Creative Destruction / “Digital Humanities”

whitney trettien
Aug 24, 2016 · 23 min read

The following is a condensed version of a chapter authored for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Digital Medieval Literature, edited by Jen Boyle and Helen Burgess. My thanks to Jen and Helen for allowing me to post this pre-publication draft, and also to David J. Baker, Josh Honn, and Mary Caton Lingold for generously reading and commenting on various drafts of this essay. — WT

“Destruction was my Beatrice.” — Mallarmé

By the nineteenth century, Tenison’s Library was in utter disrepair. After its founder’s death in 1715, the library had all but stopped collecting items, and “the gap between those shelves and the readers who should frequent them gradually widen[ed] into a chasm,” as one writer elegized, “until no footstep c[ame] to wake the echoes and no finger to disturb the dust where reposes in silence the learning of ages.” By the 1850s, the situation was so dire that the caretaker, a boatman on the Thames by day, was rumored to sport a pair of suspenders pasted with illuminations cut from the library’s medieval manuscripts — an ironic metonym for the institution’s “state of suspended animation.”

The collection was auctioned off in parcels in 1861 and with it two curious books: the Fragmenta manuscripta and Fragmenta varia. Compiled at the end of the seventeenth century by the shoemaker-turned-bibliophile John Bagford, these large folio volumes — scrapbooks of a sort — contain bits and pieces of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. They include everything from fragments of music notation and religious texts to woodcut initials, pen doodles, early title pages, and even a loose volvelle, all set in roughly chronological order from the eighth through the seventeenth century.

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Loose late 15th-century volvelle (fragment 201r), Fragmenta manuscripta, Ellis Library Special Collections, University of Missouri. Accessed through the Digital Scriptorium.

Some pieces appear to have been culled from sixteenth-century bookbindings, where scraps of medieval parchment were often used as endpapers or to reinforce the bands along the spine.

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Leaf from a 13th-century glossed Bible with evidence of use in a later binding (fragment 012v), Fragmenta manuscripta, Ellis Library Special Collections, University of Missouri. Accessed through the Digital Scriptorium.

Others are entire leaves or bifolia rescued from tattered volumes tossed in the dustbins of second-hand bookshops.

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Flyleaf with 16th-century pen trials and doodles (fragment 199), Fragmenta manuscript, ragmenta manuscripta, Ellis Library Special Collections, University of Missouri. Accessed through the Digital Scriptorium.

Together, the Fragmenta books form the backbone of Bagford’s larger project: a complete history of the book, told through exemplary specimens of early text technologies.

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Early 15th-century miniature of Gregory writing (fragment 161v), , Fragmenta manuscripta, Ellis Library Special Collections, University of Missouri. Accessed through the Digital Scriptorium.

“‘Construction’ presupposes ‘destruction’,” wrote Walter Benjamin in Passagenwerk, his own fragmented history of modernity. He describes creative destruction, that generative force that — like Shiva, creator and destroyer of the world, or Nietzsche’s version of Dionysus — forges new meaning by way of ruination. Drawing energy from Bagford’s and the boatman’s historical praxis, this piece adopts creative destruction as a heuristic for probing the currently fraught relationship between technology, history, and interpretation in literary studies. It does so in service of asking big questions about the present and its past, namely: What role do media technologies play in forming and disseminating historical knowledge? What role should they play? What is the political potential of literary criticism, and how can scholars best realize it? A short piece cannot fully address these topics. However, by tugging at the thread of creative destruction, I hope to unravel a bit the current debates that bind the term “digital humanities” to reveal more clearly the stakes of the digital turn, especially for those of us who study literature’s deep history.

I’ve introduced “creative destruction” by citing Benjamin and Nietzsche, but today, one is more likely to stumble upon the term in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. There, it serves as shorthand for the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of capital, outlined in his 1942 classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Schumpeter argues that wealth accumulates through co-constitutive cycles of technological innovation and industry restructuring. He named this mechanism “creative destruction” and described it as the “process of industrial mutation — if I may use that biological term — that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is,” he emphasizes, “the essential fact about capitalism.”

