Last summer while travelling I read Moby Dick on my iPhone. I am now at a point in my life when, circumscribed by airline baggage weight restrictions, the choice between packing Moby Dick or an extra pair of shoes is no choice at all. So I downloaded a free version and tucked my phone in my pocket. I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never actually finished Moby Dick before (there is a crack in the spine of my copy at home where I have traditionally run out of oil). I was very, very glad (or very, very sad) when I finished it. Guess what? It is not overrated.
But here’s the thing: reading Melville on my iPhone turned out to be a non-event. I was not “reading the novel on my iPhone.” I was “reading the novel.” The experience had some annoyances—the footnotes were really bad, and I came to wish I had an expert hand untying a few of Melville’s knots. But surely there are many bad paperback editions of Moby Dick that would leave you in the same position. Better footnotes would be nice, but they aren’t necessary. Same thing with the question of typeface and layout. It was fine. I didn’t really notice it, in exactly the same way that I don’t really notice the layout of a book.
True, no careful reader of Moby Dick comes away naïve about the broader implications of technology. The intricate descriptions of whaling procedures make clear that Melville’s conception of epic is intimately wrapped up in what might be called globalization and the commodification of everything. But the novel is much more obsessed with literature, it seemed to me, than with the technologies of the whaling industry. Shakespeare, maybe Milton, and a tantalizingly vague history of epic determine at every instance the deployment of technology—not the other way around. The most important thing about Melville’s work is that it is literature. That is the main reason to read it and study it. Literature is the lens by which technology (of whaling, of book production) is made legible at all. Not the other way around. Rancière says something similar (in relation to Benjamin) in The Politics of Aesthetics. Melville says it on every page, however the definition of a “page” changes around on the iPhone.
I retell this little anecdote in response to Brian Reed’s terrific post on the digital humanities. The photos he links to are amazing. I am thrilled to have seen them. But surely the best name for the activity of looking at photos, thinking about their implications, describing their medium of distribution, connecting them to their social world—surely the best name for those activities is simply “the humanities.” I am tired of hearing about the digital humanities. I don’t care about the digital humanities. I do humanities—sometimes with my iPhone, sometimes with my voice, and sometimes with chalk. The technology is part of it, but it does not determine what I do. What does determine what I do is a difficult question. No reader of Moby Dick’s biblical allusions set amidst global travel comes away with over-confidence in his capacity to determine his own fate. But reading Melville helps you to figure out what does determine it.
Another story. Many days, I like to take a walk through a near-by neighborhood, a late-nineteenth century gated community filled with gigantic, very old trees. Set amidst those trees is the house that Marshall McLuhan used to live in. It is a beauty—a turn of the century Arts & Crafts overlooking a pond that, most summers, is covered in scum. I can’t tell if the scum is industrial or natural, or even how you’d know the difference. The house tells you something about McLuhan. Melville might tell you something too.