There is Virtue in Virtuality. Future potentials of electronic humanities scholarship

  1. 1. Hans Walter Gabler

    Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität München (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich)

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There is Virtue in Virtuality. Future potentials of
electronic humanities scholarship


Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität München


University of Tübingen







invited paper

The established present use of the computer in the humanities is to enhance the
properties and quality of the book. With the book electronically stored, book
contents and book knowledge can be accessed fast and very flexibly; while the
physical book, widely still the end product of computer deployment, can be
manufactured more accurately, perhaps even more economically, than under the
conventional conditions of the composition room and press. Beyond the token book
in electronic storage, and the real book generated by electronic means to
habitually palpable materiality, paperwork and the book provide significant
metaphors for computer-related discourse, with the file or the home page heading
the terminology. This is a specific indication of a patterning of thought
according to inherited figurations that is as tenacious as it is universal.
In the face of the forces of habit, the question arises how clearly the
book-conditioned and book-trained humanities scholar and researcher is capable
of discerning the unique otherness of the electronic medium and both explore and
exploit its potential. I suggest that the grasp hitherto, in humanities
scholarship at least, of the essential virtuality of the electronic medium does
not securely reach further than to a simulation of the materialities of paper
and print. Hence an orientation towards the future requires reflecting on how
the virtuality of the electronic medium uniquely might put us in a position to
deconventionalize our scholarly pursuits and innovate them.
Such reflections should not remain abstract and arcane. Examples will help to
flesh them out. A main area for applying the computer is that of the
organisation of knowledge. Handbooks, dictionaries and the like are already
preferred objects of conversion into electronic multi-mediality. A distinct
qualitative step might however be taken if, from its very conception, the
organisation of knowledge is not projected as going linearly (with
cross-reference props) into book form and bookish formats, but relationally into
the virtuality of the computer. The example of an incipient project on such
terms will be cited. A specific sub-area, furthermore, of the organisation of
knowledge is the commentary on a given text, or body of texts. The thrust of the
arrangement of commentary in book-printing practice is currently linear - it
having been largely forgotten how early book typography was already capable of
suggesting relationalities (and so was properly 'hypertextual' avant la lettre). But the relationality of the
electronic medium will encourage a re-transforming of commentary into something
akin to that early understanding of the essential relationality of the
represented matter itself. Again, an example will illustrate the issues as
indicating some first principles in need of developing towards the
systematisation and organising of the computer commentary.
This should lead to a brief glance at a project under way exemplifying an
ambition to set up the scholar's and critic's working desk virtually by
assembling all requisite primary and secondary materials relative to a
pre-defined research interest on one internet website globally accessible. The
Italo-Franco-German project HyperNietzsche currently under development from its
German base in Munich is making the bid for such comprehensiveness. Against its
heterogeneity, one may hold that it is textual editing that remains a pivotal -
and perhaps the central - area of humanities scholarship. It has the longest,
and intrinsically most bookish, tradition. It would seem particularly necessary,
therefore, that the tradition's centeredness on the book not remain
Textual scholarship's critical self-distancing is aided by literary and textual
theory that focuses the process nature of texts in reading as in composition. To
such general theory, the counterpart, in theorizings of the electronic medium,
are current notions of hypertext. The concept of hypertext, however, does not by
itself guarantee an electronic text edition properly so called, exploiting, if
worthy the definition, the medium's virtuality on its own terms. Considerable
rethinking of procedures and presentational modes is required to develop,
organise and realise electronic editions as medium-specific alternatives to
scholarly editions in book form. An example, again, will serve to indicate
directions for development. Finally, in this paper, I wish to introduce (and
demonstrate) a distinction between electronic text editions and the electronic
editing of processes of manuscript writing. With the critically editorial
exploration of manuscripts as sites of writing and of writing processes as the
successive, yet random, filling of writing space, the editorial branch of
humanities scholarship cuts the moorings to the book. Such exploration is
possible only in the virtuality of the electronic medium and its evanescent
screen images.

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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None