Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative. …
If our textual technologies promote commentary but we resist it, we will achieve a Pyrrhic victory over our technologies.
The main difference between our moment and the lost world of pre-modern commentary that Jacobs invokes is of course a material one. In a context of hand-written documents, transcription was the primary activity that consumed most individuals’ time. Transcription preceded, but also informed commentary (as practiced by the medieval Arab translator Joannitius). Who would be flippant when it had just taken weeks to copy something out? The submission that Jacobs highlights as a prerequisite of good commentary — a privileging of someone else’s point of view over our own — was a product of corporeal labor. Our bodies shaped our minds’ eye.
It’s interesting that Jacobs and Piper offer different explanations for the diminished role of textual commentary in intellectual life. Jacobs traces it to a shift in cultural attitudes, particularly our recent, post-Romantic embrace of self-expression and originality at the expense of humility and receptiveness. Tacitly, he also implicates the even more recent, post-modern belief that the written word is something to be approached with suspicion rather than respect. For Piper, the reason lies in an earlier shift in media technology: when the printing press and other tools for the mechanical reproduction of text removed the need for manual transcription, they also reduced the depth of response, and the humbleness, that transcription promoted. “Who would be flippant when it had just taken weeks to copy something out?” These explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the tension between them seems apt, as both Jacobs and Piper seek to explore the intersection of, on the one hand, reading and writing technologies and, on the other, cultural attitudes toward reading and writing.
While the presentation of text on shared computer networks does open up a vast territory for comment, what Jacobs terms “digital textuality” is hardly promoting the kind of self-effacing commentary he yearns for. The two essential innovations of computerized writing and reading — the word processor’s cut-and-paste function and the hypertext of the web — make text malleable and provisional. Presented on a computer, the written work is no longer an artifact to be contemplated and pondered but rather raw material to be worked over by the creative I — not a sculpture but a gob of clay. Reading becomes a means of re-writing. Textual technologies make text submissive and subservient to the reader, not the other way around. They encourage, toward the text, not the posture of the monk but the posture of the graffiti artist. Is it any wonder that most online comments feel as though they were written in spray paint?
I’m exaggerating, a bit. It’s possible to sketch out an alternative history of the net in which thoughtful reading and commentary play a bigger role. In its original form, the blog, or web log, was more a reader’s medium than a writer’s medium. And one can, without too much work, find deeply considered comment threads spinning out from online writings. But the blog turned into a writer’s medium, and readerly comments remain the exception, as both Jacobs and Piper agree. One of the dreams for the web, expressed through a computer metaphor, was that it would be a “read-write” medium rather than a “read-only” medium. In reality, the web is more of a write-only medium, with the desire for self-expression largely subsuming the act of reading. So I’m doubtful about Jacobs’s suggestion that the potential of our new textual technologies is being frustrated by our cultural tendencies. The technologies and the culture seem of a piece. We’re not resisting the tools; we’re using them as they were designed to be used.
Could this change? Maybe. “Not all is lost today,” writes Piper. “While comment threads seethe, there is also a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia.” But this, too, is an old dream. I remember a lot of excitement (and trepidation) about the “annotated web” at the end of the nineties. Browser plug-ins like Third Voice created an annotation layer on top of all web pages. If you had the plug-in installed, you could write your own comments on any page you visited, as well as read the comments written by others. But the attempt to create an annotated web failed. And it wasn’t just because the early adopters were spammers and trolls (though they were). Nor was it because corporate web publishers resisted the attempt to open their properties to outside commentary (though they did). What killed the annotated web was a lack of interest. Few could be bothered to download and install the plug-in. As Wired noted in a 2001 obituary for Third Voice, “with only a couple hundred thousand users at last count, Third Voice was never the killer app it promised to be. But its passage was a silent testament to the early idealism of the Web, and how the ubiquitous ad model killed it.”
It’s possible that new attempts to build an annotation layer will succeed where the earlier ones failed. Piper points in particular to Hypothes.is. And it’s also possible that a narrower application of an annotation layer, one designed specifically for scholarship, will arise. But I’m not holding my breath. I think Piper is correct in arguing that the real challenge is not creating a technology for annotation but re-creating a culture in which careful reading and commentary are as valued as self-expression: “It’s all well and good to say commentary is back. It’s another to truly re-imagine how a second grader or college student learns to write. What if we taught commentary instead of expression, not just for beginning writers, but right on through university and the PhD?” Piper may disagree, but that strikes me as a fundamentally anti-digital idea. If “a privileging of someone else’s point of view over our own” requires, as Piper writes, the submissiveness that comes from “corporeal labor,” then what is necessary above all is the re-embodiment of text.
Image of woodblock prepared for printing: Wikipedia.