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A Feature Interview with Jerome J. McGann

Jerome J. McGann, Scott Pound

No scholar has done more than Jerome McGann to expand our understanding of the nature of print and digital media. His experience as an editor of print media during the 70s and the 80s resulted in a drive to rehistoricize editorial practice that has revolutionized textual scholarship. From this perspective, he began, in the early 90s, to survey a digital future that would involve the colossal task of reconstructing the entirety of our cultural inheritance for display on digital networks. For McGann, the transition from print to digital media is less a revolution than it is a convergence, and the question we face is not so much how we get on with the future, but “What kind of research and educational program can integrate the preservation and study of these two radically different media?”In a new book to be titled Philology in a New Key, that you can read at this site, McGann proposes that the answer to our current and future needs will come from our methodological past. Which is to say that the task of reconstructing our cultural inheritance for display on screens calls for a return to philology, understood as “the fundamental science of human memory.” This is a far cry from the point of view of the cultural and literary theorist. Indeed, the centerpiece of McGann’s career has always been a commitment to the use of instrumental reason for humanistic inquiry, and his work hearkens first and foremost to “a material rather than a rational or conceptual beyond.” Accordingly, McGann’s understanding of philology implies a grounding in historical method, extensive use of practical and technical skills, and total attention to the social and material location of texts.

As McGann makes clear in the following conversation, the promise of networked media is very real, but their use offers few immediate consolations. Digital networks are a mixed blessing, especially when it comes to the task of preserving the past. The Internet remembers everything and nothing. It is comprised mostly of memory and connectivity, but leverages the lion share of its functionality in the service of an all-encompassing presentism. How to re-organize our cultural inheritance on a scale that is human and in a form that is durable? That is the question. Many fear the chaos of abundance most, but as McGann observes, “Everything wonderful is chaotic, and being afraid is a good thing.”

The following exchange was conducted via email between Thunder Bay, Ontario and Charlottesville, Virginia.

-Scott Pound


You’ve initiated several large-scale projects designed to integrate digital technology and scholarly practice. What have these projects taught you about the relationship between scholarship and digital media?

I’m in the final stages of a book that will be titled Philology in a New Key (titled in homage to a book that many years ago – I mean the late 1950s – had a great influence on my thinking at the time). This work has been brewing, or moving erratically forward, since the late 70s, when I began to glimpse the serious weaknesses of the Great Theory Movement. I thought I’d be able to say what I wanted in a series of books I published between 1983 and 1991. At that point I began to take up the use of digital technology and my thinking was driven in new directions.

I could talk at great but I fear tedious length about what went on between 1991 and 2010. It’s perhaps sufficient to say that my work moved from an initial enthusiasm that digital technology would put literary and cultural studies on a new intellectual (and practical) footing, to a more critical sense of its limitations. Or perhaps I should say that the limitations of the technology are less a problem than the effect that the promise of the technology is having – in the public sphere but also in the intramural world of humanities education and research.

Let me say that the promise that this technology holds out for public education and humanities research is indeed great. This one already recognizes in the remarkable changes that are taking place in our libraries, museums, and archives, which after all are the ground of all literary and cultural studies. I’m still much involved with the development of digital tools for humanities investigations, and with promoting institutional mechanisms for a new philology: IATH and Speclab; NINES, 18thConnect, MESA, and their projected aggregation into ARC (the Advanced Research Consortium); and finally DPLA, the Digital Public Library of America. I’ve also begun to collaborate with several colleagues toward building aggregated digital environments for studying Antebellum America within detailed and discontinuous geotemporal coordinates.

But as the networked digitization of our cultural heritage unfolds, an untimely utterance brings my thrill to grief (may Wordsworth forgive me!). It’s been a running theme of mine for the past several years, as you can see from the last issue of Profession: “After we digitize all the books, the books themselves will still be there,” as indispensable as they ever were. No digital technology can replace them (as digital surrogates), no digital technology can embrace them (in the online network).

Briefly then: what digital technology has exposed is not that we need a new program of humanities study, a Digital Humanities, but a recovery of philological method for our changed circumstances. Philology in a New Key. A new arrangement of a canonical work we have neglected for too long.

Can you describe the shift in tonality that you’re looking for with regard to philology?

In humanities research and education we speak of critics and scholars. Both, once-upon-a-time, were understood to practice what was called philology, or in August Boeckh’s famous definition, Die Erkenntnis des Erkannten – “the knowledge of what is and has been known.” Its fundamental tool is historical method. When Lyotard argued that “postmodern science is producing not the known, but the unknown,” he was explicitly setting his face against Boeckh’s famous definition of philology, which Lyotard, like Nietzsche, read in narrowly positivist terms, as I do not. They read it that way because many philologists let their work slip into positivist modes. Boeckh and the great ones like him, from Wolff to Parry and Pearce, never did.

I make a hero of the philologian, rather than the critic or even the scholar, because the figure and his/her work is so resolutely alienated. Critics like Lyotard once called to task the work of instrumental reason, forgetting how that work put in place methods and machines for studying and preserving the precious remains of our own alienated lives.

Philology is the fundamental science of human memory (ethnography, archaeology, and anthropology are among its great derivatives). It is itself a derivative of history, but it is quite different – as different as “the canon” is from “the archive,” or as Burckhardt’s “messages” are from what he called “traces.” Terence famously set down the moral imperative that licenses it: Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto – which I’ll render freely as “I’m a human being so there’s nothing about human beings that doesn’t interest me.” Unlike the truths pursued by science and philosophy, philological truth is whatever there was – good or bad, right or wrong, those categories mean nothing to the philologist. All appearances must be saved and studied and learned from.

So Philology: to preserve, monitor, investigate, and augment our cultural inheritance, including the various material means by which it has been realized and transmitted. Boeckh used substantives, which may be why his formulation was read, as it has been read, as a positivist statement. So I would switch to infinitives because they signal the conscious obligation that any discipline undertakes. Thus we might update Terence just a bit: Homo sum; sit humani nil a me alienum puto: “Nothing human should ever be outside my interest.”

