Reviewing the Reviewer: Grant Scott’s Review of Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-Century Art, Music, and Culture.

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I’ve recently come across a very interesting review (apologies, it’s behind a paywall) on my article “Digital Blake 2.0” in the most recent issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Let me say at the outset that I am particularly thankful for the generous and extended consideration of my work. Grant Scott carefully grapples with the book, and comes up with a variety of useful responses. Yet I’d also like to take the opportunity, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests, to review the reviewer: to respond and critique Scott’s approach to critiquing Blake 2.0.

Grant F. Scott, “Review of Clark, Whittaker, and Connolly’s Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-Century Art, Music, and Culture.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. 47.4 (2014). 
Scott’s review of Blake 2.0 begins by “grumbling” about the fashion of declaring everything “2.0.” The 2.0 fad was in full swing when I began “Digital Blake 2.0” in 2009, and I meant to position the title as a riff off of both Web 2.0 and J Hillis Miller’s 2006 essay “Digital Blake.” Of course, “2.0” has lost its luster in the 5 years between now and then. Perhaps this development underlines Scott’s point about fashionable scholarly jargon. It might also support the idea that a “filter then publish” model of scholarly communication represented by Scott’s review can’t keep up with the development of ideas on social media as they proliferate much more quickly than journals and books. I was approached by the editors of the collection to write the article in 2009, it received a contract in 2010 (relatively quickly in the publication world), appeared in 2011, and then the book waited three years to be reviewed by Scott. And yet, Scott writes his criticisms of the articles as if they responded to the unmediated thoughts of the authors in the collection. [edit: An editor at BIQ informed me that Scott finished his review in 2012, and it is only now appearing. It doesn’t change my critique, since I wasn’t faulting Scott for the time difference between when I wrote the article and the appearance of his review. But I do believe that it gives another glimpse into the difficulty of traditional modes of scholarly communication — even online ones — to compete with the pace of social media.]

I’m not criticizing Scott per se — how could he or any other reviewer approach a review differently? I do feel his blindness to the mediality of the critique complicates some of his reactions to the collection. Scott writes that the essays “do not ‘present a radical challenge to reception studies,’ as the editors claim (4), because their message is wed too closely to the medium they inhabit—the codex book—and to the academic disciplinary practices the authors have internalized. It’s a bit like reading a transcript of a performance by the Rolling Stones. The collection needs (bravely, riskily) to embrace and implement the web practices it describes.” I’d agree with Scott’s suggestion if his criticism recognized the wider institutional context that mediates these decisions. Digital scholarship is going to, as Bolter and Grusin would argueremediate older models of publication. Why? Because in order to justify itself and be recognized as scholarship, digital work has to take on the look of older media forms.

This is why, for instance, some of the most lauded pieces of digital scholarship remain digital archives and online editions: because they look like things scholars know. My criticism of The William Blake Archive should be read in that context. It is also why I believe that Jerome McGann is making precisely the wrong argument in A New Republic of Letters (2014) when he suggests that literary scholarship should return to philology and bibliography. Both positions push us in the wrong direction, ignoring the ever-changing, multi-modal social network that is represented by the internet. I may need to publish an article in an expensive book collection to have it counted on my CV, but I don’t want to replicate arguments that maintain the scholarly assumptions I currently have to negotiate.  Scott claims that my article “Digital Blake 2.0,” in particular, “stumble[s] […] over several key issues,” yet the only issue he mentions is that I neglect to consider that the Archive was formed primarily to give access to Blake’s work. Fair enough. But I also don’t think an analysis of intention is central to what I’m trying to accomplish in my piece. For all of the sharing and transformation occurring in online spaces, the vast majority of scholarly interventions remain tied to forms of gate-keeping. Part of the reason for this is, as I argued above, remediation: the academy still hasn’t figured out how to fully exploit digital media in terms of pedagogy or scholarship.

The Archive has pushed many envelopes by making Blake’s work publicly accessible. But it has done next to nothing to connect with public audiences who are extremely enthusiastic about Blake’s work. When Scott complains that it “seems unfair to speak of the archive in the same breath as creative works like Marcondes’s Tyger or the Virtual Crystal Cabinet,” he inscribes a line between scholarship and art that neglects the degree to which digital scholarship is also a form of creative expression. He also ignores the idea, cited by Blake scholars from Robert Essick to Julia Wright to Saree Makdisi, that Blake himself saw no division between artistic expression and critical inquiry. Such a separation might seem useful to scholars wanting their research to be taken more seriously than a short story, but it hardly helps the vast majority of non-academics who clearly value Blake’s creative mind yet don’t know what to do with a leviathan of a site like The William Blake Archive. The situation might be compared with John Berger’s critique of art museums. Sure, Berger argues, museums are made for the public. But “the majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them” (24). Considering Blake’s pretty explicit critique of “Priesthood” as an enslavement of the creativity of lower classes “by attempting to realize or abstract the/ mental deities from their objects”  in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I suggest that Blakeans might have a particular investment in analyzing the modalities of how such work is presented (MHH 11; E38).

Indeed, as Scott notes, the “transience and flux” of online environments creates a lot of anxiety in the University. See, for instance, the conversation surrounding MOOCs that occurred over the past two years. But I think he displaces that anxiety (and the reactionary tone of his review) onto the collection when he imagines a dystopian future where “the Blake 2.0 Cloud, like some relative of HAL, will soon replace Whittaker and Whitson as the living digital progenitor. And that’s why these essays, with their identifiable authors, standard page lengths, and rumble of footnotes seem oddly reactionary, an atavistic cry of ‘mine.'” It might surprise Scott that I’ve created a version of HAL-Blake with my @autoblake Twitterbot. The bot automatically tweets remixed lines every 3 hours from David Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. To it, I can only parrot the words of Mary Shelley and “bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”

A single person, a name, even a book collection can only do so much. For me, the key is to experiment in ways that make sense to the scholarly environment I inhabit, rather than grumble about every new fad. The William Blake Archive achieved this when it began its online life in 1995. But it isn’t 1995 anymore. We have to do more than offer access. We have to meet the public half-way.

Comments

  1. I want both, both the feeling to read Blakean books, to feel original books about William Blake written in 19th resp. 20th century AND to have quick access to news about William Blake and Blakean scholarship. I am not a scholar and not young but like both new social media AND traditional media. The first don`t become the only access to Blake, the latter isn`t reactionary and not only for lovers. The William Blake Archive together with Blake An Illustrated Quarterly not only works together with scholars but also with Blake enthusiats. It lasted only a few days to put an article about Caitlin Hacketts new painting series concerning William Blake. Sorry for my English: I am a German.

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