Last night, I read the articles in the New York Times series Humanities 2.0. Despite covering a range of initiatives, all six pieces expressed simultaneous excitement and anxiety over the new digitized direction of the humanities. And, although the series began four years ago and one can trace the development of veritable multitudes of additional digital humanities (DH) projects, the newness of the work has yet to fade. That freshness–and the unknown and seeming unknowability–of DH incites the same sense of energized anxiety in me.
I was excited to try something new and, as I suspected it would be, the project was fun. It also serves as a sort of crystallized, condensed metaphor for my relationship with DH work. First, I’m not well-versed, nor am I particularly good at it. I’ve never been artistic and, in addition to being computer savvy, one must have some kind of artistic vision, it seems, to succeed in this new humanities. Second, it doesn’t feel like a real response to me, whatever that means. The creation of a comic strip, even one that takes hours to create, doesn’t feel like a legitimate response and so, despite not being sure if it’s necessary, I feel compelled to write, to create a textual, narrative, linear addendum to my visual, graphic, digital response.
This is my justification.
Jerome McGann argues persuasively for the legitimacy of the digital humanities in his 1996 essay, “Radiant Textuality.”His argument that all critical editions of texts–digital or print–are hypertext makes lots of sense to me. Flipping back and forth between a hard copy of a scholarly edition of Hamlet and its apparatus, for example, feels very much the same as toggling between versions of a text online. Digital editions of literary works, like the Emily Dickinson Archive, or McGann’s own Rosetti Archive, with their hovering hypertext technology and searchable texts, simply streamline the existing process of notes in book form. When McGann calls for increasing digitization of existing texts (a call that has been heeded to a great extent in recent years), the sets of activities–mainly textual and editorial–to which he refers are within the limitations of the traditional modes of scholarly work. The translation from text to hypertext, here, doesn’t feel revolutionary nearly twenty-years after “Radiant Textuality” appears. Even his notions about preprint electronic publication, which he sees as a kind of online peer review and/or publication process, fit into the category of traditional modes of research and publication, just updated to make use of digital technology. (Matthew Kirschenbaum, a decade and a half later, publishes his piece “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?“–an essay that feels remarkably similar to McGann’s–using the preprint method, thereby continuing the conversation regarding the definition and use of DH and, at the same time, modelling the kind of open-access work that DH scholars argue can and should be done and distributed.) Even when McGann describes the Rosetti Archive as radiant text because, as he writes, it is “unfinishable,” since it “stands open not only to the entire inherited depository of related materials, [but] it awaits the coming of additional materials that do not as yet exist” (386-387), my anxiety is minimal. (Another example of this kind of text is Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens’s Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology.) Print texts are edited and re-released with great frequency. The immediacy of the editability of digital texts, once again, is a streamlined version of the traditional (read: comfortable) process.
“Radiant Textuality” is nearly twenty years old, however, and newer writing on DH work makes the case for a very different kind of humanities, indeed. The introduction to Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp’s Digital_Humanities makes the case for “new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments” (7). Burdick et al make a distinction between “writing” and “design,” a distinction that very much informs my own ideas about DH (12). “To design new structures of argumentation is an entirely different activity than to form argumentation within existing structures that have been codified and variously naturalized” (Burdick et al 12). Quite simply, I’m comfortable with the codified, naturalized structures! I may even be good at them! So, while the idea of breaking outside of those old modes and doing something no one has done before is almost breathtakingly energizing, it also (just a little bit) makes me feel like I’ve lost my breath. Suddenly–or, not so suddenly, if we read the text’s historical timeline of the digitalization of the humanities–crafting smart prose isn’t nearly enough. One must maintain a continually updating grasp of “platforms, tools, databases, and other information structures” (Burdick et al 13), terms I’m not even sure if I understand. The fact that DH encourages “frequent (productive)” failure works well for me in a pedagogical sense, but I’m not sure it computes (Get it? A DH pun!) when it comes to research (“Burdick et al 22). Digital fiction, like The Raw Shark Texts and TOC, somehow lies just outside of my full understanding and I worry that if I can’t even comprehend the kind of literature DH produces, I’ll find myself ultimately unable to participate in the field.
The editors of Digital_Humanities make an incredibly smart move, though, in terms of normalizing their own vision(s) of DH scholarship: they link it to a dissembling of (other) outmoded literary scholarship based on “race, class, gender, and first-world biases rooted in Eurocentric traditions” (23). By the time they’ve finished the introduction, I’m once again energized and feeling like this kind of work is not only exciting; it’s crucial.