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Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media.

Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media. New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 211. $93.56.

In this study, Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker do an excellent job of describing Blake in popular culture (Whittaker's forte) and in social media: Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube (Whitson's). Chapter 1 focuses on "Virtual" Blake, offering its core theorization of the "virtual" and then tracking editions of Blake from Blake's lifetime to digital media, especially The William Blake Archive. Chapter 2 focuses specifically on editions and adaptations of Blake's "The Tyger," while Chapter 3, on "Jerusalem," describes the uptake in popular culture, particularly rock music and political organizations, of Blake's Hymn "Jerusalem" from Milton. Chapter 4, "Digital Creativity: Teaching William Blake in the Twenty-First Century," describes the process of using Twitter to teach Blake and asking students to use software programs to create a final project that appropriates Blake's work to create a meme of sorts. Chapter 5 purports to discuss "Blake and His Online Audiences," but what it really does is demonstrate how digital media make it possible to trace and characterize Blake's audience, even though the uses of Blake are not always digital (e.g., poems by Chamber music organizations, articles in newspapers). By contrast, Chapter 6, "Folksonomies and Machine Editing: William Blake's New Aesthetic on Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube," does describe digital uses of Blake's work. This chapter explores how the semantic web will make use of rdf triples, metadata about each of its resources that could link disparate digital resources into one big giant billion-editor "edition" of Blake's work, resulting in a text constituted by the Internet as a whole.

Excellent concerning the relationship of Blake to popular culture and digital media studies, this book calls for discussion because it purports more largely to bring a message from Digital Humanities (DH) to traditional disciplines of English literature and history: "[W]e suggest ... that the humanities and literary studies should practice what Blake calls 'self-annihilation.' We should, in other words, abandon institutional egos and embrace experimentation" (25). Even given that Blake's version of self-annihilation might not be as destructive as the term suggests, these are fighting words. The book as a whole attempts to delineate a way forward for literary studies, a way that they imagine DH to be leading us, and opposes academic "egos" to the spirit of collaboration. In this review essay, I will deal with DH's relation to traditional literary studies first, looking especially at the history of editing and the impact of "collaboration" on current editing practices, asking whether DH in fact preaches "self-annihilation" to the humanities as currently constituted. I will conclude by discussing "disciplinary egos" and their relation to expertise.

Part of the self-annihilation that Whitson and Whittaker imagine has to do with changing what humanists do: we should be, instead of merely interpreting and critiquing, producing digital media. The kind of digital productions they advocate are enabled by Web 2.0 and semantic web technologies, to which this book provides a good introduction. But there are distinctions to be made. Many of the new social media allow users to shape the content of any particular web site and/or text, whereas other editions may simply gather all available digital resources made by myriad hands distributed across the Internet. Older web sites tend to be more like the Blake Archive, presenting what is essentially a digital edition of a printed text, its digitization allowing users to perform some things with greater ease. It is much easier, for example, to search Blake's illuminated books for images of bats using the Blake Archive than it is to fly all over the globe looking at all of his illuminated books housed in various collections to find those images. Ray Siemens calls this kind of edition, which combines computationally-assisted-indexing power with carefully edited and linked documents, a "dynamic edition." Such an edition differs from the "social edition" that Whitson and Whittaker prefer, which cedes control to the crowd, allowing users to edit content, tag, annotate, and curate the content online. Here we might contrast the Blake Archive, shaped by its editors not by users, with the more open platform of the "exhibit builder" in NINES: http://www

So how are social editions connected to the principles of the field of Digital Humanities, assuming that there is one, and in what sense would such principles be annihilating to traditional humanistic disciplines? Whitson and Whittaker define digital humanities in a way that does not take account of materiality or technology. They discuss the project located at Stanford, "Mapping the Republic of Letters":
   Projects like these and the technology they employ require more
   collaborative forms of academic labor and more creative analytical
   models. For our purposes, the digital humanities refers to a set of
   practices and commitments rather than a specific set of
   technologies. (3)

