The problem of time, its tools, and its functions, inevitably looms behind all the enterprises in which it is engaged. One may not be interested in it; it will soon establish itself in the foreground. One may pretend to ignore its presence; it nevertheless remains present behind all the words which one employs.
The Age of Expansion
In that altogether too famous essay often described as his “essay on the memex,” Vannevar Bush, director of the wartime United States Office of Scientific Research and Development, observed that “[i]f the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling.”1 Noting a “mountain of research” now growing faster and out of all proportion to scholars’ ability to collectively absorb what they collectively produce, Bush described the knowledge worker “staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.” “Yet specialization,” Bush continued, in a characteristically terse expression of what we might call the antinomy of the technocratic imperative, “becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”
The baldly temporal problem of finding human time to read, and thus determine a human use for what mechanically extended researchers can [End Page 179] produce, has been with us in the United States for a long time, and longer elsewhere. Without doubt, it has been aggravated and refined in specific ways, by four decades of relative economic contraction and the further subdivision of labor in the U.S. university that accompanied its unabated, if largely financialized expansion after the world economic crisis of the 1970s. It is equally without doubt that its roots lie in the long American nineteenth century, with industrial revolution, manifest destiny, and mechanized civil war. But in the form in which it affects us most acutely, in 2012, the temporization of research—by which I mean its improvisation, its deferral, and its truncative presentism or “trimming,” all at once—might be said to derive from the scale of science applied in the second and final great war, the one that generated the episteme indexed by Harold Innis’ apothegm “The interest in post-war problems is the post-war problem” (1946, 56).
In his author’s foreword to Giles Goat-Boy, the novel he began while teaching at Pennsylvania State University in the late 1950s and early ’60s, John Barth described an “epidemic of academic gigantism” beginning with that war and multiplied by the Sputnik crisis, in “a massive effort to ‘catch up,’ fueled by an inpouring of federal money that would fertilize the groves of Academe right through the Sixties” (1987, v). By most accounts, the literary humanities in the U.S. came comparatively late and gradually to this hyperproduction party. But it is unquestionable that the late-blooming and sometimes necessarily “silent” work of cumulative human wisdom has been nothing less than thoroughly colonized, now, by the disjunctive form of the scientific breakthrough noisily achieved in relative youth, and that this has decisively transformed the critical climate in which we operate. Indeed, we might well describe our chronic overproduction of research monographs, today, in their displacement of the critical essays of yore, as a refraction of that oblique appropriation of technoscience, through which a discipline practically weakened by the war relinquished the only advantage it retained over its triumphant rival: the not at all useless, and not at all publicly scorned normativity of critical vision in a universe of amorally mechanized research.
To the extent that a newly arrived and thoroughly wonkish new or digital media studies is today the latest and greatest white humanist hope for salvation through grant funding and facility in technical administration, it might prompt us to consider, once again, the tragedy of Marshall McLuhan, a writer and thinker I admire and take seriously, against the grain of the dominant cultures of literary humanism and antihumanism even today. By “the tragedy of McLuhan” I mean not so much McLuhan’s steadfast and extreme refusal of proper academic discipline for...