Academic journal article New Formations

Literary Digital Humanities and the Politics of the Infinite

Academic journal article New Formations

Literary Digital Humanities and the Politics of the Infinite

Article excerpt


As Johanna Drucker aptly summarises, digital humanities broadly thought concerns the 'migration of our cultural legacy into digital form and the creation of new, born-digital materials and tools'. (1) This field of study then necessarily concerns differences between mnemotechnical forms technologies of cultural memory and dissemination. The mnemotechnical shift indicated here is thus not only from the codex form to digital media of inscription, but a shift from the library to the database. These are, of course, institutions of the material and structural accumulation of knowledge--that is: archival forms. In the digital humanities generally speaking, we might polarise two forms of activity in relation to such archival accumulations: the functional, and the interpretive. While both are linked in their practices, the former prioritises technical methods of accreting and structuring information; the latter prioritises engagement with the epistemological, cultural and political meaning of such accumulations. Nevertheless, both aspects are necessarily entwined, and at this intersection, this article is concerned with two kinds of discourse.

In the main part of this essay, the understanding of mnemotechnics pertains to a mode of analysis that might be designated as aestheticist. Broadly put, the aestheticist approach here is characterized by a specialist attention to traditional and digital literary texts, bibliographic and fictional, and by an affirmation of individual interpretive agency. It is also explicitly wary of the commodification, capitalisation, and instrumentalisation of knowledge. In the first main section and the conclusion to the essay, this literary digital humanities discourse will be compared to another that is defined by attention to popular media use in convergence culture studies, and by an affirmation of the creation of collective, dispersed knowledges. This involves an engagement with capitalized systems of information and communication, in order to assert democratic principles. This mode might then be referred to as populist. Each discourse thus refers to a different ethos--that of an extension of literary values in the digital world; that of an immersion in capitalised forms of online engagement.

Yet I want to suggest that despite their institutional, methodological, and cultural divergences, both these discourses are linked by a problematic parity. This association is couched in their shared conceptualization of texts and their accumulation, as being, in various ways, from the ideational to the material, infinite. Simply put, the representation of traditional or digital mnemotechnics in both discourses tends towards the rhetoric of infinity and its cognates--the indefinite, the incommensurable, the endless, for example. There are a number of permutations and valorisations in this rhetoric that should be abstractly schematised here prior to their more concrete articulation in this article.

Traditional or digital texts may be thought of, qualitatively speaking, as being endless in their interpretive possibilities. Likewise, the quantitative accumulations of written texts, or digital files, may be thought of as an endless extension. Such infinitude may be positively or negatively valorised. The infinity of the text and the archive may appear as the positive possibility of subjective agency, and ongoing cultural production considered as the generation of multiple meanings. On the other hand, it can be negatively valorised as a multiplicity that defers determinate knowledge. Clearly, this opposition between the positive and negative valorisations of determinacy and indeterminacy could be thought of in terms of the split between some humanities discourses and scientific positivism.

But we must also recognize that the affirmation of the infinity of texts or archives, qualitative or quantitative, must be understood in complex relation to ideas of finitude. …

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