Avatars of the Word

Traditional scholars tend to sniff at the idea of the uncredentialed researcher searching Latin texts without the full classical education that one supposedly needs to do this. James O'Donnell welcomes the electronic machinery in his 1998 book Avatars of the Word, but his approving description of the mind of Jerome of Stridon as the model of the perfect search machine implies to me that he was not fully ready or able to foresee the Latin database as an app for everyone:
Jerome once ran across a Greek word in a text, and wrote to a friend that he remember seeing that word only twice elsewhere, once in scripture, once in an apocryphal religious work. As it happens, he was correct: the three passages he knew are the only places (still) where we know that word to have been used in the written legacy of Greek literature. Hearing that story, I marvel at the powers of Jerome's memory, knowing that as a modern scholar with some similar interests in scripture and translation, I would never dare to say such a thing (p. 4).
With the advantage of hindsight, I find O'Donnell's book stimulating, but somewhat off-beam, though in a contrarian kind of way. O'Donnell did not recoil from the digital database, but under-estimated its impact by arguing that the database which could compete with Jerome's memory is not really all that new, and that libraries in recent centuries have always been on the verge of doing the same thing:
If the essential feature of the idea of the virtual library is the combination of total inclusiveness and near-instantaneous access, then the fantasy is almost coterminous with the history of the book itself (p. 32).
Now of course the database is far more than just a library, because it lowers the barriers to entry: it is accessible to those who have not learned the professional codes, to those who have not paid to participate. There is at least a tangential awareness of this in Avatars, O'Donnell has some engaging thoughts about the uncredentialed (the move to do more and more teaching not only with teaching assistants (the invisibly uncredentialled whom we take for granted but with impermanent, nontenured, non-tenure-trace faculty, p. 180) and the shy (Th[e] classroom is a potentially frightening place because much of our traditional pedagogy depends on the managed infliction of humiliation ... Here is where electronic media can help innovation ... The student who now is unable to perform adequately in the face of perceived threat of embarrassment in class is the one who can be given a place to rehearse out of sight of classmates and teacher ... p. 185-6).
But O'Donnell failed in 1998 to foresee a positive: the sheer mass of accessible material that the internet would throw up and the radically democratic level of access to it. He also failed to foresee a negative: the growing difficulty, once the blogosphere had established itself, of assembling an audience.

No comments :

Post a Comment