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Wednesday
Jan122011

On the limits of openness V: there are no digital humanities

Let’s bracket the many questions that can be raised for Deleuze’s thesis on the societies of control (some of which can also be raised for Lyotard’s account of the postmodern condition), and the reasons it has been taken up and used so readily within the contemporary social sciences, and social theory especially.  For the time being, let us pursue a little further the hypothesis that the externalization of knowledge onto computers, databases, servers and the cloud is involved in the constitution of a different form of both society and human subject. 

To what extent do such developments cast the so-called computational turn in the humanities in a rather different light to the celebratory data-fetishism that has come to dominate this rapidly emerging field of late? Is the direct, practical use of techniques and methodologies drawn from computer science and fields related to it here too helping to produce a major alteration in the status and nature of knowledge, and indeed the human subject? I’m thinking not just of the use of tools such as Anthologize,  Delicious, Juxta, Mendeley, Pliny, Prezi and Zotero to structure and disseminate scholarship and learning in the humanities, but also of the generation of dynamic maps of large humanities data sets, and employment of algorithmic techniques to search for and identify patterns in literary, cultural and filmic texts,  as well as the way in which the interactive nature of much digital technology is enabling user data regarding people’s creative activities with this media to be captured, mined and analyzed by humanities scholars.

To be sure, in what seems to be almost the reverse of the situation we saw Lyotard describe, many of those in the humanities - including some of the field’s most radical thinkers - do now appear to be looking increasingly to science (and technology and mathematics) to provide their research with a degree of legitimacy. Witness Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s appeal to ‘the history of modern chemistry on the one hand, and the most recent cognitive theories on the other’, for confirmation of the Compositionist philosophical hypothesis in his 2009 book, The Soul at Work: ‘There is no object, no existent, and no person: only aggregates, temporary atomic compositions, figures that the human eye perceives as stable but that are indeed mutational, transient, frayed and indefinable’. It is this hypothesis, derived from Democritus, that Bifo sees as underpinning the methods of both the Schizoanalysis of Deleuze and Guattari, and the Italian Autonomist theory, on which his own Compositionist philosophy is based. It is interesting however that Bifo should now feel the need to turn, albeit briefly and almost in passing, to science to underpin and confirm it.

Can this turn toward the sciences (if there has indeed been such a turn, which is by no means certain) be regarded as a response on the part of the humanities to the perceived lack of credibility, if not obsolescence, of their metanarratives of legitimation: the life of the spirit and the Enlightenment, but also Marxism, psychoanalysis and so forth? Indeed, are the sciences today to be regarded as answering many humanities questions more convincingly than the humanities themselves?

While ideas of this kind appear just that little bit too neat and symmetrical to be entirely convincing, this so-called ‘scientific turn’ in the humanities has been attributed by some to a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis regarded as having been brought about, if not by the lack of credibility of the humanities’ metanarratives of legitimation exactly, then at least in part by the ‘imperious attitude’ of the sciences. This attitude has led the latter to colonize the humanists’ space in the form of biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition and so on.  Is the turn toward computing just the latest manifestation of, and response to, this crisis of confidence in the humanities?

Can we go even further and ask: is it evidence that certain parts of the humanities are attempting to increase their connection to society; and to the instrumentality and functionality of society especially? Can it merely be a coincidence that such a turn toward computing is gaining momentum at a time when the likes of the UK government is emphasizing the importance of the STMs and withdrawing support and funding for the humanities? Or is one of the reasons all this is happening now because the humanities, like the sciences themselves, are under pressure from government, business, management, industry and increasingly the media to prove they provide value for money in instrumental, functional, performative terms? (Is the interest in computing a strategic decision on the part of some of those in the humanities? As the project of Cohen and Gibb shows, one can get funding from the likes of Google.  In fact, ‘last summer Google awarded $1 million to professors doing digital humanities research’.) 

To what extent, then, is the take up of practical techniques and approaches from computing science providing some areas of the humanities with a means of defending themselves in an era of global economic crisis and severe cuts to higher education, through the transformation of their knowledge and learning into quantities of information - deliverables? Following Federica Frabetti, can we even position the computational turn as an event created precisely to justify such a move on the part of certain elements within the humanities?  And does this mean that, if we don’t simply want to go along with the current movement away from what remains resistant to a general culture of measurement and calculation, and toward a concern to legitimate power and control by optimizing the system’s efficiency, we would be better off using a different term other than ‘digital humanities’? After all, as Frabetti points out, the idea of a computational turn implies that the humanities, thanks to the development of a new generation of powerful computers and digital tools, have somehow become digital, or are in the process of becoming digital, or at least coming to terms with the digital and computing.  Yet what I am attempting to show here by drawing on the philosophy of Lyotard and others, is that the digital is not something that can now be added to the humanities - for the simple reason that the (supposedly pre-digital) humanities can be seen to have had an understanding of, and engagement with, computing and the digital for some time now.


Reader Comments (6)

Great piece. Was reading Golumbia's excellent bk "The Cultural Logic of Computation" <http://aaaaarg.org/text/18713/cultural-logic-computation> last year which is pretty useful on this dynamic. It's all about the frame and "digital" has its own.

January 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanny

Very timely set of questions coming off the digital humanities conversations at MLA. It remains quite difficult to foreground questions of power, ideology, affect, race, etc. in many "DH" conversations. Difficult, but not impossible. I also think it's imperative that those of us interested in such questions engage in the terrain of the digital humanities and help shape the conversation. I'm glad you'll be at USC this summer to help us with this task.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara McPherson

Thanks, Danny. I'll check out The Cultural Logic of Computation. Sounds interesting.

January 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterGary Hall

Interesting piece. Although I don't think computational=scientific. Indeed, the humanities might offer a critical theory of technology rather than themselves being overwhelmed by scientism. The exchange of knowledge and ideas goes in both directions.

Thought you might be interested in my thoughts in Digital Humanities: First, Second and Third Wave.

January 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Berry

David, I agree. That's exactly what I was trying to point toward at the end when I stress that 'what I am attempting to show here by drawing on the philosophy of Lyotard and others, is that the digital is not something that can now be added to the humanities - for the simple reason that the humanities can be seen to have had an understanding of, and engagement with, computing and the digital for some time now.'

I'll certainly take a look at your comments on the first, second and third wave of the Digital Humanities. Thanks.

January 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterGary Hall

Tara, I'm hoping to say more about questions of power, ideology, affect, race, etc in relation to the digital humanities in my next installment. But I'm sorry I missed the discussion at the MLA. Sounds intriguing.

Yes, very much looking forward to being with you all at USC in the summer.

January 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterGary Hall

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