September 13, 2013

i. Prelude

On January 7, 2011, Stephen Ramsay and I both participated in the memorable panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles entitled “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities.” We both launched on that day controversial theses about the digital humanities by asking leading questions. Steve asked, “Do you have to know how to code [build, make]?”, and I asked, “Where is cultural criticism in the digital humanities?”

Now, two and a half years on, we have (virtually) converged again at the intersection between questions about the nature of the digital humanities field and questions about its relation to cultural criticism. Steve published today on his blog his incisive post, “Why I’m In It.” Citing my “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” (in its fuller essay version) as both provocation and launching point, he gives a glimpse of his thinking toward a new book (in progress) that addresses my question full-on, but does so in a way that takes neither “digital humanities” nor “cultural criticism” as givens—-as standards against which the other is to be judged, or as known methods that the other can simply channel. Instead, he wishes to treat them (in my rough paraphrase) as possible partners in a reciprocal act of self-critique and co-evolution. He reflects,

. . . after reading it [Alan’s essay], I wondered if we were still friends. What could be more distressing than the idea that one [a scholar in the digital humanities] is doing nothing more than advancing the cause of Taylorism (a trend we see everywhere in the “totally administered” structures of the university itself)? . . . . [see quotations from my essay that Steve refers to]

I suppose, though, that my problem with cultural criticism (pithily stated) is that this depressing calculus leaves us beached and blocked — left only, in various cases, with “consciousness” or “self-awareness”. . . .

I would like to make positive statements about what we’re doing [in the digital humanities], about why it’s different, and about the ethical problems it raises. The insights of cultural criticism are not so easily dismissed. But I also think that Liu’s question, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” assumes that cultural critique can only take a fairly narrow set of forms.

My initial responses to Steve’s post took place on Twitter, where I confirmed my strong intellectual friendship with Steve, if that were ever in more than hypothetical doubt (though we have unfortunately not met personally often) and then noted through a somewhat cryptic series of tweets that I was very much on the same page in regard to the need to expand the forms of both the digital humanities and cultural criticism in concert with each other.

I have myself been struggling with a book in progress “toward a critical digital humanities” that has advanced with difficulty from a collection of essays toward a linear argument. Everyday, the book seems to gain from but also to mutate under the influence of new developments as well as parallel or variant thinking by David Berry, David Golumbia, Josh Honn, Tara McPherson, James Smithies, Michael Widner, and others (and, of course, Steve); the people who started the #transformDH, #DHpoco, and GO::DH initiatives; the folks who have participated in the “dark side of the digital humanities” events and their forthcoming representation in a collected edition of essays (starting with a panel at the 2013 MLA conference); and others whom I am no doubt forgetting to mention here. I’m not sure when the book will be done, if ever, since every day it seems farther from the goal.

I also left a copy of my tweets about Steve’s post as a comment on his blog itself. But since they were cryptic and abbreviated (I am still experimenting with the art of “long-form Twitter”), Steve suggested by email that I should take the occasion to expand on my thoughts when I have time. I filed that suggestion away for the mythical future “when I have time.” But then, after finding myself looking up from my work several times today to stare off into space in thought about the topic, I realized that something–inchoate, half-formed—-needed to be said now and couldn’t wait for the mythical “book” in this fast-moving field. In any case, I have always found that at a point in every long and torturous project-—especially when it is in straits—-the project gains a life of its own and becomes heedless, even ruthless, in its disrespect for rational pacing, finding its own way into the light on its own clock even if it is not contributing straightforwardly to the ultimate outcome and in fact vexes that outcome. (Something like Wordsworth’s “correspondent breeze” in The Prelude, which “gently moved / With quickening virtue, but is now become / A tempest, a redundant energy, / Vexing its own creation.”)

So here goes.

ii. Fragments on Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism

One fragment of a larger line of thought on the digital humanities and cultural criticism is represented in the long response I contributed on May 11, 2013, to #DHpoco’s “Open Thread: The Digital Humanities as a Historical ‘Refuge’ from Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability?”–a response I also posted on my own blog under the title “The Digital Humanities and Identity Issues.” There I said about the notion of social “groups” (borrowing the “meso-level” idea from “neoinstitutionalism” in sociological research):

I bracket the word “groups” above because it is a placeholder term. What I find generally unsatisfactory so far about the way we try to discuss identity and social justice issues in the digital humanities (as well as technology and media generally in new media studies) is that we seek to factor identity and social groups directly into the political economy of the digital human (and vice versa). Missing in our discourse is a whole set of meso-level group identities that act as transmission agents, filters, frames, etc but that are neither the home nor the “refuge” of humans in the digital age but uncannily both.