The scholar Aleida Assmann recently said of the philologian’s archive (as opposed to the critic’s and scholar’s canon) that it is populated by materials that “have lost their immediate addresses; they are de-contextualized and disconnected from the former frames which had authorized them or determined their meaning. As part of the archive, they are open to new contexts and lend themselves to new interpretations.” So we may arrive at “counter-memories” and “history against the grain.” But in order to lie so open, they must be held at a level of attention that is consciously marked as useless and nonsignificant. That is, there need be no perceived use or exchange value in the philological move to preserve beyond the act of preservation itself. Value is not only beyond present conception, it is understood that it may never again gain perceived value. “Never again” is crucial. For the philologian, materials are preserved because their simple existence testifies that they once had value, though what that was we do not and may never know. The dead are precious and honorable as such.

That is the knowledge to which the science of philology is devoted. It is, I believe, the ground on which all humane studies must finally rest. Our great and neglected American poet Charles Reznikoff celebrated that ground in a poem which bears a more common name: Testimony.

I’m struck by your mention of Reznikoff in this context because it pulls philology into alignment with a certain kind of poetics, suggesting perhaps that poetics is, or could be, a method for philology. Charles Bernstein has made comparable claims on behalf of poetics. Nietzsche’s example would also suggest a strong connection between the poet and the philologian. And the philologian’s orientation toward the archive as opposed to the canon brings to mind contemporary poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place who are similarly invested in documents that have been “disconnected from their former frames.” How far would you go toward a consideration of poetics itself as a philological method?

Again, a little historicizing here may be useful. For me this subject dates to the early 1970s when I began the Byron edition and was forced to confront seriously for the first time the place that instrumental reason, the bete noir of the Theory Movement (to which I was greatly attached), occupied in literary work, primary as well as secondary. While the practical work on that edition held my attention for the next fifteen years or so, it also kept supplying me with invaluable evidence of the most material kind for the relation of imaginative work, poetry especially, to positive knowledge. The Romantic Ideology and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (both published in 1983) were interim field reports. Deliberately very polemical.

In the late 1980s the last volumes of the edition were being finished so I turned back to those large questions of general aesthetics and scholarly method – in particular, the symbiosis of poetics and philology. The dialogues I began writing at that time focused on some experimental writers I was much interested in: Bernstein, Silliman, Bromige, Hejinian, Andrews, and Howe most particularly. Two of the dialogues were produced as staged dramatic readings. All that work – dialogues as well as other things – eventually found an initial resting place in The Textual Condition and Towards a Literature of Knowledge. Social Values and Poetic Acts addressed the larger socio-institutional context.

I suppose the simplest way to specify the relation of philology to poetry is to call attention to a basic double commitment each makes: to memory, their common mother, and to what Blake calls “minute particulars.” For all the virtues of New Critical “close reading,” its devotion to thematics, even moral thematics, has had unfortunate consequences for both the study and the practice of poetry.

I’ve written so much about these matters that I shrink from trying to say anything more here. Besides, I don’t really have anything new to add, though I am still on my old, ludicrously faustian, pursuit of a “definitive” summary of interpretive method. I seriously hesitate to think of this as a “system” since at my back I always hear Byron: “When a man talks to me of his system, his case is hopeless.” We do want to leave a little room for hope.

So I keep finding myself addressing the larger issues in particular ways, with further case studies. Are the Humanities Inconsequent? An Interpretation of Marx’s riddle of the Dog is a pretty clear example. It’s a collage of interpretive reflections that offers itself at a critical discount. Simply, it’s ludicrous. But its ludic procedure is seriously undertaken. And – to come back to the relation of poetry and philology – the collage has two pivot points: a study of that most philological of modern writers’ most philological of modern fictions, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; and a close reading of the physique of that most dandaical of contemporary poets’ most dandaical of contemporary poems, Christian Bök’s Eunoia.

One other thing occurs to me. In our work at Speclab and ARP trying to design and build digital interpretive tools for the humanities, I’ve been most involved with the creation of two in particular: The Ivanhoe Game and JuXta.

The Game is an interpretive playspace for multiple persons designed to exploit the deformative inertia that every critical act involves. The scholarly proverb, that “All interpretation is misinterpretation”, is correct but insufficient. As Laura Riding might remark, its Anarchism is Not Enough. The Ivanhoe Game pushes its players to act in as full a consciousness as possible of the particular character, and hence the particular limits, of their own critical thinking.

JuXta is, by contrast, primarily a philological instrument of a very traditional kind. It is a collation tool. Documentary collation is the fundamental editorial requirement for scholarship. Its function is to expose the precise lines of a text’s transmission history in its real times and material circumstances. All interpretive engagements hang upon the shape of that history, though most interpretations are carried out with a more or less attenuated awareness of that history. They deform it for their own particular interests and purposes. Thus does philology stand as the monitor of those who interpret, and deform, the work of poetry.

So, philology and poetry. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “We brethren are, he said.” In her little dialogue it was the philologist who said that to the poet.

You make it very clear in your Profession 2011 article that philology is the discipline for realizing online scholarship as a general institutional practice and that “university degree programs are the sine qua non for executing that mission.” At the same time, reinstitutionalizing philology for this purpose raises many practical challenges related to funding, policy, curriculum, and even rhetoric. Within the rhetorical space of the university as an institution how does one pitch philology?

Ah, the most pertinent as well as the most difficult question. Nothing resists change more fiercely than a complex institution, especially a complex cultural institution. Everyone can see that extramural forces – information technology at a global scale – are already driving humanities research and education toward adopting or accommodating “Digital Humanities.” This will proceed and will eventually find programmatic realization.

The more difficult and pressing problem for the humanities lies elsewhere, and it is being made more difficult precisely by the growing authority of “Digital Humanities.” (I keep putting it in quote marks because nobody really knows what it is.) Digital environments cultivate a just-in-time ethos that imperils the very foundation of the human sciences, which is Memory. As the humanities migrate their current conversations to digital networks, the need for an historical consciousness and real competence in historical research methods seems more pressing than ever. Python, XSLT, and GIS are important, but one might well think that descriptive bibliography, scholarly editing, theory of texts, and book history are now even more pressing programmatic needs.

