parallels and recurrences

a review of Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism

Pressman’s historical picture is one of subtle parallels and recurrences, rather than dramatic ruptures. This nuanced approach yields numerous insights. Most notably, it helps to deflate the rhetoric of division that has often dominated both academic and public discussions of the digital. As Pressman argues, such debates have been beset by a simplistic tendency to “see difference wherever there’s digitality”, whether in the case of doom-mongering declarations of the death of print (her preferred example is Robert Coover’s 1992 article “The End of Books,” but there are many more) or overstatements of the radical “newness” of new technologies. In this regard, her reading of Ulysses is especially suggestive. Building on Hugh Kenner’s earlier observations, Pressman posits the novel’s “Ithaca” section as a pre-digital instance of a “database aesthetic”. In so doing, she develops a deft critique of the idea that “narrative and database” are necessarily separate entities. As she reminds us, questions about “the relationship between interpretation and information, between reading and data” are among the most pressing issues facing “the humanities in a digital age”.

read the review in Modernism/Modernity