Analog isn’t broken

I can only imagine how strange it must feel to be a living famous author (first of all) whose donated archival collection is now the subject of multiple scholarly reflections. Most of us have the freedom to be our own life’s historians and experts.

I read with interest Mark L. Sample’s “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities,” which is a meandering reflection on being a scholar of a living writer in the time of “digital humanities” initiatives—specifically when your chosen writer is one who actively resists digitization in the interest of remaining fully analog.

Sample describes the considerable physical size of DeLillo’s archival collection, which is meticulously organized and features surprises such as rejection letters amid the drafts of his books. Based at the University of Texas at Austin, the archive is open to the public, but there are no plans to digitize the content—quite the opposite, in fact, as copyright restrictions and DeLillo’s own wishes will likely keep the records in the analog-only realm for many years yet.

Sample studied at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote his doctoral dissertation on DeLillo’s early fiction. In this article, he develops three different “timelines” documenting DeLillo’s professional history: the first, a straightforward roundup of published works; the second, a record of notable finds from the archives; and the third, a playful timeline of “potential events” that did not happen, but could have.

His argument here is basically that authors like DeLillo exist outside of the realm that could be considered part of the “digital humanities”—as long as DeLillo chooses to keep his archival collection analog-only, digital scholars won’t see it. They’ll only see the first of those three timelines.

This seems like almost a non-problem, but Sample clarifies:

The failure of the digital humanities to which I refer in my chapter title is not the failure to be able to do with DeLillo what we can do with Whitman or Blake. The failure is simply that nobody is talking about this disconnect. If the digital humanities are to be the future of the humanities, then we should be talking about what it means that a significant group of contemporary writers and thinkers are not a part of this future, at least not yet.

Unfortunately, the simplest answer to this question is that the definition of “digital humanities” is probably too short-sighted. I’m not honestly sure what Sample’s definition of the digital humanities might be, but can’t be the future of all literary research. As long as we’re analog creatures ourselves, we’re going to have to expect some of our literary works may never leave the realm of the physical and finite.

In White Noise, Jack Gladney and Winnie discuss Dylar, a pill that treats a paralyzing fear of death:

Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.

It may be overreaching to apply this level of poetry to archival distribution methods—obviously, DeLillo could have simply lit all his drafts on fire if he weren’t at least partly a believer in historical record-keeping—but talks of permanence are commonplace among digital archivists, and I think sometimes these discussions overlook the legitimate connection that people have to the analog original. Is that connection stronger because we sense that the originals are fragile, and have a life expectancy?

DeLillo may well be more concerned about the risk of digital materials ending up on some torrent site for lit geeks; if nothing else, his agent should certainly have that in mind. But I think there’s more than legal protection or technophobia at play with this resistance towards digitization.

Sample, to his credit, seems to sense this as well; he offers the challenge not to DeLillo, or the University of Texas archivists, but to the digital humanities—which seems to me a nebulous entity to address. He asks, in short, how the digital humanities can be a legitimate means of scholarship when some known authors are consciously not a part of it.

Considering the “failure” in his subtitle, Sample seems to be responding to a declaration that the digital humanities have been successful in bringing solid literary scholarship to the digital realm; in his opinion, this declaration is untrue, because placing that kind of importance on digitization in the first place marginalizes important authors like DeLillo, and overlooks so many aspects of their lives’ work.

DeLillo’s opting-out from this digitization scramble has the effect of making all the effort look foolish and paranoid—almost like something one of his characters would do. The internet in the DeLillo universe could be some kind of mutually-agreed-upon mass fiction, like printed money—something fetishized and seemingly important but essentially meaningless. I’m actually a little surprised he doesn’t write about it more.

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