The term lay dormant for many decades but gained currency with the growth of the tech industry during the 80s and 90s. Schumpeter was proclaimed “the prophet of bust and boom” by the New York Times in 2000 and quoted approvingly by Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve. As Greenspan testified in 1999, the “evident acceleration of the process of creative destruction, … reflected in the shifting of capital from failing technologies into those technologies at the cutting edge,” seemed to be largely responsible for the decades’ phenomenal economic growth. The phrase has lost ground in more recent years; it is a “glamorizing term,” Paul Krugman recently grumbled, and one that “excuses a lot of suffering.”

Yet the tech industry remains enamored with the idea of expansion through volatility, now propagated under a new oxymoronic tagline: “disruptive innovation.” Coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, “disruptive innovation” originally described how newer, smaller companies are counterintuitively better positioned to exploit market gaps, even with an inferior product. The term has entered the cultural bloodstream more generally, though, especially in Silicon Valley, which now seems to be in a constant state of disrupting itself. CNBC annually publishes the “Disruptor 50,” a list of the most “disruptive” companies, and every year the technology blog TechCrunch hosts a high-profile festival called “Disrupt,” where “revolutionary startups” compete for seed money. “This is an era of disruption,” Grant McCracken writes in a blog post on Harvard Business Review. “Not disruption as the occasional event, but disruption as the constant, chronic condition of our professional lives.” The phrase has become so overused that Judith Shulevitz threateningly titled an August 2013 New Republic article “Don’t You Dare Say ‘Disruptive’.”

It is against this backdrop of Schumpeterian-cum-“disruptive” rhetoric that the recent angst about the relationship between the humanities and digital technologies has materialized. To many scholars observing these trends over the last two decades, the language of creative destruction, disruptive innovation, and the attitude that it signals seem to have leached into Western culture writ large, including — and especially — the beleaguered halls of literature departments. The story will be familiar to most who are reading this: facing mounting student debt, shrinking public spending, and an increasingly ambiguous sense of the importance of a liberal arts education, which seems to have few defenders in high places, college administrators have dangerously flirted with and even outright adopted the mantra of disruptive innovation. This business-oriented strategy aims to restructure higher education as a form of technologically-mediated content delivery. “The Business Model of Higher Ed is Antiquated,” blazons the subheading of a Forbes article titled “Higher Education Is Now Ground Zero for Disruption,” written by a man whose byline proudly proclaims that he writes about “the new, new thing.” Humanities degrees are expensive and offer no guarantee of employment; by contrast, learning technologies like MOOCs and online education are cheap and, in a job market that sees that value of a degree in the tangible skills it confers, effective.

To some scholars observing these trends at the turn of the century, the hybrid field that was beginning to mark its work as “digital humanities” seemed particularly guilty of disruptspeak. New computational methods of analysis were said to be restructuring the tried and true practice of close reading, using machines to “read” unreadably large corpora of novels. New technology-oriented grant programs were bringing funding to humanities departments long parched by the lack of money for research, graduate students, and new faculty. The most prominent of these programs in the US, the National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-Up Grants, was judging projects according to their level of “innovation.” As Richard Grusin writes, neatly summarizing the position of many critics, “it is no coincidence that the digital humanities has emerged as ‘the next big thing’ at the very same moment in the first decades of the twenty-first century that the neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education has intensified” (87). So prevalent is the idea that digital humanities and disruptive innovation go hand in hand that forthcoming collection has been cheekily titled Disrupting Digital Humanities.

Humanities scholars who engage with technology in non-trivial ways have done a poor job responding to such criticism. I think this is largely because the thing tagged as “DH” and “the DHers” in these critiques feels like a mangled bogey-man of neoliberalism and therefore is easy to ignore. This caricature doesn’t adequately capture the loose aggregate of overlapping interests that have now (as Ted Underwood points out) self-organized into separate fields, with separate working methods and research questions. Nor are the various aesthetic, social, public, and political commitments of these fields — forcibly demonstrated in Melissa Dinsman’s recent LARB interviews with Jessica Marie Johnson, Marisa Parham, and Sharon Leon; essays by Fiona Barnett and Tara McPherson in a special issue of differences; a superb Digital Humanities Quarterly special issue on feminisms, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont; and other examples too numerous to cite — visible under the umbrella term “digital humanities.” In fact, by continuing to reify a diverse set of practices as a homogeneous whole, critics have ironically tended to contribute to the public erasure of the very type of work they seem to be championing.

