Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Hodge reviews Friending the Past by Alan Liu

Alan LiuFriending the Past: The Sense of History in the Digital Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 333 pp.

Review by James J. Hodge

20 May 2020

Friending the Past confirms Alan Liu's status as one of the leading voices within the humanities on the meaning of digital technologies. It also affirms his agile embrace of a very difficult role: that of the scholar unafraid to ask big and fundamental questions central to assessing the meaning of the humanities more broadly. What's more, he pursues these potentially crisis-summoning questions (the meaning of the digital, the meaning of the humanities) not through polemic or speculation but rather through careful, synthetic, and masterful in-depth analyses of specific concepts.

The big question at the heart of Friending the Past is, for Liu, "what is the sense of history in the digital age?" The phrase, the "sense of history" has remained a consistent preoccupation across Liu's career. His first book is entitled Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989). Here it is worth noting quickly that the rough trajectory of Liu's career is that he began his career as a scholar of British Romanticism in the 1980s, and then shifted his focus to the nascent digital humanities in the 1990s by way of abiding methodological concerns with the New Historicism, Cultural Criticism, and postmodernism. His 2004 monograph The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (still one of the very best books in the field of digital studies) and his 2008 essay collection Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database also pursue questions of history and historicity. Friending the Past, then, very much feels naturally like the next great chapter in the larger book of Liu's career.

So what is the sense of history in the digital age? Liu's chapters each present a variety of answers and orientations toward this question. As his introduction makes plain, as much as digital media are often taken as coterminous with a diminished sense of history, a sense of history nonetheless continues to abide, to persist. That we maintain any sense of history at all––that we continue to heed the past in any sense––is for Liu a question of media, or of how the sense of history comes to us at all. This simple starting point requires fresh modes of comparative inquiry into the sense of history. For Liu, one cannot simply grasp the state of the sense of history today without comparing the uneven similarities between media ages. This commitment to a comparative media approach runs through each chapter, including one on the shift from history grasped from the point of print-based historicism toward the social media age; a careful rereading of "new media encounters" within media theory from Marshall McLuhan to Claude Lévi-Strauss and others; an astounding investigation of the undertheorized assumption that "linearity" guides the sense of history; and finally a network media archaeological deep dive into the hermeneutics of timelines understood not only with respect to the technical quiddities of JavaScript but also with respect to the longer history of timelines themselves. Each chapter frankly deserves its own review. What's clear, I hope, is that Liu is himself a sense of history.