Digital Idealism, Social Regulation and Our Textual Heritage via Deegan & Sutherland

In our reflections on a variety of manifestations of digital publishing over the past few months, many of us have expressed concern about the political and social implications of the digital projects we explore. In particular, I’m thinking back to many of the anxieties that Puneet expressed in her post re: “what does the digital do to the text?” I would like to briefly explore Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland’s discussion of this theme in the chapter “The Cultural Work of Editing” from their book Transferred Illusions.

For Deegan and Sutherland, “the hard question, the question worth asking of any technology, is whether the new things it enables us to do make for a better world” (67-68). This question is indeed a hard one and one that also seems impossibly broad. While they offer a balanced perspective on both sides of the digital debate, their objection to the visionary rhetoric of digital scholarship like Jerome McGann’s is that it is not all that visionary in their view. They argue that hypertext projects like McGann’s Rosetti Archive still organize themselves around the principles of print culture, meanwhile accruing the potential disadvantages of neglecting established editing apparatuses and alienating mainstream literary enthusiasts who might be off-put by the hypertext form. What it seems that Deegan and Sutherland are getting at is the need for all projects to define their goals explicitly so that it is evident that change is a vertical rather than a needless lateral movement disguised as revolution.

I don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on the inherent cultural value of the variety of digital projects in the humanities and I don’t think that this is necessarily Deegan and Sutherland’s goal either. I summarize their discussion here namely to offer a scholarly perspective on the anxieties that many of us have been expressing on this blog and to remind us that to demand self-reflexivity is not an argument for or against the goals of the digital humanities.

I’d like to offer another quotation from Deegan and Sutherland’s chapter: “there is nevertheless a persistent connection between the editing of a canon of literary works and other forms of social regulation. To define a nation in terms of its writing is always a selective act” (62). In the panel discussion on the future of the humanities scholarship that Emily references in her most recent postJohn Ralston Saul, the current president of PEN International, argued that a revitalization of the humanities in Canada could come in the form of an opening up of the Canadian Literary canon to include works by both Native and French Canadian writers alongside English Canadian writers in single, multi-lingual anthologies. In what ways might we argue that print culture, the culture of the selective anthology and the scholarly edition, may present a selective Canadian canon that does not reflect the multi-lingual makeup of Canada’s literary community? In what ways may the “spatial liberation” of digitization work to treat this misrepresentation? Does the assembly of such an anthology have the same political and social statement if published digitally as it would if resources were allocated to its printing?

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2 Responses to Digital Idealism, Social Regulation and Our Textual Heritage via Deegan & Sutherland

  1. cstelman says:

    You have raised some really interesting questions regarding literary anthologies in your last paragraph. I am particularly interested in how the digital humanities could potentially, as you have suggested above, “treat this misrepresentation” of the “multi-lingual makeup of Canada’s literary community.”

    I think that some of the benefits of a digital anthology over a print anthology are that the digital anthology would not assume the same level of finality that a printed one would. In this way, the digital anthology would not promote a certain handful of authors or editors as worthy of being canonized. This potential for a digital anthology to be constantly revised, edited, added to, etc., would, I believe, promote inclusivity and be reflective of greater number of contributors from various backgrounds and objectives, therefore more aptly representing a certain literary community or cultural identity.

    I am not advocating for digital anthologies over print, but I do believe that there seems to be a preference for digital texts over printed texts amongst student researchers, primarily due to their accessibility. A digital anthology would therefore have the power to change how certain literary communities are represented, and thus, I believe, have a responsibility to do so.

    • julie.morrissy says:

      I agree with Chloe that your last paragraph raises some very interesting points. Certainly, it seems that the digital world affords more opportunities for inclusivity in publishing since the length of a book is no longer an issue in terms of financial constraints. Where marginalised group have previously been under-represented, the digital does open up more opportunities for their representation, but as Claire gets at, would this be a meaningful representation? Would marginalised groups still have a fair complaint in that their inclusion is only possible when economics are not an issue? I wonder whether marginalised communities would consider such inclusion as a form of afterthought.

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