Just because these critiques present a strawman, though, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing discursive work. I feel compelled to take seriously and in good faith respond to the broader critique about the relationship between technology, capitalism, and criticism. “DH” and “the DHers,” insofar as such formulations exist, will recede from the academy’s horizon; scholarship’s reliance upon commercial software, proprietary hardware, capitalist information conduits, and privatized social networks — which is to say, its entanglement with global capitalism and the surveillance state — is not going anywhere. This moment of transition and upheaval is the perfect time to reconsider, and rebuild, the nexus of archival technologies, power, critique, and resistance in relation to the contemporary university.

Let’s zoom in then on the debate.

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Lajos Kassák, “Destroy so that you can build, build so that you can win.” A typographic experiment from the radical politics and arts magazine MA 8.1 (October 1922). Image sourced from the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, which has scanned the entire run of MA.

A key point of contention is precisely the language of disruption. By emphasizing the novelty of digital tools and methods, the rhetoric surrounding digital humanities, especially in the popular media, seems to have introduced a binarism between “innovative” methods and now denigrated “traditional” methods, according to some observers. Further, by defending the value of teaching programming and design in literature programs, practitioners seem to be giving leverage to the idea that the humanities should be judged according to their use-value — an idea that critics see as antithetical to the inherently non-utilitarian nature of critical inquiry. In a paragraph that encapsulates this line of argument, and so which is worth quoting at length, David Golumbia writes:

The fact is that the humanities academy in the United States has been under attack from a wide range of conservative political forces for decades, particularly under the assumption that the humanities are useless or fail to teach skills necessary for employment. Cultural scholars who have looked at this situation consider it in part a mark of the inherent resistance to market absolutism found in the humanities; sites of resistance to such politics are disappearing, and it is no surprise that those remaining are targets of increased political activity on a number of fronts. It is possible to locate in literary-interpretive practice, including that of the New Critics and their philological predecessors like Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, a generalized ethics of the encounter with the other in language that interpretive humanities offer. While the Right likes to paint such ethics as inherently leftist, a more neutral examination suggests they are compatible with almost any conservative or liberal political philosophy other than market absolutism. (158)

It is taken for granted here that the knowledge produced in a field like literary studies is not a product at all, at least not one that can be sold, exchanged, or patented in the pursuit of accumulating wealth. It does not directly grow capital and therefore is, to apply Bertrand Russell’s distinction, “ornamental” to a market-based system, contra the more “instrumental” knowledge generated in engineering and the sciences. Its non-instrumentality renders “literary-interpretive practice” ipso facto anti-capitalist. That is, simply critical reading alone bears the mantle of an “inherent resistance to market absolutism,” according to this thinking. This anti-market logic inheres absent any explicit political commitments on the part of the reader or her methods, indeed the humanities are presented as powerful because they resist capitalism by design. Thus it follows that literary hermeneutics is “compatible with almost any liberal or conservative political philosophy other than market absolutism.

There is much to consider here, perhaps most especially the need for an active front of resistance against the various forces that seek to eradicate the humanities as so much superfluous fluff to modern society. Still, the argument is built on a series of leaps in logic that elide important differences. For instance, it seems true to me that the set of interpretive practices we often dub “critical thinking” resists the logic of markets, in the same limited sense that by watching the birds play in the gutters outside my kitchen window for the last eight minutes I have resisted the logic of markets: both activities are wastefully un-, even anti-productive, accruing no economic value (except in indirect ways). However, the “humanities” as a specific precipitate of professional disciplinary formations are not coterminous with these unmarketable moments of thought but rather are precisely their translation into marketable commodities with exchange value: books, articles, the piece you’re reading now. It is true that these commodities are traded within relatively artificial systems governed (it so often seems) more by an inflated valuation of prestige and ego than wealth; but it remains a marketplace nonetheless.

