“Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon” (Mark McGurl) Summary

McGurl’s article focuses on the question, “What does it mean to think of the rise of Amazon.com as an event in contemporary literary history?” (447). Though Amazon began as an online bookstore, I wouldn’t have thought of it as a literary event because of how the site has since expanded to include everything else. Its focus is no longer limited to books, but is rather, as McGurl highlights, on customer service and satisfaction. However, it is appropriate to examine Amazon’s impact on the literary market since its book business accounts for “roughly half of all US book purchases,” dominating especially “the market in popular genre fiction” (448). Essential to McGurl’s discussion is Kindle Direct Publishing, which is an e-book self-publishing service and which has immensely impacted what kind of fiction is being published now. McGurl also claims that university creative writing programs are related to Amazon in their effect on contemporary fiction, since both the MFA programs and KDP share a “professed allegiance to general creativity, to the artistic will of the people” (451). To emphasize the relationship between Amazon and literary history, McGurl likens his reading of Amazon’s commitment to customer service to a reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a novel also about service. KDP, he says, transforms the author into a kind of customer, but also puts her/him in the position of merchant, removing the middleman of a publishing house. Writers are able to reach their target audiences more quickly, who are willing to be pleased “again and again” (460) as long as the author produces work according to their expectations. McGurl implies that this is one explanation for the huge increase in genre fiction, which might otherwise not be published. Just because it is published quickly, though, doesn’t mean this genre fiction is good quality. Rather than being concerned with artistic merit, writers, just like Amazon, cater to the “quasi deity” (457) of the customer. In the final section of the article, McGurl makes a distinction between real time, which has to do with the speed of information transmission, and quality time, which centers on relationships. Amazon’s goal is to reduce the amount of real time required for delivery, while time spent reading fiction can be considered quality time. McGurl relates the two, claiming that “fiction is nothing if not the virtualization of quality time” (465, original emphasis). Amazon, he says, desires to exist in a future that is always happening now, that endures—a similar criterion for enduring literary value (469).

The most interesting part of McGurl’s article to me was his discussion of the rise of genre fiction. He talks about customers’ impact on the writing produced through KDP, and I wonder if readers are similarly impacted. As writers cater to their readers’ demands, I wonder if all readers’ expectations will ultimately transform and if literary texts that are not superficially satisfying will cease to be satisfying at all. If electronic self-publishing has changed the way writers produce, will it similarly affect how and what readers expect to read? While I don’t like genre fiction myself, does it have other merits that McGurl doesn’t pick up on?

Related to popular fiction, I wonder what McGurl would say about J.K. Rowling, who, similar to the example of Hugh Howey’s expanding Silo Saga, has continued to produce writing related to the Harry Potter universe. Her work has transformed from a series of books to a business incorporating multiple kinds of media. Unlike Howey, though, her work has been published traditionally. Does writers’ desire to please their audience come from something beyond Amazon and KDP? Was the phenomenon of KDP inevitable because of customer demands? Is it possible to separate reader demand from how texts become popular? Is the never-ending story simply a result of capitalism, or is the origin more nuanced?

Friedrich Kittler – “The History of Communication Media”

In this article, Friedrich Kittler attempts to give a detailed but also brief account of the history of communication media, which he analyses in terms of, and compares to, information systems. Although Kittler states that his purpose is to “to discuss the history of communication technologies ­ as far as this is humanly possible ­ in general terms,” he packs his essay with military example and some appeals to other critics and theorist – such as Shannon, Locke and Freud – that sometimes seem to be uncontextualized. However, simply put, Kittler divides the history of communication technologies in two main eras: the Writing and the Technical Media. These two eras are further divided into two blocks: “Scripts” and “Printing” under Writing, and “Analog” and “Digital” under Technical.

