Looking Backwards

In a few weeks, I’m going to be talking about how searching as an act changes when the digitized texts you’re searching through are either highly specialized in their content or are from a distinctly different era of rhetoric and publication than the past fifty years of mass media.

The example we’ll be working with in class is how rhetoric about Africa as violent or prone to atrocity is still very present in early 20th Century and 19th Century English-language newspapers, but how you can’t find that language using a contemporary sense of those tropes. Having a sense of how stories about civil conflict and genocide in Congo or Sierra Leone or Darfur circulate into popular media (say, in films like Tears of the Sun) is a pretty fair guide to the next step back into history, giving you clues about how to find similar representations of conflicts in the 1960s and 1950s. It even helps some with searching for similar images in the high colonial era, between the world wars.

But go back into a digitized collection of 19th Century newspapers and the hits vanish. Which might tempt the incautious searcher to conclude that these kinds of tropes and imagery are largely a product of post-1960 global politics or post-1960 racial ideas or post-1960s media environments or some combination of same. And in one sense that’s true: when the rhetorical forms and practices change, the ideas themselves change in their meanings, uses and so on. In another sense, it’s not true at all: there’s a relevant history that keeps going back into the 19th Century, and those digital collections are useful for studying it.

I think this problem is the kind of thing that academic experts need to talk more about if they’d like to promote some critical wariness about the future of knowledge in a digital, crowdsourced age. Absence from search space in many cases is taken as absence from knowledge. I really like the site TV Tropes but you can see what happens when the aggregated knowledge of participants is largely presentist or limited to what can be found by following a series of very obvious digital breadcrumbs from the texts that you know to the texts which are only one or two degrees separated from what you know. That’s the kind of process that forms a sort of paratextual, triangulated knowledge of the entire space of popular culture, how most of us know something about shows and games and books that we’ve never directly consumed. Anywhere that strong, visible intertextuality in a cultural cluster gives way to much less obvious links backward into a different era of texts, discourse and publication, that paratextual awareness gives way to a void.

Sometimes strong acts of contemporary creation draw more and more people into past cultural moments that were previously absent in a contemporary cloud of references. There are people who are like miners or archaeologists, digging into how past writing or speech sounded and looked, what the terms and boundaries of a past rhetoric were, so that they can recreate those terms in the present and craft something that is both familiar and novel at the same moment. Steampunk or Patrick O’Brian novels provide some good examples. But even there, often contemporary audiences largely know more distantly pastward culture and rhetoric through what those creators do to reprise or revisit it.

Humanists who are familiar with the sound and feel and cadence of past rhetoric, or with contemporary bodies of speech and representation which are outside of common Wiki’ed reference today, can talk as experts about what happens to a particular set of images or representations when you travel outside of those shared domains of crowdsourced knowledge. But I think we can also teach others to search and read in those unfamiliar spaces when they happen to be digitized.

The first thing that you do as a guide is to get students or audiences to simply read and experience the totality of a new discursive space or media form, to put aside for the moment a directed search towards some known, predetermined research agenda. My argument to my class is going to be that you can’t find how 19th Century British newspapers talk about “tribes” in Africa or how they represent Africa as violent and atrocity-prone without first understanding how those newspapers were composed and read as a whole, how the nature of newspapers at that moment was significantly different.

This is, of course, a lot of work, and that’s one reason that we can argue that there’s a really strong and continuing value to scholarly expertise in the humanities–that we read and know about a much larger universe of textual production and circulation than what’s inside the seemingly huge boundaries of crowdsourced knowledge about expressive culture. But at the same time, it doesn’t do us much good to put that claim forward if we’re not willing to interact generatively with what’s already in circulation, and to explain both what’s out there in that broader universe and the process by which anyone could become familiar with the patterns and cadences in a previously unfamiliar cultural space or media form.

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1 Response to Looking Backwards

  1. Ryan Shaw says:

    I think this is precisely the kind of thing the “digital humanities” needs to be focusing on: how a humanist understanding of culture and discourse can help inform the design of systems and tools and processes for managing information. Instead the focus seems to be almost entirely on how humanists can adopt new technologies, or finally turn themselves into scientists, or something.

    Please blog more on this topic!

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