Peter L Shillingsburg

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Inaugural Lecture

LUC September 23, 2009

Peter Shillingsburg

The Cultural Heritage Goes Digital


See accompanying presentation.

Inaugural lectures have standard parts.  The first is to thank everyone who has come to hear the lecture, especially one's family and friends and colleagues, and those strangers who come, perhaps, with the greatest expectations because unlike the others, their hopes have not been dulled by previous experiences with the speaker.  The second task, as the poet and Latin textual critic, A. E. Housman said in one of his two professorial inaugural addresses, is to thank those who honoured him by the professorial appointment and by the invitation to speak.   Please accept my thanks.  I could at this point name a half-dozen or so who I think were especially responsible for my being here today, but considering the third standard part of inaugural lectures, I think it best to suppress them now. The next part, Housman said, and in this too I agree, is to deplore their judgment.

[Dark Slide]

      A few days ago, our President addressed the faculty, challenging us to step up and speak truths in support of social justice.  If the truths thus presented were uncomfortable to some, the President seemed undisturbed. He would, perhaps, be pleased to see a bit more discomfort around here.  In fact, it could be argued that comfort in the face of social injustice, which must I'm sure be understood as comfort induced by blindness to social injustice, is just the sort of thing than needs to be dislodged.  So, although I have been thinking off and on about this speech all summer, I have abandoned the speech I had written.   Any of you with corns might want to tuck your feet up under your seat for the next half hour; if I should happen to step on any toes, please weigh that pain against the fact that the other lecture was much longer.

        I have always been wary of people who do good--people who go about seeking what good they can do.  I am not alone in this view.  William Makepeace Thackeray, in his novel The Newcomes, wrote that the wicked are wicked no doubt and will reap their just reward, but, he goes on to ask, who can measure the mischief done by the good?  And Henry David Thoreau famously declared that if he knew that someone was coming to his cabin in the woods to do good for him, he would go out the back door and put as much distance as possible between himself and the do-gooder.

       So, it is with some hesitation that I make a small attempt to rise to President Garanzini's challenge.   I must do this in my own field of expertise, textual studies.  For if there is one thing that is bound to go wrong it is attempts to do good in fields one knows little or nothing about.  It can easily be argued that the world is plagued by injustices far more pressing and important than those I will speak about, but these are the ones I know.

       My title today is rather broad--too broad, for the word culture has many meanings and those aspects of culture that could go digital include music, painting, films, email, texting, twittering, googling, and doodling, as well as the descriptions, transcriptions, and digitization of images of objects surviving from times past and standing as evidence of the ways we lived then as over against the ways we live now.   Grecian urns are as much the evidence of past culture as are poems about Grecian urns.  And books and manuscripts are just as physical and material as the brick and stone ruins of ancient civilizations.  As professor of textual studies, I need to narrow my focus on the digitization of culture to books and manuscripts and as a professor of literature, I should also stick to literary culture, though much of what I have been thinking applies to the textual artefacts of music, history, philosophy, theology, and architecture as well.

       The material archive of books, manuscripts, and maps in the library is becoming the virtual archive on the Internet at a faster rate than the rate of development of proper tools to make it happen. And in these early years, the incunabular years of the Internet, it has become common to view the page on the screen as equivalent to the page in the book--we often make that mistake even when the screen displays only a transcription of unknown origin and authenticity.   Slowly, also, the scholarly article in the print journal is giving way to the article refereed, accepted, and published on the Internet.    Likewise, the newspaper article in which journalistic content was once vouched for by at least two checked sources is giving way to the multiple amateur reports on twitter from places where bona fide reporters cannot go.   The digital age is surely having an impact on what stands for truth. In the Church, truth has traditionally been that which has the stamp of authority; in the university truth has traditionally been that which can be verified by reference to original sources or that which can be replicated in the lab.   On the Internet in wiki environments, it appears now that what stands for truth is what most people believe to be true, whether or not vouched for by authorities or supported by verified evidence.  The gossip fence has moved from the back yard to the desktop.