Kittler begins by pointing out two main problems at the moment of historicizing the evolution of communication. First, he talks about the practical problem, the fact that the evolution of communication is not well documented. Second, the methodological problem, trying to define communication in relation to particular time periods and spaces. He also criticizes Shannon’s elegant model of information, saying that it is better to look at the actually evolution of communication and how these communication technologies actually proceeded in the first place. Kittler focuses in the transition from orality to the written word, and the transition between writing to technical media, looking at how the former results in the decoupling of interaction and communication and the latter in a decoupling of communication and information. Beside looking at the different advantages brought by the development of these technologies in terms of communication, Kittler is concerned about how these technologies were/are used to preserve the information being transmitted.

The first era of communication, Writing, is divided in “Script” and “Printing”. Kittler details the first mediums of communication and information storage in the “Script” period – manual writing and copying – starting with transportable writing surfaces such as bamboo in China, unfired clay in Mesopotamia, and papyrus in Egypt. The papyrus was a much easier method of communication due to its lightness, which made it easily transportable. However, it was fragile and impermanent, unlike the previous bamboo and surfaces. Also, it was rather difficult and time consuming to look up information in papyrus rolls. The arrival of the codex in 140 AD not only made indexing and thus reading easier, but it also proved to be a more durable medium. In the 13th century, paper arrived in Europe from China, which quickly was adopted by universities and scribers as their preferable writing surface due mostly to their durability.

The “Printing” period begins with Gutenberg’s invention of printing. Printing already existed in China and Korea. However, Gutenberg’s innovation was creating a stamp with movable letters. Kittler remarks that the development of new media does not make old media obsolete, but rather reassigns the old media to other places. In the case of printing, this new media made copying books easier and faster, and allowed for easier data processing by numbering pages and having identical copies of the same edition of a particular book. Handwriting, however, was not discontinued but used for state and other official documents, as well as letters and seals. Later, Kittler points out, the creation of typewriters in 1880 leveled out the difference between writing and printing.

The era of Technical Media is distinguishable from the Writing era in how the mediums and processes used are faster than human perception and are formed through the code of modern mathematics. Starting with analog technologies such as telegraphy, Kittler explains how this media had world-wide repercussions. Telegraphy substantiated the decoupling of information from communication by using electromagnetic waves. The remote telegraphic control via landline made possible for a faster traffic of goods. Once detached from the ground, however, the traffic of goods and information was not only even more accelerated, but became international and resulted in information time made discrete. It is this detachment from the ground what also led to inventions of media such as the telephone, film, gramophone, and the radio. These technologies allowed for the amplification and manipulation of information at a greater scale. However, it was the radio what had the effect of standardizing unwritten languages and creating a sort of “secondary orality”.

With the development of digital technologies comes a transformation of the input of data. The digital era properly starts with the Turing machine, the predecessor of computers, created in 1936. Turing’s computer was able to storage, index, and process both numerical and alphabetical data using a binary system of data input. Although at the beginning the Turing machine was slow, his technology served as a base for the development of new machines. It was John von Neumann who managed to design a microsecond-fast computer in 1945. Von Neumann’s system – which included a central processing unit, a write-read memory, and a system for sequential transmission – articulated the fundamental structure of automatic hardware technology used today. Digital data, with its signal processing and ability of transmission, allows for information to break physical parameters. However, Kittler concludes his essay by exclaiming that “the day is not far off when signal processing will reach the physical limits of feasibility,” and this is where the history of communication will end, when the artificial intelligences overhauls each other and no longer reference the individual and mankind, using mathematical algorithms to control the processing of commands by themselves.

Overall, Kittler’s article is pretty straightforward. Since it is an outline of the evolution of communication technologies, there was no much space to disagree with him. However, one of the main questions that came up while reading Kittler’s article is the idea of safeguarding information. Kittler recognizes that those earlier mediums, the pictographs written on clay tablets, remained intact through time while later mediums such as papyrus proved to be less durable. However, he also seems to suggest that the further we go – the creation of the codex, using paper, the analog technology, and the digital technologies that can storage relatively big amounts of data –, our media becomes more durable and safe. He doesn’t seem concerned about the possible loss of information saved through digital technologies. Can we truly conclude that the digitalization of information is the cure to the disintegration of information? It is true that it does last longer than newspapers, for example. However, digital data constantly require software updates and maintenance, and sometimes these updates delete data/information and/or make it obsolete. Also, there is always the debate about cultural memory and the fear that digitalizing everything will make us lose or damage our cultural memory – not that I particularly share that fear, but it is worth discussing.

