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Second epistle to the intellectual historians

Feb 19 2012

I. The new USIH blogger LD Burnett has a post up expressing ambivalence about the digital humanities because it is too eager to reject books. This is a pretty common argument, I think, familiar to me in less eloquent forms from New York Times comment threads. It’s a rhetorically appealing position–to set oneself up as a defender of the book against the philistines who not only refuse to read it themselves, but want to take your books away and destroy them. I worry there’s some mystification involved–conflating corporate publishers with digital humanists, lumping together books with codices with monographs, and ignoring the tension between reader and consumer. This problem ties up nicely into the big event in DH in the last week–the announcement of the first issue of the ambitiously all-digital Journal of Digital Humanities. So let me take a minute away from writing about TV shows to sort out my preliminary thoughts on books.

First: the driving impetus behind quite a bit of digital humanities work is precisely the concern about unavailability and central control that seem to structure Burnett’s essay. DH is intensely, productively concerned with finding ways to keep gatekeepers from controlling access to texts. Many–most?–hate proprietary ebooks on principle. (Though they probably use them more than their peers, too). Indeed, I think it’s a common grumble in DH that most historians favor prestige in publication over openness and accessibility. No one that I know of is happily trying to “speed along… the obsolesence of the book”; rather, they are actively engaged in trying to find ways to retain the freedoms allowed by print culture while also taking a new opportunity to reevaluate its shortcomings.

What are these flaws? Well, Burnett says in the post “the technology for producing or reading a written text remains simple, robust, and nearly universally accessible”; while this is an important point about reading, it elides the central fact about printed text in the last 500 years, and especially the last 100. Anyone can write things on paper, a situation which is unlikely to change. The real discussion is not which is mightier, the pen or MS Word; it’s about digital publishing vs. offset lithography. It has been decades since books were produced by movable type, or anything so easy to understand mechanically. I got a chance to watch a massive newspaper press in action while designing Bookworm to run on a LAMP platform, and there’s no question in my mind as to which one is harder for a lonely humanist to harness. The major difference between a webserver and a modern printing press is not technological complexity; it’s the access to capital required to get one. A single person can host a web site, but getting access to a printing press requires the intermediation of precisely the powerful forces Burnett claims to be worried about.*

*There is one blindingly obvious exception to this, of course, which we’ll get to in a minute. 

This is something the knights of the bookshelf should keep in mind. It’s all well and good to imagine taking your manuscript to the local academic letterpress printer, sewing up some codices, and filling your bookshelves with texts from the same. But (with small but notable exceptions) that’s not how academic knowledge is reproduced. Perhaps Burnett is right that technological expertise and corporate control results in knowledge being controlled by a priesthood. If so, however, that has been the case at least since the invention of lithography.

And that’s not even to make the most obvious point, which stems from the fact that a book you read on a screen is not the digital book itself, nor is it a digital copy of the book. It’s just another analog publication. A Kindle, say, does not replace a codex; it replaces a piece of paper. When we use screens, we are in some ways moving back in time, replacing the technology of the codex with that of the palimpsest. We have finally created a palimpsest that can be quickly filled and endlessly erased. That is, in many ways, a problem. It’s right to be concerned about preservation for born-digital primary and secondary sources—and indeed, this a massive area of concern for digital humanists. To worry about that is not to criticize the digital humanities, it’s to join them.

The key point here, though, is that regardless of where we publish–screen palimpsest or paper–we should remember that a reader only interacts with analog materials. When it comes to straight text, this means that digitization does not equal screens. Most us, most of the time, do find monitors of some sort the easiest way to mediate interaction with digital texts. If you dip into elementary programming, though, you’ll find that there’s a thing called “stdout”: standard output, the place the computer directs its responses to the user. Usually, that’s the monitor. But that wasn’t always true: there’s another technology of equal importance that we can forget about that brings digital texts into the human-readable world. It’s called a printer.

That may sound trite. But to fully understand the relationship between digital texts and physical printers is to approach the heart of the digital humanities. A lot of the discussion on the Digital Public Library of America list-serve in the last few months has been about print-on-demand stations that would let patrons in libraries buy or borrow-and-return otherwise inaccessible texts. (The proximate cause was a series of harangues from GNU creator Richard Stallman who, in stature, temperament, and facial hair, occupies a position in free software roughly analogous to that of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown in abolition put together.) I actually have a handsome physical copy of Pamphlet I by the Stanford Literary Lab that they sent to me, for free, through the US mail because they placed such a value on physical copies of work. The Center for History and New Media helped organize the creation of Anthologize, which lets writers who use Wordpress (a blogging platform that, unlike Blogger, allows writers to control all stages of production) turn their blog into a physical book. The most visionary digital historians, people like Bill Turkel, are already plumbing out the possibilities for 3-dimensional printing. The list, I’m sure, goes on.

