, and how a computational form of publication serves the base nature of interpretative markup by allowing the user to alter encoding decisions and automatically regenerate the compiled work.

In conclusion I address the overall question of how scholarly encoding and scholarship in a given field interrelate. From my example, it seems clear that computational encoding allows the scholar systematically to model the behaviour of a complex poetic trope for a specific text, producing a useful list of instances, a descriptive grammar and liminal cases that raise illuminating questions. It seems likely that this grammar can be applied usefully to other texts and that it can provide a starting point both for a broader understanding of the trope and for further computational work on the elusive idea of context. Less obvious is the profound dependence of an encoding on a prior, readerly conception of the text. Thus, for Ovidian personification, the redefinition of what is meant by 'person,' down to the level at which markup provides real help, proceeds from a reading in which apparently minor ontological flux is given major importance -- a critical choice not a textual inevitability. Thus phenomena appear as candidates for markup because of the interpretative reading that frames them.

Hence encoding is essentially a means of scholarly thought and expression. This means that encoding is not in essence or only a backroom technical operation, rather a language of expression that scholars may need to read directly as a matter of course. If our goal is the stability of a standard encoding metalanguage against the flux of hardware and software, then direct encounter with it would seem to be unavoidable. Furthermore, experience with natural language suggests strongly that simplicity and perspicuity of style are closely allied with if not preconditions for profundity of content. Is readable, perspicuous metalanguage an achievable goal? The intellectual view of encoding would suggest that it must be.


McCarty, W. 1993. "Encoding Persons and Places in the Metamorphoses of Ovid: 1. Engineering the Text." Texte et Informatique. Texte: Revue de Critique et de Théorie Littéraire 13/14: 121-72.

-----. 1994. "Encoding Persons and Places in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Part 2: The Metatextual Translation." Texte, Métatexte, Métalangage. Texte: Revue de Critique et de Théorie Littéraire 15/16: 261-305.

-----. 1998. "A provisional grammar of personification for the Met." <>.

Paxson, James J. 1994. The poetics of personification. Literature, Culture, Theory 6, ed. Richard Macksey and Michael Spinker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.