This semester, I’m teaching a course for Winthrop University: WRIT 502: Cyber-Rhetoric: Literature, Theory, Technology. It is, in short, a course in digital English studies. The catalog description of the course is as follows:
This class will examine the challenging possibilities now open for literary study and literary theory. It considers works from Blake to Borges to cyberpunk; works with online materials and literary archives; wrestles with modern rhetorical and digital theorists; and experiment with creating online texts and critiquing them.
As I put the course together, I found myself leaning towards incorporating more digital humanities and comparative media studies while addressing how digital technologies are changing our notions of texts and textual engagement, literature, pedagogy, and composition. As I put the syllabus together, I ended up with a fairly long course introduction, but decided to keep it. I thought I’d share it here.
“Any shift in the traffic of information can create not only new thoughts, but new ways of thinking.” – Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, Rhythm Science
“It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage
“It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur […]. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.” – A.N. Whitehead, Symbolisms: Its Meaning and Effect
“As the era of print is passing, it is possible once again to see print in a comparative context with other textual media, including the scroll, the manuscript codex, the early printed codex, the variations of book forms produced by changes from letterpress to offset to digital publishing, and born-digital forms such as electronic literature and computer games.” – N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era
“It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” – A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
In the months of May and June, readers of the New Republic were treated to articles about the end of English Departments, soon to be killed off by technology in the guise of the digital humanities. In his article, New Republic Senior Editor Adam Kirsch decries the doom he believes technology is wreaking. Less alarmist, James Pulizzi also sees the end of the traditional literature department as all but inevitable, not because they must die but because they must shift and adapt to the new digital environment.
It is true, as Pulizzi suggests, that literature departments, especially English departments, are changing, even need to change. But that’s nothing new. English departments have always been changing. We might point to the 1800s where at schools like Harvard one of the most prestigious professorships was the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, or to the late 1800s when American English departments did not teach American literature – the first American professor of American literature had to jump ship from his literature department for a department of history. Or we might point to the 1940s and the rise of the then New Criticism, or to the 1960s as the start of a series of waves of post-structuralist and post-modernist theories and perspectives including but not limited to feminism, gender studies, New Historicism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism and ethnic studies, ecocriticism, trauma theory, memory studies, New Materialism, object-oriented criticism, and speculative realism. Or we might look again to the 1960s and the revival of classical rhetoric and the beginnings of contemporary composition studies, followed later by the growth of professional writing and technical communication.
Kirsch, however, is right in sensing that something is different. This is not just a change in the practice of theory or the object of study, but a change in the very way we are structuring our culture. We are no longer a culture of print. We are, instead, a transitional culture moving from the print to digital age. In arguing against the study and use of digital technology, Kirsch asks, “Was it necessary in the past 500 years for a humanist to know how to set type and publish a book?”
Kirsch believes that the answer is no, and therein lies the problem with his attempt to defend the humanities from technology. Renaissance Humanism was born within the newly established printing houses of Europe. The first Humanists did not just learn how to set type and publish books, they embraced the printing press; got their hands on as many hand-written manuscripts of Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science as they could; set them to type; and published, published, published.
Kirsch is unaware of these facts because he is trapped within a catch-22. To be aware of how the printing press gave rise to Renaissance Humanism, Kirsch would have had to have studied the history of media technologies, something which he seems loathe to do because he believes it to be antithetical to humanistic concerns.
As Hayles and Pressman argue, that we are transitioning from a print to a digital culture allows us to more readily recognize that print and its modes of thought, patterns of behavior, and organizational structures were a temporary condition fostered and encouraged by a technology around which we shaped our culture. That era, the Age of Print, is ending, just as the manuscript culture of medieval scholasticism ended with the rise of print.
And that is what this course is about: In recognizing, as DJ Spooky reminds us, that shifts in the traffic of communication will alter modes of thought; in seeking to understand the workings of electronic and digital media, as Marshall McLuhan suggests we need to do, so that we might understand the social and cultural changes around us; in revising the ways we practice English studies even as we maintain our symbolic codes so that we might, as A.N. Whitehead argues, stave off cultural stagnation.
If “the business of the future is to be dangerous,” then the answer is not to hide from it but, as McLuhan suggests, “to contemplate what is happening.” Or, as Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance writer and inventor of the essay – a genre thoroughly entwined with the rise and logics of print – once wrote, “The thing of it is, we must live with the living.” That is what this course is about: To understand how English studies might live within a digital world.