      I think I am not railing against anything here.  What passes for culture may in fact be culture.  The character and essence of a people may be accurately reflected by what they think and how they act, not by what we think they should be thinking and doing.  But it is worth asking if this is a standard we, particularly we in academe, wish to see applied to our knowledge of or notions about the past.  We know that the past becomes what we make of it, either by ignoring it, distorting it, appropriating it, or manipulating it for many purposes--some of which might be admirable.   And yet academe does put a drag on this mad rush to use the past for present purposes by preserving the evidence and asking for its analysis.   Museums preserve cultural objects and arrange them in ways that tell stories and bring coherence to the accumulation of historical objects.  Historians write stories that arrange the surviving evidence in plausible ways and then re-write history to make it either more plausible or more useful or more credible.  Texts are among the most prolific, rich, and maddeningly complex cultural artefacts.

      As professor of textual studies, I'm particularly interested in and claim to have some expertise in the history of text creation and text transmission from copy to copy and from one medium to another.   Every text that is copied is copied for a purpose, and the result is likely to fulfil that purpose to the extent that the copier can achieve it.  Producing an accurate copy is just one of many potential purposes.  Preservation is seldom the sole purpose for re-creating ancient texts.  Even when preservation and accuracy do happen to be the central goal for producing copies, every copy is always different from the original in some way or ways.  Sometimes these differences are ones we care about, and other times they are differences that make no difference to us.  But when they do make a difference, they do whether or not we notice.  

       If one thinks that a sacred text is the word and work of God, then it would seem that copies will need to differ from the original only in ways that God approves of or does not care about.  If the poem, play, novel or essay is the word and work of the author, then copies will need to differ from the original only in ways the author approves.   But of course, sacred texts might now belong to the clergy, rather than to God.  And the clergy may need for the text to say something new for new conditions.   Few clergymen or priestly editors would claim that God instructed them to change the word of God, but that has not prevented some of them from trying it. Witness the multiple variant forms of sacred texts.  Or it could be that the poem or essay no longer belongs to the author but to the publisher, whose need for favorable criticism from the powers that be dictates that the text be toned down in order to protect profits or avoid jail time.   Or it could be that the history of the textual changes belongs now to the social historians who delight in tracing the way copies were adapted to the needs of their new owners or their new audiences.

         It is a generally accepted myth that any copy of a work represents that work more or less well.  More or less well seems good enough for many people, including students and scholars for whom the nearest or cheapest copy is good enough.  Book stores and publishers and generous people who populate the Internet with free copies of books all conspire to suggest that a new edition is as good as or even better than an original.  Any text will do.  But as is frequently noted in textual studies, while it may be true that any text will do, it is not the case that any text will do what any other text of the same work will do.  Texts are not self-identical. And so, I begin with the premise that throwing any old text up on the Internet and thinking that one has given access to a work is one of the most prevalent deceptions of our age.  I will argue that this deception constitutes a  blindness to social injustice.

       Access to primary texts is my topic.   The inequality of access to primary texts is well known to everyone, though felt more acutely by those without library passes than by those with.   Primary texts are what one ends up with when one asks seriously the question: Where did this come from?   Please stop to think about that question: About facts and evidence, if one does not ask, Where did this come from? then one must trust one's immediate source without asking the one crucial question about its authenticity.  We do it all the time, trusting what someone says is so because we don't have time or the will to pursue the question: Where did that come from?

For example, this is a transcription.  

WoolfOnline.com page 149 of the MS of To the Lighthouse.

Where did that come from:

Show MS

And where did that image come from?

[Show MS gallery upper right corner]

That MS is in the Berg Collection at the NYPL—which, if you have time and money you can go see for yourself.

In the world of knowledge, all expression of knowledge is by way of a text.  And in the humanities (philosophy, theology, literature, history, and music) the sources of knowledge, when one drills back to bedrock evidence, are mostly textual, are mostly documentary.  One could add that maps, architectural and landscape designs, dance notations, and the topographical grids and chronological slices drawn by archaeologists are also documentary texts.

