Introduction by OpenMethods Editor (Paul Spence):
Digital Literary Studies has long engaged with the challenges in representing ambiguity, contradiction and polyvocal readings of literary texts. This book chapter describes a web-based tool called CATMA which promises a “low-threshold” approach to digitally encoded text interpretation. CATMA has a long trajectory based on a ‘standoff’ approach to markup, somewhat provocatively described by its creators as “undogmatic”, which stands in contrast to more established systems for text representation in digital scholarly editing and publishing such as XML markup, or the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Standoff markup involves applying numbers to each character of a text and then using those numbers as identifiers to store interpretation externally. This approach allows for “multiple, over-lapping and even taxonomically contradictory annotations by one or more users” and avoids some of the rigidity which other approaches sometimes imply. An editor working with CATMA is able to create multiple independent annotation cycles, and to even specify which interpretation model was used for each. And the tool allows for an impressive array of analysis and visualization possibilities.
Recent iterations of CATMA have developed approaches which aim to bridge the gap between ‘close’ and ‘distant’ reading by providing scalable digital annotation and interpretation involving “semantic zooming” (which is compared to the kind of experience you get from an interactive map). The latest version also brings greater automation (currently in German only) to grammatical tense capture, temporal signals and part-of-speech annotation, which offer potentially significant effort savings and a wider range of markup review options. Greater attention is also paid to different kinds of interpretation activities through the three CATMA annotation modes of ‘highlight’, ‘comment’ and ‘annotate’, and to overall workflow considerations. The latest version of the tool offers finely grained access options mapping to common editorial roles and workflows.
I would have welcome greater reflection in the book chapter on sustainability – how an editor can port their work to other digital research environments, for use with other tools. While CATMA does allow for export to other systems (such as TEI), quite how effective this is (how well its interpretation structures bind to other digitally-mediated representation systems) is not clear.
What is most impressive about CATMA, and the work of its creator – the forTEXT research group – more generally, is how firmly embedded the thinking behind the tool is in humanities (and in particular literary) scholarship and theory. The group’s long-standing and deeply reflective engagement with the concerns of literary studies is well captured in this well-crafted and highly engaging book chapter.
How can traditional literary scholars be introduced to digital methods? And how can the development of annotation tools be specifically oriented to theories and methods of Literary Studies like hermeneutics or scalable reading? Manual annotation is the easiest way to get started: adding comments, markings, underlining and links in the course of close reading may have a counterpart in the digital environment that comes with a number of advantages, such as collaborative work or the sustainability of annotation. The article introduces the manifold annotation modes of the web-based tool CATMA (Computer Assisted Text Markup and Analysis), which has been developed in Hamburg since 2008 against the background of hermeneutic-circular methods of text research and the method of scalable reading. With its ‘undogmatic’, stand-off-markup-based approach, CATMA offers all the freedom of traditional manual-analogue annotation and allows for multiple, overlapping and even taxonomically contradictory annotations by one or more users. CATMA’s markup taxonomies (tagsets) are not limited to binary yes/no, right/wrong oppositions, but can also support the operationalization of semantically challenging literary concepts. In developing a tool for digital text research such as annotation, goals should include providing for an easy, low-threshold introduction to the method, supporting the unstructured and exploratory bottom-up approach characteristic of first-time text encounters and motivating users to apply functions unique to the digital environment. The users should be guided through a continuum of methods in digital text research which range from computer-supported, interactive-manual and ‘close’ to algorithm-based ‘distant’ reading.
Original date of publication: 2020.