Electronic Scholarship

or, Scholarly Publishing and the Public


John Unsworth

Forthcoming in The Literary Text in the Digital Age, ed. Richard Finneran (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the Annual Convention of the Modern Languages Association, December 27th, 1994, San Diego CA.

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  1. In a volume devoted to particular electronic projects in the humanities, I thought it might be useful to talk about the context in which this activity is taking place. I don't think we can understand the real importance of electronic scholarly editions--or our own responses to them--unless we see electronic scholarship in its larger cultural context. But that argument can't be made without at least sketching out what that context might be, so I ask you to bear with me while I do that: although it may not seem so at the outset, I eventually will come around from the general to the specific.

  2. In many quarters of our profession, and among some of its immediate neighbors, the electronification of scholarly communication has become the occasion of more than a little anxiety over the past five or six years. This gradual but apparently inevitable change in the way we go about our business is affecting scholars and students in many different disciplines of the humanities and the sciences, as well as academic and commercial publishers, tenure-committees, university administrators, MLA policy-makers, private and government funding agencies, and librarians. The change that is taking place has profound implications, implications that are ethical and philosophical, economic, formal and generic, legal, and--sometimes overwhelmingly--practical and procedural.

  3. Our responses to this change and its implications have covered the full range from despair to rejoicing, but for the most part they have focused on the local effects of the situation, rather than on understanding our circumstances as a limited and special case of a much more general shift in the culture as a whole. With few exceptions, academics have not successfully addressed the public on the more global effects of computers, networks, and electronic communication, and where they have, their discourse has generally fallen prey to the impulse to celebrate or to condemn the imagined, rather than to analyze or even extrapolate from the real. In the celebratory vein, academics and the mass-market seem to have a shared interest in virtual reality, but what real analysis there has been on this topic has found it difficult to compete for public attention with the imaginary VR represented in movies, newsmagazines, and televison shows--a VR that is largely vaporware and speculation. On the other hand, the elegy for vanishing values in an electronic age is a popular genre which academics and the tweedier pundits have had more or less to themselves. At another time, it would be worth discussing the public discourse on VR and its academic component, but it is the Arnoldian lament for culture in the age of the chip that is more immediately relevant to the topic at hand, because it is here that the defenders of traditional academic practices find themselves in strange collusion with both the traditional and the emergent enemies of intellectualism. I will argue that this particular resistance to change within the academy serves the interests of those who would like to see these new technologies integrated into current markets with the least possible alteration of the property system or the role of the consumer.

  4. As an example of the academic resistance to change, I can think of no better example than Sven Birkerts. Birkerts is an academic and frequent reviewer of contemporary literature in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, who also writes on cultural issues in books such as The Gutenberg Elegies (from which I will quote in a moment), and who has found an audience in literary quarterlies like New Letters and Parnassus, in scholarly journals like The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, in upscale mass-market monthlies like The New Republic and Harper's[1], and even in fashion magazines like Mirabella. Birkerts is an unreconstructed Platonist, untouched by the decades of deconstruction and, I suspect, unfettered by much experience with the digital age that he deplores. All of this would seem to make him a straw man, but I think there are many in the academy who share his views, and certainly there are many without who take him as a representative of the humanist perspective. In short, while he may not be an especially formidable disputant, he is a thoroughly representative one.