A second fragment is the series of tweets I wrote on August 20, 2013, in response to Michael Widner’s blog post of that date entitled “The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State.” I speculated (running my long-form Twitter series together here for legibility, and adding some links):

It is artificial to ask the digital humanities to act on national or world sociopolitical issues without first establishing the mediating objects of inquiry (like stepping stones) that are both the immediate responsibility of DH and the proximate or mediated jumping off points to larger issues that have an uncanny similarity/difference to DH issues. Such zones of inquiry could, if desired (not incumbent on anyone w/o prof interest in these areas), be developed by DH’ers working on #transformDH, #dhpoco, cultural crit, etc. So, for example, here are a few intervening objects of inquiry that I would like to see DH address in an expansive way, each bordering uncomfortably, if in different ways, on both DH and the NSA: “analysis,” “openness,” “intelligence,” “public,” “private,” and “media.” DH would add value to debates on such issues if it speaks from its site-specific professional or institutional knowledge about humane ways to be analytical, open, intelligent, public, and private while also being hungry for new media. Once asked about RoSE project with its harvesting of historical socio-biblio relationships: don’t the dead have a right to privacy? Question more meaningful after trip to Australia & learning about “rules of avoidance” (aboriginal proscriptions on naming, imaging dead). Now I’m not sure exactly how to differentiate DH / NSA without thinking more about the issues. Need a mediating object of inquiry to help. None of this displaces ability of DHer’s to speak as citizens in public sphere (but that is different from speaking from pt. of view of DH)

And a third fragment is the series of more cryptic, poorly expressed tweets I wrote today in response to Steve’s “Why I’m In It.” Running the tweets together and expanding abbreviations as well as slightly revising for legibility, I said:

On board with S. Ramsay about needing other modes of cultural criticism in DH. I believe that with the right framing for engagement, core DH activities can _be_ cultural criticism. E.g., creating alternate ways of reading, comparing, seeing space/time, remembering, etc. can be cultural criticism that acts on modes of being and force that include, but are not limited to, those known at the level of individual, group, class, or national “identity.” DH could make visible for action micro-, meso-, and macro-identities outside the usual bounds of cultural criticism (e.g., at biological, institutional, and global levels).

These fragments reflect different facets of an argument I am trying to formulate as a scholar who started his career as both a practicing New Historicist and “internal critic” of the New Historicism (as well as of broader cultural-critical approaches) and who now, it appears, is finishing his career on the same antiphonal note as a practicing digital humanist and internal critic of the digital humanities. The argument, not yet worked out or fully consistent, goes something like this:

The digital humanities can only take on their full importance when they are seen to serve the larger humanities (and arts, with affiliated social sciences) in helping them maintain their ability to contribute to the making of the full wealth of society, where “wealth” here has its older, classic sense of “well-being” or the good life woven together with the life of good.

This means that the digital humanities will indeed need to participate in cultural criticism, which in its several varieties is the main gambit the humanities have recently played to engage with the larger issues of social well-being (and also with the problems of the unequal distribution of wealth in the narrower sense). But, as Steve phrases it in his “Why I’m In It” post, this gambit is now often “beached and blocked.” Worse, as the 4Humanities WhatEvery1Says corpus of public discourse on the humanities abundantly shows, the gambit is turned in deadly riposte against the humanities through the clichéd but rapier-sharp arguments of “traditional” academics pretending to speak for the public who say that politically correct cultural criticism, poststructuralism, etc., have marginalized the humanities and made them worse than useless.

In my current view (still evolving), the “beaching and blocking” (i.e., stranding on an island of its own) is in part due to the fact that cultural criticism has settled on what might be called a “canon” of identity-formations from, to, through, and for which to act on, or in, society. But because of the academic site of most humanists, that canon is actually not well suited to engage social issues in ways that make a difference. These canonical identity-formations include the individual subject, the social group (e.g., gender, racial, ethnic, and “subcultural” groups), class, and nation. Looking at this canon, one could hope that it has the potential to be a fully effective conduit for acting on society: humanists in the academy directly act on individual students to form them into fully human, ethical beings, and these individual subjects then act to ameliorate all the larger social relations of group, class, and nation on which humanists qua academics do not have a mandate to act directly (though qua citizens, of course, they are like others in being able to act in those domains). But the breakdown happens at the link between the individual subject and the larger social relations. Humanists are often superb teachers capable of exerting deep, formative influence on their students as individual human beings. But our contemporary society (whether you call it “neoliberal” or just “privatized”) has developed powers to isolate the social force of the resulting subjectivity precisely in “private,” individual subjectivity subjected (as it might be said) to more powerful agents in unequal, one-way, and purely reactive relations. Corporate, governmental, and other such agents in society say to humanists, in essence, just teach individuals how to love Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Lincoln or Martin Luther King; and we will ensure that all that tremendous humane potential stays locked up after they graduate in the private sensibility of individuals who do nothing with that love (especially not in concert with groups or classes) except perhaps to allow themselves to be acted on by market forces that sponsor movies for Austenites or Lincolnites–i.e., consumptive cultures that, at most, leave people questing and hurting for a single hour after the film ends before they go back to being knowledge workers for companies and passive subjects of NSA surveillance. Humanist cultural critics can write all the books and make all the speeches they wish about how individuals must relate actively to groups and classes, and then about how the assemblages that result can act on the top-of-system social powers. But it is like shouting across a far chasm. The bridge from the individual to society that those critics are able and warranted to act on directly has been knocked down. They are left talking about things they have no direct purchase on qua professional humanists. They are disengaged in their engagement.

