Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obsolescence and the Scholar's Tools

When I moved house from San Francisco to Chicago this summer, I sold the filing cabinet, threw away some books of old slides, and recycled piles of old notes. I kept the ones that I thought were most useful. They were heavy: expensive to ship. I thought about the burden of old tools. I thought of one of my committee-members who proudly proclaimed last spring that he'd sold his book collection. What?! -- we all exclaimed. His notes were in spiral-bound copies, he explained. He didn't need the books themselves at all.

Much as we depend upon the permanence of objects for our own archival research, those objects have a consumption-value besides their use-value, and the two are easily confused.

Books are a luxury, a prop; perhaps a fetish. Which makes me wonder: are the notecards a fetish as well? The unread spirals -- a fetish? I don't know: but I do have a hunch that what matters most of all is the tool that helps us immediately, in present time, to tell a better story. If my dancing spiraling notes help me see the skeleton of an article being formed: if they help me weave tomorrow's talk and lecture, then they do their job better than all the lasting piles of notes I could possibly leave behind.

Digital scholarship and fancy new software both promote dangerously ephemeral records. Andrew Keating and Jim Sparrow, both digital historians whom I admire, have separately asked me the same thing. I'm writing my current article with the Personal Brain: will those notes still be accessible thirty years from now? When I'm preparing my lectures as a tenured professor, shouldn't I want to have notes that will have lasted?

Maybe. But here's a contention: most scholarly tools are ultimately ephemeral. I have notecards from my quals and xeroxes used to prepare my dissertation. No scholar I know flips through his old notecards in the evenings for fun. Many fine lecturers I've known enjoy the challenge of rewriting their last year's lectures again from scratch: rethinking the old problems, revisiting the old friends, readjusting the ideas to respond to contemporary concerns, new scholarship, or even ongoing politics.

In history as in film-making, the product is what counts. People read the book: the book remains. They hear the lecture, not the work behind it. The conversations, notes, and plans flitter away, trash on the breeze. This much seems clear to me: It is far less important what happens to the software I use than whether I'm able, in a shorter and more efficient way, to produce the next article and the next book.

And yet we still pay the movers to ship our books.


All of this brings us back, of course, to the war between the written and the spoken word. The historical account upon which Jacques Derrida deracinated philosophy was the story, new in the 1960s, about what had happened to our ancestors at the dawn of written language. Archaeologists were unveiling how ephemeral speech had waned in importance as it was, for official and symbolic purposes, replaced by written law.

Digital history, it seems to me, is performing a similar intervention on written words: wearing slowly away at the fetish value of written learning. The digital is promoting in place of the permanent/written an ephemeral kind of scholarship that asks to be outdated by new thoughts and new archival ruptures. If the traces, the ephemeral, the consumerist/fetishized stuff of notecards and heavy books vanish, and in their place remains a network of threaded-together ideas, consolidating every so often into a fine, deep essay? Then, I imagine, digital history is doing us all a great favor.

Not least of all by untethering the mobile scholar from her dozen thirty-five-pound boxes of notecards, that awful shackle of the past.


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