       Who gets to look at such material?  Where are such materials preserved?  For whom are they preserved?  And who has the training and curiosity to examine primary materials?   The intelligentsia, professors, students, investigative journalists, detectives--it is for these that such material is saved and it is to them that access should be given.    Most of us are comfortable with the notion that the man and woman and child "on the street" (nice phrase, that, "on the street", meaning belonging nowhere in particular)--we are comfortable with the notion that such people do not need access to primary materials, would not know how to use such materials, and in any case are not curious about such material--not that any of us actually know the men, women and children on the street.  We assume these things to be the case and we are comfortable in thinking that in any case we have access.

       Or if we are not comfortable, it may be that it is because we do not yet have access, not easy access.   Before the age of digitization, we all knew that if we wanted to access primary materials we had to go to where the materials were: The British Library, the Library of Congress, the Folger, Huntington, Newberry, or Morgan library, and so on.   The answer to the question, for whom are these materials being preserved was: for those with sufficient desire to overcome the obstacles of time, distance, and travel funds.  The heroic efforts required to go, find, consult, analyze and understand primary materials perhaps blinded us to the way it might be put by one with an interest in social justice:  These materials are restricted for use by the privileged few.

        But now the digital age is upon us and surrogates for primary materials abound.  Our library has just purchased digital images of 200 thousand plus books, pamphlets, and newspapers dating from the late 14th to the mid 19th centuries.   Because these are images, one senses an immediate connection to the originals, even though one cannot pick up and admire the objects themselves.   The need to travel to some far-off depository of primary materials has been radically reduced by this purchase.  Thousands of people have been given access to these primary materials by this purchase.   If social justice in the pursuit of knowledge counts for anything here, its principles have been advanced by this purchase.   This is true even if no one uses these materials for ten or fifteen years because twenty, fifty, and one hundred years from now this library will still be providing access to these primary materials to future generations.

        This story has it counterparts in most first world countries.  These materials are available to all students and investigators in the United Kingdom because anyone affiliated with any public institution of education has the ability to access the electronic resources made available to any one of those public institutions and because access to the British Library and its electronic resources is unrestricted, anyone can apply for and get a library pass.

         In fact, the United States lags behind the UK and most countries in the European Union in this regard because those countries rely more heavily on publicly supported libraries to support education than does the United States.   Here the poor universities have less access than the rich universities.  Some people are comfortable with this state of affairs.  We are used to the notion of the rich having more than the poor.  We are comfortable with the notion that education and welfare, while desirable for all, must somehow accommodate the capitalistic notion of letting the devil take the hindmost.

        But this miscarriage of social justice in the pursuit of knowledge, if indeed you agree that it is a miscarriage, is nothing to what is happening world wide to the pursuit of knowledge.   As electronic access to primary materials grows in the United States and Europe, the gap between what is available to us and what is available in third world countries is growing daily greater.  That this matters even if we are talking only about English language materials will be clearer to you if I remind you that the country in which the greatest number of students sit down every day to read Shakespeare in English is India.  English is the language of education in many third world countries where the quality of education just as truly there as here depends in part on the distance between the point of learning and the primary materials that support knowledge.

     Access to primary materials, you see, is largely owned by commercial companies.   They have seen what we seem blind to, or unwilling to see, or unable to understand, or unable to do anything about: They see that primary materials are the golden nuggets or the fallow fields from which knowledge comes and they have staked their claims and have turned these resources into profit making.   Is it not a wonder that in a world of electronic digital access to practically everything, including primary material, in a world where Google and other search engines extend the democracy of knowledge to the men, women and children on the street--in such a world, is it not a strange wonder that access to primary materials is largely restricted to persons with subscriptions or with membership in institutions with subscriptions?  Institutions around the world, dedicated to bringing education to all who can benefit from instruction, are for the most part unable to subscribe to all the sources of primary materials?  Culture has gone digital for the few, not for everyone.