So this is why I am so obsessed these days with “mediating objects of inquiry,” “meso-level” entities, and “institutions” in thinking about the digital humanities and cultural criticism. The digital humanities work on methods and tools that are the necessary technological bridgeway between the academy and powerful players in society—-one that cannot be knocked down if society is to have its future knowledge workers, consumers, and subjects of surveillance. If it were up to the top-of-system power players, that bridgeway would communicate just technical “skills” and informational “content”—i.e., train professional-technical-managerial knowledge workers and seed harvestable information. It would not also serve as a span for communicating the relevance, engagement, and activism of individual subjects who aggregate in groups and classes to counterbalance the capitalized and militarized aggregations of the power brokers.

It seems to me that digital humanists can and should evolve a mode of cultural criticism that is uniquely their own and not a mere echo of fading humanist cultural criticism by treating their immediate objects of inquiry (academically-oriented technologies and methods) as always also “mediate objects of inquiry” bearing on the way the human beings they wish their students could become (and they themselves could be on their best days) can really engage meaningfully with larger social agents and forces. Thus digital humanists should certainly concentrate on their core activities of digital “capture,” “creation,” “enrichment,” “analysis,” “interpretation,” “dissemination,” “collaboration,” etc. (to cite the currently in-progress taxonomy of digital-humanities activities proposed by DiRT, DARIAH, and DHCommons). But at least a branch of the field should create the frames of engagement (writings, courses, journals, editions, projects, etc.) that make visible how those core activities also bear on such objects of inquiry as the larger socio-economic-political meaning of “capture,” “creation,” “enrichment,” “analysis,” etc. themselves. The goal is to do research, to teach, and to live as if humanities technology is constantly intertwined with, reacts to, and acts on the way the links are now being forged between individuals (starting with those in the academy where we teach and conduct research) and the social-economic-political-technological constitution of contemporary society.

What it comes down to is that the digital humanities need both to work on tools and methods in their own institutional place (the academy) and to develop a capable imagination of the relation of that unique institutional place (or family of variant institutional spaces) to the other major institutions that play a part in enabling or thwarting the passageway from private human subjectivity to public social sensibility.

More generally–and I will leave the argument hanging here, since it is about as far as I have thought-—what it also comes down to is that the digital humanities should use its technologies and methods to expand the “canon” of familiar identity formations to less well understood interstitial formations—-e.g., between the individual and the group and class; between the group and class and the corporations/governments of the nation-state; and between nations and “global” society—-that might afford new ways to bridge between lower-order and higher-order social agency. How can digital methods be used to uncover what I called micro-, meso-, and macro-level identity formations that unpredictably and rhizomatically link between “individuals,” “groups,” “classes,” “nations,” and “globalism”? For example, what is the human meaning—-i.e, the affordance for significant human understanding, action, and interaction—-of viral biopolitics at the cellular and sub-cellular level; of equally but differently viral contagions of influence at the institutional level (where corporations and governments, for instance, today infect universities through the vectors of MOOC’s, “accountability” measures, “impact” studies, etc.); and of truly global-scale flows of information-cum-capital?

Working on new digital-humanities methods such as topic-modeling (a serious effort by humanists to grapple with aggregative and probabilistic phenomena) and “deformance” (a serious-in-the-guise-of-play effort by humanists to explore alternate methods of “innovation,” “development,” and “building”) need not always bear on such questions. But sometimes, and at needful times such as the assault on the humanities today, they should.

Slight revisions made to correct syntax, tighten or make more felicitous my phrasing, include a few people I forgot to reference, and otherwise add minor graces since my original post of Sept. 13, 2013. (Latest revision: Sept. 14.)

Quotations from my “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” (in Debates in the Digital Humanities) directly addressed in Stephen Ramsay’s “Why I’m In It”:

It is as if, when the order comes down from the funding agencies, university administrations, and other bodies mediating today’s dominant socioeconomic and political beliefs, digital humanists just concentrate on pushing the “execute” button on projects that amass the most data for the greatest number, process that data most efficiently and flexibly (flexible efficiency being the hallmark of postindustrialism), and manage the whole through ever “smarter” standards, protocols, schema, templates, and databases uplifting Frederick Winslow Taylor’s original scientific industrialism into ultraflexible postindustrial content management systems camouflaged as digital editions, libraries, and archives — all without pausing to reflect on the relation of the whole digital juggernaut to the new world order. (491)

How the digital humanities advances, channels, or resists today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital is thus a question rarely heard . . .” (491) “To be an equal partner,” digital humanists will need to show that “thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.” (495)