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Book machines: modernist bibliography and the dawn of digital humanities

Despite the continued adoption of computing technology in literary studies, histories of the discipline widely overlook the extent to which computing itself emerged from modernist bibliography. Many of the designs for early computing platforms used in the codebreaking efforts of World War II were directly inspired by advancements in library and information science, including Vannevar Bush’s prototype for the Memex, an early microfilm reading environment. Indeed, the very concept of the document as a digital object emerges from book machines such as the comparator and the rapid selector. Both Fredson Bowers and Charles Hinman, foundational figures in the field of book history, were employed as cryptanalysts during World War II. This often overlooked connection between bibliography and cryptography, between reading books and writing code, finds its way into the canon of modernist literature, as well—Samuel Beckett worked as a spy for the allied forces, passing encoded microfilm documents and translating them across French and English. Beckett undertook such work in the years just prior to the composition of his Trilogy, explicitly described as “code books” and also translated across French and English. Given the fact that late modernist bibliography is also early computational cryptography, the modernist book exists as a core cultural artifact of a digital humanities.

Bringing such a history to light, this panel reads modernist books on digital computers while also understanding computers themselves as modernist books. Papers may cover a range of bibliographic practices, including but not limited to genetic criticism, writing under constraint, Oulipo, automatic writing, Surrealist experimentation, cut-up technique, typography, library and information science, cryptographic literature, and other experimental bibliographic methods. They will use digital methods to demonstrate and investigate these experimental modernist bibliographies; at the same time, papers will also reflect upon the role of such bibliographies in shaping digital methods in humanities scholarship. In particular, papers will collectively investigate “digital modernism” as a longstanding critical tradition that stretches well back into the twentieth century; in so doing, they will come to understand digital modernism today as a method for investigating modernist computing in the past, reframing digital scholarship as a form of epistemological archeology. While individual papers take a textual studies approach to modernist works, the panel as a whole will engage in a genetic criticism of digital modernism itself, tracing contemporary practices back to their roots in modernist writing methods. Through clear and rigorous restorations of digital modernism in the twentieth century, panelists will construct a more complete vision of digital modernism today.


If interested, please send a title, a 250 word abstract, and a 100 word bio to achristie@brocku.ca by January 25, 2017.

Conference Location: Amsterdam, NL
Conference Starts: August 10, 2017
Conference Ends: August 13, 2017

CFP Submission Deadline: January 25, 2017

For more information, contact: Alex Christie

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