4.08.2008

Technocanonization

I recently received the following CFP:

The Eighth Fordham University Graduate English Association Conference
Innovation and Evolution
October 4, 2008
New York, NY

This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the impulse to change, improve and evolve. What sparks literary innovation? How does social change reflect itself in emerging cultural artifacts? How will technological innovations manifest themselves in our cultural productions in the coming months, years, or decades? Is the impulse to innovate a historical phenomenon, or is the word innovation a misnomer? What myths of individual or social progress shape our reading and criticism? What is the potential backlash of innovation? How have the academic disciplines evolved (or devolved)? How and why have genres evolved over time, and how have new genres found a place in the literary canon?
Given my dissertation interests (the proliferation of print and its influence on generic development), this seems like it should be straight up my alley. I have already done some work on the novel and encyclopedia, and I imagine I could mold part of my novel chapter to meet the requirements of the conference. That said, I have put in bold something of particular interest to me -- something that is clearly (and worryingly) becoming of greater interest to those at my own and other universities: the impact of technological innovations.

The first thing I think of is online secondary research databases and what I refer to as the JSTOR effect. In a recent class of mine, we were discussing Dickens. I managed to get an article published on Our Mutual Friend in Dickens Studies Annual a year or so ago, and joked to my students that I didn't fret over them seeking it out because it wasn't on JSTOR. Rather, it's moldering away in meatspace, rightfully being ignored by those who already have enough digital material to root through without tip-toeing through the labyrinthine stacks of the library and risking doing themselves a damage by falling off one of those wheeled step-stool contraptions. You're taking your life in your hands, going after something inconveniently shelved. Best leave it alone--if it's not online, it must not be worth having, anyway; someone somewhere who makes decisions about what merits the medium clearly concluded for whatever reason that the poor folks at DSA didn't make the top tier. Or perhaps the poor folks at DSA had neither the means nor the inclination to seek digital distribution. Obviously, I don't like this or agree with it, but if it isn't already the mentality of most undergraduates it soon will be, and from this generation of undergraduates comes the next generation of graduate students, comes the next generation of professors, comes the next generation of undergraduates. The new library is digital; materiality is immaterial; the part replaces the whole; discourse is therefore restricted. This much is just a rehashing of Foucault and Liebniz and a whole bunch of other would-be librarians throughout the ages who fretted the irreconcilable tension between the essential and the comprehensive and ultimately had to make the same sorts of choices that are still made today: what to keep, what to throw away.

Every new technological medium constitutes a new way to manage the chaos--a theoretically temporary but practically long-term act of implicitly hierarchical reductionism. The pattern proceeds from the encyclopedia right through to the great digital archives: out there is everything. For our purposes, everything is infinite, and infinity is meaningless. So really there is only something, and therefore necessarily not other things. The encyclopedias have everything, but don't really; the libraries have everything, but don't really; JSTOR has everything, but doesn't really. What they have--or aspire to have, or think they aspire to have, or imply that they have--is the best of everything. This book, but not this book, this article but not that, and so on. That's all they can do. What constitutes the "best" changes, of course, but there's always a judgment being made that suggests some sort of value. Book A is online. Book B lives in the stacks; Book C lives in the underground facility; Book D lives at some location three days away; Book E lives in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps B through D will all be reborn as PDFs eventually, but the immediate message of the medium is one of temporally based valuation and hierarchization. First things first, as they say.

The "new" genres of the 18th century, and the new features of some old genres, as I'm on about in my dissertation, are technological developments: new media designed to reduce the everything to the something and make the something into everything: the universal canon, everything you need to know. Not everything there is.

