21.252 change threatens

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2007 08:32:34 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 252.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2007 07:11:23 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: change threatens

Many here will know the book by Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies:
The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), and perhaps also
Jerome McGann's response in "A Note on the Current State of
Humanities Scholarship", Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 409-13.
Against the evident fact that digital textualities are in explosive
growth, and the narrowing bottleneck in scholarly publication, McGann
asks, "how prepared are we to emulate the humanists of the fifteenth
century who were confronted with a similar upheaval of their
materials, means, and modes of knowledge production?" By "prepared"
McGann means not just emotionally ready-to-go but imaginatively,
intellectually fit for the task. Most of our colleagues, I'd guess,
would express the former preparedness, but evidence for the latter is
thin on the ground -- hence the seriousness with which he takes
Birkert's "very bad advice" to a great refusal.

Birkerts is not the only dangerous false prophet of doom. Now there's
Andrew Keen, whose Cult of the Amateur: How today's internet is
killing our culture (2007) is well reviewed by Paul Duguid (Berkeley
& PARC), whose essay "Material Matters: Aspects of the past and
futurology of the book", in the excellent collection edited by John
Seely Brown, The Future of the Book, and online at
www2.parc.com/ops/members/brown/papers/mm.html, should be required
reading. His review, "Is the Web a threat to culture", has just been
published in the Times Literary Supplement for 12 September and is
fortunately online as well, from http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/ (grab
it while you can). Apart from pointing out that Keen's argument is
flawed in several ways, Duguid puts his finger on what seems to me
the central question: what "culture" is threatened by the likes of
Wikipedia? He refers to Raymond Williams' wonderful, brilliant and
magnanimous essay, "Culture is ordinary", contrasting it with the
frightened impulse to shut down anything that threatens old days
falsely remembered as entirely good, prior to a Decline and Fall
which must be pinned on something. "Keen is clearly outraged," Duguid
writes, "and his book yearns for the... power to stamp it all out.
Failing that, his last chapter proposes a range of government
interventions, few of which are new and fewer likely to be
effective." Keen's proposed measures may be doomed, but the problem
is not legislation that (we must hope) will never be. The problem is
that frightened, antintellectual impulse, which blocks understanding,
slowing down the vital work to be done. The resurfacing argument,
however weak as well as false, is a problem for us. It is an argument
that must be faced in the public sphere, by a species we've not yet
had the time to grow, the public intellectual.

Change *is* threatening. I suppose the question is *what* it threatens,
and how we respond.



Dr Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Tue Sep 18 2007 - 03:48:19 EDT

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