Response from Erin Presley

presleyerin says:

Response from Erin Presley

Readings from list:
Julia Flanders, “The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship” (2009)
Alan Galey and Ray Siemens, “Introduction: Reinventing Shakespeare in the Digital Humanities” (2008)
Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” (2010)
Martin Mueller, “Digital Shakespeare, or Toward a Literary Informatics” (2008)

Off-reading list references:
Richard Lanham’s The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (1995)
Marshall McLuhan

In all of these articles from the reading list, the writers feel the need to establish a working definition of “digital humanities.” For example, Julia Flanders and Matthew Kirschenbaum both address definitions of “digital humanities” and note the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of the field. In terms of determining what constitutes digital humanities as opposed to, say, simply using a computer in the humanities, Flanders effectively highlights the difference by drawing on Unsworth’s definition and positing that digital humanities makes an “intervention” and inspires critical thought. This point appears especially true in relation to online projects that make non-canonical works readily available to a wider audience, raising awareness and giving those works “a new kind of prominence and parity with their more illustrious and familiar cousins” (Flanders par 5).

But what about digital editions of Shakespeare’s plays? Do those digital iterations push readers to think critically about the digital presentation, or do they simply replicate printed texts in a digital environment? These writers all note the convenience of having access to texts through projects such as EEBO, but is access really an issue with the Shakespearean corpus? Digital editions of Shakespeare’s work are not in the business of recovery or raising awareness in the same vein as Flanders’ Women Writers Project, and many popular online editions (such as MIT’s) simply employ formless content, modeling the display after printed texts. Martin Mueller points out the possibilities that digitizing Shakespeare (or any writer’s work, for that matter) present in terms of textual analysis, but his article gives little consideration to “born digital” texts.

Alan Galey and Ray Siemens (in their introduction, “Reinventing Shakespeare in the Digital Humanities”) would posit that the creators of such online editions of Shakespeare’s work are deeply engaged in “the dialectic between thinking and making” (221), but for the user, the actual appearance/display of the text inspires little thinking about what’s going on behind the curtains. As Richard Lanham discusses in The Electronic Word, such a display allows the reader to look through the technology instead of looking at it critically. In this vein, such digital reproductions of Shakespeare do not fully exploit the possibilities of definite content. Even Internet Shakespeare Editions, which offers researchers access to a wealth of Shakespeare-related information, presents its repository of information in a linear fashion that mimics an older technology, printing.

I find it interesting that none of these articles really addresses the politics of medium, especially Mueller. In their introduction, Galey and Siemens note that “any attempt to trace the life of a Shakespeare play from early modern material culture to present performances, editions and adaptations runs up against a tangle of mediation” (219). While this point is valid and introduces the special issue of Shakespeare, Mueller’s article, which appears in this issue, claims that “the computer is a more patient servant than Shakespeare’s Caliban,” and posits that “we do wrong to blame its ‘intentions’ for what are the unintended consequences of somebody’s human error” (302). I can’t help but think of Marshall McLuhan’s work in this context. For McLuhan, the medium is the message, so I find the line of thinking presented in Mueller’s essay problematic. In “The Medium Is the Message,” McLuhan argues that “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” and goes onto caution against viewing media as politically neutral (203). Even though McLuhan wrote this piece in the early 1960s, his argument seems incredibly relevant in light of the current status of the Internet. The technology of Web 2.0 has altered human affairs in a multitude of ways, and users are only beginning to critically evaluate those changes.

I do appreciate that these readings highlight the exciting developments that digital technology has brought about, especially the role of collaboration among scholars in the humanities. Kirschenbaum notes that “digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility might be an instrument for real resistance or reform” (59). In a similar vein, Flanders points out how the work of digital humanities challenges the institutional structure of higher education: “These systems are still struggling to understand the fundamentally collaborative and interdisciplinary work of digital humanities or the new modes of scholarly communication it is engendering” (18). My favorite “collaborative” connection between these readings centers on an analogy presented in Galey and Siemens’ introduction: “just as theatre practitioners model Shakespeare’s plays by staging them, so do digital humanists stage their knowledge representations like productions of plays, some better than others but none finally definitive each another’s audience outside the limits of the page” (220). In my mind, this analogy combines many of the ideas presented in the readings about digital humanities: the importance of collaboration, of play, and of innovation. Or as Flanders proposes at the close of her article: “Does it make us think? Does it make us keep thinking?” (par. 27).

I’ve enjoyed reading all of the responses and look forward to discussing these issues with you all in Boston.

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