Monthly Archives: June 2009

keeping it cool in the information pool

Sadie (2)

Temps here in Houston have been consistently over a hundred degrees for the past four or five days.  As y0u can see, the only way to get any exercise at all is to take a swim, preferably at a dog park. 

In the meantime, I’ve been reading Ossian to stay cool:

“Evening is grey on the hills.  The north wind resounds through the woods.  White clouds rise on the sky: the thin-wavering snow descends.  The river howls afar, along its winding course.  Sad, by a hollow rock, the grey-hair’d Carryl sat.  Dry fern waves over his head; his seat is in an aged birch.  Clear to the roaring winds he lifts his voice of woe . . . . ”  (Fragments, ed. Gaskill, III, p. 10)

And here are a few stray thoughts from the previous week’s reading:

  • For those interested in information literacy in the context of classroom contextualizations, Carl over at Dead Voles had an interesting post about history education, and discussed Sam Wineburg’s work regarding the best practices for teaching historical thinking. From Wineburg’s perspective, the two major concepts to keep in view are “sourcing” and “corroboration,” and both of these have a lot of applicability for literature instruction, I’d argue.  I’ve been thinking about this material a lot as I’ve been setting up some newly tweaked information literacy/critical reading presentations for my annotated bibliography assignments in Swift and Literary Studies.
  • Not so recent, but still interesting: AcademHack’s Teaching Carnival, including Mark Sample’s great Annotated Bibliography assignment using Zotero.
  • Lisa Spiro (down the street and across the bayou at Rice) has a good, thorough post on “Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects,” which sketches out a series of examples of collaboration, along with their general purpose and orientations: “Facilitating communication and knowledge building,” “Sharing and Aggregating Content,” “Collaborative annotation, transcription, and knowledge production,” and so forth.  Bookmark it now, and explore it at leisure: you’ll be thinking about some of these possibilities in the future, I’ll bet. 
  • This may seem off-topic, but believe me it isn’t.  I’ve been fascinated this past week by the widespread outrage over the Washington Post’s not-so-surprising firing of their best journalist, Dan Froomkin after his recent run-ins with the marquee names on the op-ed page, and after his long-time jousting with his paper’s own White House reporters over their lame, he-said, she said style reporting.  As  a number of commentators have pointed out, the entire conflict came down to competing views over what Froomkin did, exactly: was he a mere “aggregator,” cutting and pasting other reporters’ original investigatory work, or a genuine reporter in his own right, finding stories that the high-profile folks kept ignoring?  And, of course, the issue boiled down to whether Froomkin was entitled to do “media criticism,” which would certainly include criticism of the WaPo’s own clueless handling of certain stories.  Others may disagree with me about this, but I think that any comparison between Froomkin’s carefully assembled account of the last eight or nine years (see his superb summary of the Bush years, in his final column), with the first-hand views of “pros” like Bob Woodward or (god help us) Dana Milbank, tells the whole story.   So at what point do we begin to discount the validity of this kind of first-hand account, if reporters themselves seem to lack the curiosity or courage to question what they are being told face-to-face?  What this tells me is that the real competition in journalism, and for all I know in scholarship as well, will not be about access to the best “official” information or sources, but in the uses one makes of the information, and in the ability to discover promising gaps in the “official” coverage.  Get to it, people.



a new 18th-century blog, early modern online bibliography

Anna Battigelli, a long-time contributor to the Long 18th, has just started her own blog, Early Modern Online Bibliography, which is devoted to the bibliographic issues raised by EEBO, ECCO, the Burney Collection, and other emerging digital resources.  Here’s her description:

[Early Modern Online Bibliography] was created to facilitate scholarly feedback and discussion pertaining to valuable online text-bases for the humanities, such as EEBO, ECCO, and the Burney Collection.  Of particular interest are bibliographical problems encountered while using these text-bases.

Anna’s blog already contains a useful roundup of review articles concerning these databases, here.  I suspect that such a blog could be a very useful place for pooling information concerning the best techniques for digging into these databases (either for one’s own or student research), and for confirming anomalies.  You’ll see that I’ve also added it to our blogroll, under “Eighteenth Century Resources.”

This blog is designed to supplement her ASECS roundtable scheduled for Albuquerque, 2010: “Some Noisy Feedback.”