  5. In an essay from The Gutenberg Elegies called "The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age," Birkerts writes:
    My core fear is that we, as a culture, as a species, are becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth--from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable mystery--and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millenia been central to the very idea of culture, and that we are pledging instead to a faith in the web. What is our idea, our ideal, of wisdom these days? Who represents it? Who even invokes it? Our postmodern culture is a vast fabric of competing isms; we are leaderless and subject to the terrors, masked as freedoms, of an absolute relativism. It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of technology, but more wrong to ignore the great transformative impact of new technological systems--to act as if it's all just business as usual. (111-112)
    It is difficult to know where to begin with this, but perhaps the first thing to note is that, in this concluding moment of his essay, it is fear that is foregrounded. Specifically, Birkerts fears the decline of hierarchical Judeo-Christian mysteries and their replacement with "vast lateral connectedness." The unargued premise here is that wisdom of the mystical, private, and priestly sort "has for millenia been central to the very idea of culture"--followed by a leap to the conclusion that, in its absence, we are "leaderless" and "subject to ... terrors, masked as freedoms." For Birkerts, the emblems of the new order are the web and the hive--symbols of instinctive and collective cultures, symbols associated with lower forms of life. Under the circumstances, the recent and very rapid deployment of the World-Wide Web, that internet-based system of vast, laterally connected hypertexts, no doubt seems to Birkerts a sign of the apocalypse, and Deleuze and Guattari's theorization of the hive its demonic scriptures.

  6. I've begun with the end of Birkerts' essay, because this paragraph makes clear the ideological basis of his discussion: it's worth pointing out that the same ideology is the basis of the most common academic objections to scholarly work in the electronic medium. In discussions at various colleges and universities around the country, where I have gone to present the work of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities or to talk about the electronic journal Postmodern Culture, the same fears surface, often in strenuous arguments against the perceived technological threats of depersonalization, of inauthenticity, of subjugation to the mechanical, and perhaps most centrally, of the substitution of quantity for quality. When the subject is scholarship, the fear that predominates is the fear of pollution--the fear of losing our priestly status in the anarchic welter of unfiltered, unrefined voices. When the subject is teaching, the fear expressed is the fear of obsolescence--the fear that technology will deprive our students of the inestimable value of our presence in the classroom, or more bluntly, the fear that our presence will no longer be required. When the subject is the library, the fear expressed is the fear of disorientation--that we will lose our sense of the value of the past. In different ways, each of these core fears shares with Birkerts' own the quality of being based on the assumption that "we are becoming shallower," and that "lateral connectedness" comes at the expense of vertical distinctions. In a word, the common element is a fear that, as scholars, teachers, and human beings, we stand to lose our mysterious uniqueness--or, what comes to the same thing, that this uniqueness will no longer be honored--in the new technological landscape.

  7. It is entirely appropriate, then, that Birkerts' essay as a whole addresses itself to Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and that his reading of this essay should be so...unique. Birkerts understands Benjamin to be objecting to the decline of the aura, and to be saddened by the replacement of that artifact of presence with the infinitely reduced authority of the infinitely reproducible. Birkerts himself wishes to extend these points in a discussion of the aura of the individual in daily life, and in particular he wants to ask "how that aura may be affected by the individual's engagement with various technologies" (108). Birkerts excuses Benjamin for not taking this step himself, explaining that this extension of his topic "may not have been as pressing for Benjamin as it is for us, because in his time the forces of mediation--the technologies abstracting and deflecting natural human interactions--had not yet attained critical mass" (109).

  8. Of course, this is either a willful or a woeful misunderstanding of Benjamin, whose whole effort in the essay Birkerts cites is, and I quote, to "brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery--concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense" (218). Far from ignoring "the great transformative impact of new technological systems" on the lives of individuals, Benjamin undertakes to analyze this impact in a discussion that has much greater historical "depth" and practical "wisdom" than Birkerts' own. Benjamin writes,
    ...for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice--politics. (224)
    For Benjamin, politics based on art is Fascism, because it gives the masses the "right" to express themselves in place of their right to change power and property relations. Communism, for Benjamin, takes the opposite course and politicizes art, using it to demystify the "cult" in "culture" and to create broad awareness of political needs, rather than using its satisfactions as a substitute for political justice.