Note that everything just named in that sentence are practical skills – i.e., procedural and interpretive tools that the most influential humanities conversations over the past fifty years has discounted as forms of “instrumental reason.” The recovery of the importance of instrumental reason for the humanities is a great need. Toward that I would recommend, for a community still so responsive to Theory and Continental Philosophy, Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time as well as his later works (as yet untranslated). Does it help to realize that the research university is instrumental reason operating at what must be its most advanced state?

Come to think of it, I’d also recommend that every humanities scholar read, or re-read, Milman Parry’s 1934 lecture to the Harvard Alumni Association: “The Historical Method in Literary Criticism.” No scholarly work known to me defines so well – its brevity is remarkable – how an historical method works and why it is important. Most impressive of all is its pitiless self-criticism, and its lucid awareness of the danger that advanced humane research both faces and itself threatens. Parry delivered his lecture with complete consciousness of the global political threats just then emerging. The lecture has lost none of its relevance for us today.

“How does one pitch philology?” you ask. As best and as often as you can. I also think the politics of it should be local. These conversations tend to get carried on extramurally, in the marches of our conferencing world. Bring them home, where they perhaps have a greater chance of practical effects.

As an outgrowth of print culture, scholarly communication is intimately linked to individualized conceptions of authorship, originality, and IP; whereas digital networks are being used to leverage forms of production and assemblage that subordinate authorship and originality and challenge the sanctity of copyright and IP. Do you put any stock in things like crowdsourcing and remix as possible vectors of scholarly practice and communication?

I’m a great supporter of crowdsourcing. The migration of the traditional archive is such a massive job that crowdsourcing seems an excellent way to proceed. But there are worries.

When I say “massive job” I’m thinking of qualitative as well as quantitative demands. As to the latter, many think that if you digitize one or a few copies of some work you’ll have met the need. This attitude, common among systems and even library people, is for a scholar painfully misguided. And it gains a really dreadful import when one thinks about digitizing out-of-copyright books ca. 1800-1920. As to the qualitative issues, these present very different problems and dangers. Much digitizing has already been done, for instance Google Books, and while that project has, like Ahab, its humanities, no scholar with a scrupulous conscience could endorse how it was carried out. But now that it’s there, who would think to do it over again, properly? Creating good digital copies is costly. And if the interest is educational, rather than (as it was with Google) commercial, it also requires the oversight of educators.

Try a thought experiment. Imagine (I’m in pollyannaland) that Google agreed to allow free access to all of their books so that (for example) those digital facsimiles and transcripts could be cleaned up and corrected. Crowdsourcing such a job is the obvious way to go. Also, having the scholarly community oversee the work would be another obvious way to go. Also, since you’re at it, adding various kinds of elucidating material as you go about the cleanup might be a very good thing. And/Or this: once the texts are cleaned up, open them to public commentary and annotation, as well as remixing and repurposing.

How might all that be monitored and controlled? Or perhaps it shouldn’t be monitored at all? Or perhaps interested parties would plunge in where their interests take them in order to create their particular “authorized” subsets of that vast archive?

Myself, I love thinking about a massive crowdsourced effort by scholars and their students working on such a project. Greg Crane at Tufts is already heading up an effort of this kind with his classics students. But classicists (like medievalists) have long been invested in editorial work, so they take eagerly to that kind of task. Outside those special areas, however, the practical interest is minimal, both in our faculties and with our students, at least in the United States. (I speak from unhappy personal knowledge!) In Europe or China, where philology still has real authority, such efforts might well catch on.

The coming of digital technology and the internet means that the entirety of our inherited archive has to be re-edited, as I’ve been ranting on for years. Perhaps the need will create the personnel who will do this – indeed there are small indications that this may be beginning to happen. But the academy as it now operates can’t and won’t. It isn’t equipped with either the skills or the motivations. That will change when we decide to rethink and reorganize our graduate programs in humanities.

Let’s stay in pollyannaland for a while. If you were asked to design your ideal graduate program, what would it look like?

First of all, I wouldn’t try to design and propose one myself. Talk about pollyannnaland! Second, it would have to be designed and proposed for “my” specific institution. (i.e., no thinking about grand schemes.) Third, it would have to be a committee effort, and the committee would have to be made up of persons who (a) agree, if they join, not to resign, to come to consensus, and to promise to fight for the consensus, and (b) are known to have different views about the goals of research education. Finally, it would also have to be a committee appointed by some authorized person(s) in the institution with the understanding that its recommendation would be supported and driven by the institution.

Without those ground rules I wouldn’t be involved. Even with them it would be a chancy affair, but at least they would give it a chance.

So I’m not about to lay out a design, which doesn’t mean that I don’t have definite views or wouldn’t make specific suggestions. For instance, I would propose that mechanisms be designed that would get the faculty involved in more collaborative programmatic work – that this be built into the structure of the program. I’d also be arguing that the program graduate students with some essential practical skills in editorial method, traditional as well as digital, and serious training in the public presentation of themselves and their work. And along the lines of the “crowdsourcing” topic we were talking about, I’d urge the committee to come up with ways for bringing the undergraduates into our humanities work. God (or, as Swinburne would have it) Somebody knows what a marvelous educational move that would be.

Your question reminds me of that wonderful paragraph near the end of Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” that begins “We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice.” Let me quote some of it:

There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let “I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage.” We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

Given what we have learned about ourselves as educators (have we?) over the past 40 years, I would propose revising “We must imagine what we know” to something like “We must execute or implement what we know”. (Such weak words to set against “imagine”! But how about “The philosophers have only tried to understand the world. The point is to change it.”) Our recent history has exposed the inverse of the problem that Shelley was observing in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. “The basis of all knowledge” is not the imagination, and to say that is not at all to argue against its importance. But it would help here to recall Goethe: “Am Anfang war die Tat.” Shelley is talking about deeds as well, as he should, but he is wrong to argue that there is some single “basis” of all knowledge. Human beings are its basis, and human beings have various faculties that operate codependently. Just as, to be effective as human beings, we act collaboratively, even collectively!

