Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities
by Stephen Marche
The problem lay at the feet of literary institutions and their inherent fearfulness. In the popular imagination, writers and professors are liberals, hedonists, bohemians. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, profoundly, deeply, organically conservative. The birth of print saw the emergence of many of the same Luddite tendencies recognizable today. The great German scholar Trithemius’s “In Praise of Scribes” has become the clichéd example of early scribal resistance to print, but his arguments were not ridiculous: printed books were much less beautiful than handmade ones; copying out a text allowed the scribes to identify and stop the reproduction of errors. The process of writing out a text produced a spiritually powerful condition. “In Praise of Scribes” tells the story of one scribe who had to be disinterred after years of scribal work; his colleagues find the three fingers of his writing hand “incorruptible.” Nonetheless “In Praise of Scribes” was printed, not copied. Trithemius went along with the changing world even as he claimed to despise it.