It starts with some letters. These letters have sounds. When you put these letters together you get words. Words, when stringed together, create sentences, and so on. Thus, language is born. Language, from the very beginning, is bricolage.
The new critics tried to create meaning from chaos by assuming a definite and discoverable meaning behind texts. As the evolution of theory progressed, we became convinced that texts do not have one and only one meaning. Then, with post-structuralism, we lost grasp on any meaning whatsoever.
Post-structuralism asserts that texts – or on a smaller scale, words – do no possess sole meaning. Because of this, they are not metaphoric –meaning that the utterance or writing of a word (signifier) does not refer to the thing (signified). Instead, words simply refer to other words – signifiers to signifiers – in a never-ending ping-pong volley.
With new and advancing technology, comes the birth of the digital humanities. The digital humanities is the personification of post-structuralism. It is a living and breathing example of language’s metonymy. When hypertext is used in a digital document, the reader can literally bounce from one text to a related text. When one keeps bouncing he/she will notice that they have the ability to wind up in a place and exploring a subject that is far from their original source material. The metonymic bounce becomes literal not just theoretical. In this way, the digital humanities creates texts and exposes existing texts as being wholly decentered.
Not only do the digital humanities knock “meaning” off its pedestal with metonymy, it also allows readers to interact with texts so that they might rearrange any text to create something new with a wholly different supposed meaning. Texts are now at the mercy of the public. They might be used or arranged in any manor in order to meet an infinite number of goals.
New critics like Wimsatt and Beardsley would squirm at the idea of an English/humanities field of study that is devoid of stability and meaning. A field of study in which anyone can create and participate.
The trajectory of English/literature studies has been one of evolution and discovery. I think that most non-English majors would suppose that there wouldn’t be much to discover in the way we think about literature and language, but boy, would they be wrong. We based our study on words and what they could mean. Then we got broader when we considered what words could mean to different people. Then we extended the boundaries even further when we thought about what certain words could mean to certain people in certain situations. Then the boundaries got so wide that they couldn’t contain anything in place anymore; all areas of study and life are in conversation and free-play with each other. Now we have technology as a tool to witness this free play. And it is wonderful.