digital revolution?

Jeff Rice offers a critique of the calls for revolution, calling particularly on Cathy Davidson's investigation of why no such revolution has transpired. Like Jeff, my revolutionary tendencies are more Lennonist than Leninist: You tell me it's the institution/ Well, you know/ You better free you mind instead. I agree that "revolution" and "crisis" are both tired terms. In fact, I am tired of announcements that these are tired terms.

Davidson writes in the wake of the recent/threatened closings of foreign language programs at SUNY-Albany, my alma mater and sister institution to my current post at UB. In light of those connections I am neither unsympathetic or unconcerned about what is happening down the NYS Thruway from my campus at another research institution in my state system. However, like Davidson, I do not want to write here about that specific situation (I don't think I have anything productive to add) but rather about the larger endemic problem. Davidson writes, "if the humanities have not rethought their own institutional structures in the light of the upheavals in communication, reading, writing, publishing, multimedia interactivity, then our redundancy is built into the future we are ignoring" and points to a 2002 HASTAC manifesto. Personally I recall reading Faigley's Fragments of Rationality and Ulmer's Heuretics in the mid-90s and thinking the same thing. As Jeff points out, we can go back farther, to Ted Nelson and perhaps even Vannevar Bush at the dawn of modern computing to see calls that information technologies would change these things. I'm quite sure I've written Davidson's sentence or one quite like it many times on this blog.

However, Davidson asks

This should be a new Renaissance for humanistic values given that this is a time when we are thinking about and reinventing imaginatively every major issue and possibility of how we communicate, how we publish and preserve our ideas, how we interact across cultures, how we make  art of all kinds, how we parse our words and our ideas, and how we understand complex world histories (because it is intrisically worthwhile to do so but also because histories of how change happens help us grapple with the present or have some sense of control over a future).  All the conditions are right for this to be a great age of interdisciplinary humanism.    Why isn't it?  

I think the answer is fairly simple. Take a look at any major humanities journal or conference. Would anyone characterize the work being done in this way? Only perhaps in the sense that studying a grain of sand would tell you something about desertification.

Perhaps the key in Davidson's question is the idea of a "new Renaissance" when in fact the humanities remain mired in the last renaissance… not the pre-modern one but the renaissance of the second industrial revolution and modernization, say 1880-1930. During that time, we did see the development of public education and the reinvention of the humanities as an educational project where our disciplines served industrial nationalism by teaching literacy and national identity through history, provided loyal opposition as Arnoldian critics of technology, and guarded the gates of a new kind of educational class identity through the cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities. Similarly, our scholarly practices in English emerge from this period: close readings locked away in carrels among the library stacks, sitting alone in our offices writing journal articles and monographs, reading papers at national conferences. They are practices mediated by industrial printing, the US mail system, telephones, light bulbs, typewriters, trains, and later highways and airplanes.

So we can't say that "revolutions" don't happen. Clearly one happened a century ago. And, really, one is happening now as well, in the period from 1980-2030, and we are in the midst of it. It may seem like we need the humanities now more than ever to grapple with cultural, aesthetic, and ethical questions, and maybe we do, but we don't need the humanities of the early 20th century. And while, in terms of "theory" contemporary humanities is different, in terms of practice it isn't.

Certainly here I would agree with Jeff's conclusions:

If the Humanities needs anything right now, it is a new methodology, one that is not built on the notion of empty concepts like “revolution.” The staleness of Humanities scholarship – done on paper or on the computer – must be replaced with more creative and innovative understandings of its place within a larger curriculum or network of activities and learning. This understanding, as well, must abandon hyperbolic concepts like “revolution,” “morality,” “citizenship,” etc. and invent new terms that have more relevance in the age of the network.

In some ways we might even say haven't we said this enough already! But let me try to extend this in just some minor, suggestive way that connects back specifically to rhetoric and composition…

I don't think it is coincidental that this first period of educational-institutional and humanistic-disciplinary, co-extensive with the second industrial revolution, also marked the inception of freshman composition. At least from our disciplinary perspective it is useful to think about our role in the modern institution as defined by the universal requirement. First-year composition embodies all the struggles of the last century in the humanities: adjunctification, increased bureaucracy, institutional assessment, increased professionalization and hyper-specialization, etc. The last 20 years have seen calls for FYC abolition, but perhaps what is needed is a new universal requirement as apropos to the contemporary moment as essay writing was to the 1880s. And NO, I'm not suggesting "multimodal composition," which as Jeff suggests, can be just as stale as what is done on paper. What is required is a new ethical-rhetorical-composition understanding of invention, relation, attunement, belonging, communication, and ultimately, learning. I do think such practices will be mediated by digital production and networks, just as their 19th century forebears were mediate by print production and networks. But it's less about the technology than it is about the development of methods. 

Of course those methods would never be invented out of thin air. They would emerge from the networked methods in which they are situated. And such methods are emerging, though perhaps in an implicit, often hidden, way, smoothed over by the inertia of language arts curriculum, including FYC, that continues to demand essays that look like ones produced 30 or 40 years ago, even though the composition means and informational contexts are so very different. As long as humanities scholarship remains the same, composition classes will remain the same, and the two will likely collapse together. We need to develop these methods together, just as MLA and FYC arose together in the 1880s.

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