More to the point, our situation has never been otherwise. The academic humanities as we know them today emerged at the same moment as global capitalism. Their archives are the archives of global capitalism, as Bagford’s story, discussed more below, demonstrates; their rise is inextricable from the rise of the imperial nation-state. To admit this is not to deny scholars’ ability to critique those very same systems, for close reading is nothing if not an effective machine of nuanced historical understanding. But it is not an effective machine of change. In other words, that critical thinking or “literary-interpretive practices” can be said to operate outside certain capitalist or market-oriented logics does not give those practices the political power to resist those logics, or their integration into systems that distribute power unevenly. If it did, one might suppose the many brilliant close readings of literature that critics have churned out over the last few decades would have done a better job saving us from budget cuts.

This is the problem, and the danger, of refracting everything through the lens of economic ideology, especially when that ideology is ambiguously conflated with very specific political contingents: it defangs critique. Resistance is not a genetic function of literary criticism but an explicit political action on the part of the thinking humans who practice it. It sparks in the friction between inquiry — active, critical questioning — and the absorption of that process into the technological, social, legal, archival, and of course economic systems that collaboratively structure that thought as it is communicated to other humans across space and time. Thus while one can argue against neoliberalism or market absolutism within the discursive space of literary studies, one cannot resist it without engaging with the material mechanisms that mediate — and thus accrue or deny power to — that act. This is why the many Marxian movements of the last century, including most recently the Occupy movement, invested resources so heavily into developing new systems of communication while exploiting gaps in existing technologies. It is why punk culture fomented zine networks, and the Women in Print movement of the 1970s, recently illuminated by the work of Trysh Travis, argued that “feminists needed not merely a room, but an entire print culture of their own” (282). The medium is the message.

Today, the digital turn in its various constellations offers the best potential for fostering resistance to the conservative forces that seek to devalue interpretive inquiry. This is because the nature of the work itself forces scholars to attend to that frictive zone where critical acts are taken up by technologies, woven into the material world, and entangled within a network of social and cultural practices. The pressures of this seemingly new kind of work have opened a fruitful space of collaborative inquiry around issues like the politics of information storage, the economics of the scholarly monograph, and the role of the public domain. By drawing attention to systems of mediation, this shift has also galvanized discussion around access and disability, as well as the critical valences of different modes of representation and how they invisibly shape discourse. And it has empowered scholars to take publishing (by which I simply mean making an idea public) under their own control while developing frameworks for accreting value to previously undervalued practices, such as editing, technical design, and creative criticism. Of course, simply engaging in digital or collaborative scholarship alone won’t result in a more equitable academy, nor is such work any more inherently resistant than “literary-interpretive practices” are. Rather, the productive entanglement of the humanities’ interpretive work and its self-conscious mediation holds the greatest possibility for catalyzing change right now.

This possibility has most been realized at the fecund node where the concerns of book history, media studies, information sciences, and digital scholarship meet. I don’t think this is an accident. Historians of information and media technologies deal with tangible objects and infrastructures, and as such are accustomed to thematizing the points of contact between immaterial ideas and the material systems that store, archive, and communicate them. Scholars working across these areas know well that archives are not neutral zones of accumulation but battlegrounds of interpretation; that no discourse remains untainted by the technologies that mediate it; and that moments of media transition — which are all moments — are always hybrid, containing simultaneously progressive and regressive values. Because of their methodological commitments, these fields are capable of historicizing the emergence of electronically-mediated methods, thereby deconstructing the false oppositions that often unwittingly guide both critics and advocates, such as humanities/neoliberalism or thinking/making. Thus historians of text technologies are best poised to seize the technological and rhetorical upheavals of our time as an opportunity to restructure the humanities in ways that are both more culturally salient and politically potent.

Much as their predecessor Bagford did. For the remainder of this piece, I would like to return to Bagford and his scrapbooks. I’m interested in Bagford because his fragmented histories take a different tack on “literary-interpretive practices” — one in which creative destruction with text technologies is not the oppositional bête noire of inquiry but rather is its generative force. I realize that in applying the phrase “creative destruction” to cut-and-paste practices of the late seventeenth century I am detaching it from its specific Schumpeterian formulation, as well as from the controversial language of disruption. This is intentional. To better critique various nefarious influences in the academy today we must become better at honing the distinction between, on the one hand, material practices that float free of historical contingency — what media archaeologists like Erkki Huhtamo, following Ernst Robert Curtius, have sometimes called recurrent “topoi” — and, on the other hand, their rhetorical figuration in specific moments. By dividing tool from discourse, while recognizing the necessarily artificial nature of those distinctions, we can extract digital processes and practices from the language of novelty, plugging them into much longer histories of making and design. At the same time, these histories will enable us to more sharply distinguish what is “digital” about particular social configurations, methods, or scholarly forms, and what transcends a specific technical milieu. These preciser, deeper critical histories are our best leverage against the contemporary disruptspeak that values innovation über alles.