So when I read, as an educator and from my historical vantage, the statement that begins “To what but the cultivation of the mechanical arts” etc., I want to recast it thus: “To what but a cultivation of the theoretical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of our public needs… is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?”

If we were to propose and then institute some practical changes would we find we’d missed our mark in various respects? Of course. And then we’d have to try to make corrections. And so it would go.

I’ve used this example before but I give it again – Malone’s challenge to Ness in The Untouchables: “You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?”

As Edward Lear has it: “We think so then and we thought so still.”

Two things quickly become clear to readers of your recent work: 1) that humanists need to do something and 2) that humanists are not prepared to do much. Which is to say that humanists are both the best equipped and the worst equipped agents to carry out the task of digitally reconstructing our cultural inheritance. Only they possess the methods required to do this work properly, but the vast majority of them lack the technical ability to carry it out, not to mention the institutional means and motivations. My last question tried get at this problem: How do graduate programs need to change if they are to produce enterprising humanists with scholarly/philological training and technical know-how? Now I’m inclined to ask a more dire question: What if the task of properly reconstructing our cultural inheritance for digital networks turns out to be, at least partially, a remedial exercise? The Google Books project shows that large swaths of our cultural inheritance can be digitized in slapdash fashion without being edited at all– that means and motivation can and will trump methodology. You seem more strongly inclined to intramural solutions, which are surely more desirable, but as you suggested when we were talking about crowdsourcing, you would entertain the notion of partnerships between humanists, the keepers of the methodological flame, and outside agents like Google. It seems more likely that this is what will have to happen. Do you agree?

I do agree that liaisons will have to be developed between all the interested parties. Scholars and educators aren’t the only ones with a stake in how knowledge and information gets produced, disseminated, and preserved for re-use. The Google Settlement – or rather, the (failed) attempt to get such a settlement – as well as the struggles over the educational use of all kinds of audio and visual media have been helpful if for no other reason than this: that they have exposed who the stakeholders are and how they see their interests. The compromises to be worked out will reflect everyone’s understanding of and response to these different and often clashing sets of interests.

But the tight little island of research scholars – not the educational community at large – continues to shrink from the critical reflection and collective self-assessment that it must make if it is to be a serious player in these conversations and negotiations. (I say “not the educational community a large” because the K-12 and the public library communities are very aware of what is happening and keep pursuing useful engagement.) The ludicrous irony here is that no community is more vocal about the need for “critical reflection” than the humanities research community.

It’s true that a cadre of scholars from our research community has been active for many years in the field of information technology: developing Internet access and the digital migration of our cultural heritage, as well as promoting the interests of higher education. But these persons do not represent their communities in any direct or practical way. Their work – their projects and venues – are nearly all located outside the programmatic structure of their home institutions. The only clear exception to this situation is in the burgeoning field of rhetoric and composition. Indeed, over the past twenty years or so, traditional departments in various places – Syracuse University and New York University, for example – have witnessed what have come to be called “secession” and “fusion”: rhetoric and composition set themselves up as independent, tenure-track entities, or multidisciplinary departments emerge out of fusions created from (for example) media studies, composition, communication, theory, global studies, and so forth.

Traditional “Language and Literature” departments need to rethink their advanced degree programs and requirements in serious ways. A small but not insignificant beginning would be to recover the name “Department of Language and Literature” along with the programmatic significance of such a title, now long fallen into nearly universal disuse. History of the language, history of the book and “the extensions of man,” the theory and practice of scholarly editing and methodologies of information display and transmission: all of these ought to be basic to “Language and Literature” degree programs – along with the often technical subdisciplines that would enable such work (paleography, stemmatics, bibliography, graphic design). Nineteenth-century philology achieved highly sophisticated models for such programs in ancient and modern literatures. While the emergence of global digital technologies has changed the landscape of our work and the specific shape of certain problems (like how to integrate digital and traditional media, or how to sustain volatile digital environments), the basic philological methodologies remain. In reorganizing our research programs, we could greatly profit by plundering our scholarly past – not so long past – for current needs.

I can think of no better example of the fruits of nineteenth-century philology than the OED, brainchild of the The Philological Society of London and one of the very best examples we have of a venerable resource making the transition from print to digital media in a way that has revolutionized its mandate (allowing it to track spoken as well as literary usage) while upholding its historical mission. What lessons can be taken from the example of the OED?

1. That philological projects, even of much lesser magnitude, realize a couple of famous apothegms: “ars long vita brevis”; or “lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate.” I can think of several others as well.

2. On a less ludic note: that crowdsourcing has a splendid example in the history of the OED.

Your witty take on the philologist’s intrepid nature reminds me of Seth Lerer’s characterization of the philologist as “a vatic, charismatic personage” and “a thrilling pedagogical performer” (Error and the Academic Self), but whereas Lerer sees the philologist as a rhetorician, you point to a symbiosis between philology and poetics. Perhaps you could say more about about the philology of poetic expression?

Reading Lerer’s lively book put me in mind of the announcer opening The Lone Ranger radio show that I listened to as a boy: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!” Now there was the rhetoric of a “thrilling pedagogical performer.” The sound and rhythm of his voice is as clear to me now as those words – which I believe are exact. (Ah – I just checked Google, our great contemporary philological archive, and they are exact – if we can trust that scholarly authority. And even if we’re skeptical, Google puts us on a useful track. We could datamine the matter to test its truth.)

