- On Reading a New:Native Comunications Systems and Scholarly Literacy
The proliferation of digital databases over the past decade has been a windfall for early Americanists who now find themselves with convenient and near instantaneous access to a wide range of printed material from the colonial era. And yet, although this access has doubtless simplified, if not revolutionized, basic research for scholars around the world, it has raised new sets of issues while leaving other, longstanding ones unresolved. New methodological questions raised by the era of digital scholarship include how cataloguing and acquisition strategies, information systems, and searchable text transform our reading practices, and what the impact of these transformed practices is on the production of knowledge—both within the academy and without. Put another way, we might ask how networks of texts, keywords, and genres reshape the geography of archival work. A more long-standing question—one that all scholars and teachers of early colonial America must eventually confront—concerns the status of Native American literatures in a field where digital resources have multiplied the numbers and kinds of texts available for us to read. This question requires us to confront what we mean by literature, what we envision as Native, and how we imagine Native literatures to interact or engage with European literary traditions. Such questions resonate through departmental hallways, at [End Page 527] conferences, in scholarly books, and in the classroom, but as pragmatic as the discussions they produce might be, they can leave one wary of the familiar tropes and figures used to account for Native voices in early narratives. These include mediation, ventriloquism, orality, and literacy.
My own uneasiness about these conversations derives from a suspicion that they often only circle around a far more fundamental set of questions that lie at the heart of our work as scholars and teachers, and are exacerbated by the turn to digital media: What do we do when the historical record isn’t legible in the way that we’ve been trained to read? When our own literacy is itself at stake? At its most ambitious, these are the problems that interdisciplinary work attempts to unfold: bringing disparate analytic and reading practices to bear on one another in order to make legible what has not only previously been illegible, but has often, in fact, been invisible. This is the site where Matt Cohen’s The Networked Wilderness operates. By grounding his analysis in a deep understanding of digital and media studies, Cohen points us toward a new era of colonial, Indigenous, and Native American studies, revealing new materials that emerge from familiar sources. In doing so, he asks that we “alter our relationship to those sources” (128). In return, he trains us how to read anew.
The Networked Wilderness will appeal to a broad range of scholars in the fields of book history, early American, Indigenous, Native American, and digital/media studies. Cohen’s key insight is to bring these fields into productive conversation and to imagine how their intersection will shape future scholarship for each. More importantly, rather than subordinating Native American and Indigenous studies to these other fields, Cohen demonstrates that close attention to Native communications radically remakes them. As his title suggests, Cohen’s use of the term “Networked” signals a strategy that courts a certain kind of deliberate anachronism rather than avoiding it. But where such anachronism can lead to confusion, internal paradox, and failure if deployed haphazardly, Cohen’s deft approach to transhistorical analysis opens the field in suggestive ways. Indeed, The Networked Wilderness self-consciously bypasses the traditional print/orality binary that has framed so many past approaches to early Native literatures and, in so doing, produces an uncanny insight about the relation between colonial networks and our own digital world. He writes that “as we increasingly interact with and through new multimedia technologies in a polyglot, culturally diverse world, what the American Indians and the English were going through in the [seventeenth-century] northeastern woods may [End Page 528] seem eerily familiar” (2...