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Engraving of John Bagford by George Vertue, after Hugh Howard (1728), National Portrait Gallery, London.

The example of Bagford is particularly pertinent in this respect, since he worked in a moment that was notably not technologically innovative. The shift from entirely manuscript to mostly printed communication was by the end of the seventeenth century many generations ago; no new writing devices had recently entered the market, and no advances in presses, ink, type, or paper were in the process of “disrupting” the printing trade. Despite this technological stasis — indeed, because of it — Bagford’s moment was one of intellectual upheaval, when the relations between technology, history, and interpretation were shifting under the accumulating weight of the past. By the time the Tenison Library was founded in 1684, the printing press had existed long enough for a new historical consciousness to start to coalesce around its origins, especially in contradistinction to the technologies of reproduction that came before it. Distinct periods and genres of print were coming into view — the “antient” blackletter of Caxton and his contemporaries; the folios of Shakespeare and Jonson; ballads and broadsides — all of which were beginning to seem categorically separate from the handwritten manuscripts that preceded the sixteenth century. The printed book had been around long enough as a platform to begin to have its own history.

Motivating this new historical consciousness was a robust and growing market in second-hand books. According to James Raven in The Business of Books, “the number of London booksellers who dealt in ‘old libraries’ increased three-fold by the end of the seventeenth century” as the market became “increasingly active and well organized,” and auctions of old books and manuscripts, “which appear to have been uncommon before about 1650, also rapidly increased in size and frequency” (106). This growing trade fed the libraries of a new generation of antiquaries and aristocrats, who began to amass collections of an unprecedented scale and diversity. At his death in 1753, Sir Hans Sloane held over 50,000 books and manuscripts in a collection of 117,000 antiquarian items, a collecting habit fueled in part by his connections to the transatlantic slave trade. The library of the Harley family was comparably large at Sir Edward Harley’s passing in 1741, with an estimated 7,618 manuscripts, 50,000 printed books, 350,000 pamphlets and 41,000 prints. Even a much less wealthy collector such as Samuel Pepys was able to acquire around 3,000 volumes in the booming book markets of the late seventeenth century. (By comparison, the Cotton Library, largely assembled over a century earlier, contains less than a thousand manuscripts.) In 1753, the libraries of Sloane, Harley, and Cotton were consolidated as the British Museum, giving rise to a new national consciousness around England’s literary and cultural heritage. Thus the material pressures of the past — that is, its insistent and continued presence — forced the creative destruction of history as both concept and archival configuration.

This macro restructuring in turn forced a hardware update for most used codices, which were made to conform to new styles and protocols. Books were removed from their earlier bindings and bound in more permanent leather covers, just as Bagford’s Fragmenta manuscripta and varia would be later in the nineteenth century, during another moment of archival transformation. Harley had many of his items rebound in a distinctive gold-tooled red morocco, now known as a “Harleian binding.”

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An example of a Harleian binding on a book held at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. Image sourced from St. John’s College Library’s website.

Pepys, too, had his entire collection rebound in matching leather, transforming scattered books from many different historical moments into a visually uniform library.

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Images of Pepys Library at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Images sourced from Magdalene College’s website.

As the book’s hardware was updated, medieval fragments often spilled forth from the old bindings, revealing yet more stuff from the past demanding to be saved, arranged, and classified.

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An example of the manuscript waste that lurks in early bindings. This book, a 1557 Aldine imprint, is from Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill. Image sourced from the Wilson Library’s blog.

