- A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction by Jerome McGann
The digital humanities, that bastion of progressive scholarship (and funding) within the ongoing crisis in the humanities, is itself in crisis. The institutional framework in which humanities scholarship operates is built on print, and the shift to new digital models has been largely uneven. While university libraries are often at the forefront of the move toward digitization, academic publishing and professionalization in humanities departments lag behind in adapting to the new conditions of research. How should the requirements of tenure change when more and more research is born-digital? How should digital research institutes be housed within the traditional university infrastructure? Who should oversee the transfer of the physical archive to digital environments? And then, what do we do with all these books? According to Jerome McGann’s manifesto on the digital humanities, A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction, the unlikely hero of this crisis is the seemingly anachronistic philologist. Philology hasn’t been completely outside of the conversation surrounding the digital humanities—David Greetham and James Turner are also recent proponents—but McGann’s book is the first full-length treatment of this “dryasdust” discipline’s current usefulness. McGann borrows his definition of philology from the nineteenth-century German philologist August Boeckh: “Die Erkenntnis des Erkannten,” or “The Knowledge of What is and has been Known.” This formulation of “is and has been” is a sorely needed corrective to the digital humanities’ tendency toward presentism. McGann argues that philology’s focus on the preservation of the physical archive, which has so often earned it the pejorative labels [End Page 141] of “pre-critical” and “pre-hermeneutic,” is necessary if we are to successfully navigate the various problems that arise as we look forward by looking back.
McGann opens the first third of his book, “From History to Method,” with a simple and important question: Why does textual scholarship matter? In brief, it matters because the digitization of our material cultural inheritance, undertaken by commercial entities like Google, Chadwyck-Healey, and Gale as well as academic ones like JSTOR and the Digital Public Library of America, requires the perspective of the textual critic and book historian to account for the commonalities and differences between bibliographical and digital technologies. We have not yet invented a more perfect meaning-making machine than the printed scholarly edition, and if we are to reinvent such editions in the form of online archives we have much to learn from their use and design. Paper-based documents bear witness to the history of their own making, as D. F. McKenzie famously noted, but online archives put our cultural inheritance at risk through the invisible elisions inherent in their construction and maintenance. Thus, the return to philology, whose devaluation throughout the twentieth century is the theme of this opening section. The rise of theory, which found its apotheosis in Lyotard’s maxim that the purpose of philosophy is to “produce not the known, but the unknown,” tended away from the positivist, instrumental world of philology and toward abstraction. McGann traces this movement from the nineteenth century debate between Friedrich Nietzsche and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. At the time, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff easily won over against Nietzsche’s “fact-deficient” narrativizing of the archive, but Nietzsche’s philosophy found favor in the second half of the twentieth century. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s “fact-sufficient” assumption that the archive can speak for itself isn’t tenable after deconstruction, but his approach finds new force in the face of our current philological dilemma. The recognition that our documents have complex histories beyond their status as linguistic constructs is crucial as we attempt to minimize the inevitable distortions consequent to digitization.
The second section, “From Theory to Method,” addresses the concrete problems of interpretation in print versus digital environments. For McGann, all interpretation is performative in the sense that it results [End Page 142] in a discrete product whose relation...