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Review of Radiant Textuality by Jerome McGann

March 21, 2013

Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Like Eugene Provenzo’s Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy, McGann’s work is now a bit dated; however, examining how the digital humanities has developed will likely continue to be important. And like Provenzo, McGann underscores this importance by inferring a connection between the literary world and the digital world. Indeed, McGann’s primary argument in Radiant Textuality is the implication that the digital age is simply a continuation of the literary age; furthermore, the book and the computer have often been set up in opposition to each other instead of as complimentary modes of communication.

Beyond that provocative thesis, there a several subthesis. The most prominent of McGann’s is that our perception of a text as information only removes the self-reflection of the audience. McGann sets books apart from digital media, suggesting repeatedly that there does not yet exist the capacity for this medium to reproduce the critical evaluation of the human reader. McGann concedes that there are powerful new ways of aggregating data, but that these methods enhance, rather than replace our modes of critical reflection.

To that end, McGann attempts to convey these arguments in seven chapters, split into three parts. The first section invites a comparison between the two forms of media, such as they existed in 2000. The second section demonstrates the practice of digital humanities via the The Rossetti Archive The final part details a second project, the IVANHOE game, which is essentially a visualization project of post-modern literary discourse.

This book is meant for, I dare say, a very narrow audience. The text is packed from beginning to end with literary references and theoretical jargon. The book’s structure breaks down in several places into literary device. Early on, this takes the form of a script for a play, in which McGann makes fun of academia. Later, McGann’s text devolves into poetry and self reflective prose. This is the height of post-modern literature. It self referential, loaded with in-group language, and says very little clearly.

That said, the merits of such a text are to convey the state of mind some academics found themselves in at the dawn of the digital age. There is a healthy mix of optimism, confusion, pessimism, and attempts to intellectually reconcile the emergence of new media. For those that like post-modern musings, I have never encountered a book that embraces this form of writing more wholeheartedly, perhaps with the exception of Stephen Pfohl’s Death at the Parasite Cafe. For those of you that like the most pointy of pointy heads, dig in!

  1. I think you’ve hit on a very important and relevant point. “[. . .] our perception of a text as information only removes the self-reflection of the audience.” Perfect! In one of the big movements to privatize K-12 education, some ideas I’ve read concern kids reading information only text. Your point is one that really, and brilliantly and succinctly hits the nail on the head. I know you were using it in reference to your review and McGann’s work, but really it is important now. I’ve not read McGann’s book, but I say that it can bring to light what is going on with some new, and in my opinion frightening glimpses into the future of education and literature.

  2. Yes, that is a fabulous observation. It seems that those nuggets are buried under the difficult to navigate prose. But thankfully your head was sharp enough to poke your way through it!

  3. Thank you for this review – it has helped clarify a few questions rolling around in my mind. I have had to read this book to take my comps exam – post-modern indeed. I’m glad that this literature is as difficult as it seems (yes, I’m not a complete dunce!). Thank you for your help!

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