  9. The conclusions which Birkerts draws from his misreading of Benjamin hinge on two unexamined logical premises: The minor premise is that the epistemological situation in which we find ourselves today, with respect to new technologies, is unique and unprecedented; the major premise is that, up until this recent crisis, human communication was essentially unmediated and therefore unproblematic. Birkerts writes:
    At any and every moment, our action, our emotional disposition, our thoughts, our will, all combine into what another person might experience as our presence. At earlier stages of history, before the advent of sense-extending technologies, human interactions were necessarily carried out face-to-face, presence-to-presence. Before the telephone and the megaphone, the furthest a voice could carry was the distance of a shout. We could say, then, that all human communication is founded in presence. There was originally no severance between the person and the communication.
    I don't know what, in Birkerts opinion, intervened between grunting around the campfire and gabbing on the cellphone, but his history seems telescopically primal, to say the least. Where does writing fit in this history? Does it count (and why wouldn't it?) as a "sense-extending technology"? It's remarkable, really, that this paragraph could be written in the 1990s: whether or not one agrees with Derrida's analyses of the sign, of the metaphysics of presence, of dissemination, it is remarkable that one could simply ignore them. It's been nearly 25 years since "Signature Event Context," where, in a section called "Writing and Telecommunication," Derrida argued--rather persuasively, many people thought--not only that it is wrong to think of writing as a supplement to communication in person, a supplement to presence, but further that writing, and all other forms of signification including speech, are based in the presumption of absence, and therefore are independent from the context of production and from the authority of the producer. As Derrida points out, this is the substance of Plato's indictment of writing, in the Phaedrus, and this is why I call Birkerts an unreconstructed Platonist, even though he seems not to recognize that the diminution of "aura" he thinks is a consequence of new technologies was attributed, millenia ago, to the Fall from speech into writing.

  10. At present, though, what's more pertinent is the fact that the sort of reasoning in which Birkerts engages contributes, wittingly or not, to the marginalization of the humanities and thereby helps to clear the field for the subjugation of these new technologies to the system of power and property relations that, up until now, has characterized contemporary mass media. The discipline of the humanities, at least since the 19th century, has found itself in much the same position as modern art--not quite to the extent of adopting what Benjamin calls the "negative theology ... of pure art" in which any social function is denied, but at least to the extent of defining itself in opposition to the grinding imperatives of business, of financial profitability, of "usefulness" in the philistine sense. For most of the last one hundred years, in ways variously adapted to the temper of the times and the fashions of the academy, we have defined ourselves as keepers of the flame, as guardians of values little honored in the marketplace. In fact, we cherish our abnormality, our resistance to the pragmatic demands of the world, our uselessness. And we're not the only ones who have this idea of what we're about: the rest of the world, when it bothers to think of us, largely shares this view, albeit with some difference in valuative emphasis. So when the enlightened mass-market magazines go looking for a humanist commentary on the influx of technology into our culture, it will be the self-marginalizing Jeremiad of someone like Birkerts that they will look for, and find, whether or not it has any basis in fact, any sense of history, any wisdom--in short, whether or not it has any of the qualities it claims we have lost.

  11. In fact, the most revolutionary aspect of networked communication is not that they deprive us of presence--a presence which we lost long ago, if indeed we ever enjoyed it at all--but rather that it makes it possible for us to present ourselves to one another in much more immediate, more elective, and more productive ways. If we were to evaluate the various "sense-extending technologies" according to their economies of communication, we would find that, up until the advent of computer networks, these technologies fell into one of two categories: one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Manuscript writing, speech, the telegraph, and the telephone are all examples of one-to-one communications--granted that in some cases, they might be more accurately called one-to-a-few, still their essential character is person-to-person. Print, television, movies, and radio--the technologies of broadcasting--are one-to-many technologies: notwithstanding the fact that the content communicated may have been produced by many hands, it emanates from one point and is inherently designed to be received, in a one-way transaction, at many different sites. In contrast to all of these, computer networks offer many-to-many communication, multicasting instead of broadcasting.

