Jerome McGann’s new book A New Republic of Letters (2014) argues that traditional humanist skills—specifically, those of philology, bibliography, and textual editing—have gained a new significance as digital texts become the norm for scholarly publishing. In contrast to the hyper-modernist rhetoric all too often associated with the digital humanities (This is all new! Burn the old things!), McGann calls for a revival of skill sets that, in the heyday of deconstruction and cultural studies, seemed to lend institutional and conceptual support to outdated concepts of textuality. These skill sets, he argues, are necessary to continue to the work of humanists as custodians of cultural memory.
I would love for us to consider McGann’s claims. Is he correct that reproducing the cultural record digitally will require us to dust off “olde tyme” humanistic skills? What skills, specifically, do we bring back from the dead? Do those skills need to be updated for the digital context, and if so, what kind of model of textuality will we use to decide how to update them? Can we incorporate the insights of deconstruction and cultural studies as we do so (rather than conceive of the return to bibliography as somehow anti-theory)?
My personal interest in the topic stems from my interest in the production of scholarly digital editions as a problem of content design. What should digital texts look like? Do we retain aspects of the codex in a bid for preservation and authenticity, or do we (following digital humanists like Johanna Drucker) fearlessly reject features of the book format that we deem to be historically contingent rather than essential to the text?
Just to provide a little more context (sorry to be so traditional here in my methodology), Kenneth M. Price gives a good working definition for the digital scholarly edition in his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies (2008):
“By scholarly edition, I mean the establishment of a text on explicitly stated principles and by someone with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship and the writer or writers involved. An edition is scholarly both because of the rigor with which the text is reproduced or altered and because of the expertise brought to bear on the task and in the offering of suitable introductions, notes, and textual apparatus. Mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge.”
Are Price and McGann right to emphasize these somewhat traditional goals of humanistic study as we direct the future of digital humanities? I think so, but I want to hear other opinions, and I’d love to hear from non-MLA-field scholars about the centrality (or non-centrality) of these questions of textuality as they explore the digital humanities.