On Digital Humanities

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

From Wendell Piez on digital humanities

This takes us much further, quite close to the essence of it. By implication, in Burke’s telling, the proper object of Digital Humanities is what one might call “media consciousness” in a digital age, a particular kind of critical attitude analogous to, and indeed continuous with, a more general media consciousness as applied to cultural production in any nation or period. Such an awareness will begin in a study of linguistic and rhetorical forms, but it does not stop there. Yet even this is only half of it. Inasmuch as critique may imply refiguration and reinvention, Digital Humanities has also a reciprocal and complementary project. Not only do we study digital media and the cultures and cultural impacts of digital media; also we are concerned with designing and making them. In this respect (and notwithstanding how many of its initiatives may prove short-lived), Digital Humanities resembles nothing so much as the humanistic movement that instigated the European Renaissance, which was concerned not only with the revival of Classical scholarship in its time but also with the development and application of high technology to learning and its dissemination. Scholar-technologists such as Nicolas Jenson and Aldus Manutius designed type faces and scholarly apparatus, founded publishing houses and invented the modern critical edition. In doing so they pioneered the forms of knowledge that academics work within to this day, despite the repeatedly promised revolutions of audio recording, radio, cinema and television. Only now are these foundations being examined again, as digital media begin to offer something like the same intimacy and connection that paper, ink and print media have offered between the peculiar and individual scholar, our subjects of study, and the wider community — an intimacy and connection (this cannot be overstressed) founded in the individual scholar’s role as a creator and producer of media, not just a consumer. And yet, when we look at their substance, how digital media are encoded (being symbolic constructs arranged to work within algorithmic, machine-mediated processes that are themselves a form of cultural production) and how they encode culture in words, colors, sounds, images, and instrumentation, it is also evident that far from having no more need for literacy, they demand it, fulfill it, extend and raise it to ever higher levels. (Links in Original)

I find Piez’ ideas here sweeping, especially the historical relationships he finds important in the practical aspects of “media” studies. But there’s more to think about in what I would call the “leap over” issue in media history. Television reaches millions; but not everyone created or creates programming. Books have been a major success in spreading identical copy and inventing the notion of alphabetical permanence. Digital texts change the notion of a “mass media” in a production context, just to name one issue where change may be appropriate to identify. The link has become a powerful tool, aesthetic, and tissue. I’m thinking of Inform 7 and its linked documentation and dual apertures.

One issue I have has to do with contexts. The question of books, academic studies, and the digital. We can reference books on the internet. But we will never read them on the internet, as Beowulf on the internet is no longer the book it became after print manufacture. This observation is an aspect of “media consciousness.”


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