I have a Kindle now, and I quite like it. I particularly like the way it fits the pattern of reduction and hierarchization. Never mind the shockingly McLuhanite recreation of the appearance of the printed page--talk about the old medium becoming the contents of the new!--but consider what's available and what's not. Neither the Kindle nor any other electronic reader is likely to render paper entirely obsolete, but imagine an increasing portion of the population choosing this medium over print because (after the initial capital outlay) the books are cheaper, the acquisition is faster, the device is more transportable, etc. All of this should sound familiar. This readership has, at the moment, "more than 110,000 books available, including more than 90 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers." You can also get:
  • Top U.S. newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; top magazines including TIME, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • Top international newspapers from France, Germany, and Ireland; Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and The Irish Times—all auto-delivered wirelessly.
  • More than 250 top blogs from the worlds of business, technology, sports, entertainment, and politics, including BoingBoing, Slashdot, TechCrunch, ESPN's Bill Simmons, The Onion, Michelle Malkin, and The Huffington Post—all updated wirelessly throughout the day.
Boldface added. Kindle is a business venture, they want to attract customers, so they're making the most popular stuff available--the TOP stuff. Whatever constitutes topness on the internet is being carried over to the Kindle--but the Kindle, for the moment, simply does not give access to the not-top stuff. Where's the cutoff? More than 250 top blogs (who knew there were 250 top blogs? Top according to what? Hits? I have no idea)? Is that 260? 270? Why not 271? Who decided where to draw the line, and close off access to those who have decided to make this their principal, if not only, way of reading? This is nothing short of a technodetermined canon--a technocanon that could for some constitute a new, smaller everything. And who on earth is going to read 110,000 books, all the bestsellers, 250+ blogs and however many newspapers?

If we choose these new media--these new technologies--we (for the foreseeable future, anway) accept the temporal hierarchy, the notion that some things are only to be had later, if at all. It is in the nature of these media to demand these hierarchies; not everything can be made available all at once. So the necessity of a canon is technodetermined, but the contents of the canon derive from another, equally necessary but far less transparent process of human mediation. Information has to get through someone (person, institution, policy) in order to get to the Kindle in order to get to us. This has to happen; the human element can't be removed, even if it can be directed. If you set Kindle policy, or JSTOR policy, or ECCO policy, what order would YOU do things in?

None of this is particularly earth-shattering, I'm sure--I was just set off by the CFP. I look forward to watching the progress of archival projects like JSTOR and ECCO and EEBO and so on. I'm no utopian--I don't think they'll ever get around to everything. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter, because I can't read everything.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that the expanding archive will simply result in new opportunities in specialization. We will define whole mini-canons with our search terms, and as we need to weed out more of the more we'll pick narrower and narrower parameters. We will have to know more about less because the more is unmanageable. What does thorough research look like with a million documents at your fingertips? What first book wouldn't take a lifetime to write? The comprehensive archive cannot be understood comprehensively. The seventeenth-century librarians knew it; the eighteenth-century encyclopedists knew it; Sterne even sent up the idea in Tristram Shandy. Hence ever-increasing specialization.

Hello, my name is X. I'm interested in January 1st - January 31st, 1701 studies. What's YOUR period? Oh, you don't agree with periodicity. You say you study three-footed marmosets named Trevor in lyric poetry? I see.

I seem to have gone mad.

1 comment:

Adela said...

Thanks for keeping your fans in despair over the past TWO MONTHS since your last post! Even though I do not want to feed you more self-love, I will: it's nice to read you again (in your and my blog).

I love this post. I love the word "technodetermined." I hate you for having a Kindle.

That said, I'm excited by the idea you put out there of how technodetermination is bound to trickle down the next few generations. As part of the writing course I teach, I have to assign a research essay. Each year I have to be more and more emphatic about the number of actual, printed, hard copy books, articles, references my students must include in their bibliography. I am actually having them go to a library session tomorrow which will no doubt give them a choice of ten databases they can consult from their dorm room to do their research. But part of the post-library session assignment requires that they look for at least one hard copy source. Despite the mediocrity of the requirement, I still have some students complain about having to get that one hard copy: "I hate the stacks," "I hate Butler," "the stacks are scary." Never mind forcing them to enter the building, I am all for databases, I heart ECCO, and love Google scholar on most days. But one thing that comes with technodigitizationextrafalarius is a lack of rigour. Because instant gratification is now embedded in our e-mail, ecco, oed online culture, students are also more resistant to look hard for sources that are actually authoritative, peer-reviewed, etc. So now I've also added emphasis to the word "scholarly." Your sources must be scholarly, dear children! A concept which is equally hard to drill into their brains. I am not afraid of the Internet, Kindle, ECCO, or JSTOR. I can deal with the technocanon, even though I don't like it. But I can't deal with people believing everything they see online (something that our recent blog-discussion has also left me thinking). I think that if I can think of one true damage that the circulation of information in internet form has done to our culture is that, to some degree, it has lowered the standards of our students. Anything that's online, ready, handy is good. Just as long as I don't have to type in a password it's good enough for me. I hope this is just a part of a stage we are going through while new forms of circulation are stabilized. I hope you come back soon.