Whitson and Whittaker's notion that DH refers primarily to the spirit of collaboration is echoed in a recent book--collaboratively written by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Pressner, and Jeffrey Schnapp--called Digital_Humanities, in which the authors define DH as "unified in its emphasis on making, connecting, interpreting, and collaborating" (24). But the implication of Whitson and Whittaker's book goes beyond seeing DH as proposing a new ethos. Blake could be a person who advocates annihilation of traditional humanities disciplines at the same time that he is a "prophet of the digital humanities" (4) only if DH itself fundamentally opposes the humanities, which, Whitson and Whittaker argue, it does. They make this argument by quoting the introduction to the discipline's first major book:
   In the introduction to A Companion to Digital Humanities Susan
   Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth define the digital
   humanities as "the notion that there is a clear and direct
   relationship between the interpretive strategies that humanists
   employ and the tools that facilitate exploration of original
   artifacts based on those interpretive strategies." DH offers a
   radical methodological challenge to the traditional forms of
   humanities scholarship by employing new technologies to analyze
   sources in dramatically different ways. (3)

Notice, though, that the passage quoted and the gloss on it say exactly the opposite. The editors of the Blackwell Companion are arguing for an affinity--not a confrontation--between new digital tools and humanities methods. John Unsworth has written about the "scholarly primitives" that characterize humanities work, arguing that digital tools need to be built to carry on that work. Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth introduce the passage that is quoted in William Blake and DH by arguing that humanities "fields share a number of commonly held assumptions about the way in which such examination is carried out, both with and without the assistance of the computer" (para. 5). The book was explicitly designed, Schreibman says, in order to offer

a way of thinking about digital scholarship as emerging uniquely yet concurrently from the many traditional disciplinary practices in the humanities. It was felt that to make this a truly interdisciplinary volume, we would need to provide scholars with a point of departure that created an explicit trajectory from their traditional practice into a more computer-mediated one. ("Centres and Peripheries," 47)

In a slightly more recent article, Ray Siemens describes again what they meant: "among those who build computational tools for humanistic use," he says,
   much of [their] work is situated around key activities of
   humanities scholars as described by Unsworth (2000) among the seven
   scholarly primitives essential to humanistic work: discovering,
   annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, and

The goal of much digital humanities work has thus been "to facilitate" these traditional scholarly activities (449), not to propose radical alternatives to them, and certainly not to annihilate them.

That said, it is worth trying to understand what possibilities emerging from the use of digital media are imagined by Whitson and Whittaker as revolutionary and new, and why. In the early years of the web, people could make their own web sites: there were fan sites devoted to canonical writers, for instance, as different from the scholarly sites as one could imagine. Now, with Web 2.0, people are creating adaptations of Blake--"archiving Blake," Whitson and Whittaker insist--using "social media sites like Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube" (21). When we think, traditionally, of analyzing reception history, we turn attention to the various editions that have been published: even analyzing the increased presence of Blake or Jane Austen in popular culture, for instance, is circumscribed by the number of films that can be made or songs produced. But now it is not only possible for people to create their own redactions and distribute them widely, as it was with Web 1.0--now, with Web 2.0, it is likely that they will. An immense archive of every person's commentary upon or use of Blake is becoming available and easily accessible at the very same moment that it is being made: this is new. Even more, scholars can create "social editions" which allow other scholars, citizen scholars, children (according to a New Yorker cartoon, even dogs) to contribute to the editing, annotating, and interpreting of texts--and it was precisely the value of this work that was debated at a conference convened by Peter Robinson this past summer, "Social, Digital, Scholarly Editing."

Whitson and Whittaker are not so interested in textual editions of Blake's works, even social and digital ones, nor in those digital editions enabled by the new tools built by digital humanists, which was the topic of Robinson's conference. (For a list of some of them, see Melissa Terras,, html.) Yet the authors' justification of free-form adaptations and popular redactions of Blake has implications for understanding social editing, and the conference debates usefully illuminate Whitson and Whittaker's arguments. Many hypertext and dynamic editions "facilitate" the aims of traditional scholarship rather than doing something new, but the focus of the conference was upon the creative interactivity afforded by Web 2.0. Editions created using "social software," Siemens et al. say, "offer new possibilities for community driven scholarship" ("Toward Modeling" 450). We don't know what new kinds of scholarship will come out of community engagement over texts and how it might change scholarly research capacities. Does scholarly expertise have any value at all for the authors? The answer to that question comes from examining how this book's argumentative trajectory mirrors that of the new Speculative Realism in shifting its focus from epistemology to ontology.