Philology is the science of memory, poetry the art of memory, rhetoric a set of memory techniques. The producers of The Lone Ranger were very good rhetoricians. Certain lines of Modernism worked to disengage poetry and rhetoric, as – at the same time – certain lines of scholarship worked to disengage literature from philology. Great rhetorical poets like Byron and Hugo slipped from the eminence they enjoyed (we remember what Valery said of Hugo!). Philology slid away as well. Indeed, collage and stripped down Modernist styles were clearly efforts to shift the memorial function of poetry from its rhythmic to its visible resources. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a classic Modernist apothegm (it dates from the 1920s and came out of the advertising industry, the dominant rhetorical apparatus of the Modernist world). The rhetorical force of visible language privileges immediate impact but does not have staying power unless it rides on what Pound called melopoiea. Think of the strongly visible later Cantos where the page space dominates. We remember so much of our great nineteenth-century philological poets – Byron, Tennyson, Swinburne. We even remember all kinds of passages from Pound’s first thirty Cantos (and from those heavily memorial Pisan Cantos), where phanopoeia and melopoiea work in a great concert. We can’t recall much of Rock Drill. Obsessed with the loss of cultural memory, Pound’s visible poetics – Rock Drill! – is the very index of his fear that the past might have so petrified as to be recovered only by violence. “These so, these irretrievable”: Whitman still believed that the loved and lost could be summoned through song and oratory.

I am not trashing the visible languages of Modernism. But I am suggesting that the emergence of those languages signals a crisis of cultural memory – and therefore, a crisis for the public function of scholarship and its memorial vocation. Once again I recall Milman Parry’s prescient lecture of 1934 on historical method and philology. Like Nietzsche, he was troubled that philology’s commitment to truth was losing its purchase in the public sphere to… the rhetoric of advertising and propaganda. Suzanne Langer registered a similar unease when she wrote Philosophy in a New Key (1941), her effort to renovate the Kantian tradition for the epoch of Modernism. The philologians that Lerer celebrates in his book, traumatized exiles from Nietzsche’s world, were not prepared to write Philology in a New Key. Such a book – such a program – might now be possible given the emergence of an Internet culture and environment.

And yet, Charles Bernstein, a great rhetorical poet of the contemporary era, not to mention a thrilling pedagogical performer, views poetry as an art of immemorability, with melopoiea repurposed as an agent of memory’s dissipation and the latter held up as a value in itself. Charles clearly wants this tension between memory and melopoiea as a ground for asserting evanescence over permanence.

I should say for “representing evanescence,” and I wouldn’t say “over permanence.” Charles’s work is as profound an investigation of the peculiar American crisis of historical memory as I know. On one hand his satire involves a relentless attack on our suffocating forms of truthless memory – the American world of the just-in-time and its self-consuming artifacts, where historical memory is mapped as the fantasmal “permanence” of Disneyland. The just-in-time world is not an “evanescent” world, it’s an illusory world of “permanence” in time. What Blake would call its “eternal form” is money. Hardy understood it only too well:

  • This never truly being
  • This evermore becoming,
  • This spinner’s wheel onfleeing
  • Outside perception’s range

The Klupzy Girl could not live in such a world, which is islanded and without irritations.

So not an “art of immemorability” but an art attacking ossified memory, “permanented” memory. And a countering art that glorifies the beauty of what Swinburne saw as “all disastered things,” which are as evanescent as

  • The beauty of inflections
  • Or the beauty of innuendoes,
  • The blackbird whistling
  • Or just after

That would be “On the one hand.” On the other hand, the Klupzy Girl.

Key to Charles’s method is finding ways to reroute the philologist’s fears – the canned speech of advertising and propaganda – through irony and satire as a source of poetic speech. “Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: / it brings you to your senses.” To notice how much these memorable lines from “The Klupzy Girl” owe to the rhetoric of advertising is not to diminish them. Charles is always talking about the ways voices get smuggled into textual spaces and why it’s important to recognize them there as voices. Does philology as you’re reimagining it offer a method for reading/hearing the social materiality of speech and voices?

First a few words about Charles’s poetic methods. What you say about his use of “the canned speech of advertising and propaganda” – and I’d add, of everyday platitudes and cliché – is of course fundamental. All that is a rhetoric of memorability, and like the rhetorical techniques of poetry – in general terms, rhythm and rhyme – it implicitly calls attention to poetry’s oral roots and branches, and even vox populi, which I should call poetry’s transcendental aspiration (earth-grounded rather than heaven-driven).

The first voice that gets smuggled into Charles’s textual spaces is his own. Growing up in all that moneyed and brain-dead verbiage, being fed with it through a lifetime, the comic inflection of Charles Bernstein comes through with great clarity… for those who have ears to hear. When you hear it you begin to be able to see and hear yourself. That seems to me, fundamentally, what Charles is doing. In good classical fashion, he holds a mirror up to what Laura Riding called the Life of the Dead. By ventriloquizing such speech, he locates himself within its lifeworld. He is no spectator ab extra, as are traditional dramatic monologuists like Browning. (In this respect he is much closer to the Rossetti of a poem like “Jenny,” or Swinburne in “Anactoria.”) He has many poems that I should call documentary witness poems where his voice is largely silent. But in his key works the poems say: “We’re all in the drink together, and if you don’t take yourself too seriously, you won’t have to buy or sell the Kool-Aid yourself, and you can set a good example.” The message is all the more telling for being modest, human. He is, like all the great comic poets, “a moderate-minded bard.”

I have to add an important caveat: that Dark City – one of his greatest books – is something else again. But to talk about Dark City would require a whole conversation on its own.

Having said all that, I think you can see that I read Charles’s poetry as a critical reflection on the just-in-time memory of the American present. As for occluded American Memory – the history that feeds our just-in-time ethos – this is not his focus. He does not have the “scholarly” passions of, say, Charles Olson or Susan Howe, though he understands and appreciates it. After all, his admiration for Charles Reznikoff, which I share, is deep and long-standing. Like Dos Passos, Reznikoff wants us to read/hear the social materiality of speech and voices from the past. But like all imaginative writers, both are firmly located in their living present. The imagined “pasts” in their work are fairly recent.

Howe is unusual here: a poet of intense immediacy, like her mentor Emily Dickinson, but also a poet who is genuinely scholarly in her work. Not many poets have her philological gifts and commitments. One thinks perhaps of Ovid and Byron. And while both have their dark moments – certainly Byron has a whole line of darknesses – Howe is torn apart by the histories she recovers. Because those histories are so torn apart.

