- Melville and Whitman, Digitally Mediated
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Call me DH-Curious: I have been closely following developments in the emerging field of the Digital Humanities, while not—as yet!—a practitioner. The “Melville and Whitman in Washington” conference offered the novice, the curious, and the expert alike a range of entries into new media-framed conversations about both authors, and my own conference experience was oriented through this aperture of scholarly vision. The methods on display were not always themselves digital, as we learned on the afternoon of the first day, when Matthew Gold organized a panel of “Lightning Talks”: open topic, two-minute presentations by anyone in the room who was feeling game. This format, Gold explained, is in use at THATCamps (The Humanities and Technology Camps), which bill themselves as “unconferences,” in the sense that they are informal, spontaneous, collaborative, and emerge from the interests of those present. Many pop up alongside (or are appended to) more traditional conference gatherings, such as the Society of Early Americanists meeting. Although the organizers needed to do some recruiting at the Melville and Whitman conference—the format was new to many attendees—the results were electrifying. [End Page 154]
At the Lightning session about a dozen scholars gave adrenalin-fueled (and mostly digitally-supplemented) performances of their work-in-progress. Edward Whitley, for example, invited us into the Vault at Pfaff’s, his site on C19 bohemians (http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/pfaffs/), while Matt Gold had us Looking for Whitman, part of a “multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy sponsored by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities” (http://lookingfor-whitman.org). In discussing “digital biography,” Ed Folsom made a compelling point about how the genre deconstructs itself back into its sources, as every claim will have verifiable digital evidence; John Bryant later informed us that future NEH funding for scholarly editions will be contingent on including digital components. Joe Fruscione emphasized the difficulties as well as the promise of the digital humanities as he discussed the challenges of assembling a digital archive of Ralph Ellison’s papers—not the least of which are the substantial costs associated with digital humanities work more generally—even as the results are offered in the spirit of expanded, free access. In the lively discussion that followed the lightning talks, Matt Gold explained his work with “Commons in a Box,” which makes digital commons software available for all (at present it might be most familiar to Melville and Whitman conference goers as the platform for the new MLA Commons). Of the thirteen scholars who offered lightning talks, however, only one—your correspondent—was a woman. This imbalance was notable in a conference that otherwise had excellent gender parity, and I hope is not typical of the field of Digital Humanities.
In a conference that highlighted the tremendous (and standard-setting) digital scholarship on Whitman, and increasingly on Melville as well, artist Matt Kish emphasized what he strikingly called the “defiantly analog” qualities of his drawings in Moby-Dick in Pictures, one for each page of a Signet classic edition of the novel. One of the reasons he used found paper for his brilliant, haunting illustrations, Kish explained, was that it resisted digital alteration; he privileged the “older and more physical world of books and printing” (x). He explains in his introduction to the volume that “with each image, I wanted there to be bits of text or strange lines and pictures showing through the paint or peeking around a sailor or a harpooneer to hint to the viewer that there is much more to all this than he or she might see at first” (ix). This recognition rhymes with the novel’s own structural and theoretical insight, in its ragged seams and its accreted, composite knowledge. And yet for all the “analog” qualities of the art itself, Kish first distributed the images through his blog, one a day, offering brief, piquant tastes of the otherwise undigestible feast that is Moby-Dick. This put me in mind of other socially-mediated forms through which readers can experience Melville’s novel and Whitman’s Leaves...