Best, DM

PS: please let us know if you’d like to suggest your own, or someone else’s, eighteenth-century blog for us to put onto our blogroll.  We’re always on the lookout for more links to 18th century-themed blogs.

asecs 2010 @albuquerque, nm, march 18-21

I’m passing this along from Kevin Berland’s C18L:

The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies will be meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 18 – 21, 2010. Conference information is here:

The call for papers is a 59-page Adobe pdf file here:


Any Long 18th people going to Albuquerque?  Let us know if you have a panel you’d like to publicize, or if you’re looking for additional papers.



in lieu of an Ossian post . . . .


[“Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes”
1802 by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson; image from Bits of News]

I suppose I’m one of the few people who could spend a week researching eighteenth-century writers in Scotland, and come home and feel fired up to write a series of posts about Hans Gumbrecht’s book on 1926.  But that’s how it worked out.  I actually have a few more thoughts about Gumbrecht and temporality that I might try out at some point, but more on that some other time.

I’ve been thinking about Ossian for a while, though, and have been trying to come to terms with teaching “him,” since I’m beginning to feel that Ossianic epic is the third leg of the stool, when we’re talking about literary culture in late 18c Scotland (the other two legs being Mackenzie-style anglophilia in prose, and the emerging scots vernacular in Fergusson’s poetry).  (And if others have additional legs, er, suggestions, I’d welcome hearing about them)

In fact, I’d had some weird moments teaching Ossian last term, because my students picked up on the fact that at some level the whole Ossian phenomenon embarasses me, probably because I respond to it all too easily.

The fraudulence and bluster of Macpherson, the overcompensation in the Scots’ martial fantasies, the funny names, the entire package makes me uncomfortably aware of, uh, the hours I spent in junior high and high school, listening to dreamy-sounding prog-rock bands, looking at Roger Dean posters,  and reading Tolkein.  To me, the whole thing is an amusement-park ride of vulnerable teenage guy  melancholic fantasy.  Except that historically  it wasn’t:  it captivated and persisted in Scottish and European literary culture for decades, traveled all over the world, inspired writers on the order of Blake and Goethe. In the meantime, its “translator”  Macpherson was left behind to enjoy a splendid lifestyle and an annihilated public reputation.

So Ossian represents a series of texts whose value has fluctuated widely over the years, while I myself have never been able to make up my mind about its actual quality.  What’s more, the whole pathetic story of Macpherson’s truncated career, told very well in Buchan’s Crowded with Genius, gives me a bad case of Imposter-syndrome anxiety, and puts me in mind of the relation of parasite to host: Ossian simply incubated in the body of James Macpherson, and flew away when it was done.

For me, the whole story of Ossian’s origins in authorial fraud, its uncritical reception by the most authoritative  Scots critics (Blair etc.), and then its abandonment of its creator, seems to summon up a worst-case scenario of literature and all its institutions and instruments of validation, so that author, critic, and audience all seem to be equally discredited by the tale.  And yet something of it persists, ghostlike, to continue embarassing the pretensions of literary critics and literary history, for some time to come.


yet more simultaneity

I’m not sure how interesting this will be to those just visiting the blog, but I thought I’d make a few more connections between my last post on simultaneity and the thoughts I’ve been having about literary historiography since coming back from Scotland.

Gumbrecht originally subtitled his book In 1926, “an essay in historical simultaneity” (xiv), and his decision to immerse his readers in a single year demanded in turn that he disavow some of the most familiar and comforting elements of conventional history-writing:  these included narrative, cause and effect, and the idea of “learning from history.”  As he admits early on in the book,

. . . this book makes a plea against any claims for subjective or collective agency.  And how could a book concerned with historical simultaneity not arrive at this very conclusion?  After all, there are no conceptions of action and agency that do not require sequentiality as their frame of reference.  Yet this is exactly the one form of thinking history with which the idea of historical simultaneity is incompatible (xii).

There is of course a “politics” to denying the political efficacy of historical understanding, and Gumbrecht makes a number of statements in this book (written in 1998) about the end of “learning from history” that I’d like to hear him revisit  in 2009, under our present circumstances, though of course neither he nor I could have known when the book came out just how strange his predictions would sound within a decade of their publication, no matter how much I admired the book.

