— Cultural Sources of Newness

Can the digital humanities be a cultural source of newness?

Thank you, Jeanette, for forwarding the blog post in the NYT by Stanley Fish on “The digital humanities and the transcending of mortality”. The point of departure for this article is the book, Planned obsolescence: Publishing, technology, and the future of the academy,   by Kathleen Fitzpatrick (who happens to be on leave from my alma mater, Pomona College). I quite enjoy the way Fitzpatrick deconstructs the isolated author model that was so highly praised by Susan Cain in the NYT a couple of days ago, who worried about “The Rise of the New Group Think” (see my earlier comments).

Fitzpatrick points out that “all of the texts published in a network environment will become multi-author by virtue of their interpenetration with the writings of others.” And she welcomes the brave new digital communication world in which we write as “a fertile community composed of multiple intelligences, each of which is always working in relationship with others.” The concepts of writing as a “multi-directional experience” and of digital text being “above all, malleable” speak to me. (I wonder, though, whether in her book she discusses the ups and downs of peer reviewers becoming implicit co-authors).

I am feeling buffeted by the strong winds that emanate from these two books blowing so definitively from opposite directions–Cain struggling against the collaborative Zeitgeist to reclaim individual creativity and the need for time to work alone, on the one side, and on the other Fitzpatrick spreading out before us the cornucopia of benefits to be had from collaborating and sharing with digital communication media. I might indeed need to read them both in order to regain my balance.

In the meantime, I recommend the article by Stanley Fish, who starts by reflecting on the implications of shifting from calling his writing a “column” after 50 years to calling it a “blog” for the first time. He dedicates some weighty paragraphs in the body of the article considering the theological and political implications of the Fitzpatrick line of reasoning, and he ends with the questions “Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?”  In conclusion, agrees with Jerome McGann that it will be necessary to “clearly demonstrate that these tools have important contributions to make to the exploration and explanation of aesthetic works.”

For those of us interested in cultural sources of newness this is food for thought indeed, and for more blog posts, as Stanley Fish promises.