Monday, 4 July 2011

'…gossip, envy, malice and "constructive criticism".

Well, that's what semi-pro historian and centrist MP Tristram Hunt thinks blogs are for - an opinion expressed in a newspaper column (that famously objective and calm medium) on the subject of Why The Internet Is Letting In All The Oiks And Disturbing Proper History.

Now, my field (1930s Welsh proletarian literature, amongst other things) has yet to make a huge impact on the web. The novels I study aren't on Gutenberg. The archives haven't been scanned, the letters not uploaded. Which is a shame: I've spent a massive amount of money on rare books, travel, nasty bed and breakfast establishments and railway station pasties (never, ever, be tempted by the 'beef and onion', an insult to both substances). If I had more money, I'd make more visits. However, not being professionally interested in the actual paper used or the postmarks, I'd quite like the Gwyn Thomas Correspondence to be on the web. I'd work from the scans, and lots of people might accidentally stumble upon one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

I don't see why a supposedly leftwing historian wants to reserve any academic subjects for academics. We need experts (at least, I need you to need me!), but we also need to widely disseminate everything. The existence of the Daily Mail, Paul Uppal and Simon Cowell to pick three random examples, can be directly attributed to the denial of detailed context to the masses and thus an inability to refute their hysterical assertions. Their distortions and exaggerations only thrive when a public is encouraged to remain uninformed.

So making historical texts available online isn't an attack on Tristram's unhealthy fetishistic love of actually touching the very paper a scholar used (though every touch is damaging): it's an accessory, a democratic gesture in an increasingly undemocratic world.

History, literature and every other field, shouldn't be the preserve of a smug little club telling everyone what to think. We need experts who can spend all their lives thinking deeply about a special corner: but without easy access to texts and ideas, the expert will have nobody to talk to. That may be fine for some of the more insular academics, but it leaves me cold. I'm an evangelist for ideas, and I need to believe that there's a pool of people thirsty for conversation.

Hunt has this to say:
There is nothing more thrilling than untying the frayed string, opening the envelope and leafing through a first edition in the expectation of unexpected discoveries. None of that is possible on an iPad.
He's completely wrong. Unless you have some sort of collector's obsession with being first all the time (which isn't academia, it's trainspotting), then there is something far more exciting than touching a piece of paper nobody's touched for a while.

It's having a new idea, or developing existing ones in interesting ways. Michel Foucault (re)discovered the Memoirs of Herculine Barbin - but the thrill wasn't novelty: it was the opportunity to explore the tense relationship between individual identity and the social institutions.

But I suppose Tristram hasn't yet experienced that.

1 comment:

The Red Witch said...

@History, literature and every other field, shouldn't be the preserve of a smug little club telling everyone what to think.

Absolutely. I love the way people are engaging with this material online. There are some really good sites done by 'laymen'. Now if only everyone could stay polite.