I’m a third year PhD student in the English department at Northwestern University, and I'm thrilled to be joining the HASTAC scholars this year. I spend most of my scholarly energy thinking about the drama and poetry of early modern Europe alongside questions raised by (object-oriented) philosophy, phenomenology, skepticism, immanence, epistemology, and materialist and vitalist traditions. While I am somewhat of a novice in the digital humanities, I have enjoyed many bleary-eyed hours with Martin Mueller’s WordHoard, and I’m intrigued by, if not yet proficient in, the work of Michael Witmore, Franco Moretti (featured here in the Times Sunday Book Review), and other digital humanists.
If the above assemblage of discourses seems nebulous, that’s in part because I’m at the beginning stages of composing a dissertation prospectus. It’s especially in this nerve-wrackingly early phase of my research that I look forward to sharing my thoughts, some more inchoate than others, with scholars in other disciplines: I feel sometimes like one who’s been staring too long at a word search or cross-word puzzle, and so many fresh pairs of eyes won’t fail, I’m sure, to notice connections and suggest avenues of inquiry that never could have occurred to me in my wildest dreams!
Speaking of that deflated and semi-automatic phrase “not even in my wildest dreams,” I’ve thought a lot recently about (early modern) commonplaces, moral sententiae, stoic “concepts” and other ossified, detachable, de-territorialized and ready-made phrases, especially at the points where they come into contact with actual experience or what Henri Bergson might call “the flow of real life.” (For a Shakespearean example of the phenomenon I mean to articulate, see Othello, 1.3.198-220). I’m curious about ways I might bring digital tools to bear on the study of patterns of discourse, and the iteration of topos, tropes and topics. (For an exemplary model of what I have in mind, see Michael Witmore and Jonathan Hope’s “iterative criticism”).
Before I make an end to this, my first sortie into the world of blogging, I wanted to share a question or problematic that has held my attention since I first began thinking about the digital humanities, and with which I have now (alas) entered into a sort of conceptual stalemate. If I had to name this problematic, I might call it “the flattening or leveling effect.” J. Hillis Miller writes that "Our present information age, the age of the internet and of what Derrida calls the new regime of telecommunications, is no longer governed by the manufacture and distribution of physical commodities, like coats and linen...but by the generation, storage, retrieval, and circulation of information, including literature and money, as well as music, oral and written speech, digitized images, stocks and bonds--all dwelling on the same plane of digital existence. (“Promises, Promises: Speech Act Theory, Literary Theory, and Politico-Economic Theory in Marx and de Man,” New Literary History, 2002, 33:1-20, 1). There seems to be much buzz about the potential of the DH to challenge (if not supersede altogether) the hierarchical top-down, author-centered nature of traditional (intellectual) institutions. I’m fascinated by claims that scholarly work is coming increasingly to rely on horizontal rather than vertical relations for its authorization, precisely because a similar or analogous flattening seems to have taken place during the early modern period in the wake of Gutenberg’s press and the Reformation. For Ernst Cassirer the abolition of qualitative up and down and the secularization of space are among the greatest achievements of Renaissance philosophy, which, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, was “the equivalent then to the reduction of the universe to the coordinates on a map” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 195). For other early modern examples of ontological or temporal flattening, see John Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in my Sickness”, or the first lines of Spenser's epic "The Faerie Queene:" "A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine…” While the horizontal plane might offer a nice way to visualize the experience of digital scholarship, what do we actually mean when/if we say, with J. Hillis Miller, that all the objects that influence us now dwell on the same plane of digital existence? Is this a mirage? What is the shape of internet time? What ideological assumptions are at play in this universal flattening?