Michel Foucault’s “The Archeology of Knowledge” has raised a lot of interesting questions/ideas for me about the nature of the work we’re doing here, and about the nature of text, textual criticism, and simply how we understand the very concept of understanding/knowledge itself. I find his point that “historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves” (5) a very interesting and relevant one, especially in his later discussion of the concept of an artistic oeuvre. The “present state of knowledge” idea is an important one, particularly since it suggests not only the possibility for advancement of knowledge but also, as Donna and Kalervo pointed to, the possibility for the loss of knowledge. In this regard, I found his discussion of an oeuvre very interesting, of the fact that we make a long series of choices about what constitutes an oeuvre, of the fact that we consider Tolstoy’s novels part of his oeuvre, but not his shopping lists or even his personal correspondence. (And while his correspondence or shopping lists may be studied by scholars, it’s with the sense of them being adjunct or complimentary to his oeuvre, as providing us some insight into his oeuvre, but not as forming as central a part of it as, say, War and Peace might). In the long series of editorial choices made to construct a text or an oeuvre, Foucault points to the arbitrariness of this process, and the blind faith we invest in it, as being misguided. (In this regard, I find it interesting that his book has an “Introduction” before the “real” book begins, so that, whether consciously or not, he allows his work to be bordered in the same arbitrary and selective way that he critiques.) Knowledge itself, Foucault seems to suggest, is part of an editorial process, whether that process is through the deliberate selection and presentation of texts, or whether it’s from an involuntary process of the kind that Kalervo and Donna mention– the loss of documents and of web pages.
The internet presents us with some unique challenges in that the boundaries of private and public ownership are still only partly defined. As was the case with the Geocities sites, who simply decided to “vanish” vast amounts of other people’s work, both MySpace and Facebook have long been accused of violating intellectual property rights and fair use standards in that they claim an arbitrary ownership over everything published on their sites. This is still a rather hazy subject in which not many clear guidelines exist. I’ve had personal experience with this where, on a Blogger site, myself and several friends published 5,000 original posts over a number of years (visual art, criticism, poetry) and then, after a personal dispute between a few members, the person who created the blog (a friend of all of us) simply deleted the entire project and then, after we protested, restored it, but blocked all of us from accessing the work for download, changes, comments, etc. In effect, he decided that, since he had created the blog (by signing in with an email address) that all the work posted on it, by fifteen or so people over five years, belonged to him at least to the degree that he decides who has access to it. Not terribly nice. But certainly part of the challenge of working collectively, especially on the internet– the question of who exercises editorial power, how much, and why, is one that is complicated, and worked out on case-by-case bases.
So, like Kalervo pointed out about Geocities, simply by pressing a button, someone can make huge amounts of work disappear– a challenge for the internet that rivals the fires of the great manuscript libraries. Further to that, the nature of digital technology, as we’ve explored in class and on the forums, means that something created today may be completely inaccessible in a few years. This is a challenge that museums and galleries have been facing in terms of how to continue to preserve and display digital art– Arcade Fire’s interactive music videos, for example, may be useless and inaccessible in a few years. This is a big challenge that digital humanists are only beginning to explore. (And don’t even get me started on “peak oil” and the fact that all of this digital knowledge is dependent upon the ongoing production of personal computers, on a vast global system of communication and co-operation, and on the consumption of vast amounts of electricity to power the internet, and so on.)
On a personal/goal level, oy vey. I can appreciate Kalervo’s frustration. I’ve backed off on my goal of “trying out some basic programming” and will now simply be happy to figure out some of the very basics of the ECGText project. I’m partly the victim of obsolescence, in that my 6 year old computer works perfectly fine for the basic things I need it to do (writing papers and emails, watching YouTube videos, storing photos of my cats), but not fine for anything more complex or new, such as PHP editing. I’ve resigned myself to being the “medievalist” who can help the most via my basic knowledge of the genre and style, but I’m still not giving up on my goal of using this course to become more digitally savvy than I am right now.