Digital Humanities — Digital Poiesis (Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality

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When I was first asked to respond on a panel run about Digital Humanities (DH), it was my first assumption that DH constitutes the technical operations such as data storage and access, and statistical crunching. That was the impression I had reading an articles in the New York Times. In pursuing this line of inquiry, I learned that Jerome McGann, a professor of English literature at University of Virginia, is typically recommended as the go-to-person in the field. The most important thing I learned from Radiant Textuality concerns the ongoing tension between the “merely” technical aspects of DH, on the one hand, versus questions relating to aesthetic quality and critical depth.

The upshot of this early study is that DH will have to prove itself, by actually improving the way we explore and interpret aesthetic, and we might also add, philosophical works (p.xi-xii, cf. pp.16-19, 54, 82-5). This means that my first notion was wrong. The promise of DH lies not so much in the ability to crunch data statistically, as more in the ability for texts, for thought itself, to appear in new and unexpected material shapes.

Much of impetus behind DH is the realization that “texts” are not just vehicles for concepts, a means to an end. McGann explores the “physique of texts” (p..23, 63), understanding that texts are always  multi-mediated via visual, audible, and intellectual forms (p.59). And as it turns out, new digital media provide an excellent platform upon which to consider texts, any texts, according to this more comprehensive model. Because online, the objects that are already multi-mediated are now even more so.

What one understands from McGann is how DH is constituted as open, experimental, and practical, user-based, and image-based. The most interesting insight is that scholars at work in DH are interested in “building things” such as media platforms, websites, etc. There is a craft dimension to DH that I was not expecting to find and that I did not even think to look for. For McGann, DH is a kind of “poiesis,” the making and creating and the coming to emerging appearance of something new.

McGann indicates throughout his text the difficulties that dog DH. In his view, these concern mainly problems relating to how scholars and technicians integrate texts and images (pp.16, 17, 68). This, I think relates directly to the $64,000 raised above. Are DH and new media objects any good, aesthetically?

Surprise, surprise, the most exciting parts of McGann’s book, in my estimation, are the crypto religious ones. Why DH? Because DH promises  not just to “reveal” the text in new dimension but also to “redeem” the text, redeem the book fro the limits of space and time and hard copy text. In this view,  DH brings attention to higher, more abs tract orders of appearance and the raising of our perceptual awareness (p.85). According to him, “When we use books to study books, or hard copy text to analyze other hard copy text, the scale of the tools seriously limits the possible results. In studying the physical world, for example, it makes a great difference if the level of the analysis is experiential (direct) or mathematical (abstract). In a similar way, electronic tools in literary studies don’t simple prove a new point of view on the materials, they lift one’s general level of attention  to a higher order” (p.55).

For McGann, the bottom line is that DH and new media will allow you to imagine what you don’t know (pp.18, 82-6, 101, 116). This is the guiding thread throughout the book as a whole, its mystical promise. “As Dickinson elegantly outs it, ‘A Something overtakes the Mind,’ and we are brought  to a critical position in which we can imagine things about the text that we didn’t and perhaps couldn’t otherwise know” (116).

The proof, obviously, will be in the pudding.

Consider for instance, “The Rossetti Archive,” which collects and hypertexts the complete written and graphic works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s a project that McGann and colleagues at Virginia began in the 1990s and about which he write a lot in Radiant Textuality. The Rossetti Archive gives you an indication as to the kind of things you can do online, but also what happens to a text or an image, and to bodies of text and image when enter these kinds of networks and become new media objects. Another instance would be the digital imaging of the Kennicott Bible about which I have posted earlier. I would like to hope that academic blogs like this one or its betters like Talmud Blog and Immanent Frame, which you can find on the blogroll of these pages, are also examples, to paraphrase Spinoza’s famous dictum, of what a digital body can do. You can find the Rossetti Archive at http://www.rossettiarchive.org/index.html and the Kennicott Bible here at: http://www.kennicottbible.org/.

The point is not so much to replace the physical object or literary expression as much as to give it new life, intensified scales of abstraction, broadened associations, alternative modes of possibility, a brighter and more radiant countenance.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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