According to Whitson and Whittaker, Blake was a "prophet of the digital humanities" (4) because he and DH are both "invested in creative collaboration" or what they call "zoamorphosis," the notion that creativity "emerges in collaboration with others in the present and the past" (5). They also call Blake a "prophet of creative ontology," and, in doing so, they invoke Object-Oriented Ontology or a related philosophical movement, Speculative Realism, that can be found in the work of Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and others, a movement which also relies on the actor network theory of Bruno Latour and Levi Bryant. One can see Whitson and Whittaker substituting ontology for epistemology in their arguments about how expert readers ought to interact with the readings of ordinary people created and published via networking software. When academics rush into battle against the British National Party's use of Blake's Hymn to Jerusalem, for example, Whitson and Whittaker urge that they "must avoid the temptation to rush towards a hierarchy of ontology in which, somehow mystically, our version of 'Jerusalem' is more real than that of the opposition" (90). Notice, however, that expertise--represented by readings of the poem that have been made by literary critics--has been transformed in this passage into something mystical that insists not upon critics being more historically accurate or doing better interpretive work but upon the work being more real. Rather than taking literary criticism as an epistemological exercise (for example: how do we know which is the best edition/interpretation of "Jerusalem"?), they move criticism toward ontology (the question of whether and in what manner something exists). Insisting on oppositional criticism as true friendship and collaboration--"zoamorphosis" is also "conflict-based collaboration"--Whitson and Whittaker advocate that we participate in what they and Levi Bryant call a "flat ontology" (12), a kind of leveling of readings in which one is no better than another, no matter how much more valid it can be proven to be. Clearly, the authors are fighting against the notion that an editor, an expert reader of a particular author or set of authors, knows better than any reader what his or her authors meant to write. But this dilemma itself begs an historical question: when and how did notions of correctness in editing--when and how did a hierarchical ontology of readings in which one is better than another--emerge?

The tradition of scholarly editing emerges first, with its principles articulated, in Shakespeare Restored (1726) by Lewis Theobald. As is well known, Alexander Pope retaliated by making Theobald the first Dunce in his 1728 edition of the Dunciad, which soundly mocks variorum editing through its numerous, facetious footnotes. Though Pope came to recognize the value of Theobald's philological work, his edition of Shakespeare was in fact taking "editing" in a different direction: Pope could have founded a tradition that became the basis of literary disciplines, but did not--Theobald did. If one reads carefully David Foxon's Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade, one notices that Pope treated printed copy as just another set of foul papers (22), correcting them and demanding even major changes. Printers begged him, Foxon tells us, to stop using their print runs that way. Thus Pope's own translations of Homer's Iliad were less correct in the expensive ornamented edition designed for Pope's aristocratic audience than they were in the cheaper editions run later, after the first run was corrected (154). Clearly--to tease out the implications of Foxon's contention--Pope didn't expect his middling or professional readers to be able to make corrections, but he did believe that his aristocratic audience would and should hand-correct the text, that the value of these more luxurious editions was not impaired in any way but actually enhanced if changes were made in the printed volumes by hand (64--67). Pope presumed, I would argue, that spelling and other kinds of mechanical errors were less important to readers of higher status because they would be making changes in his translation anyway. All readers of a certain class, for Pope, are co-authors, and Pope applied himself to "edit" Shakespeare not as a modern editor but as co-author of Shakespeare's texts. As Theobald points out, Pope didn't simply edit Shakespeare's texts but made changes when he thought he could improve them--improve the versification: "too nice a Regard must not be had to the Numbers of Shakespeare" (2)--Theobald writes, admonishing Pope for his changes, and for even replacing obsolete words--"This is a Reading adopted ... either from a Want of Understanding of the Poet's genuine Words, or on a Supposition of their being too stiff and obsolete" (7). It is worth noting that compositors in print shops from Pope's printers through Walpole's at his Strawberry Hill Press frequently themselves made corrections that sometimes smack of outright co-authorship.

Editing as discovering "the Poet's genuine Words" won out over editing as improvement upon the original text: Pope's world, in which manuscripts and print circulated simultaneously, each highly valued (Ezell), each marked up by the hand of the owner, gave way quickly to a world of mechanized print and massive print runs. Now we live in an era such that, even though masses are being addressed via digital publication, the hand can alter what it receives: individual changes are more than possible to make; individual alterations are "afforded" by the medium. As many have noticed, the Internet helps groups of people with like minds find each other and unite, sometimes editing or transforming a great work together. If mass print bred experts upon "the Poet's genuine Words," mass digitization can quash them. Pope would certainly not approve, given his attitude toward the hoi poloi. For Pope, only aristocratic readers merit being co-authors. But nonetheless his methodology remains similar to what may be happening online now.