Lake and Pincus – “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England”

This 2006 piece by two Ivy League early modern historians, Pincus (Yale) and Lake (then at Princeton, now at Vanderbilt), is “far more a framework for further research than a set of firm conclusions,” the opening footnote admits. Its claim might seem self-evident at first glance, borderline obvious: we should be looking to the public sphere, its historicity, its waxing and waning, its social uses, its manifestations in print, its multiple genres as we try to understand the goings-on of political and social history in Early Modern England, and Europe more generally. The novelty and the stakes of that position emerge once we take into account the tendencies of the historiography extant before Lake and Pincus came along. As the authors point out, revisionist histories of the early modern period (post-1970 scholarship) had already begun to pay attention to the public sphere — but with a strong predilection for manuscript, as opposed to print sources, and with a knack for returning ultimately to questions of “high politics” and courtly influence. Unlike their Whiggish predecessors, the revisionists were interested in manuscript over print, because they believed manuscript would tell the stories left untold, the “what really happened” that didn’t get captured by the “official” accounts, published by those privileged enough to use the press to advance their causes. Like their Whiggish predecessors, however, they ultimately produced accounts endorsing G. M. Trevelyan’s 1938 version of the “Glorious Revolution” as “consensual, sensible, and bloodless” (271), as the source of a certain English exceptionalism vis-à-vis the rest of the Continent, where countries would continue to struggle with monarchies and republics for quite some time. Pincus and Lake aren’t interested in dismantling anything; they’re interested in building on the revisionist accounts and seeing how the print and manuscript sources interrelate, how the “what really happened” meets the “what people said was really happening.” In that way, they hope to integrate the story of political, social, and economic change in England with religious change in the post-Reformation (religion being too often the victim of a Marxist habit of reducing things down to economic or social power struggles).

Their paper breaks down into a historical analysis of the modes of existence of the public sphere in England, followed by a methodological discussion about Whig vs. Revisionits.

Starting with the end of the Reformation in England (post 1580), Pincus & Lake point out that the public sphere (in the form of print, pulpits, performances, circulating manuscripts, pamphlets) would be created or summoned in times of religiopolitical controversy by elites in a kind of early-modern version of Wikileaks (see the Earl of Essex p. 277). The public sphere was a force stirred up by fears of conspiracy theories, papism, corruption. Once summoned and deployed to quell a controversy, right a wrong, expose a lie, or adjudicate a popularity contest between leaders, it tended to subside again. These ebbs and flows were periodic although not necessarily regular. Only after the English Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians did the public sphere become a more regular staple of the political and cultural landscape — in large part, Pincus and Lake insist, because of the “intensity, speed, and sheer volume” of popular and public political and theological discussion. The Civil War also affected economic and social structures. During the War, both sides realized that to fund their campaigns, they had to rely more and more on the “mobile wealth” of merchants, tradesmen, etc. rather than on the wealth of landed aristocracy. (France, by contrast, did not make this leap to a proto-bourgeoisie until much later, as its landed aristocracy remained impressively powerful). On the social side, in the wake of the war, mass movements of the population towards the cities made for a bigger literary market capable of consuming circulating broadsides, pamphlets, public sermons, and the emerging genre of news-sheets. These media twittered with debate over the two competing visions of England’s economic future. Tory supporters of James II pushed for a land-based, and therefore finite vision of wealth that implied a need for further imperial colonization, while the largely Whig proponents of England’s native manufacturing prowess urged that wealth was based on human labor, and therefore potentially infinite (p. 283). The former, in order to keep a tight hold on who had wealth and who didn’t, needed to continue keeping a firm reign on the access to economic information about land, locations of commodities and resources, etc. The latter, the Whigs, needed economic information to be widely available to ensure that manufacturers could maximize their profits and efficiency. The advent of the Glorious Revolution pushed history the Whig way and the public sphere became a more or less permanent installation.

