- Reading Under a Big Tent. A review of Roger Whitson, Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories
The field of digital humanities has had a contentious relationship with the idea of the "big tent," or a widely inclusive approach that embraces a variety of disciplines, methodologies, and theories. On one hand, pitching such a big tent seems a way toward a more diverse set of practices. On the other hand, academic expertise is sometimes defined by the very smallness of the tent. Roger Whitson's Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities is an ambitious, interdisciplinary work that stakes out a very big tent. It ranges from nineteenth-century theories of labor and mechanical calculation to present-day steampunk novels, art, and fandom, approaching these texts from a blend of theoretical perspectives captured by the book's subtitle: "literary retrofuturisms, media archaeologies, alternate histories."
I suspect that – just one paragraph in – readers of this review already have an opinion about this methodological and historical range. And I think that Whitson's book will appeal deeply to those who find this approach exciting, though I doubt that it will change skeptics' minds. Whitson unites his disparate approaches under the term "steampunk methodology," meaning that steampunk's anachronistic, imaginative repurposings of Victorian culture offer a new kind of scholarly practice. Steampunk, he argues, gives us a new reading practice, one that isn't constrained by historical period or close reading but instead gives us access to "a startlingly diverse set of narratives about the nineteenth century, themselves a consequence of the objects, cultures, signals, and interfaces used to access that history" (5). I find this to be the most exciting part of Whitson's project. It opens up an energizing range of possibilities for studying the past in the presentist mode that has recently garnered much attention in Victorian literary studies (see, for instance, "V21 Forum").
Whitson practices this methodology in order to create the "nineteenth-century digital humanities" of the book's title, a back-and-forth process between Victorian studies, digital humanities, and European nineteenth-century culture. At some points, this proves to be digital humanities practiced in ways influenced by nineteenth-century culture, as when Whitson advocates for a non-human form of digital labor informed by Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England. At other times, this means digital humanities practices that study the nineteenth-century, which might include a digital forum for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online about baking from Victorian recipes or Lego enthusiasts re-making Charles Babbage's difference engine. While each instance is creative and intriguing, the concept of "nineteenth-century digital humanities" would be more compelling if it were more cohesive methodologically across the book as a whole. For instance, Whitson's reading of the nineteenth-century origins of non-human digital labor is evocative and would be even stronger if it were better connected to the other chapters. As this chapter is bookended by a chapter on geologic time and one on steampunk fandom, it left me with a sense of great possibility for this approach but without a clear payoff.
Some readers will enjoy Whitson's engagement with a wide range of materials, creators, and theories. For me, that is the crux of this book: it offers a methodology that depends upon historical, textual, and theoretical breadth, and that breadth challenges a more traditional approach to scholarship predicated on depth. Whitson's method and content are deliberate and well thought through, as he sees both the fields of digital humanities and Victorian studies as unnecessarily limited by historical period and by audience. For him, steampunk is a way to undo those limitations, to open up these fields through anachronism.
This leads me to Whitson's most provocative claim: that scholarship should look outside the academy for interlocutors, inspiration, and even education. He argues that "publics are already participating in the digital humanities" by "discussing nineteenth-century history on Twitter chats and Google Hangouts, by writing steampunk novels published electronically on Kindle or on...