We have seen how Bagford, as an intermediary for the second-hand book trade, responded by gathering medieval binding waste, decaying books, and discarded papers into new assemblages. He arranged his scrapbooks in ways that would narrate the history of the book, excavating knowledge about media transitions not from the new imperial libraries but from more humble piles of discarded fragments. He was not alone in these interests. Pepys also saved specimens of medieval handwriting which he pasted into three folio volumes alongside scraps from sixteenth and seventeenth-century copybooks. This “Calligraphical Collection,” as he called it, held “Original Proofs of Hand-writings of the Ancients in Several Ages within the last 1000 Years,” assembled with the aim of evincing the printing press’s deleterious impact on handwriting. (Sound familiar?)

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Humfrey Wanley, painted by Thomas Hill (1711), holding a facsimile of a Greek text copied into his “Book of Specimens.” The portrait is held by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Image sourced from the Kemble Website, which has more information on Wanley.

Apart from Bagford, though, few were more interested in this cultural detritus than Humfrey Wanley. Once apprenticed to a draper, Wanley, like Bagford, enjoyed no formal schooling; yet through careful examination and copying of original documents, he became the most skilled paleographer and calligrapher of his time, expert at identifying manuscripts. Like Bagford and even Pepys, Wanley had a wide appreciation for all forms of textual production, taking care to save not just the most gorgeous or pristine manuscripts but even worn, moth-eaten books. Deirdre Jackson quotes a letter he wrote to a merchant buying books for him in Cyprus advising that he not reject any books outright, since “even Fragments may be welcome, to us, who know how to render them useful” (qtd on 7). When he worked as a cataloguer with the Bodleian, Wanley proposed to the curator a plan to pluck the medieval manuscript paste-downs from the bindings of the library’s collection of early printed books and save them in a scrapbook of handwriting specimens, to be consulted by patrons of the library. Although this plan never came to fruition, he does seem to have begun gathering binding waste and fragments on his own. His goal was eventually to produce “a small & portable book, which may be easily carried along on a Journey, or into a Library” in order to aid readers in accurately dating and identifying medieval manuscripts.

Importantly, Bagford, Pepys, and Wanley all planned to turn their books of specimens into printed histories, illustrated with engravings of the scraps they had gathered. Sloane even promoted Bagford’s history of printing in the pages of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Yet none of these histories ever came to fruition. All that remains of them are notes, some published plans, a few facsimiles, and the scraps themselves, which are now stuffed into odd corners of various libraries and archives according to the whims of the curator — sometimes stored with printed materials, other times with manuscripts. As hybrids of different hands, moments, and materials, these collections of fragments exceed the definitional structures of the time, structures that their producers nurtured in their work as second-hand dealers and cataloguers. Thus even as these books clearly participate in the late-seventeenth-century’s emergent historical consciousness — and do so explicitly by narrating new histories of text technologies — they also materially resist the discursive terms upon which that turn pivots, including the naturalization of divisions like print/manuscript and ancient/modern. Ironically, it would seem that the large-scale archival restructuring that originally helped bring these fragments to light have no conceptual mechanism for absorbing them back into their fold.

By the end of the century, then, the co-emergence of loosely interconnected interests — including the antiquarian and second-hand book trade, intellectual curiosity about the past, and the excess supply of old stuff that fed them both — had braided together market supply and archival demand, generating a new allegiance between historical knowledge and technology. What I am attempting to draw forth from this dense, dynamic knot of competing concerns is the cascade of restructuring that energizes each new twist, what Schumpeter describes in the context of twentieth-century economics as the “perennial gale of creative destruction.” The accumulation of old books and manuscripts begat new collecting habits; new habits begat new historical narratives; new narratives begat new hardware, turning cultural detritus into cultural heritage. Each reconstellation destroys some of what came before and thus disables the past’s full participation in the knowledge formations of the present. Yet it also creates something new, enabling new futures to come into being, including, in the case we are examining, our own. Between the poles of loss and possibility, these scrapbooks remain as small sites of resistance to cultural ruination. They oppose not through a critical discourse but by cultivating an oppositional ethics of care for media technologies as the bearers of past lives, and as crucial collaborators in the human pursuit of knowledge. Under pressure to consolidate a national library out of the collections of wealthy men, these scrapbooks stand against both the imperialist devaluation of fragments and a fragmented past. They were produced by autodidacts who, even as they and indeed their books contributed to those pressures, simultaneously nurtured concern for these ragged, discarded bits of history, written by human hands. To quote Wanley again, “even Fragments may be welcome, to us, who know how to render them useful.”

