Alan Liu. Friending 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.