Jerome McGann – A New Republic of Letters
18 November, 2021 - examPrep
- 1 – Here is surely a truth now universally acknowledged: that the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures.
- Humanist scholars, the long- recognized monitors of cultural memory, register a problem in this situation. For humanist thinking has been shaped by the institutions and the technology of books.
- 2 – Why that understanding is a precious resource for our present presentist culture is one of the two primary concerns of this book. The other is practical: how to exploit that resource for societies now moving to or ga nize their cultural memories in digital forms. The practical aim is primarily directed to the traditional custodians of cultural memory. It argues that textual and editorial scholarship, often marginalized in humane studies as a narrowly technical domain, should be shifted back to the center of humanist attention. Understanding the technologies of book culture is the beginning of wisdom for any practical approach to the so- called digital humanities. But you can’t do that well unless you have an intimate acquaintance with the scholarship of textualities. That scholarship once had a name to conjure with: philology.
- Said, typically, had something larger in mind— a reading practice he described as “a detailed patient scrutiny of, and lifelong attentiveness to the words and rhetorics by which language is used by human beings in history” (61). He called it “philological hermeneutics” (91)— a method for critically engaging “the constitution of tradition and the usable past” (75). It is a method “for making those connections that allow us to see part and whole . . . : what to connect with, how, and how not” (78).
- 4 – The digital migration of our museum and library archives is well underway and will continue. So is the development of an integrated digital network for connecting those resources. All that is both good and inevitable— indeed, thrilling. But then— forgive me Wordsworth— a timely utterance brought my thrills to grief: “After we digitize all the books, the books themselves will still be there,” as indispensable as they ever were.8 No digital technology can replace them (with digital surrogates), no digital technology can embrace them (in an online network).
- 9 – In this respect Paul Connerton’s work sharply focuses the problem of memory, and hence of culture, in a world caught in its cybernets. “We are living in a culture of hypermnesia,” he remarks, only to add immediately that “we are living in a post- mnemonic, a forgetful, culture.”16 But the paradox is for him only apparent because he sees these conditions as codependent functions.
- 10 – How then are we to save the traditional inheritance in its original material forms; and to integrate those objects— the realia of the depositories— to our new born- digital cultural works? We are living in the Last Days of book culture; that is clear. Of course this doesn’t mean we are in the Last Days of reading culture, least of all of our textual condition. But it is also clear that as we proceed to digitize our print and manuscript objects, and hence as our engagements with those objects become primarily digital engagements, the living culture that created and sustained them becomes itself an object— something, in Connerton’s words, “that is known about” rather than “something that is known . . . in one’s continuing life” (32).
- 12 – That is one moral we realize from the digital transition we are moving through. When I’ve suggested this in the past, some took it as a depressing view. But why should it be? It seems a gift and an opportunity. A fate of our time calls us to engage this transition and, as scholars, to help oversee, monitor, and fi rst of all— given our vocation— understand it.