  12. The democratization of access and the freedom of examination that Benjamin recognized as a feature of mechanical reproduction are also dramatically increased on the network. While it is true that the penetration of computer technology into our culture is taking place along class lines, it is also true that entry-level equipment costs a tenth of what it did five years ago, in real terms, and the computer is rapidly absorbing other household technologies such as the television, the video deck, the answering machine, and the fax. And finally, it is worth considering that the sole imperative of our economy seems to be that we must have access to information--or, if you prefer, we must be accessible to information--whether we want it or not. Early in his essay, Benjamin quotes Paul Valery's prediction, circa 1934, that "Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign" (Pieces sur l'Art, 226; qtd. in Illuminations, 219). It is a matter of some moment, though, whether the hand in this scenario holds a remote control or a mouse. If it is a remote control, then we can expect a sort of Nick at Night future--Leave it to Beaver on demand. If it's a mouse, we might hope for something better, and we might hope that the consumer will, at will, be able to become a producer. Fiske and the Birmingham school notwithstanding, there is a vast difference between the productiveness of the average television viewer and the productiveness of the average netizen.

  13. This brings me, at last, to the question of electronic scholarship--or rather, at last, to the discussion of its possibilities rather than the refutation of our fears. I think we can expect that, whatever happens in the larger cultural sphere, electronic scholarly editions will alter the course of our profession in significant ways. The disciplines' emphasis on theory over the last two decades will not disappear--after all, electronic forms and practices offer a new field of opportunities for theorizing signification, communication, literature, and culture--but we can expect to see increasing interest in editing (including the theory of editing), in bibliographic and textual scholarship, in history, and in linguistic analysis, since these are areas in which the new technology opens up the possibility of re-creating the basic resources of all our activities and providing us with revolutionary tools for working with those resources. In effect, we have at least a generation's worth of work to do, and probably much more, in reinventing our libraries, preserving physical ephemera, creating new research archives, and revamping our modes of scholarly communication.

  14. Already, scholarly exchange takes place at all levels of the network, from the trivial and ephemeral to the highly filtered and presumably durable. In real-time chat sessions, person-to-person email, networked discussion groups, newsletters, peer-reviewed journals, multimedia databases, and any number of other forms, the network has, for scholars, begun to organize itself into a sort of pyramid: there's a great deal of mostly unfiltered stuff at the base, a smaller amount of more specialized but still fairly conversational discussion groups in the middle, and an even smaller amount of tightly constructed, highly filtered material at the top. And rather than having to choose one or the other of these levels, most of us participate in all of them at one point or another. Indeed, for many of us, annual conferences are becoming the supplement to our disembodied conversations during the rest of the year--the time when we meet each other, sometimes for the first time--and usually feel a little strange about reconciling the physical presence with the networked one. I venture that each of the scholarly projects discussed in this volume has had its genesis and much of its incubation in the usually informal, collaborative atmosphere of the internet. As for presence, any participant in a networked discussion group will testify that personality and personal presence are, if anything, amplified in that medium.

  15. But even at its more formal, more filtered levels, electronic scholarly communication still retains the quality of making present that which was hitherto remote, difficult to access, and generally impossible to recontextualize. Each of the projects discussed in this volume, for example, permits the individual scholar, the teacher, the student to have a near-first-hand experience of manuscripts formerly available only to the few, and only to one person at a time. It becomes clear, in this context, that the conservative defense of presence is in fact a defense of exclusivity, especially when one considers that the availability of a digital reproduction does not in any way render the original any less available, to those who seek it.

  16. In addition to making primary materials more accessible to a broader audience, electronic editions have, at least potentially, the disturbing quality of open-endedness, of extensibility, and of collectivity. Because digital presentation makes it possible to add to what exists without continually reproducing the base, electronic editions are very likely to set for themselves a larger scope than one would take on in any print work; in many cases, this will mean that the project must be carried out by many hands, may be deliberately left open to connection with related databases, and probably will continue to grow long after the project's originator has passed on to other things, or has simply passed on. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting of those possibilities is the first, especially since the electronic archive has the potential to be added to by its users. To take a concrete and current example, the Civil War archive under construction at the Insitute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, under the direction of Ed Ayers, accepts (and screens, and edits) contributions from the public. Beginning as a research archive, it has developed into a museum installation where interested members of the public may come to browse the archive, but may also bring pertinent materials from their own family collections to contribute to the archive, scanning them in at the museum and then taking the artifact home. In addition, we are currently developing a means for users of the archive to cull information from the archive--on a particular person, date, site, event, or other topic of interest--and to contribute that collection to the archive itself, albeit subject to the scrutiny of the archive's editorial management. The archive is also connected to other relevant projects on the network, such as the Smithsonian's online collection of Matthew Brady photographs and, in the near future, to a specially curated digital exhibition of Civil-War era American Art, also at the Smithsonian. The significance of this project, then, is not only that it offers a practically infinite lateral connectedness with other archives, but also that it has a kind of vertical porousness which allows the individual user to become a contributor.

