To Be Seen and Remarked On

I read Mark Sample’s “Unseen and Unremarked On” with great interest—if only for utterly selfish reasons. I was pleased to see belated attention to DeLillo, whose vocal luddism belies a sustained engagement with the effects of various information technologies on the porous boundaries of art, politics, and self. I also found his constructions of alternative histories—publication, latent, and potential—quite productive, all copyrights aside.

I would be hard-pressed to challenge Sample’s central critique of DH: “If the digital humanities are to be the future of the humanities, we should be talking about it means that a significant group of contemporary writers and thinkers are not part of this future (198-9). ‘Tis unfortunate that competing forms of digitalization, draconian copyright, and restrictive archives circumscribe what we DHers can do with the works of these contemporary writers and thinkers. Yet these seem like much larger systematic issues that DH isn’t about to resolve on its lonesome. I also don’t know what it is that Sample expects when he writes, “Just as DeLillo suggest that novelists should ‘be ready to write in opposition’ to the values of society, scholars, too, should be ready to study in opposition to the dominant values of contemporary scholarship” (199). What exactly does “studying in opposition” look like?

Rather, I’m inclined to take the more optimistic—and perhaps incrementalist—view that DeLillo’s work, for example, is greater than the sum of his texts and archival holdings, a fact to which Sample’s rich alternative histories attest. If timelines can in fact be arguments (to paraphrase Sample from page 189), my interest would be in expanding access to and scope of such ancillary projects. By expanding access I mean making such timelines electronically available to—and editable by—DeLillo scholars. By expanding scope, I would like to see more  already-available electronic resources corralled into that reference space.

Permit me an example (and forgive today’s verbosity): DeLillo’s Falling Man. Certainly, Scribner would sue me before I could say “educational purposes” if I tried to post it online. Yet, there’s an entire corpus of publically accessible ancillary materials through which I can present contexts or make arguments.

Perhaps I want to tell a story about art in Falling Man. I could make available turn-of-the-century passport photos and images from Giorgio Morandi’s Natura Morta. For DeLillo’s titular performance artist, I could survey post-9/11 art works around the city, such as Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman and Sharon Paz’s exhibit Falling. The most likely source of inspiration, Kerry Skarbakka (The Struggle to Right Oneself), deserves attention in his own right, given that Pataki called his work “an utter disgrace” and Bloomberg declared it “nauseatingly offensive”—characterizations startling similar to DeLillo’s fictional critiques of David Janiak. Even the pose of DeLillo’s “Falling Man” strikes can be traced back to Richard Drew’s haunting photograph for the AP.

Then there are texts. DeLillo certainly draws heavily from Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism” in Falling Man. Yet we have even more about DeLillo’s ethos in his own words. Consider this cursory survey of publically available interviews:

  • His interview with Vince Passaro in which he discusses the language of terror (NYT 5/19/1991).
  • His interview with Adam Begley in which he places the “writer in opposition” (Paris Review 10/2010).
  • His interview with David Streitfeld in which he discusses the totalizing capacity of the novel (WP 11/11/1997)
  • His Harpers essay “In the Ruins of the Future” in which he aligns writer and terrorist.
  • And his interview on All Things Considered through which he clarifies his 2001 essay (NPR 6/20/2007).

It’s easy to become defeatest when faced with severe copyright restrictions and a corporatizing academy. At the same time, however, there is a great deal of excellent contextualizing materials accessible on the Internet, and perhaps a more immediate concern might be making use of it.

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