Pincus and Lake conclude with a few thoughts about how their methodology differs from Whig and Revisionist accounts. They agree with the Whigs that the early modern period was transitional in many ways, but do not agree with the inevitability thesis or teleology of much Whiggish historiography, i.e. that “modernity” could only come into existence the way it did. Other modernities were available and other public spheres could have emerged. I find the summary of their goals on p 287 particularly helpful in explaining where they diverge from the Revisionists: “Our emphasis is on the modes of political communication and maneuver deployed by a variety of actors both inside and outside the establishment to deal with the potentially explosive consequences produced by the combination of confessional division, geopolitical crisis, and political economic controversy. By focusing on the methods and strategies of political communication rather than solely on the ideas communicated or the political ends pursued, we can identify and perhaps even start to explain changes in both popular politics and governance that are occluded b y revisionist accounts of the same period.”

But perhaps the most important point for the topics of our course is on p. 290, when the authors note that a quantitative shift in the production of and accessibility of economic, political, and theological information in that period implied a qualitative shift in the economics, politics, and theologies themselves. The remarkable shift of opinions regarding the public sphere in the post-Reformation era (roughly, “the public doesn’t need to know about certain things” turned into “the public ought to know about everything that concerns the state!”) is a shift in the seat of political agency, obviously. But it is also a shift in the sense of responsibility for what one publishes, for the rationality thereof, and for the distinction between private economics and public politics, which came increasingly to meld into one.

As for questions, I would simply point out that I’m not sure Pincus and Lake have done as good a job of telling the story of theology and religion in their account as they had set out to do. They don’t fall into the Marxist trap which they cleverly pointed out at the beginning of the paper, but they gesture towards more than they actually relate the role of theology in the formation of the public sphere. Should anyone agree with me on this point, I’m curious why we think that is? Is the place/role/effect of theology in the public sphere harder to relate somehow, or perhaps harder to trace?

Summary of John Perry Barlow’s “The Economy of Ideas”

Writing in 1994, Barlow addresses the problem of digitized property. At the crux of the issue lie these questions: “If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can’t get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?” Barlow contends that the laws governing intellectual property are in no way adequate to meet the needs of the digital sphere. In fact, these laws are so far removed from the realities of the digital that they cannot even be adequately adapted. We must, instead, completely rethink our approach to intellectual property in the digital age.

The source of the problem with current law, he argues, is that it was designed for a society in which information was distributed primarily through physical objects, books or widgets. “One didn’t get paid for ideas,” Barlow contends, “but for the ability to deliver them into reality. For all practical purposes, the value was in the conveyance and not in the thought conveyed.” Now, by contrast, the “goods of the Information Age,” which Barlow terms, at one point, “unreal estate,” exist either “as pure thought or something very much like thought,” rendering old legal systems ineffectual. Attempting to enforce these ineffectual laws more aggressively ultimately threatens to limit free speech. New notions of property and ownership call for completely new ways of thinking about how we protect them, and new protections, he argues, must rely “far more on ethics and technology than on law.”

Barlow asserts that “the most productive thing to do now is to look into the true nature of what we’re trying to protect”: information. He makes three main points.

First, information is an activity. It is an action that occupies time rather than physical space and is thus experienced rather than possessed. Additionally, it must move, otherwise it “ceases to exist as anything but potential,” and is conveyed by propagation rather than distribution—that is, it “can be transferred without leaving the possession of the original owner.”

Second, information is a life form. Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme serves as a useful illustration: information reproduces itself, mutates, evolves, expands into new spaces, and adapts to its surroundings. It wants to change, Barlow suggests, but is also perishable, “degrad[ing] rapidly both over time and in distance from the source of production.”

