- On Digital Scholarship
Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed.Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 93, 1961
Writing and Reading in the Digital: The Page and the Screen.
Why not start by acknowledging the elephantine paradigm shift in the room? We are in the midst of a profound change in our scholarly environment. The contours of this change are large and indistinct: as print and media archives are digitized; as we acquire online access to those archives and databases; as search tools allow us to compile materials from a wide range of sources; as new software for annotation and note-taking aids writing and research; as we learn to capture and digitize work that we wish to study; as digitized material is fluidly cited and repurposed; as we increasingly deploy the link instead of the cite; as social networks, wikis, and other modes of writing and distributing collaborative work evolve; as electronic publication speeds the process from page to print; as books are digitally distributed; as we upload to YouTube, make podcasts, remix, hyperlink, and embed prior work—we are now able to write with the very images and sounds that we have been analyzing. But even if we have the technical ability to quote and cite and embed moving images/texts/archival documents, will every media scholar want to follow the Godardian imperative and "write" with images and sounds? [End Page 150]
Rather than attempt to describe the elephant of digital media scholarship (its consequences—legal, political, social, economic, and disciplinary—unfold as new wrinkles in its ever-expanding skin), in this piece I will briefly address one thin slice of digital scholarship's thick potential: the translation of writing and reading to digital format, the material specificities of the paper-based book, and the potentials and liabilities of its translation to digital form.
Just as the codex was an improvement over the papyrus scroll, (it could be opened to a flat page, it could be opened anywhere in the text, its pages could be written on recto and verso, it was more compact, it could travel), and just as the printed book was an improvement over the codex (it could be mechanically copied and mass-reproduced), the digitally mediated "page" offers yet another paradigm shift in the processes of writing and reading. The digital page yields a new axis of depth—a page that layers to other pages, can be seen next to other pages, and can include moving images, still images, sounds.
But the digital page must be read on the computer screen. (Amazon's book-size Kindle has pages that "turn"; it is held more like a book than a computer screen, but its pages are—as of now—no model for multimedia scholarship. The text appears in only one font, in black and white, and largely unillustrated.) The computer screen is both a "page" and a "window," at once opaque and transparent; it commands a new posture for the practice of writing and reading—one that requires looking into the computer page as if through the frame of a window. And that window is simultaneously a scroll, a codex, a mechanically copied and mass-reproduced text.
For scholars who write about visual, audio, and multimedia, writing in the digital has some obvious advantages. When we are teaching or giving talks, we are able to take performative advantage of a range of illustrative examples—we can show slides, video clips, Web pages, or use the digitally enabled formats of Keynote or PowerPoint presentations. But when we turn to writing up our lectures, to writing essays and books, our critical, theoretical, and historical analyses must rest on ekphrasis, on a descriptive approximation of our object of study. Whether our methodology is historical, theoretical, critical, or merely analytic, we still must rely on the eloquence of language (for better and for worse) to perform our close analysis and ground our arguments.
In the first flush of digital scholarship—let's call it Writing in the Digital 1.0—media scholars began to take advantage of the illustrative potentials of the digital format. Conventional print books...