By vocation, the philologist is called to sift and study the historical record, the historical wreckage. “Speech and voices”? Until the twentieth-century, those wrecords were all silent: metal, stone, clay, hides, and pulp. Audio/visual/digital wrecords are a great resource for the philologist, and the philologist is a great resource for the poets. The philologist does not give us lost “speech and voices” but the wrecords of those once living. If s/he is any good at it, s/he brings the wrecords forward with a clarity that suggests their once living truth. It is up to the poet to bring back the dead so that we can actually almost hear them (not their wrecords) again, in their fragile and fleet inflections and innuendoes. As here:

  • SHE dwelt among the untrodden ways
  • Beside the springs of Dove,
  • A Maid whom there were none to praise
  • And very few to love:
  • A violet by a mossy stone
  • Half hidden from the eye!
  • ––Fair as a star, when only one
  • Is shining in the sky.
  • She lived unknown, and few could know
  • When Lucy ceased to be;
  • But she is in her grave, and, oh,
  • The difference to me!

Speech and voice has to be that particular.

Our discussion of poetics and philology raises another important topic that you’ve written about: the relationship between poetic and scholarly writing. You’ve noted “the vexed relationship between academic and avant-garde writing.” Elsewhere you say of an essay by Charles that its critical trenchancy results from the thoroughness of its ludic posture. What does academic writing have to learn from avant-garde writing, and how specifically does play figure in your understanding of scholarship?

I don’t know that I can add anything useful to what I tried to show and tell in Are the Humanities Inconsequent? and The Scholar’s Art. The passage I quote from Bernstein’s essay “The Revenge of the Poet Critic” (Scholar’s Art 151-154) seems to me one of the most profound and original acts of literary reflection I’ve ever read – fit to be compared, for instance, with the best of Dr. Johnson, Poe, and Eliot. Why is the essay so important and successful? Several reasons come to mind. First of all, it moves from two foundational assumptions: that “literature” is a social event involving artists and several types of readers, including the general reader, the critical reader, and the scholarly reader; and that each of these persons operates in co-dependent relations with the others. Second, it reflects its own particular socio-historical conditions, i.e., a world where all communication, and not least imaginative and educational work, is seriously (that would be seriously!) managed and administered. And third, it proposes that a Marxian approach to that situation – a GrouchoMarxian rather than a KarlMarxian – is a good place to start, so sealed-up have our Doors of Perception become.

If the point is not simply to understand the world (our world) but to change it, “The Revenge of the Poet Critic” is just what the doctor ordered for we literary persons. “To see ourselves as others see us,” as a great poet once said.

It strikes me that a significant feature of what you’re celebrating here is what we might call, for lack of a better name, “vernacularization.” In vernacularizing critical address Charles exhibits a form of thinking that is playful and serious and relevant, and in no way scholastic. Likewise, you parody the dryasdust philologian to make a hero of the fleshandblood philologian. We might also throw in Parry’s concerns about “philological isolation.” Do you think the migration of scholarly communication from closed textual environments to open access digital spaces will further influence scholars to bring a vernacular sensibility to their work?

“Philological isolation”! or, “The Ivory Tower.” What most moves and troubles me about Parry’s great essay is its modest register. After all, he’s writing about the importance of truth-telling to a healthy society, and he makes it crystal clear how aware he is of the threats to truth that in 1934 are coming from Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States, each of whom run powerful propaganda machines. But who is he, Milman Parry?! A philologue, a pedant, a scholar of ancient Greek literature. Is pedantry one of the last bastions of objective truth in an Administered World? Is poetry another?

It seems impossible to read that essay now without thinking of the coming decades of globalized war and the violence unleashed by “enlightened and advanced civilization.” Not all the violence has been directly Euro-American, but most has; and for the rest, Euro-America has been a driving force everywhere.

I recently saw a production of The Pirates of Penzance and was struck with an array of similar thoughts, not least in the ludicrously grand “Hail Poetry” finale. Is Nonsense the last infirmity of a noble mind? Or perhaps the last refuge of a scoundrel? In the “Defence” Shelley says that in the decadence of Hellenic culture, erotic poetry was the sole preserver of the truth of Imagination – a profound remark, I have always thought.

Of course I’m not addressing, least of all “answering,” your question. I want to reply in some encouraging way, but in fact I’m not encouraged to think that digital communication promises anything but more of the same: that would be islands of human Being in what Blake saw as a monstrous “Sea of Time and Space” (Blake called those islands “the pulsation of an artery”). E. M. Foster once famously gave “Two Cheers for Democracy.” A modest praise. So for the moment, our moment, “Hail Poetry” (quoting Gilbert and Sullivan rather than Aristotle). That seems to me what Charles has spent his life doing.

And Hail Pedantry as well, I want to say. (I say “Pedantry” rather than “Philology” to double down on Parry’s modest address.) Perhaps that’s what one wants – a resolute, implacable modesty. Certainly (“certainly” for me), Good Example rather than New Ideas seem that “light to lesson ages and voluptuous princes” that Byron spoke about. Shelley comes to mind once again (Hail Poetry). In his peroration to the “Defence” he pleads for poetry – “We must imagine what we know” he says, meaning that the advances of science need to be uplifted to human ends. But before we reread Prometheus Unbound, we’d do well to set our bearings by “The Witch of Atlas” and “Julian and Maddalo.”

And as for the scholar, we must practice what we know. And what do we know? We know about Memory, and we know how to preserve it. That is the scholar’s mission. Vocationally, all else that we do is secondary and/or functional.

But it takes a human spirit, doesn’t it, to fulfill that vocational task. I do admire Parry’s spirit.

I hail vernacularization; you hail pedantry. In a way, they go together. Parry devoted his short professional career to studying the presence of living memory in oral performance, a context in which pedagogy and entertainment, pedantry and common speech, mingle. Now the Internet proffers a similar space, but with very different stakes concerning memory. Perhaps I can ask you the same question Jean-Claude Carrière puts to Umberto Eco in This is not the end of the book: “What does memory mean now that we can access anything about anything, totally unfiltered… at the click of a mouse?”