William Blake and the Digital Humanities celebrates quashing concern for the Poet's exact words. Early in the book Whitson and Whittaker align "the ideology of the lone scholar" with the textual editor's expertise. It is true, as Peter Shillingsburg pointed out at the SDSE conference, a textual editor spends much time alone. But if, as the authors maintain, collaboration can in fact occur "with others in the present and the past" (5, my emphasis), then even scholars sitting alone in carrels are collaborating if they read even one book other than their own: Thoreau, alone at Walden Pond, called Plato his "nearest neighbor," because the Republic was a book on his shelf. Truly, the only ideology of the lone scholar is that there ever was one.

Moreover, there is something odd about writing a book called Blake and the Digital Humanities in order to insist upon collaboration insofar as the ideology of the lone scholar and the textual criticism deplored are associated with "The Poet's genuine words"--that is, with the great man, a great man like William Blake. Does Blake, sitting alone, tell you to collaborate? (That message is as paradoxical as the Enlightenment command, "Think for yourself!") Early on, the authors discuss Blake's collaboration with Catherine, but their book isn't called "William and Catherine Blake." The truth of the matter is that in opting out of participating in the print culture around him Blake was refusing to collaborate with the likes of Joseph Johnson--whose intellectual and emotional guidance was crucial to Mary Wollstonecraft among others. The practices of printing even today involve much more collaboration than handcrafting a work of art, even if someone helps you color it: there are peer-reviewers, editors, friends who read, copyeditors, indexers. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to publish a book. Blake, or one of his characters, is after all the one who said, "I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; i will not reason or compare; my business is to create"--articulating an ethos that falls pretty far from the spirit of collaboration. Whitson and Whittaker sometimes demote the great man or great author by invoking the presence of mechanization and randomness in the digital realm in places where it does not quite fit: folksonomies are handcrafted, as is so much that is distributed on the Internet. One could only wish that Steven E. Jones's book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, which discusses the very real relationship between handcrafting and DH, had been available to these authors as they wrote. (Artist Ira Greenberg, who creates in the programming language processing, has spoken about the difference between using a programming language and paint: it may feel different to wield one from the other, but both are media, tools.) Whitson and Whittaker do not discuss Blake's making in an extended way--how Blake's attempts to remediate print via his own deployment of various technologies might be mirrored in digital media. While they do bring up building and making briefly, they do so only to associate it with the social, with collaboration (4). But writing code can be as solitary as making editions, and neither needs to be: Dr. Whitson teaches and writes about "critical making" as a thinking process, and perhaps some portion of his impetus for doing so comes from Blake, which it would be great to see articulated.

This book is really about, and does an extraordinary job of exploring, the popularity of Blake on the Internet as well as the uses of social media to "customize" his work. The authors write about it powerfully in the context of a DH which strikes them as remaking the teaching of literature, intoning at one point an argument that is crucial and timely: "Any humanities education worth funding needs to engage with the public on some level" (114). Yes, absolutely. And they echo the excitement articulated in Digital_Humanities that declares the work done in DH to be motivated by "the conviction that computational tools have the potential to transform the content, scope, methodologies, and audience of humanistic inquiry" (123, my emphasis). However, not all who analyze the impact of the digital upon both scholars and the crowd would agree. This utopian vision is matched by a dystopian one in which the very software used to enable Internet postings can be seen as "a functional analog to ideology" or in fact "ideology turned machinic" (Wendy Chun, 43; Galloway, 325).

The need to argue against dystopian views aside, there is one particular effect of Whitson and Whittaker's utopian call for developing a public humanities via Web 2.0 with which we need to grapple. Somehow in their utopian hopes Whitson and Whittaker connect expertise to ego (25), and most of the book's "messages" (the chapter conclusions that frequently contain some form of "should" or "ought") can be seen as attempting to remedy that problem. Is seeing expertise as ego a DH phenomenon? DHers often attack the traditional professoriate as if that's ALL that expertise is devoted to being: a shoring up of ego. Professor Alison Booth, editor/author of The Collective Biographies of Women (http://womensbios and its database ( responded to such an attack (an attack since published in an amazing essay about collaboration by Bethany Nowviskie: where-credit-is-due). Nowviskie characterizes professors being forced to admit that they collaborated as "I'm gonna eat worms today," and, in her essay, she describes DH "eye-rolling" when they see traditional humanities professors reacting to DH notions of collaboration: this "eye-rolling" is, her essay clearly shows, a kind of DH ethos (para. 21). Booth responded to Nowviskie's remarks with (I'm paraphrasing here): what we do is not all about ego.

