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Friending the Past

The Sense of History in the Digital Age

Friending the Past

The Sense of History in the Digital Age

Can today’s society, increasingly captivated by a constant flow of information, share a sense of history? How did our media-making forebears balance the tension between the present and the absent, the individual and the collective, the static and the dynamic—and how do our current digital networks disrupt these same balances? Can our social media, with its fleeting nature, even be considered social at all?   
          In Friending the Past, Alan Liu proposes fresh answers to these innovative questions of connection. He explores how we can learn from the relationship between past societies whose media forms fostered a communal and self-aware sense of history—such as prehistorical oral societies with robust storytelling cultures, or the great print works of nineteenth-century historicism—and our own instantaneous present. He concludes with a surprising look at how the sense of history exemplified in today’s JavaScript timelines compares to the temporality found in Romantic poetry.
          Interlaced among these inquiries, Liu shows how extensive “network archaeologies” can be constructed as novel ways of thinking about our affiliations with time and with each other. These conceptual architectures of period and age are also always media structures, scaffolded with the outlines of what we mean by history. Thinking about our own time, Liu wonders if the digital, networked future can sustain a similar sense of history.

336 pages | 49 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

Culture Studies

History: History of Technology

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Media Studies


“Back in the early 1990s, when few in the humanities had so much as browsed the World Wide Web, Alan Liu was there with his self-published Ultrabasic Guide to the Internet. A quarter century on, he remains our wisest and most reliable shepherd through the confounding media ecology of the network age. Generously, without hectoring or polemics, he shows us better ways to approach and manage our encounters with new digital media. Even for reader-followers already familiar with Liu’s many important writings on history and its mediations, Friending the Past is an eye-opening book, full of imaginative twists and surprises, discovering with each new dig into the digital present a fresh opportunity for critical historical thought.”

James English, University of Pennsylvania

Friending the Past is the culmination of decades of research and thinking about our relation to the past and our own histories in an age when presentism is, well, all too present. With a magisterial reach going from oral cultures through to Web 2.0 and beyond, Liu interrogates such key ideas as narratives of media change, the multiplicity of ideologies that accumulate under the banner of linearity, and the shift to multilinear hypergraphical representations. Deeply informed both by Liu’s work in the digital humanities and his legacy as a literary scholar, Friending the Past is monumental scholarship posing as a conversation over the backyard fence, a remarkable achievement of stunning insights combined with a down-to-earth manner that refuses to intimidate the reader. Highly recommended for anyone working in the digital humanities, new media, cultural studies, and literary history.”

N. Katherine Hayles, author of Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

Friending the Past is argued with Alan Liu’s characteristic power, and exhibits the high level of creative abstraction that I think of as the signature asset of Romanticists, including Liu. This book is thoughtfully engaged with a breadth of research and is a brilliant observation of our digital milieu, its overarching logics, and underlying conditions.”

Lisa Gitelman, New York University

"Alan Liu’s Friending the Past asks whether the concept of history itself can hold together in today’s digital age...Friending the Past interrogates our powerful instinct for linearity in historical narratives about media and the civilizations they represent, asking whether we can escape perspectives constrained to particular lines of thought."

Anthony Mandal | The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

"Perhaps the most profound of... recent books about how digital archives and digital history are changing our sense of historical consciousness." 

Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Table of Contents


1          Friending the Past
2          Imagining the New Media Encounter
3          When Was Linearity?
4          Remembering Networks
5          Like a Sense of History

Appendix: Hypothetical Machine-Learning Workflow for Studying the Sense of History
Works Cited

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