I don’t know that exchange so forgive me if I go over ground they already covered. But the question interests me because, as I read it here, it makes (implies) an important distinction between digital “Memory” – i.e., the stored data – and the human persons who will access and use it. We speak of computerized “memory banks” and we’ve naturally tried to organize digital environments after our library and museum models (and now, vice versa). Then the scale of the data and information deposits explodes in online aggregated systems and cloud computing. So we talk of drinking information from a fire hose.

Though our language often misleads us to think otherwise, none of that data or information is “Memory,” not even the software that facilitates its retrieval and use. No one drinks from a fire hose, and only living things have memories. It’s imaginable that the auto- and allo-poetic functions of machines might take a Lucretian swerve and develop what we call consciousness and therefore what we understand as human “Memory.” It’s being imagined all the time. But I suspect, with Olaf Stapledon, that such an event requires an unimaginable time scale. Blade Runner is a sweet and sentimental dream of escape from a society that has lost its mind and its memory.

So I want to say that Memory now means pretty much exactly what it meant to Socrates, to Montaigne, to Tolstoy, to Sebald. (I don’t say “to Gibbon” or “to Churchill” because the forms of their memories were imperially inflected – a condition that transforms human memory, that most personal experience, into… what shall we call it? a sense of history?).

Memory is how we take care of what we love and lose. (Tormented memory is when we remember that we forgot to take care.) We create machineries to help us remember. Libraries, museums, digital environments. Families. Nations. Ceremonies. No question but these machines get out of hand, some dangerously out of hand. The story of the Tower of Babel and the myth of Faust are ways of reflecting on memory machines that have gone out of control. The one is an imperial tale, the other is personal. Personally I prefer the personal ones. Faust and Margaret, Manfred and Astarte.

Given those preferences, you can probably see why I don’t think, faced now with access to aggregated online information, we’re any worse or better off than we were (are) faced with our traditional memory machines.

I will add, however, that the organization and administration of these memory machines through what we used to call “The American System” seems to me manifestly dangerous. Our current usage speaks of the Just-in-Time, which takes fundamentally the same presentist approach to system administration. Social software only adds greater speed to the presentist orientation. In manufacturing production such machineries, as we know, can prove highly beneficial, though only when they can be kept subject to human control. (Collective bargaining has been the model mechanism for countering the evil inertia of such systems). But as your initial anecdote suggests, the production of information at scale presents a clear threat to memory. Not the least of the threats is the information filter we call propaganda, which need not only come now from official organs of the state.

Recently I’ve been studying again the dustup that Wilamowitz created with his scathing review of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. It forced Nietzsche to reflect more deeply on his critique of what he called Wir Philologen. Out of those reflections came the critical method of “Genealogy,” his reconstruction of the critical methods of philology.

Much might be said, as it were, “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Genealogy for Life.” And for learning and education. Its hypothetical approach to history is not the least of its ambivalent and ambiguous legacies, especially if we’re concerned with human memory. And that is exactly what I’m most concerned with, and that your question raised. So let me finish these comments with an interesting quotation from Daybreak, the work that inaugurated Nietzsche’s genealogical studies.

It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist… that is to say, a teacher of slow reading…. For philology… demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to go slow – it is a goldsmith’s craft and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.

That is not the voice of a critical genealogist but of a dryasdust philologian who “is in love and [who] loves what vanishes.”

Nietzsche’s repurposing of philology for genealogical/philosophical ends prompted a long period of experimentation with form. I’m wondering to what extent does philology as you’re reimagining it compel new forms of scholarly communication?

That experimentation started with Wir Philologen, which he never published, but which morphed into the famous so-called aphoristic form. But “aphoristic” isn’t nearly adequate to describe what he began doing. The form achieved its greatest expression, I think, in the Philosophical Investigations. Passagenwerk and Minima Moralia aren’t too bad either, are they!

This conversation is not a good place to discuss the complex Nietzschean legacy in all that. Nietzsche’s influence on research education – on the form of it, even – has been at least as deplorable as otherwise, though most of the “otherwise” haven’t noticed. But to your question about whether a philological imagination compels “new forms of scholarly communication,” surely it’s obvious that I’ve been dunning people with that view for some time. People everywhere are experimenting with digital environments because we don’t yet know how to exploit them, though everybody sees that they are holding out their hands to us. To take only some local (Virginia) examples, we’re still after IVANHOE, The Patacritical Demon, and Temporal Modelling; and Juxta – the most traditional of the experiments – is brinked at 2.0.

But all this, I believe, began in earnest in the nineteenth-century with the major breakthroughs in non-Euclidean mathematics, photography, and then the investigation of electromagnetic fields. The remarkable experiments in non-linear exposition and non-narrative sequencing arguably begin with Maldoror – not as an “origin” (no, Nietzsche, not an origin) but as a Daybreak. Then comes collage and montage, but even more arresting to me, that peculiarly wonderful style Stein called “Composition as Explanation.” The Emersonian (and Nietzschean) ideology of the Sovereign Man is a deadly idea to me, but Emerson is one of the first to have achieved that style, in what seems to me his single greatest work, the essay “Experience.” I’ve been in thrall for years to various later masters of the style – Laura Riding, Dos Passos, J. C. Powys, Dorothy Richardson, Stein herself.

What we generally call “historical method” came to maturity in the nineteenth-century because it began to realize how (not “that”) the logos of philology was something beyond language strictly conceived, and in a material rather than a rational or conceptual beyond. Nietzschean genealogy was an effort to reimagine the method, to escape the genealogy it had worked out for itself. Nietzsche feared the “chaos” released by the method and retreated to selective “forgetting” as a defense. I think in a “globalized world” we have to stop systematic forgetting. Everything wonderful is chaotic, and being afraid is a good thing. Though not being afraid of being afraid. I won’t cite Roosevelt here, I’d rather cite Meredith – “The Woods of Westermain” – or Swinburne – “Anactoria.”

“Philology in a new key” is now a real possibility – a kind of marriage of the heaven of Nietzsche and the hell of Wilamowitz.

