In a speech titled “digital humanities in the anthropocene,” Bethany Nowivskie asks digital humanists to attend to both the physical and metaphysical dimensions of digital work, a necessity brought into sharp relief in this cultural and likely geological moment we refer to as the anthropocene. In ways similar to the Mark Johnston essay that ignited the Black Haunts project, however, Nowivskie with great grace resists submergence into a negative discourse about the end of the world, asking us to acknowledge that we are “possessed of a knowledge that is sobering and rare. We, and the several generations that follow us, will bear knowing witness to the 6th great extinction of life on Earth.” She takes this as a call to will:
“What does that knowledge do to DH in the year 2014? What does it do to our self-conception as humanities computing practitioners? It is certainly a reminder of common ground and shared fate. Can it speak to us, as increasingly loosely-coupled guilds of scholars working across disciplines; as archivists and librarians; as guardians and interpreters of cultural heritage? Can it speak to us as technologists, developers, and specialists in method and form; as researchers, administrators, students, and shapers and makers of all kinds? What responsibilities, for the DH community, does this knowledge imply? What outlooks come more sharply into view?”
To work in the digital is to pitch into the void; it is to choose to produce in already lost languages. On some level I accept that, but not always. I remember a few years ago switching to taking all of my daily notes with a digital pen, so that I could live the convenience of digital notetaking while still producing a paper trail. A trail to where I do not know, and for whom I can even less imagine. But at the time the switch seemed important. I generally don’t have any deep attachment to paper. Really, I am as happy with my digital notes as I am with my paper ones. But I cannot imagine that my digital notes have a future. Even though “the digital” is still our cultural sign for the new, for futurity, digital products have no future, at least not one that we imagine them in address.
And yes, I know that there are many (though not enough) projects like BitCurator working on the question of how to carry the digital humanities into the future. But even if we were to solve the preservation problem(s), the proliferation, the constant rise and fall of digital technologies keeps us constantly aware of the unsuitability of any choice as future-proof. Writing this essay right now, I look to using the most common denominator software and methods, so that at least I have a shot at being cached, because I can imagine simple text persisting. I have no real reason to believe this.
At the same time, I write digitally because I am here and writing right now and, if nothing else, digital technologies are presentist technologies, allowing me to choose increased horizontal reach, dissemination, over sustainability, the long haul. This echoes something I hear in Nowviskie’s talk, her sense that “We are here to live for a moment as best we can, to do our work, and to help our fellow-travelers muddle through their own short spans of time.” What does it mean to produce scholarly and creative work in the face of “multiple extinctions; heart-breaking extinctions; boring, quotidian, barely-noticed extinctions—both the absences that echo through centuries, and the disposable erosions of our lossy everyday.”
There is little new in the fact of the loss that Nowivskie identifies. The story she tells is a story about remainders, about what is left after. In someways it is no different than Wordsworth’s 1799 performance, “Matthew,” a poem he stages as a poet's encounter with an old tablet, artifact into which some schoolboys had engraved their names. Whatever else was inscribed on the tablet is gone, but the names, a lark, remain. Wordsworth asks that we take we experience the poem as coming out of the space between whatever was lost from the tablet and the obdurate materiality of the names, to emerge from the break:
— When through this little wreck of fame,
Cipher and syllable! thine eye
Has travelled down to Matthew’s name,
Pause with no common sympathy.
I bring Wordsworth to this discussion because he was writing in a moment not dissimilar to ours, a moment when the sudden and widespread technologization of human life potentially imperiled humans’ representation thereof. There is resonance in what gets produced in moments of crisis, in the moment between the arrival of new technologies and the techne that sustains in the wake of that arrival.
There is also a sense that some marks will better sustain than others, and with that comes the profound irony of scratches and scribbles persisting beyond our most cherished works. In the example I began with, I have chosen my own scribbles over even the more finished objects produced out of them, and that I think them more mine than this essay is its own matter.
What is striking in the Matthew poem, and is concurrent with Nowivskie’s text, is the poet’s desire to mark slipped time, of knowing that the future has already arrived, even as we labor to produce the arts and humanities that speak to the current yet receding epoch. As Nowivskie puts it, “even while we delight in building the shiny and the new…we know that someone, sooner or later, curates bits against our ruins.” Much of the work of the digital humanities is the work of recovery, even as we know ourselves as subject to the same kind of disappearance The importance of the doing is the doing, even as an act of productive protest against that which has not been done.
The digitalist understands that she cannot know to which future her work is pitched, and as our history of media continues to extend, we only increase our sense of the lost and the lose-able. Loss, as Nowivskie postulates it, is “a kind of substrate” to the work of the humanities, and especially to the digital humanities. Looking at our own tablets, wondering what will remain, we are in common sympathy.
It bears repeating: Even though “the digital” is still our cultural sign for the new, for futurity, digital products have no future, at least not one that we imagine them in address. The same can be said for myself. ⇢