Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DH in the Anthropocene

This talk by Bethany Nowviskie is extraordinary. If you have any interest in where the digital humanities — or the humanities more generally — might be headed, I encourage you to read it. 

It’s a very wide-ranging talk that doesn’t articulate a straightforward argument, but that’s intentional, I believe. It’s meant to provoke thought, and does. Nowviskie’s talk originates, it seems to me, in the fact that so much work in the digital humanities revolves around problems of preservation. Can delicate objects in our analog world be properly digitized so as to be protected, at least in some senses, from further deterioration? Can born-digital texts and images and videos be transferred to other formats before we lose the ability to read and view them? So much DH language, therefore, necessarily concerns itself with concepts connecting to and deriving from the master-concept of time: preservation, deterioration, permanence, impermanence, evanescence. 

For Nowviskie, these practical considerations lead to more expansive reflections on how we — not just “we digital humanists” but “we human beings” — understand ourselves to be situated in time. And for her, here, time means geological time, universe-scale time. 

Now, I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to think at that scale. Maybe the Long Now isn’t really “now” at all for us, formed as we are to deal with shorter frames of experience. I think of Richard Wilbur’s great poem “Advice to a Prophet”

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us? —
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?

Maybe thinking in terms too vast means, for our limited minds, not thinking at all. 

But even as I respond in this somewhat skeptical way to Nowviskie’s framing of the situation, I do so with gratitude, since she has pressed this kind of serious reflection about the biggest questions upon her readers. It’s the kind of thing that the humanities at their best always have done. 

So: more, I hope, at another time on these themes. 


  • Alan, thank you so much for this kind and generous post -- and for the reference to the Wilbur poem, which I hadn't read. I believe, by inclination, that I'm more of a Dark Mountain thinker than a very long-term Long Now-er -- but I hope to return in more concrete ways to some of the themes of ephemerality and preservation in my talk, when I address the Digital Library Federation later this year.

  • Bethany, I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say! And in the meantime you've given me plenty to think about.

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