Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Treading the Digital Turn: Mediated Form and Historical Meaning

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Treading the Digital Turn: Mediated Form and Historical Meaning

Article excerpt

This essay offers a framework for thinking about the active mutability of form in an early modern context. My purpose is to illuminate a potential point of intervention in emerging relationships between the digital humanities and historical scholarship. As Henry Turner has recently pointed out, many of our current understandings about the materiality of form are drawn from contemporary assumptions about the limits of disciplinary practice. Turner identifies rich influences from both contemporary historians of science and early modern poetics that work to inflect a "notion of form [that] is not a static architecture or an immanent, closed idea," but which flourishes as a "renewing, relational network " (5). I am particularly interested in following this idea as a way back into our prevailing sense of what historical work can offer to the "digital turn" (including the new institutional hegemony of the digital humanities) and, conversely, what the digital turn can offer to historical work. My principal contention is that we are yet to see a thoroughgoing consideration of the deeper impacts of historical methodologies on digital practices and theories. I close with a brief demonstration of how attention to "renewing, relational" networks of form, using the works of Margaret Cavendish as an example, have the potential to transform our investigations into the practical and theoretical implications of the digital.

As a scholar, teacher, and practitioner of both new media-digital studies and early modern studies, I am particularly attuned to the trajectory of historical studies as the digital humanities gains prominence across disciplines. Apart from a few exceptional examples, the majority of early modern digital projects are still very much concerned with digital access to and distribution of early modern texts.1 This observation is in no way meant to imply that there is some- thing deficient about such a priority; the digitization of early editions and ar- chives has had a tremendous impact on the range and reach of early modern scholarship and pedagogy.2 That said, both the digital humanities and histori- cal scholarship stand to benefit dramatically from a more nuanced discussion about their constitutive influences upon one another. Such an exchange seems particularly relevant at a moment when traditional humanities programs are increasingly defunded, while, as an emerging field, the digital humanities con- tinues to gain prominence and add new funding sources. Scholarly historical approaches have gained much from the digital humanities as a source for the development of augmented media that distribute and deliver early texts and archives. However, there is perhaps a deeper and more critical relationship to be forged in thinking about how our digital methodologies might be inflected by earlier models of material and procedural form.

I draw here on some pertinent specifics to Turner's discussion of how we might re-define and re-animate approaches to form, transhistorically and across contemporary disciplines. Turner emphasizes that literary study has integrated into its various methodologies an increasing repertoire of ideas and concepts of form: stylistic form (semiotics, syntax, and semantics); structural form (the component descriptions of "meaningful systems," and interrelation- ships among parts and whole); material form (textual and paratextual elements of format); and social form (models and modes of relationship that extend be- yond the textual).3 He further points out that even with the last category of social form taken into account (inclusive of work from Claude Levi-Strauss to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu) that one significant problem facing lit- erary critics is the need to extend formal models beyond language and text. Interestingly, this becomes not just a question of adding more categories to or expanding the epistemological foundation of form, but of rethinking form as an kind of ontology, as a moving, "shaping principle" (584) that is temporally in-process as opposed to a static model that defines and delimits. …

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