         Is it an interesting fact that universities around the world pay researchers to investigate and report their findings and, having paid for the research, give that research result to commercial companies in the business of selling access to information, which the universities then have to purchase back?  Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the system.  However, if one interviews any employee of one of these commercial outfits that benefits from research paid for by the university in order to create a distribution system that can charge the universities for their own products--I say, if one interviews employees in this business, one finds perfectly honest people who believe that what they are doing is adding value--doing in short what the university does not know how to do, to wit, how to disseminate the knowledge it so painstakingly has produced.   I hope some of you are by now uncomfortable enough to go to your librarians and ask about institutional repositories for the products of your research.

       I see I have now conflated two separate elements in the digitization of culture. The first is the digitization of primary materials (manuscripts and rare editions) and the second is the digitization of new knowledge (treatises, monographs, journals).   But the principle is the same in both.   Our cultural artefacts, collected by libraries and museums, are being bought (that is, images of them are being bought) and resold to the rest of the world for profit.   I say bought because when Google Books or Gale CENGAGE or ProQuest or (heaven deliver us) Taylor & Francis or Elsevier make deals with the British Library or other major repositories of antiquities and collectibles, and with the editors of learned journals, they pay those institutions.  Why not?  If you were the British Library, owning unique materials, would you not accept money from a commercial outfit prepared to pay for the privilege of selling images of your holdings?  Of course you would, because then you can use that money to curate your collection and grow your holdings.

      No one in the chain of the system seems to be doing anything wrong.  It all seems comfortable, normal, and even good.

      But do the effects of this system conform to our notions of social justice?  If not, is there anything we can or should do about it?  Do we have a social responsibility to make resources available to universities, students and scholars, in third-world countries?

      But now let's take a closer look at the privileged few who, thanks to digitization and the Internet, do have access to cultural objects--or at least images of cultural objects.  Primary materials have always been just out of reach for most teachers and students.  The habit of asking, Where did this come from? and Can I see the original? is not bred into us from childhood.  Instead, "Because I say so," or "Trust me, child, I know," are the phrases that instil in us our habits of mind.   But the principles of investigation are contrary to these appeals to authority and trust.  One becomes socialized by bowing to authority and by trusting other people but one does not learn anything new or break any moulds whatsoever by bowing to authority or trusting other people.  For that one must ask Where did that come from? and Can I see the original?  And furthermore, as A. E. Housman, in his role as textual scholar once said, one must have a head and not a pumpkin on one's shoulders and brains, not pudding, in that head.

       The story goes--an apocryphal story no doubt--that the head librarian of a great monastery was so protective of his manuscripts that he would not let anyone touch the originals and made everyone use copies that he prepared.  He was, of course, doing a good thing, bless his heart, preserving the manuscripts, but at the same time he was condemning all users to rely on his copies.  One day, however, a persistent researcher weaselled past the librarian into the vaults with the originals.  Much later he emerged with a pale face, and when confronted by the angry librarian, said, "Father, it says celebrate, not celibate."

        But my subject is serious because we so often trust and bow when we should question and analyze.   People make mistakes.  People pass on what they believe to be true even when they do not know what is true.  Texts, when copied, are often not accurate copies.   Sometimes the mistakes are typos and sometimes they are deliberate alterations and sometimes we cannot tell which is which.  All three situations are evident in a poem by Malcolm Lowry, called "Strange Type"  [PPT SLIDE 3]

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.

The printer had it tavern, which seems better:

But herein lies the subject of our mirth,

Since on the next page death appears as dearth.

So it may be that God's word was distraction,

Which to our strange type appears destruction,

        Which is bitter.

