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Excerpt from Alan Liu,
"Globalizing the Humanities -
Voice of the Shuttle: Web Page for Humanities Research"


Humanities Collections 1, no. 1 (1998): 41-56

I began VoS in late 1994 as a purely local knowledge resource. While working on The Future Literary--my book-in-progress on the evolving relation between the "well read" and the "well informed"--I had for some time been systematically studying the Internet. This research spilled over into the creation of courses, a Web-authoring collective, and a how-to manual titled The Ultrabasic Guide to the Internet for Humanities Users at UCSB--all inspired by the fact that, like the self-aware computer at the end of William Gibson's Neuromancer, I felt rather lonely online. There was a big wired universe out there, but my local intellectual community (like most humanities communities at the time) had barely discovered e-mail. To seduce this proximate community onto the Internet, therefore, I set out in my courses and manual to present the main skills needed to explore the Internet specifically from the viewpoint of the humanities user or, as I called such a user, the technological "savage." Typically, I began with housekeeping skills (Unix commands, downloading and uploading, etc.) and then proceeded through the various aspects of the Internet from FTP and telnet through Gopher and WWW.

Very soon, however, it became clear that I would do best to concentrate on the one aspect of the Internet that seemed custom-made for the technical savage or, as it were, Yahoo. This was the Web, of course, which by now had proved both its general appeal and its ability to subsume other components of the net. My agenda thus simplified: I standardized on the Web as the route to the world beyond e-mail, and I sought to make visible to my fellow humanists enough compelling academic content that they would be motivated to explore on their own.

It was to supply this content that I started VoS in December 1994 as a UCSB-only site--necessarily campus-only, indeed, since the Humanitas server at that time did not yet have a Web daemon allowing it to serve up files globally. I gathered and organized links of interest to humanists (working mainly in the Lynx text-only browser for sheer speed). I solicited work from UCSB people for my "Featured Works" section (rotating among the departments so that I could lure fresh newcomers onto the Web to read the work of their colleagues or mentors). And all this was accompanied by a constant production of e-mail "press releases" about important new sites, new UCSB essays, and so on, together with oft-repeated how-to instructions for beginners.

When on March 21, 1995, the Humanitas server acquired a Web daemon, VoS went global. From this point on, the personality of the page had to be adjusted to expand the relevance of page descriptions, announcements, instructions, etc., originally addressed to the local scholarly community. But such adjustments were more in the way of adding further layers of local perspective than of undifferentiated globalism. VoS now addressed the UCSB community plus concentric rings of wider, yet still specialized, user communities. Or to adopt a better image: the Web became from my viewpoint an archipelago of distinct islands of users, each forming an ad hoc local community.

Due to my literary background, of course, the community that gathered around my literature pages (sending me correspondence, making suggestions, etc.) was fullest and deepest. But from the start, my Art, Religious Studies, and several other pages also acquired palpably distinct user communities. A similar archipelago effect applies to the geography of users. Most repeat visitors hail from the U. S., Canada, and the U. K., but increasingly there are sizable minorities from Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and several other countries (plus a constant stream of first-time visitors from all over). The fact that such globalism is differential rather than homogenous is suggested by events after a VoS mirror site went up in Italy. Suddenly I began receiving e-mail from Italian users accompanied by suggestions of academic Web sites originating in Italy. It was clear that an entire, discrete orbit had been added to my user base. And in terms of sector- and age-groups, too, the usage base has been similarly differential. As might be expected, most visitors derive from higher-education institutions. But many also come from the K-12 educational community and add a distinct flavor of their own (suggesting teacher-oriented or student-written sites, sending me innocently pushy letters in the mode of "Dear Sir, I have a book report due tomorrow . . . Can you tell me who are the major characters in Moby Dick?"). Even the surprisingly large number of "general population" users (from the .com, .gov, .org, and .mil domains as well as America Online, Prodigy, Compuserve, Netcom. etc.) seem paradoxically "local" in personality. I mean by this that I often receive feedback from such users in a "voice" that is distinctively self-conscious about its placement relative to academe. For example, when a user fooled by the "shuttle" in my title wrote to say that "as a working engineer I wouldn't normally have stumbled onto your site, but I just had to see what NASA had to say about the humanities"; or, again, when a correspondent begins a letter, "I'm just an AOL'er, but I have a literature site that may interest your readers"; the persona being expressed is a highly "situated" version of the general population.

Only occasionally do usage spikes generated by the mention of VoS in some mass-circulation newspaper, magazine, or Web-site (as occurred at various times when the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and USA Today cited the page) create an apparently undifferentiated global response. For instance, when the CNN Website mentioned my VoS-related essay titled, "Should We Link to the Unabomber? An Essay on Practical Web Ethics," over 3,000 visitors stopped by each day (a larger number at that time).

VoS has grown to some 70 sub-pages covering 23-30 discrete disciplines (depending on how one counts them). The total size of the site is about 3 Mb of links plus another 1 Mb in images and other matter. Usage during the past academic year averaged from 800 to 1000 unique visiting machines per weekday, dropping back to 600-700 during the summer. (The number of users per individual machine is unknown.)

