If the generalizations, abstractions and reductions we’re making do not actually solicit more extensive and nuanced textual analysis, then they no longer fulfill their basic thematic function. To thematize is, after all, to risk the singularity of a text in order to disseminate an idea more broadly – providing greater access to and context for discrete passages that might otherwise go unremembered and unremarked. If 93.1 percent of our texts remain uncited or unread within 5 years of their publication, then the mnemotechnical infrastructure of our institution is clearly broken. But how can we make the most exacting work on the most singular linguistic objects more accessible when locating this kind of work (let alone synthesizing it meaningfully into our own) requires more time and energy than we currently have at our disposal?
The task of the digital scholar, as I have argued, is not to do away with thematization but to thematize as effectively as possible. How might technology enable us to do so? The theories described in the previous chapters have consistently pointed towards utopian systems of knowledge, but have failed to clarify the practical steps we can individually take towards such ends. Rather than starting with a theoretical analysis of the most promising technologies available today, I want to emphasize the granular tensions that emerge when we change the substrate on which we read, write and remember texts. These tensions are largely overlooked in utopian projections about the future of digital scholarship even though they are essential for developing a workflow that might accommodate the largest community of users regardless of their technical expertise.
In order to take full advantage of the technology we have at our disposal we must check the impulse to drastically change the interface for which many of us still harbor palpable nostalgia. The workflow one develops over the course of a lifetime in dealing with printed and written texts is an armature that will not easily yield to a radical questioning. At some point, the potential time saved by learning a new one becomes more vertiginous than it is motivating. If the new workflow were really that much better than the old, the time wasted not using it becomes that much greater. Such “progress” threatens to miniaturize our work – making everything we’ve accomplished so far a shade of what we might have under more ideal conditions. Such thinking is detrimental because even the illusion of progress is self-fulfilling – a feedback loop wherein the happiness of reaching certain aims, however virtual they may be, improves the disposition with which we approach new ones and, thus, the overall efficacy of our work. I do not believe our current technology justifies such anxiety, but if we really want to enhance the way we read, write and remember texts then we need to appreciate their inherent tensions as we strive to redesign them.
I have opted here for an auto-ethnographic account of my shift from a print to digital library because I hope to make myself more accessible to scholars contemplating this shift and programmers interested in facilitating it. The development of a technology adequate to our needs requires collaboration and transcends divisions in expertise.
This chapter can be seen as a kind of user guide for enhanced citation and annotation that begins with the limitations of handwritten notes and ends with the possibilities of a collective knowledgebase. It emerges from a continuous shuttling between organizing digital text and reflecting on this process in writing. While I have tried to capture as many antitheses between colleagues, students and former selves as possible, I realize how often the questions that arise between design and reflection are obliterated by conventional written narrative. This is why I have tried to supplement this text with videos whenever possible.
My aim is to humanize the need for citation infrastructure within our discipline – something that might too easily be regarded as a technocratic fiat. If we want to find a digital workflow that will allow us to thematize more effectively (and overcome scholars’ inherent resistance to this workflow), then we must first understand the mnemotechnical forces at play in the predigital media of citation and annotation – how the need for a knowledgebase emerges from institutional and methodological problems in which we all participate and in which our current knowledge is enframed. Of central importance, here, are:
- the shifting relationship between citation and annotation
- the extent to which the conceptual rigidity of themes corresponds with the formal rigidity of the medium on which they are stored
- the ways in which hierarchical outlines provide the foundational structure of thematic thought and how they might be supplemented or surpassed by other forms of organization
I want to show that knowledgebases are not a radical departure from traditional mnemotechnologies even though they are the first form of mnemotechnology capable of generating the kind of infrastructure required for a more robust semantic web and borderless mode of textual production.