Ironically, the poem itself has a textual crux in the last line. The manuscript's last line "Which is bitter", resonates bitterly with the end of the poem's second line, "which seems better". There are, however, two typescripts, both having the word "better" in both places.  In the second line it is easy to see that the dark tavern of our birth might be better than the dark cavern of out birth, though both tavern and cavern would make sense and be appropriate, somehow.  But in the last line it is difficult to see how destruction could be better than distraction.  Destruction  feels "bitter" to me; I would rather just be distracted; however, only one of three authoritative texts that we know the author himself saw, ends the poem with the word "bitter".

       As the privileged few, we have access to the evidence upon which to base a discussion of these problems because someone did the research and published a scholarly edition of Malcolm Lowry's poetry.  But, is "bitter" in the last line a typo for "better" or is it a deliberate change?  The truth is we cannot know.  We can know the evidence but we cannot know the truth.  Is it important for students to know that we cannot know?  or is it better to just soldier on as if there were no problem?

       A few years ago Gerald Graff made famous the slogan, teach the conflicts, in his crusade to get teachers to stop smuggling their pet theories into class as if they were the truth.  I wonder if I could offer a similar slogan: Teach the ignorance.  Do not pretend to know what is not known or what cannot be known.  Students need to know when something is not known as much as when it is.  It becomes a habit of mind to be honest about one’s ignorance only if that habit is modelled.

       About the advantages of asking, Where did that come from? I would like to appeal to the man for whom the chair I now hold is named.   I never met Martin J. Svaglic in person.  His primary interests in Victorian literature overlapped rather than coincided with mine. My understanding of John Henry Newman was influenced by him.  But my interest in Newman as a religious and philosophical writer has been more of an amateur's admiration for his lucidity, his gentleness, and his subtlety of thought.  I do not pretend to have fathomed the quality of Svaglic's interest in Newman, or in other Catholic writers of the period.  However, the following passage in Svaglic's 1952 essay on the revisions in Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, resonate with my own experiences in textual study.  And they offer one answer to the question, should one ignore the sources when teaching, or do they yield food for thought and knowledge.  Svaglic wrote: [Slide 4]

There is little that is so transparently rewarding for close study as the comparison between, say, Tennyson's very uneven classical poems of 1832 and the superb revisions of the next decade.  [Slide 5] Yet, slight as most of the changes are, anyone interested in the nuances of writing will find much of interest and value in the process whereby the writer, always given to the most painstaking revisions and now no longer pressed for time, made what had already been acclaimed a masterpiece into the clearer, more vivid, and dramatic story of a still more engaging figure.

Of the changes Dr. Svaglic traced in the textual history of Newman's Apologia, [Slide 6] perhaps the smallest and most interesting is the triad of variants revealing Newman's developing attempt to make the doctrine of eternal punishment less terrible.  In 1864 he wrote: "less terrible to the 'reason' ; the next year he changed it to "less terrible to the 'intellect'"; and, finally, in 1886 he wrote, "less terrible to the 'imagination.'" [Slide 7] If one tries to trace the possible motives for such changes or with more confidence the differences they make upon our understanding of what part of our being is able to engage with a doctrine of eternal punishment (reason, intellect, or imagination), it should be much clearer why an interest in textual histories is worth the effort.

       Svaglic's work will perhaps help you to understand my fear, when the Martin J. Svaglic chair in textual studies was offered to me, that I would be expected to fill large shoes I could not fill, meet expectations that I could not meet, or be someone I in fact was not.  But I've discovered several things since arriving at Loyola.  The first is that the American South, where I spent most of my career, does not have a monopoly on gracious hospitality.  The second seems to follow from the first:  the people of Loyola University Chicago are not given to making odious comparisons.  And third, there really is such a thing as a community of scholarship that is not characterized by stereotypical images of English departments.  They say the University of Hell is state-of-the-art in every respect and awash with funds for every project but is cursed by having two English departments.  So far, I can say without reservation, I have been made welcome and have been given the support needed to accomplish what I was brought here to do.  (knock on wood)

       But do not let me stray from my task today to make you uncomfortable about social injustice in the pursuit of knowledge.  It is not just that students and scholars in the third world lag further and further behind students and scholars in the developed world because electronic access to primary materials and new knowledge is so much slower in reaching them.  Nor is it just that those of us in the education industry in the developed world often ignore the riches that are actually available to us by failing to examine primary materials (or images of them) for the works we teach and study.  It is that we often encourage a "make do" attitude in ourselves and our students when we reach for the cheapest or closest copy of a copy of a copy of a work to study or teach.