In  Gumbrecht’s 1998-era telling, the mounting economic complexities of that (now-vanished) present moment rendered earlier forms and assumptions of history-writing obsolete, largely because our ability to predict the future on the basis of the past had become so discredited (in G’s historical  shorthand, because of the fall of the Berlin wall and the consequent collapse of Marxism’s scientistic claims to predict the direction of History).  And yet for all our interest in works like  Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan and for all our new, hard-earned skepticism toward the post-historical models of history offered by neo-liberalism, untethered finance, and globalization, it still seems important to talk about our latest economic crisis in terms taken from the last, great global crisis of capitalism, and to remind economists of that history.  In other words, to force our political elites to learn from history.  So economics and the economic establishment does not go away, even if Taleb and many others think they should hang their heads in shame for their complicity in the last 10 years’ joy ride, but somehow the historical critique, which is inevitably part of a historical narrative, needs to be incorporated better into what they do.  (“remember what happened the last time we allowed derivatives to go out of control?“)

At the same time, Gumbrecht’s 1998 book, I think, has fastened onto something crucial and distinctive in the “present moment” that has gotten only stronger since it was published, which is the extent to which knowledge of both the present and the past have been taken out of the realm of narrative, and in the words of one commentator,  shifted into the realm of the “database.”  (18th century specialists might recognize the problem, if they think about how differently their most cherished works emerge from literary histories as opposed to search engines mining ECCO).  The knowledge that might have once been mediated by human beings, even within recognizable institutions and organizations–journalists, biographers, etc. etc.–is now made freely available at all times to everyone in an utterly flat and impersonal way, simply by “Googling” them.  It’s all there, collected by no one, for everyone to read.  Knowedge, when denuded of contexts and the macronarratives that organize them, exists in Gumbrecht’s “in-between” state of simultaneity, in the form of information.

The real question then becomes whether such a tension between narrative and the database really is between two fundamental and opposed impulses, one humanistic and the other impersonal, or between two not-so-distinct modes of storytelling, which contain the forms of information appropriate to each?  And where would literature and literary history fit in with these conceptions of history-writing in our own  “in-between” moment?



I spent the last half hour of my time today xeroxing the March 1771 issues of the Caledonian Mercury. I also understood at last the thriftiness of Scots printers, since this tri-weekly seems to reproduce its stories verbatim from the Edinburgh Evening Courant and the Weekly Magazine (surprise!).  This will finish up my week at the NLS, but I expect to be working through these materials for the remainder of the summer.

My big question remains a representational one, something that’s bothered me for some time: what’s the best way to depict different events taking place simultaneously in a complex physical environment? (I’ve stolen the term, though not necessarily the methodology, from Gumbrecht’s In 1926)

This question is obviously about the best method of representingt the social complexity of cities, but it also includes the problem of how to write literary history in a way that allows distinct but proximate genres to unfold independently of one another.

Right now, as I think about the early 1770s in Edinburgh, I’m aware of the sophisticated, anglophile world of Mackenzie and sentiment, with all its connections to commercial London but also to the scholarly world of Hume, Smith, Millar, and the Britannica.   Fergusson and his printer Walter Ruddiman take us into the rediscovery of post-Ramsay, vernacular Scots traditions for literary innovations leading to Burns.  And I think it’s still important to figure in the kind of literary antiquarianism that sustained not just Chatterton, Collins, Gray, and Ossian, but also James Beattie’s Minstrel and ultimately Walter Scott.

So how do these different stories fit together, without turning them into causes and effects of one another?


An Eighteenth-Century Interactive Book?





Jonas Hanway, said to be the first Englishman to carry an umbrella as protection from the rain


Speaking of maps, as I was reading Jonas Hanway’s Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea, the author paused in his narrative to tell me that he would now provide excerpts from the journals of other British merchants travelling in the region, and that I should pull out the map that he included and follow their paths along with their narratives.  That way I would better understand and more appreciate their journeys. I found this striking as I can’t recall a time when an eighteenth-century author has told me to do something that specific.  Yes, the Spectator implies that I should be virtuous, watch my reputation, keep the next life in mind, not wear a hoop petticoat, and read the news judiciously.  But here the author is telling me very precisely what to do with the book: cut out the included map, lay it on the table, and maybe even draw in the different routes as I read. Of course I refrained as I didn’t think the librarians at the Folger would appreciate it, but I’m interested as to whether or not others have encountered such particular instructions.