- Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary by Brad Pasanek
Mr. Pasanek's book aspires to update the eighteenth-century genre of "philosophical dictionary," which, exemplified by Bayle and Voltaire, "offer[s] alphabetical order in [End Page 78] lieu of narrative structure, mixing matters of fact and commentary." Interweaving cultural criticism (Raymond Williams's Keywords, Foucault, and so on) with digital humanities in an effort to show what digital humanities can do, the book also demarcates its limits. Mr. Pasanek proposes to treat his "database" as "a commonplace book." By organizing "thousands of metaphors of mind from collections of eighteenth-century literature" into "eleven headwords" and sub-categories, he hopes to "challenge scholarly commonplaces by means of commonplacing, preparing the way for new studies of eighteenth-century writing."
Metaphors of Mind is certainly a work representative of our times. Its message is primarily its medium. Mr. Pasanek himself cites Austin Dobson's anecdote about the matron who complained of the dictionary she was reading that "she found the story somewhat disconnected." In the place of connection, Mr. Pasanek offers "desultory reading" (emphasis in original) as "[p]racticed by Grub Street and perfected in the 'rambling' and 'idling' Samuel Johnson." This conflation of "Grub Street" and Johnson might give pause, but the larger point is that in our electronic times, desultory rambling and idling become surfing the web, wandering whither the search engine listeth. Electronic commonplace books, however, appear very much to resemble the print versions that flourished from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. They can usefully aid study, contemplation, and composition, but they also may encourage confusion of appearances of learning with its substance, and invite mistaking industry for achievement. These dangers are prominently satirized by Sterne, Swift, Cervantes, Rabelais, and Erasmus, and associated by those writers with reservations about modernity that one might expect eighteenth-century scholars to be cognizant of when they reflect on digitized modernity.
Unquestionably, the digital revolution has had important democratizing effects in making previously obscure material accessible and in facilitating archival research by scholars without travel-to-collections funding. However, availability is no guarantee of significance. The existence of a document does not demonstrate its historical, cultural, or aesthetic value. Much of what is written is conventional, redundant, and rightly forgettable; as Nietzsche points out, forgetting is an evolutionarily valuable skill. Just as automobile driving techniques, once learned, become unconscious so our minds can be otherwise occupied than in thinking about the location of the turn signal, so once an idea comes into a culture, that culture need not remember every conventional reiteration or minor variation of the idea. It would in fact be debilitating to do so. The digitalizing of vast quantities of documents is a wonderful aid in widenet, bottom-up social historical research. It also has what the eighteenth century would call a "leveling" effect. Long unread, out-of-print texts can become the subjects of commentary. Ephemeral publications "rub elbows with" work continually reprinted. Search engine driven democracy ensures that anyone using a keyword, in no matter how mediocre or silly a way, will receive recognition, the scholarly equivalent of a trophy for participation. By undoing the work of time and judgment in regulating forgetting, digitalized archiving may obscure important differences between cybernetic intelligence and human assessments of relevance and value.
Concerning Mr. Pasanek's project, if [End Page 79] certain metaphors of mind were prevalent in eighteenth-century English usage, the significance of this cannot be simply "that's how it was in the eighteenth century." The notion that peculiarities of the past are interesting simply because they occurred is the attitude of Old Historicism. Electronic antiquarianism is likely to seem in time as quaint and self-involved as print-based antiquarianism came to be. One would expect as much, given cognitive, neuroscience research suggesting that memory is organized and accessed with a view to guiding future life-enhancing actions. In scholarly terms, this means that something becomes salient for memory only if it bears on an argument of consequence. Humanities writing has...