This interest in printers seems odd, perhaps tangential. But it’s tied in with just what gets humanists excited about digitization: it lets you do whatever you want with your sources. That might mean algorithmic manipulation, or hypertext editions, which is where many digital humanists (including myself) see the most exciting new possibilities. It might mean the emergence of new genres from cut-and-paste: this post here is that new invention, the blog comment turned stand alone essay. But everything that makes those things possible also makes it easy to print out a copy that will last centuries. There is no contradiction between digital texts and permanent paper texts; in fact, permanent paper texts are one of the many things that digitization can best support. And since nearly all humanists, without exception, have an irrational relationship to physical books, we tend to get excited about the possibilities of paper, too. This isn’t true about a Kindle e-book, because Amazon goes through to immense contortions to make that impossible; but one of the single biggest goals of the digital humanities is to ensure that the future of academic publishing is not locked into corporate standards that keep us from having full control over texts. To repeat: opposition to inscrutable forms of publishing is not anethema to Digital Humanities, it is central to them.

I could end there. We have replaced the single factory of books with the bounteous field. Each reader is rooted in the earth to himself, free to produce what works she may. Let a thousand flowers bloom, sow their seeds up and down, see what springs from the earth: powerful oaks or armed men.



The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away:
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

Stanley Fish, in his critical and insightful set of posts on digital humanities, says that DH is theological because it promises the transcendance of mortality. He seems to overestimate the provocation in that statement (as if any academic doesn’t love a secularized theological concept); I’ve said before that I think it’s millenarianism more than utopianism that the Digital Humanities seems to call up—all sorts of unrelated problems (adjunctification, the poor job market, the role of public history, the esteem accorded collaboration) see their resolution in the digital age.

It’s not wrong to identify something profoundly disturbing in the way digital humanists want to transform the book, the article, the monograph. But I think the loss of control by the individual reader over his or her texts is the wrong place to look. The printer as part of the digital world means that we each can create and keep forever any texts that we want. They are far more decentralized and free. But, they are like the bloom of grass, transitory and uncertain. The old system of production had fixed hierarchies, the imprimatur and the nihil obstat; but those very things gave it authority. Gutenberg didn’t publish a newspaper or an autobiography: he published the Bible. The idea of print as permanent was hard won, to be sure; but we have it now.

And that permanence comes from the sanction of the reviewers, the printers, the idea that someone else has marked a book as worth reading. Seen this way, we’re not gaining a priesthood that controls access to reading; we’re losing one that controls access to writing. If the current academic system is like the church in all its censoring, rigidly hierarchical glory, the digital field more resembles the chaos of the early church. And that’s as terrifying as it is empowering. Removing the intermediation of publishers entirely—which is something that millenarian DHers might espouse—and suddenly you have only individual voices that stand on their own. The most prominent DH bloggers, like Dan Cohen or Stephen Ramsay, don’t have to go to publishers or conference organizers to speak to hundreds of people–they just post and readers come. And it’s not because of their posts: anyone can be struck down on the road to Damascus and start writing letters to the beloved community; anyone can choose to read them.

Which is great, in many ways; but it turns out we actually miss that authority. To know what to read; to know we’re reading what others are reading; to know that we’re right that what we just read was good. The fiercest defenders of the book sometimes claim the codex allows the solitary engagement of reader and writer; but from the reaction everyone has to digital work, I’d say that’s just what we’re most afraid of. Digital Humanists are desperately trying to keep the elements of print publishing which allow some modern-day bishops or presbyters to intervene and determine what gets read.

But that path is still unclear. The Center for History and New Media announced the first issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities this week, which undertakes a fascinating experiment in distributed reviewing and open composition. The idea is that rather than solicit submissions and then farm out the task of reviewing, a journal can cull its content from the open web and then, through the norms of a self-constituted community, choose several articles to be polished through crowd-sourced peer review in the form of comments. This assumes that current patterns of online citation (particularly tweeting) can serve as a rough heuristic for further exploration. It seems like the best executed model of a new decentralized model for digital publishing that retains the authoritative benefits of the old press model.

