Screen Memories of the Digital Humanities

I just read Alan Liu’s interesting Storify discussing the DH controversy as a proxy battle that once included critics who accused the new historicism of being neoliberal. I took a look back at Liu’s original piece “Power of Formalism: The New Historicism” to contextualize what he was saying — and I came across some fascinating stuff. He begins with the

thesis that the why not? of New Historicism serves primarily to repress the urgency of its real questions about literature and history; and these questions [are] motivated not by curiosity about literature and history in the past so much as deep embarrassment about the marginality of literary history now. For what most distinguishes the New Historicism may be read in the brash nervousness with which it wears its title in an intellectual climate commonly prefixed ‘post.’ (722)

What follows is a typically-rich and sensitive close reading of what Liu calls, following Greenblatt, a “cultural poetics […] whose donée of interpretation is neither the historical nor literary fact but the feigned, illusional, and otherwise made structure of cultural artifact encompassing both realms” (723). The strong relationship between new historicism and the digital humanities — at least the part of DH including digital archiving — has already been sketched by the second chapter of Amy Earhart’s Traces of the Old, Uses of the New. Still, I think there’s much in both Earhart and Liu’s analysis that helps to contextualize the current debates. I think you can read the phrase “we don’t want to change things, we just want a seat at the table,” used often by scholars in the digital humanities, in a similar way as new historicism’s “embarrassment.”

Yet I’d like to take the opportunity to read Liu’s claim about the “embarrassment” of literary history’s marginality through my own media studies background. I do this not only because a large part of my forthcoming book looks to the anachronisms of steampunk and the technological time-criticality of Wolfgang Ernst as alternatives to the periodicity of historicism, but also because media studies offers another way to conceptualize the digital humanities.  Literary historical periodization and digital archiving, however legitimate, do not constitute the only methods to understand the relationship between writing and history.

The conclusion of Richard Burt’s Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (2008), also complicates new historical forms of understanding by turning towards the temporalities of film and media studies. Burt was my dissertation director, and his method of applying Derridean hauntology to a reading of Shakespeare’s textual and media history deeply informs my own approach to nineteenth-century literature and the digital humanities. It is worth noting that Burt began his career working with Stephen Greenblatt and his first book is a new historical reading of Ben Johnson and censorship in the Early Modern period. The final chapter of Medieval and Early Modern Film and History, on the other hand, focuses on Greenblatt’s “uncanny” anecdotes about literary history. Greenblatt is famous for starting his scholarship with anecdotes, sometimes involving uncanny experiences conceptualized through the narratives of Early Modern plays and poems. Greenblatt’s anecdote, Burt argues, is a kind of media channel connecting individual biography to a past that is only otherwise available as so many media traces.  These media traces include not only the archival documents making up our understanding of a period of literary history, but also the “reel” of the uncanny that Burt teases out of Greenblatt’s own scholarship — since nostalgia for medieval films and popular books inform so many of the descriptions in new historicist scholarship and in the childhoods of many of its academic practitioners. The cinematic organizing principle is the anecdote itself, a past remembered in retrospect but “cut” in terms of flashbacks and montages — that may be assembled in particular ways for the sake of narrative, but that may not precisely line up with the past as it was in itself (does it ever?). New Historicist nostalgias reveal a psychoanalytic side to historical research that Greenblatt seems to want to repress. “Insofar as it is uncanny,” Burt argues, “the New Historicism is engaged not only in reading the past but […] also in attempting (and failing) to visualize it. For Freud, the uncanny is largely about the failure to see” (178).

I’m less invested than Burt in recovering a psychoanalytic or even uncanny side to new historicism. On the other hand, I am fascinated by how he uses these theories to highlight the media that frame our desires, memories, and investments in particular forms of scholarly inquiry — enabling certain forms of knowledge and foreclosing others. Burt’s scholarly subjectivity reminds me of Kittler positioning the analyst as a kind of grammophone, recording the coughs and slips of the tongue that otherwise aren’t part of the intended speech archived by institutions.  You can see the resonances of this anecdotal method in Matt Kirschenbaum’s recent Track ChangesTC is constructed out of authorial anecdotes involving how various writers used word processors. But Matt also admits in the “Preface” that the book replays many of the memories of his childhood.

Writing Track Changes (mostly in Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops) has taken me back to a time in my youth that I recognize only in retrospect as the pivotal moment in the growth and widespread adoption of word processing for literature. Many of the writers I stayed up late reading as a teenager — best-selling authors like Stephen King, Frank Herbert, Anne McCaffrey, and Tom Clancy — were themselves experimenting with the technology, getting their own first computers at more or less the same time we got our Apple.

While reading Kirschenbaum’s book, I couldn’t help but have my own flashbacks: mostly to the public library and the hardback editions (surrounded by that weird transparent plastic) of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Talisman, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, Piers Anthony’s Xanth Books, and so many of the other novels he mentions in the text. More generally, though, I think these nostalgias and “screen memories” enable a media reading of literary history in which our encounters with stories and our interaction with technologies construct the scholarly research we conduct. Yes, there’s a certain coincidence in the fact that Stephen King was experimenting with word processing when Kirschenbaum was first learning to work his own devices — and that, further, Kirschenbaum also read and loved King’s books. On the other hand, a certain media logic is implicated in these kinds of uncanny serendipities, particularly when considering the question of how our sense of time and timing is mediated by technological devices.

I’m not going to follow these nostalgic moments in Track Changes to their logical conclusion. No doubt Matt, who uses his own media archaeological method in the book, is sensitive to how the moments inform one another. I do want to point out, though, that new historicism — and by implication the aspect of the digital humanities devoted to textual archiving — is part of a larger media effect that is contingent upon an eclipsing print culture. The “screen memories” of literary critics are evidence of this media effect: a memory whose full meaning may elude us, but which is definitely mediated by the technologies we use to mark the temporality of our nostalgia. In other words, Kirschenbaum’s flashback is symptomatic of English as an institution, in which our work with the past is indelibly marked by the things we love — and the things we love are so often remediated forms of the films, television shows, novels, even computer games we eagerly consumed in earlier years of our lives. I know I started reading Nietzsche, for instance, because I really thought Paul Rudd was awesome in Clueless with his poolside copy of the Modern Library edition and accompanying shades and goatee stubble (I didn’t realize that this movie had anything to do with Jane Austen until many years after I saw the movie in theaters). I became interested in literature because I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in Junior High — and endlessly repeated the misquote of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from its 1989 advertisement: “I will show you terror in a handful of dust.” I’d only later realize that Eliot actually says “I will show you FEAR in a handful of dust.”


To return back to Liu’s storify, he claims that “Subversion in Historicism is what goaders of DH want ‘critique’ to be now: a kind of humanities version of new-media art-group ‘hackers’ making a good show, or demo, for revolution. Been around long enough to go through two cycles (New Historicism, DH) of the wash-rinse cycle of controversy revolution.” I don’t disagree, but I also claim that what Liu calls a “wider, diverse ecosystem of proxy battles” includes the politics and media of our own screen memories. To some, media art, hacking, and an identity that resists normative modalities of thinking and being are an essential part of their investment in technology — and they are less invested in institutional discussions of archiving or cultural history. Untangling those investments and sketching the relationship between cultural poetics and our investment in them, is yet another way to consider the role of avant-garde subversion in the digital humanities.

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