Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

my response to Adam Kirsch

In an essay that’s received a lot of critical response from my digital-humanist friends, Adam Kirsch writes,

The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.

I completely agree — at least, if I’m allowed to add a paragraph of my own.

The other best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the reflexive distrust of the digital, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not technological triumphalism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading on paper is intellectually superior to reading online? If not, perhaps we should be devoting as much attention to digitizing our books, and exploring them more imaginatively in their digital forms, as to the immensely valuable work of preserving and circulating our paper books, periodicals, and ephemera. Is reasoning irreducibly linguistic? (Moreover, is reasoning the only form of thinking? Also, are humanists concerned only with reasoning and thinking? Aesthetic experience is not, after all, fully and simply rational.) If not, and images are able to do the work of complex discourse — especially when they are created, as so often they are, in conjunction with words — then it would be a grave mistake not to complement our practices of reading and writing with an equally rigorous pursuit of visual modes of understanding and creation.

As Kirsch continues, “These are the kinds of questions that humanists ought to be well equipped to answer.” Damn right.

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