     It is, I hasten to say, no crime to be ignorant.   We would all be in jail if it were.  We cannot know many things.  We do not have time to investigate every text.  But we can instil a sense of curiosity and scepticism about sources, even when we cannot do much about it in every case.  Teach the ignorance.  Furthermore, in every case we can be honest about our sources.  And here I want to give an example of something I was taught to do that I now know to be unethical and self defeating even though it is a practice followed by many.   Knowing that respectability is often more important than honesty, it is often the practice of critics to do their work relative to the most convenient text at hand, the one on the shelf, and to encourage students to get a text, any text, a cheap text, because any text is better than no text at all.  But the dictates of respectability are such that, having studied this copy of a copy of a copy and written one's term paper or one's scholarly article, one then goes to the library, finds the rare original edition or the expensive and highly touted scholarly edition and checks the accuracy of the quotations, and cites as one's source the respectable text one did not actually use in studying the work.

       The ethics are already questionable, I think, but the consequences lie like hidden land mines; for one has no idea if the primary work or the scholarly edition said something different in some other passage, not quoted, that would have affected the argument.  So, even if one is too lazy (strike that, I meant to say too pressed for time) to find out if the text in hand has been revised, censored, or badly printed, at least one can have the honesty to cite the text actually used.

       There is another, better reason to do that.  It is that texts are always understood in relation to the eventness (I like this word I made up) that is caught and evinced in the particular book one is using.  Books are not manufactured by authors.  They are not even manufactured by publishers.  There are book designers, copy-editors, compositors, pressmen, correctors, and binders who do that.  Authors just write or type; sometimes their work passes through the hands of secretaries before reaching the publisher.   Publishers don't do anything but agree to publish or reject and they pay the bills, but the work is done by others.  In short, the book one uses is a composite of labour by a community of persons who influence what the text says and what it looks and feels like.  One's interaction with that book is influenced by the things that influenced the production of the copy in hand, whether it is a first edition, an image of a first edition, a printout of a first edition, or a modern paperback edition.  Each will be different from other copies.

       And now it remains to explain why concern over how we engage with textual or lexical works and whether or not we actively pursue the question: Where did that come from? relates to questions of social justice.

      We are in the university charged with both the training and the education of students.  As trainers, we socialize students preparing them to interact successfully in the marketplace.  Students come to us for the kind of training that will make them marketable, and we a have a responsibility to provide those kinds of skills.  We should be training humanities students how to fare well in the digital world, and perhaps soon we will, when our professional MA in Digital Humanities is finally approved.  But the university is actually primarily a place of education, which is about living and thinking and changing, and that is different from training which is about skills, conventions, and livelihoods.  Education involves learning how to ask questions, how to question the status quo, how to discover what is not yet known, how to exercise critical inquiry in areas that might prove uncomfortable.  And for that process to occur one must never think that the teacher knows and the student learns.  If the only things students learn is what teachers teach, then there will be no education.  And if we do not make education as well as training possible, we have failed in promoting social justice for we will have created educationally enhanced throughputs who only know what we know.  Not worth doing, I think.

     And so, if we encourage students to ask Where did that come from? we will be promoting social justice.  And the best way to encourage it is to do it ourselves.  What is that book you have in your hand?  What is that you have on your screen?  How does it relate to the original? Were there revised or censored versions? Which one do you have?  How do you know?

 [Slide 9]

     I leave you with a slide that will, perhaps, undermine everything I have said today and will force you to make up you own mind and not bow to authority or trust anything other than your own ability to investigate and analyze.
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   Thank you.