I’ve been leading discussions in the undergraduate class I TA for on Brave New World for the past few lessons. Today, as the students prepare to write a critical paper on the novel, I outlined some of the ways they might find an “in” to the the text that connects to the course material. My suggestion- though I didn’t realize it immediately- was laden with objects and ideas that are at the heart of this course and of Digital Humanities in general.
First, I pointed them to the (uncommonly thorough) WIkipedia entry for Brave New World, specifically the section that lists the references Huxley makes in the names of his characters (Bernard Marx = George Bernard Shaw + Karl Marx). I mentioned that many of these references are easily located in our class lectures thus far- Malthus and Darwin were topics of discussion in just the last few weeks. Upon reflection, it seems...well, kind of magical that the Wikipedia entry contains this information. At the time of its publication, readers of Brave New World would only ‘get’ these references if they were up on the politics, literature and history of the day. In fact, that was the case for my own first reading of the novel- my understanding of the references now is much richer, informed by almost a decade of further education. But my students, for whatever reason, are much less familiar with figures like Trotsky or Rothschild. It doesn’t matter, though. Wikipedia provides a detailed list, with links to other pages, that allows students to expand their understanding of the figures that Huxley references, and in turn enrich their understanding of the novel.
In trying to demonstrate the ways that these references are used by Huxley to ground his novel in the world that he knew, I recommended that a little further reading would not go amiss. “The Communist Manifesto is in the public domain! Shakespeare is in the public domain!” I actually got rather carried away at the moment I announced that, and for good reason I think. Reading Sivas Vaidhyanathan’s book Copyrights and Copywrongs over the weekend has instilled in me a fervor for the public domain and how vitally important it is that it remain rich, deep and accessible. The more interesting reason for my glee was that I said ‘public domain’ when I really meant ‘all over the internet for FREE’.
Of course, 1:1 equation of the internet with the public domain is exactly the kind of thing that modern American copyright law - especially things like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act - fears most, and fights so viciously against. And of course, putting stuff on the internet doesn’t - and shouldn’t- automatically mean it’s free, or that people shouldn’t be able to make money from it. But the mere specter of that idea has incited a reactionary and overzealous crack down on intellectual property rights. Vaidhyanathan’s great achievement is the unpacking of that tricky term ‘property’ and to show how it has never and should never be a part of copyright law.
My final thoughts as I compiled a list of links for my students were first amazement and enchantment- all I had to do was type ‘malthus pdf’ into Google to get to a legible, searchable copy of his Essay on the Principle of Population. I actually stopped searching for documents before I ran into a work by one of Huxley’s referenced figures that hadn’t been digitized and made available for free. This is a product of the age- and expired copyrights- of these works, but it is also the product of choices made about what is important and worth preservation. My intent was to demonstrate to my students how Huxley wove the Brave New World into his own world, but I am left wondering just how small a slice that Wikipedia list presents, and how much smaller it would be if Huxley had written today and referenced works that live under current copyright law.
In case you're interested, here's a list of the links I sent to my students. Oh, brave new world, that has such awesome free stuff in it!