A Quick Reflection on Whitmore

(this is another repost from http://ryan.cordells.us/s13dh/blog/ for my “Doing DH” graduate seminar with Ryan Cordell at Northeastern)

Michael Whitmore reflects on what it means to be a digital text—namely what is the most distinguishing feature of a digital text. To him, he states that the text is a “massively addressable object at different levels of scale,” but what does he mean by this?[1] Is this the distinguishing feature of a digital text or is it just a distinguishing feature? 

First let us unpack what he means by “massively addressable.” To Whitmore, this means that an object can be studied—or “addressed”—at many levels of abstractions. Think of a monograph. The monograph can be analyzed at various scales. We can look at the letters, the phonetic bases phonemes, morphemes, words, groups of words, lines, paragraphs, pages, sections, chapters, groups of chapters, and the entire book. Moreover, we can compare and relate this monograph at these varying levels of scale to other monographs, or across a defined corpus. What distinguishes a physical text, such as this monograph, from a digital text is that the latter is even more addressable than the physical level. Different scales of analysis are possible due to its digital format. We can both address a larger body of work and do more (at least more efficiently) even at the lower levels of scale. Or we can combine the small and large levels of scale. What if, for example, we wanted to map and analyze the first word of every chapter across every book published in the year 1920? If the texts are digitized, we can do this.

I think that Whitmore provides a valuable argument in this article (initially a blog post). It has seemed up to this point in the course that we have viewed the digital text, or the digital project/thematic research collection/arsenal, as something new, something different from a written text. And while many of the works we have read have tried to address this issue, responding to critique that DH plans to replace the written monograph, I feel Whitmore has given a very compelling response. This is not because he says anything truly new or bold about the digital text. In fact, I feel he does quite the opposite. By linking digital text so closely to written text Whitmore succeeds in distinguishing the advantages to utilizing a digital text while not overwhelming the reader with its novelty. To Whitmore, the written, physical text is also a massively addressable object at different levels of scale. The digital text is just more “massively addressable.” It is a natural continuation of a text’s addressability, accessibility, and manipulability, not a divide between the physical and the digital. There is value in physical text, but there is also a different value to digital ones. We can do different things at various levels scale with digital texts. Whitmore sees this as a progression, and digital text is not its terminal point. In one hundred, or one thousand years, who knows what form text will be in? And who knows what levels of addressability will be possible with this “post-digital” text?

[1] Michael Whitmore. “Text: A Massively Addressable Object.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) pp. 324-327, 325.


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