Alan Liu, Friending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age

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Author: Yohei Igarashi
Date: Fall 2019
From: Wordsworth Circle(Vol. 50, Issue 4)
Publisher: Wordsworth Circle
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,407 words

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Alan Liu, Friending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. xiii + 3i8pp. US$110.00 (cloth); US$32.50 (paper).

It feels a little bit different from business as usual to be discussing Alan Liu's Friending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age in this issue of The Wordsworth Circle. A little bit different because the audience for Liu's most recent book is, it seems fair to say, wider than that for most Romantic literature monographs. Like his two most recent works before Friending the Past--The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (2004) and Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database (2008)--this book speaks to Romanticists who have followed his masterful works on Wordsworth and the New Historicism, and also to a broader audience, "a general scholarly one interested in how a bridge might be made between the humanities and the information age" (8). A similar kind of bridging impulse can be seen in Liu's recent commitment to public humanities work through leading the humanities .org initiative and its WhatEveryiSays project. What's more, the bulk of this book isn't about Romanticism, at least not on the surface: there are pages on, for example, nineteenth-century historicism (a long-standing concern of Liu's) and on the "Romantic Chronology," his pioneering humanities computing or proto-digital humanities project begun in 1995 (and reimplemented in a contemporary time-line tool as a key exhibit in chapter 5), but a greater number of pages on other things. This book will be admired especially by digital humanists and media historians, cutting across fields.

Then again, it's actually very fitting to be writing about Friending the Past in The Wordsworth Circle. The book begins with Wordsworth: Liu's opening pages reflect on the poet, but also Geoffrey Hartman ("my generation's major critic of my primary author" [ix]), whom the book is dedicated to and then remembers. Liu notes, for example, that Hartman's argument about the via naturaliter negativa in Wordsworth inspired his own thinking on historical awareness in the digital age, and a later discussion about the way history--particularly when sensed virtually through modern media--can lead to an "anodyne numbness" (156) recalls Hartman too, not to mention Wordsworth himself. The book also ends with Wordsworth: in the final section of the final chapter, Liu returns to discuss temporality in Wordsworth's poetry, what he calls the "Lucy algorithm" (202-16)--a Wordsworth circle indeed. All of this, Liu knows, is more than a little bit Wordsworthian, a scholarly version of the returns that Hartman called Wordsworth's spot syndrome. Beyond Wordsworth, and more broadly, Liu shows magnificently--and inimitably, as the breadth of knowledge that is synthesized and the depth of the meditations are singular--how humanists' rightful skepticism about innovation, disruption, and perhaps even digital culture generally can be converted from concern or dismay into exuberant inquiry. And this makes Friending the Past, on top of everything else, richly suggestive for Romanticists: we might think about, for example, how earlier ideologies...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A632995519