This leaves one further topic to be discussed under the rubric of practice, which I save for last because it provides a segue to the philosophy of the page. The topic is organization.

If (loosely) VoS may be compared to a library catalogue, then the matter of organization may be broached by asking the interesting question: what is the page actually cataloging? It now seems to me that there are three, interrelated answers to this question:

First, VoS simply catalogs the humanities as currently organized in the modern research academy. The emphasis here is on organization for "research." VoS thus breaks down knowledge first by disciplinary field (e.g., classical studies, history, literature) and then, within particular fields, by categories that map the internal shape of the discipline (so far as I can discern them). Since the most common distinction of humanistic fields from other branches of learning is their historicity (literature departments, for example, teach the history of literature), it is above all periodization that organizes individual fields (e.g., the English literature page proceeds systematically from the medieval period through the Renaissance, eighteenth century, Romantics, and so on). But such other categorizing schemas as nationality (e.g., British versus American literature), primary versus secondary work, texts versus course syllabi, etc., add to the grid to reproduce the basic arrangement of professional humanities research. In its very form, then, VoS declares its essential content. The form says, "this mode of organizing material by field, historical period, professional activity, etc., is what research-level knowledge in the humanities means."

But, secondly, VoS catalogs not just the static organization of humanistic knowledges in the research academy but also the in-process reorganization of that knowledge. This means, above all, that VoS is "interdisciplinary." I have written at length elsewhere on interdisciplinarity in the academy. Here I will simply restate both my agreement and eventual disagreement with Stanley Fish's trenchant indictment of the vogue in his 1989 essay, "Being Interdisciplinary is So Very Hard to Do." On the one hand, Fish is right that enthusiasts of interdisciplinarity are only fooling themselves if they believe they can ever really think their way out of the disciplinary frame of knowledge in the academy (one ends up either colonizing other disciplines within one's own discipline or, as in such cases as "Theory," institutes a new meta-discipline). But on the other hand, I have argued, just because disciplinary knowledge is epistemologically unavoidable in the institutional setting does not mean that the impulse to go interdisciplinary is insignificant or cannot have real ameliorative effects. Most importantly, it may be added here, even if disciplinary knowledge is a necessity of the modern professional academy, there is also the further matter of how this very necessity is being repositioned by the interdisciplinary movement relative to the powerful case for "interdisciplinary teams" in the new corporatism (an issue I will return to below).

For the moment, however, it is enough just to point out that the some of the most interesting places in VoS are those where the knowledge grid seems to break down. Thus, for example, I allow for "topic" sections on some pages (e.g., "censorship studies," "corporeal theory" on the Cultural Studies page) to register research "problems" that are currently active in multiple disciplinary and historical fields. So, too, I blur the humanities at its outer edges to register elements of the sciences and social sciences. There is a page on "Science, Technology, and Culture," for example, because technology has become a humanities problem through the mediation of such interdisciplinary catch-all movements as "cultural studies." And aside from all such blurrings of the disciplinary grid, of course, the very fact that VoS places the traditional humanities all together on the same menu--making it easy for the literature user, for example, to satisfy an idle itch of curiosity about art just by lifting one finger--is insidiously interdisciplinary. Since the early years of my own career when I taught in both the Yale English department and interdisciplinary British Studies Program (housed in the Yale British Art Center), I have been troubled by how few scholars actually make it across the street, say, from the English Dept. to the art museum. Whatever else, the Web at least removes the street.

Finally, VoS also catalogs humanistic research as it is in the process of creating new disciplines specific to the information age. I am thus keenly active in collecting links for such pages as "Cyberculture" and "Technology of Writing," where scholarship no longer simply shovels print-ware onto the net but instead invents ad hoc fields in which to think about, with, or against the new media in the light of technical innovations driven by and large by the corporate and mass sectors (as in the case of "multimedia"). The fact that such fields as "cyberculture" now de facto exist does not mean that traditional print- or library-paradigms of knowledge are extinct (far from it), but that new schemas have evolved for positioning scholarly knowledge-paradigms relative to the great global 'information' paradigms of contemporary society. What "Cyberculture" or "Technology of Writing" ultimately track, in other words, is not technical development in itself but scholarly meditation on the changing relation between old and new media, old and new knowledge worlds. An especially good example is the section on "History of Language Technology" on the "Technology of Writing" page, where links to online resources on the historical instruments and media of reading/writing (e.g., the "Classic Typewriter" page) allow us to re-see literacy as specifically a predecessor "technology". . . .

(Note: this excerpt has been very slightly adapted for the present context).


VoS is woven by Alan Liu and a development team
in the U.California, Santa Barbara, English Department.
Contact: ayliu@english.ucsb.edu — To suggest links for inclusion in VoS, please use the "Suggest a Link" button on the relevant category page. To offer feedback on the site, please use the feedback form.
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