Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Plea for Concept Projects

I'm the first person to admit that I know nothing about fashion, so I could be wrong about this... but my understanding is that the things to be seen on the runways of Paris, Milan or New York are not really intended to be worn. The point of taking attractive (if emaciated) people and dressing them up like samurai and astronauts, or festooning them with lanterns, is to stimulate the imagination. Designers have a space to convey a sweeping vision without worrying too much about practicality, and their public is drawn to their more quotidian offerings by having a sense of a bigger picture. Automotive engineers, too, have a tradition of creating concept cars: one-of-a-kind prototypes that push the boundaries of particular forms, get ideas into circulation, and draw attention to the imagination and technical expertise of their creators.

Academic historians (and many other humanists and social scientists) don't really have a tradition of creating projects that are not meant to be judged primarily in terms of utility or veracity. But we can't complain that our research is treated as marginal unless we are willing to make some effort to put our thinking into forms that are of interest to other audiences than our close peers. I'm not suggesting that scholarly traditions be weakened in any way, just that we create some new traditions.

Digital scholarship puts very few restrictions on form and makes it easy to reach a potentially vast audience almost instantly. And yet most new projects offer only incremental advances over the pre-digital state of the art, if that. It's time to make some space for concept projects, to put work out there because it's visionary or beautiful or wacky or reflexive or just, as Thoreau put it, because it "affects the quality of the day."

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