As I was writing this essay, however, an event happened on Facebook that bears recounting here. Dr. Nowviskie wrote another essay commenting on a report by the Online Computer Library Center Research Division (OCLC Research) about DH Centers in libraries. The report actually reprimanded DH Librarians for not being humble enough when they collaborated with faculty. In "asking for it" (, Nowviskie takes that report to task, insisting that librarians need to be more assertive, if anything. She argues that the report reveals that faculty are not used to collaborating because they work within a system of rewards that devalues collaborative products, often relegating it to service rather than scholarship. Commenting on this essay in a Facebook posting, a more traditional faculty member attacked Nowviskie, a leader in the field of Digital Humanities, for writing her defense, saying that she disparages traditional humanities faculty for being unwilling to collaborate (which is, to be fair, not what she said; she is rather pointing to institutional dis-incentives). But this traditional professor angrily insisted that academics collaborate all the time: we are on committees, he said, and we hold conferences. Ted Underwood intervened to say, "that is not the same kind of collaboration that occurs in Digital Humanities," which is exactly right. In her "Where Credit is Due" essay, Dr. Nowviskie mentions collaboration as a form of peer review, which is also exactly right. In working with computer scientists, designers, and librarians on projects, I have never had to work so hard at explaining properly and justifying the research claims I wanted to work on, to verify, to establish, and to contest--it is a process, as Nowviskie says, of peer review on a daily basis. Claims are revised, toned, abandoned, morphed into the opposite: this kind of collaboration involves research at the deepest level, not simply trying to organize an event or an administrative document.

Without ever having collaborated on a team that was doing digital research, this traditional professor was able to pronounce that DH collaboration differs not at all from the service work of being on committees. Such a position assumes a superiority both institutionally and intellectually with respect to Nowviskie, in a way that is unjustified either by their respective institutional positions or by their knowledge of the field of DH. And this, I think, is what Whitson and Whittaker are getting at in thinking about annihilation: we have to annihilate that disciplinary ego. Nowviskie kept repeating to the traditional professor that she wasn't talking about an unwillingness on the part of a specific set of human beings to collaborate with others, but upon institutional structures in English departments, for instance, that discourage us from imagining collaboration as intellectual work. The belief that working on collaborative teams is only a kind of service seems to be compelling. It seems to be service because collaboration with colleagues outside one's discipline yields the same experience that one has teaching and indeed in promulgating texts for public consumption: one has to teach disciplinary assumptions before one can even begin to work with them at an expert level. Sometimes, when collaborating with others on a digital humanities project, one's own discipline is visibly reduced to basic assumptions requiring justification. On the one hand, such justification is impossible: the "why care at all about what you care about?" question is fundamentally unanswerable, or, as Max Weber puts it, no science or discipline can ground itself. On the other, there are basic questions that accept the value of a discipline: why is this written as poetry rather than prose? What are the effects of various prosodic arrangements? Those questions are difficult to answer even for an expert in the field, or maybe especially for an expert. In any case, answering requires working somewhere else besides at the highest levels of expertise. We have trouble believing that outreach is real work because such a belief seems to threaten disciplinarity as such: if we can do real intellectual work at lower levels of training, what justifies cultivating higher levels of expertise?

To conclude, as Whitson and Whittaker maintain via Blake, we do need to annihilate the disciplinary ego that prevents us from appreciating collaboration as intellectual work. But there is a role for expertise to play in enhancing the value of the Humanities, both inside our institutions and out. Whitson and Whittaker's book invites us to think about how we might free the genuine expertise we care about from discipline-defending ego without annihilating disciplinarity itself. In this way William Blake and the Digital Humanities indicates both the possibilities and challenges afforded to us by the advent of DH.


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Laura Mandell

Texas A&M University
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Author:Mandell, Laura
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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