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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 January 2015

The Long, the Short and the Very Short

Whenever I look at newspapers from my youth - the 1960s and 1970s - I am struck by how much more reading there was in them - so many words and so much text, even in tabloid papers. It does seem to suggest that our attention span is getting smaller. Of course, it has been claimed that the internet is to blame for this, but I’m doubtful. And the contemporary taste for bite-size knowledge is actually more powerfully expressed in conventional academic print publication than in the digital sphere. The sad rise of handbooks, companions and encyclopaedias of every imaginable complexion and subject is one of the most unfortunate developments in academic publishing over the past twenty years. The editing of encyclopaedias seems to have become one of the great power-broking positions of modern scholarship. Although I have contributed to some of these companions and am contracted to edit a couple, I’m doubtful about their value. They fragment academic discourse, suggest wrongly that scholarship can be reduce to easily digested chunks, and give a distorted and sense of the scope and structure of particular subject areas. Yet the demand for them seems insatiable, presumably from time-pressed students who want to quickly master the subject without having to read more than the essentials. I wonder whether a great academic masterwork such as Thomas Tout’s Chapters in Medieval Administrative History, published in six volumes over seven years, and embodying a lifetime of archival scholarship, distilled into a powerful overarching thesis interpreting the whole history of later medieval England, would be feasible today - perhaps not. Would anyone read a work like Chapters in Medieval Administrative History if it appeared today, unless they had to do so for the REF?

One of the most striking manifestations of our current thirst for bite-sized and easily digested morsels of academic scholarship is Oxford University Press’s ‘Very Small Introduction’ series. The list of ‘Very Small Introductions’ currently available reads like the catalogue of a Wunderkammer - a random selection of knowledge ranging from American Politics to the Laws of Thermodynamics by way of Astrobiology, Medical Ethics and Spirituality. It’s an intellectual grab bag, a pick and mix of knowledge. But, having said that, the three ‘Very Short Introductions’ I have read (each one on a plane journey - are they intended as intellectual airport literature?) have been wonderfully written, beautifully crafted by their authors, who convey complex ideas in a stimulating and engaging fashion. Paul Strohm’s Very Short Introduction on ‘Conscience’ is a model of how to convey complex philosophical and cultural ideas in a way that is accessible to the widest audience and encourages you to find out more. In a completely different sphere, Nicholas Vincent’s Very Short Introduction to ‘Magna Carta’ clearly and concisely explains a complex historical phenomenon, while offering nuggets which are new even to experts in the field.

I have recently read with enthusiasm and admiration John H. Arnold’s Very Short Introduction to ‘History’, a massive and challenging undertaking accomplished with intellectual clarity, beautiful writing, engaging and wide-ranging scholarship, and presenting a liberal and nuanced view of what the writing of history entails and means. What particularly struck me about John’s Very Short Introduction was the way in which he placed primary sources - the letters, diaries, records and other materials which are our postcards from the past - at the heart of his discussion. Exploring, probing and debating the complexities, gaps and deceptions of these sources are the essence of history and the historian’s work, and John provides some inspired and memorable examples of this process. Many recent discussions on the nature of history have emphasised historiography, the debates among historians, as the chief focus of interest, but of course there is nothing more arid than reducing knowledge to the analysis of academic factions and disputes. John forcibly reminds us that history starts with the past and with the survivals we have from the past.    

It is very striking how the digital does not significantly figure in John’s overview. He uses the computerisation of tax records as an example of reading sources ‘against the grain’, but otherwise the digital does not appear. This might be taken as an illustration of the failure of historians to engage with contemporary changes in communication that Tim Hitchcock lamented in a provocative article in Culture and Social History on which Mark Knights, Ludmilla Jordanova and myself have discussed in a recent issue of the journal. But perhaps in a ‘Very Short Introduction’ it is reasonable not to give more attention to digital history - perhaps the digital has so far made little impact on the process of writing history.

However, historical sources are one area in which the digital is already having a profound impact on the way in which scholarship has to be conceived and conducted. Historans using the archives of the web being created by organisations like the Internet Archive or the British Library will inevitably have to approach these vast and volatile digital sources in a different way to Tudor state papers. An excellent example is one that Tobias Blanke gave me, and which I will have stop using as it is getting repetitive, is the e-mail archive of George W. Bush which contains 200 million e-mails. Historians of the Second Iraq War will not be able to explore this by reading it or doing keyword searches for Iraq. New methods will be required, which may increasingly be visual, haptic and quantitative.

Most of the examples of sources discussed by John Arnold are textual, but in a wonderful passage, he describes a source as ‘anything that has left us a trace of the past. It can be a charter, recording a land transfer; a court case, presenting the pleas of the witness; a sermon, given to an unknown audience; a list of books, shares, prices, goods, people, livestock, or beliefs; a painting or photograph of forgotten faces; letters or memoirs or autobiographies or graffiti; the buildings of the rich, displaying their power or wealth, or the building of the poor, displaying the opposite: stories, poems, songs, proverbs, dirty jokes, opaque marginal comments made by bored scribes or cunning glossators. A source can be a thousand things; it can be a discoloration of a page in an inquisitor’s manual, marked by the imprint of a thousand kisses made in ritual obeisance by those about to be examined. It is a trace of the past’ (pp. 60-1).

It seems to me that it is the ability of digital methods to support such a multi-faceted, pluralistic and liberal view of the range and nature of historical sources, and thus of historical inquiry, which is the reason why they are of such importance to historians. Using conventional techniques, it was enough for the historian to get to grips with the dusty written historical records so romantically described by Ranke, whose influence on our view of history John discusses very interestingly. Digital tools enable historians to break out of this tower of text, just as (according to John) they have broken out of the political tower in which Thucydides imprisoned them. Digital resources allow  historians to engage with an enormous range of sources from film through sound to material objects of all types, and offer the possibility of creating a more media rich history.

In my recent contribution to the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production collection edited by Patrik Svensson, I tried to give some illustrations of the way in which our engagement with archives is changing and sought to show how historians have greater access to film and sound material which poses complex, and sometimes troubling, issues of interpretation. If someone comes to write another Very Short Introduction to History in twenty years time, they will find it difficult to better John H. Arnold’s discussion, but their discussion will perhaps be of multi-media history which is not only read but also moves, speaks and can be felt.


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