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Screenshot of the Digital Scriptorium entry for fragment 201r, Fragmenta manuscripta.

Today, Bagford’s scrapbooks have yet again undergone a hardware update. This time, it is for the web-accessible Digital Scriptorium, where anyone can view digital photographs of every fragment in the Fragmenta manuscripta, held at the University of Missouri. The individual scraps do not scroll together like the leaves of the book, as they would have, perhaps, after they were rebound in the nineteenth century. Instead, each fragment is presented as an individual unit with an image of both recto and verso. Only metadata, authored by a new generation of cataloguers, links these scraps together. What began as Bagford’s project of assemblage, then, is now digitally disassembled. This creative destruction seems so extensive that one hesitates to still mark the collection as “Bagford’s”; the delicate links by which he connected the remnants of the past have been severed, the casualty of many processes of remediation. What remains is yet another, and new, pile of technologically-mediated scraps that await careful reconfiguration by someone who “know[s] how to render them useful.”

If there is a problem with “traditional” literary critical methods today, it is that they often don’t know how to render these fragments useful. The moment of cultural and technological remediation whose surface I’ve scratched here is invisible to literary critics who attend only to a text’s content, treating critical editions or indeed any historical texts as transparent windows onto the past. This is a luxury we can no longer afford in a hyper-technologized age — not because “neoliberalism” has succeeded in making criticism seem superfluous, but because these myopic methods render us powerless to oppose such claims. Unless our work is connected to a larger sense of its own material and technological entanglements, it remains limited in its ability to foment sites of resistance against the forces that seek to undercut critical, historical inquiry and the ethics of care that such thinking/thanking requires. Only in acknowledging and historicizing how media technologies remediate, disseminate, and store humanities scholarship and its subject matter can we begin to rework these networked technologies in ways that challenge a hegemonic, market-driven notion of what contemporary techne is, or could be.


Since Medium doesn’t support footnotes, I’ve had to strip out the scholarly apparatus that shows my intellectual debts. The most significant loss is the work of Milton McC. Gatch, the bibliographer whose careful scholarship is most responsible for illuminating Bagford’s books. See his “Fragmenta Manuscripta and Varia at Missouri and Cambridge,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 9.5 (1990); “John Bagford, Bookseller and Antiquary,” Electronic British Library Journal (1986); and “John Bagford as a Collector and Disseminator of Manuscripts,” The Library 7.2 (June 1985): 95–114.

On Bagford’s scrapbooks of bindings, see Cyril Davenport, “Bagford’s Notes on Bookbindings,” The Library TBS-7.1 (1902): 123–130. On his relationship to the Harleys, see Colin G. C. Title’s “Manuscripts Supplied to Robert Harley by John Bagford,” Electronic British Library Journal (2012), Article 10, and Cyril Ernest Wright’s Fontes Harleiani: A Study of the Sources of the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts (London, 1972). On Bagford and Sloane, see Margaret Nickson, “Bagford and Sloane,” Electronic British Library Journal 9.1 (1986), pp. 51–55.

Matthew Yeo’s The Acquisition of Books by Chetham’s Library, 1655–1700 has been a critical source on the sorely neglected topic of the second-hand book trade in early modern England. See also Ian Mitchell, “‘Old books — New Bound’? Selling Second-Hand Books in England, c. 1680–1850,” in Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade, eds. Jon Stobart and Ilja Van Damme (New York: Palgrave MAcmillan, 2010), pp. 139–157.

On Sloane’s library, I’ve consulted Alison Walker’s “The Library of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753): Creating a Catalogue of a Dispersed Library,” a paper presented at the World Library and Information Conference in 2009. You’ll find information on Pepys’s “Calligraphical Collection” in M. R. James’s Bibliotheca Pepysiana (London, 1923), p. 115. On Humfrey Wanley, I’ve consulted C. E. Wright’s article “Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper,” Proceedings of the British Academy xlvi (1960), and Eileen A. Joy’s “Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library,” Electronic British Library Journal (2005), Article 1.

Where an author is named in-text, I’ve linked to her essay in-text.

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