Third, information is a relationship. It is valued for the ways in which it creates meaning, and its meaningfulness is highly dependent upon both source and receiver. It is the opposite of physical goods in that it operates not on the principle of scarcity but of familiarity: “Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common.” Information can also be valuable, however, for its exclusivity, though this is heavily dependent upon time. Additionally, point of view and authority have value in information exchange, time is more important than space, and information is itself inherently valuable, and thus can be bartered.

Barlow closes by suggesting that “information economics, in the absence of objects, will be based more on relationship than possession”—he uses performance and service exchanges as models for information exchange in the digital age. To information providers, he writes, “the future protection of your intellectual property will depend on your ability to control your relationship to the market…The value of that relationship will reside in the quality of performance, the uniqueness of your point of view, the validity of your expertise, its relevance to your market, and, underlying everything, the ability of that market to access your creative services swiftly, conveniently, and interactively.”

I can see many ways in which Barlow’s predictions have come true now, more than 20 years after his piece was written. For example, in the arenas of entertainment, we are clearly moving from a model based on the exchange of goods to the exchange of services. I no longer buy DVDs or even digital downloads, unless I really want them. Instead, I pay for services like Netflix and Hulu that provide access to movies and television shows. I don’t buy CDs or digital downloads, but music services like Spotify or Pandora that allow me to access the music I want.

I’m not sure exactly what’s been happening in the legal sphere since Barlow wrote this piece, but I think his characterization of the “waves of cyberspace” as “lawless” is still a fair one. I don’t know how law has adapted to suit the needs of the digital age, but I get the impression that it is still as ineffective as Barlow claims it was in 1994. He presciently writes that “Real-world conditions will continue to change at a blinding pace, and the law will lag further behind, more profoundly confused.” Whether or not this problem is “impossible to overcome,” as Barlow tentatively suggests, perhaps remains to be seen.

Walter Benjamin- The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility

Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” during his years of exile in France from Nazi Germany. Benjamin was deeply affected by the extremely politically tumultuous situation in France. Therefore, it is only inevitable that as a response to the political turmoil he experienced and suffered, he would envision the work of art in his ongoing projects as an active political instrument. He worked on the essay from 1935 to 1939 and produced three versions. The fact that Benjamin persistently reworked the essay indicates that he was constantly analysing and re-analysing the political potential of contemporary art forms.

Benjamin begins the essay with Marx’s prognostications about capitalism. He writes that according to Marx capitalism would not only cause ruthless exploitation of the proletariat, it would also lead to the generation of conditions which would ultimately cause its own destruction. Benjamin feels that the change in the mode of production demands the formulation of new theses which would outline the propensities behind the creation of art in the transformed economic environment. The new theses of art would render fascism dysfunctional because it would diminish the importance of creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery, concepts traditionally associated with the work of art. These are the very concepts which if applied in an unrestrained manner may leave factual material susceptible to manipulation by fascism (20).

Benjamin admits that the work of art has always been reproducible. But the technological reproduction of art is something new and different (20). Benjamin identified two major manifestations of the technological reproduction of art. The first is the reproduction of any form of art using modern technological mechanisms (like photography) which profoundly affects the authenticity of the original work of art. The second is the process of technological reproduction itself as a work of art, such as the art of film (21).

Benjamin explains that the technological modes of reproduction obliterates the mark of authenticity from the work of art. Yet it is different from replicas made with hand, which are usually considered as counterfeit copies. Firstly, technological reproduction often emphasizes aspects of works of art which might not otherwise be accessible to the human senses (such as the finer details of an architecture captured in a photograph). Benjamin gives the example of films where the camera reveals what he terms as the “optical unconscious” which might usually remain beyond the reach of normal sense perceptions (37). Secondly, it can also spread the copy of the original in locations which would be unreachable by the original (for example, the recording of a musical concert can easily be circulated beyond the auditorium) (21-22). Technological reproduction often produces copies of the work of art which outlive the original work of art, thus making the physical lifespan of the actual work largely irrelevant. Benjamin perceives this as a devaluation of the “here and now” of the artwork by technological reproduction, which he terms as the decaying of the aura of the work of art. As numerous copies of the artwork are made, the unique existence of the original piece of work is overwritten by the mass existence of its innumerable replicas. Benjamin defines the aura as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (23). The original work of art is marked by tradition, heritage, permanence, and uniqueness which contribute to the constitution of its aura. As opposed to this, the replica is characterized by its transitoriness and repeatability (23).