I have to admit that in reading (or in many cases, re-reading) the articles thinking of them as the first run in a new journal, I’m a little nonplussed. While the posts are intelligent, interesting, worth reading, many are recognizably creatures of the Internet: they trail off, they offer more commentary than synthesis or analysis, they evangelize for the field more than they practice humanistic reading. These are not bad things–it’s all I really know how to do on a blog myself–but when I try to think what it would mean to peer review them, I’m flummoxed. It’s as if I were asked to review for a journal of theology, and handed a rough draft of First Peter. Could you cut the bit about obedience to husbands? Be a little clearer about what Jesus did in hell, and the evidence for this? Just how near are you saying the end of all things is?

The individual idiosyncracies of the author make more sense online than in academic print. The basic difficulty I’m having is that the personal author is not the voice of academic prose. And each discipline has its own writing style. What’s exciting and challenging about the whole endeavor is that we may be able to create one anew for this field, so that we can write and read a little bit less as individuals, and more as members of communities defined by norms of authority and hierarchy. It is also a hard one; so far, there is only one comment on the posts, partly because it’s hard to know just where to start with such robustly individual visions. (Ironically, one of the uncommented articles is Fred Gibb’s call for more critical discourse in the digital humanities.) We’re for now too free to be willing to hold each other in line. We can print out our blog posts, but it doesn’t necessarily look like a journal. The problem isn’t the paper; it’s the control. It might be time to have less authorship and more authority.

So while we can still have paper media, we miss all the social accumulation that gathered around codex production. All that labor was instantiated into one product: the printed book. Is it any wonder those of us who love that labor and that knowledge come to value the books themselves, to want to protect them, to love them?

There is a term for letting physical objects take on the life of the human social relations that produced them: commodity fetishism. If any digital humanists do seem to cheer the death of the book, it’s because they finally sense the pall of mystification being lifted. Tim Hitchcock’s piece in the JDH deals with this problem in just those terms: “By mentally escaping the ‘book’ as a normal form and format, we can see it more clearly for what it was.” He wants to hurry up and declare the book dead so that we can get on with the autopsy.

I’m sympathetic to this view. But I sometimes think the real trick for us all is remembering the book was never alive to begin with; but that everything that animated it still is. And while there’s plenty of reason to celebrate those forces, there are just as many to think long and hard about whether we can do better than the old systems of production, as well as whether we can do worse.


Ben, thanks for this thoughtful reading and new pe…

L.D. Burnett - Feb 1, 2012

Ben, thanks for this thoughtful reading and new perspective on my post. I am especially glad that you sifted through my verbiage and focused on the area that concerns me: the relationship of the reader to the text.

The “loss of control,” as you put it, is epistemically jarring. But my greater concern remains one of economics/class. This concern is obviously connected to the book as material object. All that labor instantiated in the (printed) book becomes the possession of its owner – a real commodity in exchange for cash, which represents the labor of the buyer. In the case of digital texts marketed by corporations for proprietary reading devices, the wealth flows one way – towards the corporation. The buyer has the use of the texts, not the possession of them.

And, while I am always a little irked at the radical calls of digital humanists to lay aside the codex – and I have heard these sophomoric pronouncements about how the best thing that could happen would be for the printing press to die – what troubles me more is the extraordinary power corporations retain over the texts (virtually) placed in the reader’s hands.

This is, it seems to me, a New Thing in the history of the book. And it remains a troubling thing.

I regret my infelicitous phrasing regarding the tools of production – you are not the first reader of this post to infer that I was suggesting that print technology is somehow “easy” or “accessible.” I meant to suggest only that a reader of a text can produce his/her own text in response, right there on the page, by writing in its margins, in a way that makes the reader’s text equally permanent.

Well, as permanent as ink and paper can be, which is – sadly, to my mind – not quite permanent enough.

Thanks again for reading. I enjoyed your response very much.

Hi LD! Agreed that corporate e-books are a lousy …

Ben - Feb 1, 2012

Hi LD!

Agreed that corporate e-books are a lousy deal. (Although it has its uses; before my Kindle shattered, I did use it to download travel guides, the New Yorker, and quick novels; things I usually throw out and don’t mark up anyway). But again, most digital humanists are against them; and the real evangelism comes from the possibility of publishing in HTML5 or XML or Unicode, which are emphatically open standards free of corporate control.

I’d also say this. Library books are another form of texts where users have only temporary, revocable rights, in which you can’t make marginalia, in which a state/private entity gets to determine what knowledge you can access. But we celebrate libraries for expanding access to knowledge, and curse online texts for restricting manipulation. I think part of the reason for that is mystification.