It is day four of the NEH-funded, Folger Library hosted Early Modern Digital Agenda – the conversations have been rich, varied, and exciting. With a toddler here in town with me, there is precious little time at either the beginning or the end of the day for synthetic thinking. I have a rare hour of time this morning and I’m thinking about the shaping forces of technology and one of Jonathan Sawday’s questions to the group – “could it be otherwise?”.
Wendy Chung joined us on Tuesday and she rightly pointed out that technology and literature have always been mutually imbricated. As a person who thinks of writing as techne and poeisis simultaneously, this insight should have already been at the fore of my thinking. But the who’s in/who’s out – for/against rhetoric that surrounds digital humanities can obscure that long tradition of co-creation.
We’ve been talking a great deal about the history of Early English Books Online and I have been struck by the centrality of remediation to the history of the resource and the long lines of corporate control. As Ian Gadd pointed out yesterday, EEBO isn’t a catalogue of early modern books – it’s a catalogue of copies. More precisely, it is a repository of digital images of microfilms of single copies of books, and, if your institution subscribes to the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) phases one and/or two, text files that are outsourced transcriptions of microfilm images of single texts.( Daniel Powell wrote up a great post detailing the basics of this) So what?
The list of ‘so whats’ is long enough in my mind to deserve an article, but right now I’m interested in how the technologies involved in the production of microfilm, pdf, digital transcription, catalogue, and database/repository are shaping our engagement with early modern literature and culture. What was particularly striking to me in our discussion yesterday was just how complicated the political and economic histories of each of these technologies is in relation to early modern literature.
I recently wrote on the difficulty of assessing digital archives in feminist terms and I’m struck by a corollary set of challenges for the history of EEBO, a resource that for many is a place to start, not itself an object of study. That function that EEBO serves – as a place to start or conduct research – is why I’m so interested in the history of technology of the resource. How can we understand the ways that technologies are shaping our engagements with literature if we don’t stop to consider how technology and literature have already been shaping and constraining one another? The questions around how we might use our tools to create new forms of criticism and history are interesting to be sure, but I’m not sure that I can ask them until I have worked to understand how the tools have already created new critique and historiography.
This is in part methodological bias – I’m an historian at heart. One reason for this bias is that historiography is my way of seeing where and how possibilities were foreclosed or actualized; it is my way of addressing the “could it be otherwise?” question. Right now, with just ten minutes to get to the library, I’m wishing I could spend some time working on the histories of EEBO’s technologies in order to understand the contingencies that led to a corporately controlled, highly mediated, perpetually partial research resource and how it might have been otherwise.