Blog Post

The Work of Literature in the Age of Digital Reproduction


Whether I am taking notes in class, watching videos on YouTube (er…for research), or writing a conference paper, TweetDeck runs continuously on my laptop, faithfully popping into the upper-left foreground of my screen to show me new tweets as they arrive. As a result, even when I’m deeply focused on my work and have cut off all communication with the outside world, I always have a gently-intruding, abridged of said outside world to keep me apprised of what’s going on in my friends’ lives and, thanks to several news feeds, what’s happening in the larger world. Because my research and course work spans everything from eighteenth century slave rebellions to twenty-first century hacktavism and I generally try to remain as paperless as possible, I often find myself reading digitized early-American texts in a technological space that is permeated by reminders of my contemporary moment.


It just so happened that last week, as I was re-reading a pdf of a nineteenth-century pirate journal (The Memoirs of Jean Lafitte, which I highly recommend), TweetDeck kept popping into the foreground with news updates on the uprising in Egypt. As a read Jean Lafitte’s recounting of his numerous exploits and the role that his decentralized network of pirate communes played in enabling him to evade capture, I couldn’t help but make connections between Lafitte’s use of networks to bypass state authority and the protestors’ use of largely decentralized communications networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (though owned and operated by for-profit corporations) to bypass the mechanisms of state censorship. Both groups oppose and threaten to destabilize those already in power by disrupting the flow of natural resources (be it sugar or oil) into metropolitan centers of capital accumulation (Lafitte by seizing shipments of natural resources and slaves; protestors by destabilizing a regime friendly to foreign capital).


Admittedly, making an argument that jumps across continents and centuries is the type of scholarship that makes historians cry and dissertation advisors consider taking an extended sabbatical. I’m not attempting to make such an argument here. In fact, I feel some degree of anxiety even posting it on my HASTAC blog, but I am doing so because I think that it is important to open up dialogues between those of us who do work in more historically-grounded (i.e., paper-based) areas and those of us who do work in more future-oriented, technology-based areas. In particular, I’m interested in considering how consuming old texts through new technologies changes the ways in which our students engage with the material. As books become digitized and social networking technologies become more fully integrated into our students’ digital environment, printed texts that we used to focus on exclusively while locked up in our dorm rooms might take on new meanings as they are placed in a networked context, a context that is always located in relation to other pieces of information—indeed, a context that is constantly evolving, constantly changing. Rather than seeing this as a sign that students are being distracted by other media, I (and I imagine many of my fellow HASTAC-ers) think it represents an opportunity to see texts interfacing with the digital world, taking on new meanings that are always located at the intersection between the past and the present. As more and more of our readings and our students’ readings are being digitally distributed through electronic reserves, the meanings of even the oldest texts may change in ways that challenge us to think about where the meaning of a text lies or, more accurately, where it is produced.


Indeed, one of the most exciting possibilities opened up by digitized texts lies in the fact that the text has been removed from the static, printed page and placed in a dynamic environment that students regard as constantly subject to change and revision. How might this affect their relationship to its content? As an undergraduate, I remember having a conversation with one of my professors (a particularly brilliant and engaging teacher) about how he approached his role as a professor. He explained that one of the reasons that he made so many corny jokes and self-consciously nerdy quips during class was that he wanted students to see him as just another person instead of placing him on a pedestal as the quote-unquote “professor”. To his way of thinking (and teaching), that type of deferential view of the professor as the Purveyor of Absolute Knowledge discouraged students from actively engaging with the ideas he was presenting for fear of contradicting him. I think that oftentimes a physically-printed book can have the same effect on students by situating the ideas presented therein in the privileged position of immutable fact. After all, somebody in some publishing house approved it so it must be true. In many ways, we can think of this as the literary equivalent of the “aura” that Walter Benjamin pointed to in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—the sense that the original work of art exuded a vibe that discouraged people from engaging with an artwork in a way that would produce new meanings contrary to the conservative dictates of the bourgeoisie. By replacing the work’s unique existence with a plurality of copies, however, mechanical reproduction removed the work from ritualized viewing spaces and placed it in the everyday spaces inhabited by the masses, spaces whose very familiarity and immediacy encouraged viewers to engage with the work in ways that challenged tradition. Might the same effect be seen in the Age of Digital Reproduction?


As information moves from printed pages to illuminated screens, will we come to recognize knowledge as interactive rather than immutable? I wonder if the textual migration to digitized forms might encourage the same type of agency in our students by placing those texts in networked spaces, spaces whose very nature produces new connections and intersections. As texts increasingly move into spaces that are predisposed to generating new, continually-evolving meanings, perhaps the aura that makes so many students hesitate to challenge Foucault will begin to fade as students increasingly recognize learning as the fundamentally participatory process that we know it to be.


1 comment

Nice post! I hope that seeing these texts in digital form does support a fuller conversation between students and the texts they're reading. I haven't read Walter Benjamin, but this makes me think that maybe I should.

This resonated for me with some arguments made by Kathleen Fitzpatrick at a HASTAC-sponsored talk last week. She called for a rethinking of how academics understand and practice authorship in the "digital age," saying we should use digital tools to be more collaborative, open, and giving with our intellectual creations. I believe her talk was based on her forthcoming book Planned Obsolescence, an early version of which is available online, if you want to see more. (And I may write a post about the talk, if I get the chance.)