Digitisation and the Death of the Real

By Keri Thomas

What is the Real? It is the desert left beneath our replica map of the world. This simulacrum (the digitised artefact, the simulation of reality), is all that remains whilst the original is lost. Lost not necessarily meaning physically lost; but rather, neglected and forgotten. Physical manuscripts, once digitised, are very often no longer accessible to users in the physical realm. This is understandable when the reason for digitisation is conservation, but it makes us ever more reliant upon the simulation whilst the original continues its inevitable disintegration. This article will discuss the opportunities offered by the digitisation of historical manuscripts and contrast them with the anxieties of the humanities about the loss of their materiality. It suggests that in order to move forward into the twenty-first century, we will need to let go of the still prevailing paradigm of the Real.

There is no doubt that employing digital technologies upon historical artefacts is of enormous benefit. The benefit can be found in having access to 3D images that show the warp and weft of a manuscript folio, or multispectral imaging that allows for the discovery of erased content. Digitisation thus benefits a scholar in having a manuscript available to them wherever they are in the world at any given time in addition to conveying previously lost contents. The field of the humanities thus profits from digitised access with new information and fresh opportunities for research. Hockey eloquently described the digital humanities as “using information technology to illuminate the human record” (xxiii). Indeed, one of the aims of digitisation is to democratise knowledge and free it from elitism; changing cultural heritage organisations “from the temple […] to a forum […] for negotiation and experimentation” (Martin, n.p.). This aspiration is often couched in the grandest possible terms; with digitisation being neither more nor less than the realisation of “an electronic wonder in the form of the virtual library of Alexandria” (Keegan, cited in Gooding, Terras and Warwick 633). However, it is often the case that the digitisation of artefacts like medieval manuscripts only succeeds in the creation of data silos. Into these, vast amounts of energy and effort are poured while nothing is acquired beyond high-definition images of manuscript folios; dismembered from the whole body of the text and disassociated from any context.

Image by Andrew Barclay “Domesday Books” used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Aside from academics, students, and teaching bodies, there is another broad target range for digitised material (often categorised as interested general public) that solely experiences the source material visually. They gain pleasure from the digitised pictures but perhaps understand little of the whole meaning of the manuscript. The problem is that the reasons behind digitisation have subtly changed over the years, from “a scholarly endeavour within itself” to “a standard means to provide digital information” (Terras 14). The Old Bailey Online project is an excellent resource whose audience, as was acknowledged anecdotally by Michael Pidd at the National Library of Wales in 2012, consists mostly of family historians, despite providing possible contexts for research–the difference being that the Old Bailey resource is comprised of fully edited and searchable text, whilst digitised manuscripts present the page “in a kind of lapidary state” (McKenzie 17).

Seen from yet another perspective, digitisation can act as a lifeboat, preserving that which might otherwise be lost to degradation, to disaster, to war and cultural cleansing. In 2015 the Digital Library of the Middle East was born as a response to the Daesh violent attacks on the Mosul Museum which left people devastated about the large-scale destruction of cultural and historical artefacts: “Seeing sledgehammers and electric drills taken to […] the Nergal Gate […] sicken[ed] observers around the world who care about our shared cultural heritage” (Herdrich 18). In the new digital library, digitisation creates a publicly accessible online repository of Middle Eastern artefacts, compiling inventories that serve as a record in the event of wartime plundering or destruction. Another example of the benefits of digitisation from a European perspective was the work undertaken on the manuscript of Cotton Vitellius A.xv (more commonly known as the Beowulf manuscript), which was damaged in the Ashburnham fire in 1731. The digitisation of the manuscript not only preserved the material manuscript for future generations (by limiting its handling), but it also provided researchers with the letters lost from view under the paper frames added by binder Henry Gough during a restoration at the British Museum in 1845 (Prescott, “Constructing” n.p.). Some of the words hidden under the frames proved to be the only known examples, and cold light technology has saved them for future reference and research. The purpose of digitisation “to educate, enlighten and entertain” is highlighted by such endeavours and further espoused by projects such as The Old Bailey Online, Europeana, and Mirador. There is no disputing the case for digitisation: it is necessary as a means of conservation, storage, and dissemination of materials that most users may never have the opportunity of seeing otherwise (Tanner 2015).