Benjamin notes that the unique value of the authentic work of art originates in ritual practices. But technological reproduction liberates the work of art from its subservience to ritual roots as making replicas in a secular setting now becomes one of the purposes behind the creation of art. Once the work of art is detached from its ritualistic roots, its social function is immediately redirected towards political goals (24-25). It is no longer defined by its ritualistic cult value, rather its exhibition value becomes its dominant feature (27).

Film, Benjamin points out, is the work of art which is identified as such entirely by its reproducibility (28). He contrasts films with Classical Greek art, such as sculptures, the technological mode of production of which did not allow for much future modifications to be executed. Therefore, the Greeks were left with little choice but to attempt to create eternal value in a single piece of art (27). As opposed to this, the technology used in making films allows the artist to make numerous modifications and improvements over time. Therefore filmmaking does not undergo the compulsion of generating eternal value (28).

For Benjamin, the most striking feature of a film is not that it replicates everyday life, but that the actor has to perform in front of a mechanical apparatus. The actor’s performance in the studio is captured by the mechanical apparatus and is replicated across multiple screens. Such replication dissolves the aura of the performance that the actor originally delivers in the studio (31).

Benjamin then goes on to distinguish between the art lover and the mass audience. The art lover closely observes the work of art in order to appreciate its innate aesthetic value. But the mass approaches art in order to seek distraction or entertainment. The art lover is thus absorbed by the work of art. On the contrary, in case of the masses, the work of art is assimilated in the mass audience (39-40). Once it is incorporated among the masses the work of art acts as an instrument of political mobilization (41).


Benjamin’s concept of the dissolution of the aura is especially relevant for born-digital material. Works of art which originate on the digital platform are inherently replicable across various screens and devices. The distinction between an original and a copy is not tenable in this case. Whenever the work will be viewed on a device it would simultaneously stand as an original and a replica. The inability to cast a retrospective glance towards an original renders such works almost devoid of a past and makes them rooted in the present. Such works can only look forward to the future when they will be viewed over and over again on a digital screen.

It has been noted by Benjamin that the technological mode of production of the work art provides opportunities for modifications and improvements. Works of art on a digital platform can be modified whenever required. They are thus in a state of perpetual mutability. Therefore, instead of eternal beauty such works are characterized by eternal instability.


Benjamin identifies the political potential of films in the context where they would be viewed collectively by the mass in a theatre. He states that in a movie theatre the reaction of the individual viewer is regulated by the type of reception generated in the mass. He draws a contrast between a film and a painting in this respect where he states that the painting is largely designed to be viewed a single person or a few. Such a distinction between the modes of viewing a film and a painting is no longer true as a consequence of modern technological innovations. Presently it is possible to watch a film privately on a laptop in the solitude of one’s bedroom. How then does private viewing create an impact on the mass appeal/reception of film? How does it change the political functioning of film?

Work Cited
Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. In The Work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-55.

Excerpts of Alan Liu’s Five Theses

Alan Liu, Five Theses

What is digital knowledge?

For many, therefore, the digital is not primarily a mutation in knowledge. It is a social change. Social-science and other disciplines operating on this premise treat the digital as a phenomenon of “communication” (“ICT”: “information and communication technology”) impacting social practices, institutions, and organizations [example]. Or the digital facilitates political change. Political scientists or sociologists who study the Internet see it as a testing ground for new kinds of organizing, protest, voting, and other virtual realpolitik [example]. Or, again, the digital marks a cultural change. Disciplines such as “new media studies” and “network critique”–extending British, European, and American traditions of cultural criticism–treat the digital as a domain of contested identity, gender, ethnicity, ideology, affect, privacy, and so on [example]. And, yet again, the digital is an economic change. Economists and organization theorists (chorused by business journalists and business consultants) see the digital as a proxy for the postindustrial reorganization of capital [example].

