Jerome Mcgann offers a rather startling summation at one point in Radiant Textuality, his great retrospective analysis of the building of the Rossetti Archive: “the computer continually disappointed.” For Mcgann, the computer could perform elementary linkages and sorting functions, “if elaborate and complex,” but at times proved frustratingly limited. Anyone doing digital scholarship will understand. We have high ambitions and expectations for the machine–as revelatory–and yet so much depends on pure 0-1 binary distinctions. Still, Mcgann never loses sight of the tremendous possibilities in front of the digital humanities, and his deep self-awareness of the choices he made continually inspires.

Reading Jerome Mcgann again for me was a powerful experience, like traveling backward and forward in time at the same time. This is partly true because I was at IATH and UVA in the period Mcgann describes, but mostly because Mcgann understands so clearly the work of the digital humanist and guides us so well into the pasts and futures of texts.

As a historian, rather than a literary scholar, I look at texts sometimes purely for their historical meaning and context, even if we know that they were manipulated by their creators and continue to be changed by their interpreters. We have very few critical editions in history, mostly of presidential papers and other editing projects, although a few texts have received extensive critical treatment, such as the Gettysburg Address. But the bulk of our texts are fragmentary individual records or pieces of evidence from larger bureaucratic organizations–government, railroads companies, the army, the courts. The pieces of evidence often stand alone, but they too are inherently perspectival, biased, warped, and, as Mcgann so beautifully explains, “n-dimensional.” In fact, it is this last Mcgann characteristic that digital historians perhaps should pay attention to more. We read texts for information, “mine” them for dates, people, concepts, discourse. And in a way discard the rest. Yet, our sources too are “quantum” and “multivariate.” (p. 185) And we too run head on into the problem of SGML/TEI encoding these texts–it proves full of “impasses, contradictions, and strange diagonal wanderings.” (p. 83) More on this in the next post.

For students in our Digital Humanities seminar, it was Mcgann’s wisdom as a practicing digital scholar, that seemed so deeply relevant. I would point to three ways that Mcgann’s experience helps us understand what makes a digital project a digital project.

1. Mcgann provides a praxis of theory of digital research and scholarship, one that is unfamiliar in the broader analog humanities: testing, scaling, modifying, reimagining, repeating, modifying, and all over again. The process in digital humanities is perhaps something like printmaking. One works in reverse perspective, running prints serially, recursively to examine the representation in detail. Over and over again. At the center of the digital project, then, is a regimen of testing, of checking error messages in the logs so to speak, of using the -tail command in Unix . . . often.

2. When we produce a work of scholarship in whatever form, Mcgann reminds us that “to make anything is also to make a speculative foray into a concealed but wished for unknown.” (p. 15) The work that we make “is not the achievement of one’s desire: it is the shadow of that desire. . . ” As we create digital works, we would do well to follow Mcgann’s deep sense of self-reflection on the process and his awareness that with which we conclude is only a shadow of the desired object. This is as true of a book, a poem, a painting, or a symphony as it is of a digital work. But right now, at this moment in the development of the digital medium, we face this central truth in a deeply acute way. The distance between our wish and our object is often so great because the forms and practices and procedures of creation in the digital medium remain profoundly unstable. If you have produced what you thought you would, perhaps you’ve not created anything. A digital project that becomes what was specified might not be able to claim to be a digital project in the digital humanities at all.

3. Mcgann calls his work in the Rossetti Archive “a thought experiment in the theory of texts as an editorial project.” (p. 15) The digital project is a “theoretical instrument for investigating the nature of textuality.” Put another way, Mcgann reveals that “translating paper based texts into electronic forms alters one’s view of the original materials.” (p. 82) The digitization of historical texts, then, is only a step in a deeper investigation into the nature of the material object and its relation to the digital facsimile. We cannot do this work without recognizing it as such.

We hesitate to define what makes a digital project, but by looking backward, as Mcgann does, on the process of his work, on what he thought he was doing and how to “begin again,” we come much closer than if we lose ourselves in hyperbole of the digital revolution.

It was exciting in class to see these students reflect right away on how these concepts shape their understanding of their iPad iOS team project. And as we walked through in Xcode the Apple SDK 4.3 for iOS “integrated development environment,” as we looked at how to build code in Objective-C, run the script, test, test, test, and modify, modify, modify, we began to recognize the relevance of Mcgann’s retrospective analysis in a new, bright light.