Image by Martin’s Pixels & Words & Resistance “Lights and Ropes in Heaven” by CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Nevertheless, digitisation is not entirely free of deficits. Indeed, passionately advocating for the digital humanities and acknowledging the problems that occur when we digitise manuscripts are not mutually exclusive positions. We can support the great benefits that come with digitisation whilst sounding a call to arms against the loss of the tactility we require in making an emotional connection to a material object. As Bamford and Francomano describe argue, “[w]hen we handle a medieval manuscript in the flesh we can literally touch something medieval and, ostensibly experience an effect of physical presence” (35). Thus, we feel the need to touch, caress, and immerse ourselves in the vellum and ink and gold, and create not only a connection to our history but also acquire a sense of superiority and ownership that access to a digital version simply does not provide.[1] The book sniffers and lickers amongst us do not fare well in the world of the simulation–with a physical artefact we can “scratch it, sniff it, lick it” (ibid.) or, as Francis Bacon put it, “Some Bookes are to be Tasted, Others to be Swallowed, and Some Few to be Chewed and Digested” (209). Once the book is digitised, however, the simulation is all we are able to enjoy. The “unmediated lived experience” is lost to us (Bamford & Francomano 35). The study of digitised manuscripts is arguably eschatological, being concerned as it is with the death of a manuscript and the soul of an object. The medieval manuscript serves almost as a memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the transience of life; but it also tantalisingly suggests immortality. The maker has long passed, someone who we romantically imagine has lived fully and died well. But here is the object of the person’s labours, and it has miraculously survived the passage of time.

Yet, the limitation of the simulation is felt most strongly in the way we access digitised artefacts–via a screen that cannot hope to convey physicality–and in the decisions about which material is chosen for digitisation. These decisions, rather than endeavouring to open up the canon to provide accessibility to the works of marginalised writers, often perpetuate elitist attitudes about a fixed canon and neglect, for example, people of color, who are still glaringly underrepresented in digital archives. This is certainly part of the reason why sites that display digitised cultural artefacts often end up as lonely vessels for the material they are meant to disseminate. The benefits of digitisation, such as greater public engagement, innovative user experiences and the dissemination of knowledge are therefore not always achieved by current digitisation projects that focus on the mass digitisation of cultural holdings and omit both a deep dive into collections and an interrogation of the hierarchies governing the digitisation process itself. As Prescott and Hughes put it in 2018, “manuscripts should be explored gradually […] building a multifaceted digital archive” (n.p.). Too often, the benefits of digitisation are lost to strategies that diminish the original by giving the user an inadequate understanding of a manuscript’s form and function, focusing on “treasures” that “reinforce existing cultural stereotypes and canonicities” and uses a “one size fits all” approach that does not adequately identify target audiences (ibid).

Aside from the shortcomings of some digitisation projects in terms of the compilation of material, technology is also not always adequate in performing the tasks required of it either. In a Humanist Discussion Group email chain in 2011, Willard McCarty suggested that our problem is not that we dislike technology but that we wish to immerse ourselves within it; resenting it when it fails to perform miracles to our satisfaction (n.p.). On some level, our dislike may also be formed by the contention that the digital artefact is the tool of the autodidact. While this is certainly true to some extent, digital data silos are also created as a result of poorly designed websites. The digitisation of the notebooks of Charles Darwin is a good example of this. Despite press coverage and being freely available online, completely searchable and aligned with downloadable MP3 files, the images were “poor-quality greyscale scans from microfilm, which convey[ed] little of the physical character of the original notebook” (Prescott, “Imagining” 8). As Nat Torkington put it, criticizing the outcomes of digitisation, “I find the shittiest websites on the planet […] like a gallery spent all its money buying art and then just stuck the paintings in supermarket bags and leaned them against the wall” (n.p.). The risk of over-relying on technological methods is, however, not simply that they can be inadequate, but that they are “alien” to us, that we sense their otherness (McCarty “Getting” 291). We are reluctant to admit that our fear of technology confounds us and are apprehensive of the 0s and 1s that denote the loss of physicality (see McCarty “Getting”). As users, we assume of the role of accomplice in the suspicious death of a material object. This anxiety about our complicity in the death of the object is at once intellectual and chimes with our innate sense that what we are doing is abnormal. It might well be “a primitive Anlage of futurity” (ibid. 290) [2] but it speaks to the very heart of our fear as humans–the unknown hand reaching out from the dark (ibid.). By engaging with digitised manuscripts, we feel that we are complicit in the fall of humanity into posthumanism.

Image by The Hamster Factor “Nevermind Me” used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

 At the root of the digital humanities are the work of Father Roberto Busa and the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. Busa was one of the first to use computers in the creation of a concordance of the principal words contained within the saint’s work. He is considered by many to be the father of the digital humanities. His research represented the unravelling of a work into its component parts. If we take Busa’s work as its base, digitisation is an act of deconstruction: not perhaps in the Derridean sense, but a literal taking apart. A work is broken down into individual words and translated into bytes to engender meaning; stripped down to form lists of words. Whilst this has merit, when we apply the use of technology to this act and consider the Baudrillardian notion of technology, we see an autopsy: there is “savage and continual surgery” (111). We understand our repugnance towards digitised artefacts and their use to be our innate understanding that the use of technology within the humanities is an attack on the human body itself. Technology, therefore, is regarded as “the extension of death” (ibid.). It is the reanimation of an object that has been dismembered and carries with it the same sense of dread and horror that we would feel at seeing a walking corpse. Baudrillard’s discussions on the concept of the clone have important implications for the digitisation of a manuscript. Baudrillard’s double is “an imaginary figure […] like the soul, the shadow, the mirror image” (95). Much like the cloning of a person, digitisation robs its physical counterpart of its individuality and authenticity whilst simultaneously remaining ephemeral, a ghost of a thing. A Baudrillardian analysis of the digital artefact therefore has important ramifications for our understanding and use of digital manuscripts. We are warned: “one must never pass over to the side of the real” (106). And yet we continue to do so, despite our sense of foreboding.

