This week’s reading for our Digital Humanities seminar included Marshall McLuhan and Quinten Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming’s new piece in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.”
Marshall McLuhan undertakes among other things a brief discussion of the railway and its social effects in almost the exact center of what one student called his “non-book book.” The railroad, McLuhan explains, “radically altered the personal outlooks and patterns of social interdependence.” He predicts that the “electronic” media in post-war America will have different effects however. The electronic age will produce not suburban worlds but a “circuited city,” an “information megalopolis.”
The railroad, according to McLuhan, created a mythic past even as it transformed society. Clearly drawing on Leo Marx’s 1964 classic The Machine in the Garden, McLuhan calls this effect “the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” But, my students were interested in the way McLuhan’s polemical piece “runs into the other end of his own ideas.” One student suggested that McLuhan calls for a return to a childlike perception, exemplified in the aural not visual and in the non-linear not linear. Is this not also a green pasture? Does the way media “work us over” circularly create a green pasture?
So, much of McLuhan’s text and presentation rings true forty years later of course. These quotations elicited the most discussion not surprisingly:
“societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
“all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
“in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”
The Age of Anxiety is “in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts.”
To many of these students, we are currently in academe forcing the new media to do the work of the old. In fact, this is what so disturbed them about McNeely and Wolverton’s apparent disregard for blogs, wikis, and other forms of scholarly creativity. Pointing out that McLuhan’s celebration of the amateur had special relevance in this context, one student cautioned, “digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.”
Although we did not have time to discuss the recent Digital Humanities Quarterly article in detail, students focused on the apparent paradox of digital humanities in tenure and promotion. How it is that Deborah Lines Anderson might argue ostensibly for counting digital work toward tenure in Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process, but at the same time define digital scholarship “as independent from the medium by which it is produced.” In other words, seeing tools only as a “means to an end” and privileging the “act of creation” misses an important series of instantiations or practices worthy of consideration. Using Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘hybrids’, Burgess and Hamming get us closer to understanding why we must reconsider what we mean by new media or digital humanities and how they relate to “the problem of genre and tenure.”
I found myself thinking anew about the railroad as a hybrid agent–something I’d been writing about and considering for the better part of five years. And further what constitutes a scholarly work and how to present that work, and how we need more examples of non-linear digital scholarship to break free of forcing the new media to do the work of the old.
So much scholarly media “relies heavily on graphical interfaces, navigational schemas, and visual layout,” Burgess and Hamming point out. We are building, in digital humanities, new interfaces to knowledge and information, just at the interfaces railroads produced shaped conceptions of time, space, and society–and were represented through Charles Joseph Minard with his railroad-inspired cartes figuratives. Railroads too changed the way we thought of the body and became an extension of the body. Burgess and Hamming call for a radical act of “performing scholarship” but their great insight here is that digital humanities and new media represent a significant watershed in the “materiality of knowledge production.”
We should look out for our own “green pastures” that come with the new media.
(A good part of our class time was dedicated to discussion about our iPad app challenge and this will be included in a later post.)