Trying not to overstate a schematic point, we could note (with Kittler) that the emergence of Nietzsche’s “aphoristic style” corresponds to his use of the Malling Hansen writing ball, a precursor to the typewriter. “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche famously wrote to Peter Gast. Recent developments obviously skew communication even more toward shorter, less formal, forms. Do you see a scholarly upside to shorter formats?

Actually, I don’t see that digital technology is driving shorter forms of communication – if what you mean here is “scholarly communication.” (And come to think of it, I don’t see that any communications are being skewed shorter now. Tweeting and blogging seem to me just online/digital forms of gossip, quotidian conversation, and unvetted N&Q.) And journalistic forms have been around for a long time.

But I do think that online and digital environments are pushing scholars to take up forms that aggregate large and complex sets of interrelated “shorter” notes and essays into (often quite vast) information corpora. The model here is the “array” as worked out in pre-modern traditions of scholarship. (I recall now that I wrote about these “forms of critical discourse” many years ago in an essay I published in Critical Inquiry, which was titled “Some Forms of Critical Discourse”).

The scholarly monograph and its related genre, the scholarly essay, will surely recede as dominant critical forms. This will happen because digital networks correspond, formally, to a system “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” By contrast, the traditional monograph and scholarly essay propose a coherent and comprehensive treatment of some subject from a single point of view. “Recent developments” have driven us away from that kind of approach to knowledge.

“Shorter formats” aren’t the issue, I think. What I do see emerging are large decentered knowledge environments within which are embedded an array of hierarchical (“single point of view”) units that may be more or less long or short.

“Large decentered knowledge environments within which are embedded an array of hierarchical (‘single point of view’) units that may be more or less long or short.” Do you see the open access scholarly journal fitting into, or structuring, such an ecology?

What particularly strikes me are the opportunities to break free of the closure of the “scholarly journal” as traditionally inherited, open access or otherwise. The journals ought to be looking for ways to aggregate in real time with the Internet at large. When a person is reading or using something in, say, amodern, s/he should be aware of the accessible presence of explicitly or implicitly related materials. In print we call to those presences in footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices. The future online journal would ideally have, as a regular part of its software, a real time “More Like This” global search function that readers/users can invoke and constrain to their special interests.

Recently people have been promoting a blog-type scholarly publishing model in which current user interest would be the vetting engine for scholarly communication. Current user interest is obviously a sine qua non for research and education. But the traditional scholarly book or monograph represents a phase of scholarly work that is very different. Take a non-digital example – for instance, the work pursued in conferences: papers, Q&A in seminars or after lectures, and the conversations that permeate scholarly gatherings. All that is scholarship framed in genres – or operating in phase spaces – that are distinctly different from the work published in journals and books. It isn’t worse or better, less or more significant. It’s just different, and the difference represents different kinds of opportunities for scholarly exchange – or what Habermas called “Communicative Action.”

Digital environments do not obliterate the laws of rhetoric and genre, which in themselves have great power for the advancement of learning. We have always had many kinds of forward as well as backward filtering. My view is that the e-journal you’re imagining, like its forebear, should continue to come out with traditional vetting, and use its published work as a provocation-at-large. But not as a promiscuous repository for what it provokes. Its function would remain traditional – to seek and propose what it takes to be the most interesting, and provocative, of the responses it creates. Those would be vetted, though the vetted works might – as now – reference unvetted materials.

When we think about e-publishing it’s important to remember that printed works are themselves critical and analytic machines. They organize data, arguments, expositions, displays. We’re so accustomed to using them that we commonly take them as purely vehicular and transparent in relation to their “content.” But they’re not, they’re deeply interpretive, and they’re also remarkably flexible in the ways they can lead us to think and argue. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the book is probably the greatest machine ever invented by human beings.

I point that out because the recognition can help us think about what digital machineries might offer to scholars. Don’t imagine them simply as content-bearers. Imagine them as tools. E-publishing venues should be attracting scholars because of the quality of their interpretive software. Traditional publishers let scholars exploit some powerful interpretive toolsets. What are humanities e-publishers offering? So far, storage, linked aggregation, and wide distribution. The interface rhetorics, whether display or algorithmic, remain largely book-bound.

One final question. You say early on in our exchange that “We do want to leave a little room for hope.” What is your hope for the work you’re presently engaged in?

Two years ago I began what will be a long-term investigation of antebellum American history and culture. I intended to do this in the early 90s, shortly after moving to Virginia, but I got waylaid by information technology and its promise (and threat) to the humanities. That twenty year digression proved fortuitous because IT tools and resources allow one to take socio-historical studies out further and in deeper. So I’ve come back to that old plan with a lot of new ideas. Digital resources make it possible to track and study multiple overlapping histories and their narrative representations, both native and non-native, within very complex geo-temporal coordinates. The history of America is recorded in the history of the expropriation and exploitation of New World land. It unfolds through a dreadful and wonderful internetwork of events, as everybody knows. Native American, African American, regional, media, and ecological studies have burgeoned during the last 50 years, but they’ve been stored largely in their own siloes. I see both the need and the opportunity to break down those separations to much more comprehensive examinations of America and its fearfully dislocated Memory. I see as well some major shifts of attention coming about. A colleague, Gerald Kennedy, has begun an online project to investigate antebellum America by mapping its complex printing and publishing resources. In that perspective, Poe’s life and works become an exemplary exposure and disposition of the logic of fear and forgetfulness that so dominates the cultural Memory of America. My own interest in land, law, and money have made renewed studies of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper unavoidable, Cooper in particular, where the same preoccupations pervade their foundational cultural reflections.My special “hope” for all this is partly a recovery of American Memory. But I see that goal requiring us to rethink our scholarly and critical methods for the humanities. By “rethink” I mean the deployment of newly available procedures, digitally based, for investigating the complexities of the “implicate order” (see David Bohm) of human Memory and its material representations. The great historicist philologians of the nineteenth-century forecast it in what they called Sachphilologie – an object-oriented and media approach to the study of history and culture – the histories that we have forgotten as well as, more importantly perhaps, the histories we have killed.