  17. Here, then, is a model of interactivity which doesn't fit well into the broadcast architecture, and which implies a role for the user that is far more foreign to the model of broadcast communication than are video on demand or interactive home shopping, the two most frequently cited applications of the emerging national information infrastructure. Video on demand and home shopping not only fit well into the current market system, and require no alteration whatsoever in the role of the consumer; they also imply a certain kind of network architecture, with high bandwidth into the home and low bandwidth out of it. And among those who will plan, implement, and finance that information infrastructure, the defense of humanistic values over against the electronification of culture serves the ironic purpose of ensuring that the demand for something more than canned video will not have to be met in the marketplace, but will be safely contained in the university, where mystical presence can be meted out in the traditional quantities of the handmade.

  18. In a fine and intelligent essay called "A Potency of Life: Scholarship in an Electronic Age," Willard McCarty--one of the true pioneers of electronic scholarship--notes that
    what we can observe so far suggests that the assimilation of the computer is following what I take to be a common path for a new technology: first, in the imitative phase, it tends to be used as if it were merely an improvement upon and replacement for what is already known; then, after some time, we begin to see it as genuinely new, and to realize that its newness alters how we think about the world. (80-81)
    Finally, for me, this is the most important point: we have an opportunity to alter how we think about the world--in particular, to alter the relationship between the academy and the marketplace, between the scholar and the public, between the author and the reader. This opportunity is not itself open-ended, by any means, and there are many familiar reasons for not even considering it: we don't imagine ourselves as doing things that interest the public, and we're not sure we want to interest them; on the other hand, we're quite sure that doing so will put us, our publishers, and our standards at some considerable risk. Even if we do produce electronic editions, the very idea of publishing those archives on the network will raise the hackles of those who own the materials we wish to collect and whose permission we must receive. There is no rule, no teleology, that says we must move entirely beyond the imitative phase in our adoption of this technology, nor one that says thinking about the world in a new way must result in a different world. The concerns I've just cited are real issues, real obstacles; however, they are also surmountable, and I do think that some restructuring of our professional and contractual habits is, eventually, inevitable. What's also inevitable, though, is that this restructuring, proceeding as slowly as it has been, will result in little more than a new arrangement of timbers on the existing foundation.


1. A portion of The Gutenberg Elegies, though not including the paragraph that sketches out Birkerts' "core fear," is available on the Web as part of the Open Book Systems White Papers, at http://www.obs-us.com/obs/english/books/nn/bdbirk.htm; there is also an online review of Birkerts' book at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/birkerts.review.html: my thanks to Gerard Martin for calling these items to my attention. The section of The Gutenberg Elegies from which I am quoting in this essay was the lead piece in the Readings section of the May, 1994 issue of Harper's--followed by an excerpt from Kevin Kelly's Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization. Kelly is executive editor of Wired magazine. In Readings, the section was titled "The Electronic Hive: Two Views." Letters from Robert Coover, John Perry Barlow and others followed, in the August, 1994 issue of Harper's. [Back]

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In Illuminations. Ed. and Introd. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Birkerts, Sven. "The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age." In New Letters 60.4 (1994). 107-112.

McCarty, Willard. "A Potency of Life: Scholarship in an Electronic Age." The Serials Librarian 23.3-4 (1993). 79-97.

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