Friday, August 17, 2012

Accessible Pasts

Late last night, I saw this marvelous link floating around the interwebs: a digitized version of Cotton Nero A.x, or, the Pearl-manuscript.  It's a wonderful thing to behold, and potentially so useful. Not only can we, as scholars of medieval literature, now work from a digitized facsimile of the manuscript as opposed to traveling to the British Library (as delightful as that is, it's not always feasible), we can also introduce our students to it. What I'm most conscious of with the announcement of the newly available digitization, though, is how the past is made present.

Others who are more expert in manuscript studies and digital humanities will doubtless have more to say, or have already said it, but I just want to think for a moment about the temporalities it introduces: A past object is made available, accessible, through modern technology. This is a wonderful thing. It's like having a museum on our laptops. But, while I'm delighted by these digital innovations, I also realize that the digitization here is not at all anything new.*  What I mean is that we've always done this. The Collected Works of Plato, sitting on my desk, brings together texts written via much older technologies into a collection made possible by modern printing.** We do this compulsively, collecting and making the past present. This is one reason why the past can never be seen as an absolute alterity, for we must always be aware of the modern technologies that aid us in accessing the past. (We must also be aware of the present perceptions and biases that inform our decisions about how we approach the past, but that's another blog post.)

Technology aside, viewing the digitization of the Pearl-manuscript also got me thinking about the coming academic year and the courses I'll be teaching. (Ok, yes, I've been having teaching anxiety dreams already. So?)  This Fall, I'm teaching two different courses: a Freshman Writing course (theme: "the Monstrous Imagination") and a course called "Persuasive Writing." In the Freshman course, my students will look at monster narratives ranging from Marie de France, "Bisclavret" to The Walking Dead. Some texts will be readily available to them, then, while others might seem distant or strange. My job as a teacher is, of course, to help contextualize older texts so that my students can better understand them.  But, I also want the past texts not just to be understood with their pastness, but also with their presentness.  That is, how are they relevant to our moment? Asking this can lead to some facile comparisons, but sometimes those comparisons can be truly vibrant.

The other course I'm teaching provides an excellent example of what I am trying to get at here. In the course, my upper-level students will be reading Plato, Aristotle, and Quintillian in order to think about argumentative techniques.  But, this is not strictly a course in classical rhetoric and argument--it's a service-learning course. My students will be serving as coaches for middle school students in a Junior Debate League. (See this article for some more information.) My students will need to synthesize the insights and knowledge they gain from class in order to make that material accessible to and relevant for their own students.  Rather than curating the past, we'll have the opportunity to make it speak, to put it into dialogue with the present, and to do so with real exigence.

What I don't want to do is modernize either Marie de France or Aristotle, id est, removing the troubling bits representative of past alterities.  I don't want to say, "Look, Aristotle or Chaucer were just like us! Neat!" I want, instead, to think about how past and present cohere together, and how they speak to one another.  I want my students, in any class I teach, to think about how we can make room in our own life-worlds for older texts. I want to try to undo binary thinking about past and present, and instead think about the various and often non-linear connections we can draw.

*I want to offer a tip of the hat to Brantley Bryant for making me think more about this.
**I'm indebted to Jonathan Gil Harris's conception of the "polychronic", how objects possess many different times. An automobile, for example, is made possible by ancient and modern technologies.


LanglandinSydney said...

Interesting thoughts Rick --the gang at Calgary presented this project in the e-Middle English session at Portland. There was also stuff on the i-IMEV project and the online Margery Kempe MS that's also available digitally. It was a 9:30 am session, not particularly well attended, up against ... I forget what, something very interesting too, but I wondered whether people were kind of over digital manuscripts. The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive has had so little effect on Langland scholarship that I wonder what impact these new projects will have. PPEA is going web now ( though for now without the MS images, which might hinder interest. I know of about two entire Piers MSS on the web, and three Canterbury Tales ones, but they've hardly excited much interest either. (I think Sian Echard has compiled a list of such items.) What do we do with this stuff? The question remains, even when the text of the MS is edited within an inch of its life (as with PPEA). Perhaps you've hit on the main pedagogical use: the past made very present in ways that back when I went to grad school, not to mention college, were impossible. I don't remember even looking at any print facsimiles of MSS back then. We're in a different world now. Just musing out loud here ... Interesting stuff! --Lawrence

Rick Godden said...

Lawrence, thanks for the comment. People might be somewhat over digital manuscripts, at least in terms of it being the new, shiny thing. But, I have to think it's still the future. I reviewed one of the first PPEA CD's with David Lawton (second year of grad school), and I remember being enthralled but frustrated with platform issues--not as user-friendly as I wanted, and not too compatible with a mac. I think as the web becomes more of a viable platform for things like the PPEA, we'll see a sea-change. I do have to be honest, though, that I did not know about the CT available online in MSS form.

For now, maybe it is just the pedagogical value of making the past present that makes it worthwhile, but I really do think it's where we're headed. I should write a fuller post sometime because I do think there are some potential problems too (what mss do we digitize? do we digitize everything or just familiar parts? etc.) But, the more we increase access, the more people will be tempted to work with manuscripts. If working with manuscripts can include working from digital facsimiles.