It thus seems clear that a Centre for Digital Knowledge that relies solely on traditional institutional forms–even the now normative “interdisciplinary” form (e.g., a centre that creates weak-tie intersections among faculty in different fields) will be cut off from some of the most robust conceptual and practical adventures of digital knowledge. A key test for the proposed Centre for Digital Knowledge, therefore, will be whether it is willing at least on occasion to accommodate non-standard forms of knowledge organization, production, presentation, exploration, and dissemination acclimated to the digital age or open to its networked ethos. Examples of such forms include “THATcamps” or “unconferences,” writing or coding “sprints,” design “charrettes,” online forums, events planned by non-academic invitees, cross-institutional collaboration (university to high school, university to newspaper, university to corporation, university to NGO, etc.), direct engagement with the public in online or face-to-face venues, and intellectual events planned not just by research faculty but also by teaching-first instructors, clerical staff, and students (to break down the divide between those tiers).

The sciences and social sciences (especially branches of the latter focused on quantitative or empirical research) cleave the orders of data and of argument so that they can be managed separately. Data is channeled through closed or open datasets, databases, repositories, etc.; while argument appears in pre-prints, conference proceedings, and journal publications. This separation allows for the creation, processing, maintenance, and presentation of data as a distinct workflow–one that can acquire independent value and even generate its own research problems (as in recent work on computationally assisted “data provenance” [example, PDF]). Scientific and social-scientific data can thus be presented or otherwise made available autonomously for critical inspection… Humanities discourse has rarely needed to aspire to the same standards for making all its data explicit, shareable, and open to critical examination. “So long as the nature of libraries, books, or reading do not change,” as I put it above, there was no need. But today digital media are rapidly destabilizing the traditional evidentiary structure of the humanities and bringing it closer to that of the sciences.

One of the distinctive features of such projects in the digital age is that the breadth of disciplines involved is homologous with a condition of the digital itself: the fact that the object of study can be mutated into a common digital dataset and transformed into countless permutational views for treatment from different disciplinary angles. Thus there is no one primary discourse of knowledge agents, acts, and styles. Monographic publications written in high style by humanities scholars are on a par with such discourses dominating other disciplines as collaborative conference papers, datasets, prototype demonstrations, etc. Or, more accurately, the dominant discourses of different disciplines each take command at different phases of the overall cycle of knowledge production before receding to let other kinds of discourse dominate–the whole alternating sequence driving the process forward iteratively.

The humanities, in other words, need not think that the discursive flow of “Reading & Research Syllabi & Teaching notes Talks Articles Monographs” is a linear path. Different segments of that traditional agenda can be broken out separately and inserted tactically into other phases of the overall collaborative act of knowledge production where they will have the most value. From the point of view of the humanities themselves, this thesis assumes its most radical form in two propositions. One is that in the digital age humanities scholars should be encouraged to complement their dominant discourse with other kinds of discourse–including challenging collaborative work, difficult and innovative acts of data collection and analysis, and research outputs such as published conference proceedings or online projects that do not sum up in a critical/interpretive monograph. The other proposition is that in the digital age humanities scholars should not be engaging solely in discursive acts at all. Instead, it is already clear in the field of the digital humanities–a leading edge of the humanities’ encounter with digital knowledge–that a gestalt-shift is underway that recasts acts of discourse as acts of “making” and “building.” In the digital humanities, the “epistemology of building”–realized through the building of digital projects, hardware DIY projects, media archaeology labs, etc., and theorized with the aid of such broader intellectual movements as the “new materialism”–is, as they say, a thing.