The study of digitised manuscripts is, by necessity, concerned with the soul of an object, and its final destiny. What happens to a manuscript once it loses its physicality? It is resurrected in the digital domain but neither bodily nor in spirit. In a 2018 paper presented at Glasgow University, Dot Porter discussed Mori’s “uncanny valley”, focusing particularly on the movement of a digitised manuscript being not quite the same as a real, flesh and blood manuscript. It speaks to an innate sense of wrongness–it is disjunctive, spasmodic, and unnatural. Thus, as we digitise our manuscripts, we confine and limit our experientiality of them, never to fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of the physical object in our grasp. Indeed, we tend to think of art and culture to be a “holistic, organic [and] sensuous” experience (Eagleton 11), and when the digitisation process is applied to it, it appears to be the antithesis of that naturalistic process, with the machine as apocalyptic, perpetrating “the mortal deconstruction of the body” (Baudrillard 111). Consequently, we are rendering in aspic that which should be fluid. In this interpretation, digitisation represents the imprisonment of the natural, and the eventual death of the human part of the humanities as it is violently subjugated by the machine. Baudrillard’s theories on the death of the real can be applied to both the physical manuscript and its digital counterpart. But even if a manuscript is copied by hand, there will always be innate differences: the replication of an original by technological means, as Walter Benjamin had it, “substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of instances” (7). It does this by imitating the original to such a degree that we pass over into the desert of the real and lose the thing itself. Indeed, by sublimating the power of the written word to the image alone, we have passed through a mirror, where an image is superior to the written word, and in doing so have we destroyed the truth of the original and shattered the real.

The Beowulf manuscript is an excellent example of the clear benefits provided by digitisation. It is a cultural artefact that has been brought to the brink by its age and past experiences. However, upon digitisation, a manuscript crosses the barrier from real to simulation. There is a “liquidation of all referentials” and reality becomes obscured to such an extent by copies of its own image that it is destroyed (Baudrillard, 2). Our artefacts become “posthumous”; the museum becomes the world, and our place within it the artefact (Baudrillard 8). In committing what we perceive to be an act of preservation, what we are in fact doing is reducing the authenticity of the original. Once it is digitised, both the physical artefact and the digitised version become artificial while we lose access to the original material object which is hidden away for reasons of preservation. Ultimately, within a Baudrillardian framework, digitisation is neither more nor less than a recreated absence; the original has a status that is impossible to prove. There is no real or imaginary, physical or digitised. We now predominantly exist in the realm of the hyperreal: unable to tell reality from simulation. The theories of Baudrillard and Benjamin still apply when we examine the digital, despite (and due to) their venerable standing. Their analysis of the replication of the real is applicable because it answers the question often repeated by bemused organisations that seek to disseminate their cultural artefacts online: we built the digital repository, so why does nobody visit it?

Image by Jennifer LaGarde used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The digitised manuscript is the tattered remnant of Borges’ map, and future generations may decide that our point-for-point renderings of cultural artefacts were foolish, and will leave them out in the desert, clinging to the edges of the world they were meant to portray. Does the utopian ideal of the emancipation of knowledge as espoused by digitisation policies therefore stand? It cannot, because the material chosen for us does not represent the whole of knowledge in any case. We can polish and perfect the tools that we employ to present our heavily selective material and perpetuate established knowledge hierarchies because we can “live with the idea of distorted truth” (Baudrillard 4).

Many digitisation strategies enervate, rather than invigorate. What are the answers to the practical and theoretical problems inherent in the digitisation of a manuscript? Nothing less than a bonfire of the disciplines, and a posthumanities position from which we can wrest culture away from the Cambridge teashop (Prescott, “Making” n.p.) In doing so we can move, finally, beyond the Real.


Keri Thomas, “Digitisation and the Death of the Real” Alluvium, 7.2 2019): n. pag. Web. 30 April 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.2.05

About the Author:

Keri Thomas is an FE lecturer and Doctor of English Literature, achieving her doctorate in 2016 with her work entitled Hengwrt Chaucer: Cultural Capital in the Digital Domain. The thesis examined digitisation through the work of Bourdieu and incorporated ethnographic interviews with seven key actors working in the field of digital humanities. As an independent scholar her work continues to look at digitisation through a theoretical frame, examining issues of physicality and the impact of digitisation on our relationship with medieval manuscripts. She likes Neil Gaiman, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and red wine. You can tweet her @keri_thomas.

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