Monday, December 17, 2012

End of Semester Reflections on "Digital Humanities"

Alex Reid has posted some really interesting videos on the state of Digital Humanities and "middle state publishing" here:  A couple of these spawned the following reflections. It will take me a bit to get through all the videos and more may be added later.

So Jamie Bianco in the below interview says that the public is doing more interesting things than academics. Not just in the sense of "bells and whistles" but rather in the thought produced.  Is this true? Is academic humanities "behind" in the sense that we need to start producing in other media (See Bogost's elaboration of Harman's concept of "carpentry") and to catch up to the speed at which thought is produced in an online ecology? The rate at which new signifers are produced is somewhat staggering to a point that it is so hard to keep up or at the very least difficult to spend time interpreting and understanding. Levi Bryant, in his interview in the same series, notes that he no longer calls himself an "object oriented ontologist" but a "machine oriented ontologist" -- "I don't believe in objects anymore" he says. Isn't it all just moving too fast and furthermore, what is the proliferation and dissemination of new movements, terms, and fields doing to our understanding? I'm not trying to sound like a conservative reactionary, but everything is speeding up in the radical sense of Paul Virilio. Although I hesitate to use the language of crisis, I truly believe that graduate students in the Humanities (particularly "English departments") are see-sawing between the literary scholarship we (or at least I) was taught and something else. Even my training in continental philosophy was much closer to my previous literature training with emphasis on reading, language, text, and rhetoric then this something else. I'm now thinking about new abstractions (that claim that they are not really abstractions) -- objects, materiality, medium, multimodality, digital humanities, image, etc. Do they not become abstractions through their academization (as they become part of the university discourse -- to refer to Lacan)? That is, the claim is to try and think the world not as language (the linguistic turn) but ironically this turn has produced a staggering amount of new language ABOUT these phenomena.

Levi Bryant says in his interview (posted below) that he's not sure what to call himself anymore. His blog larvalsubjects deals with philosophy, rhetoric, technology, ecology (and the "environmental crisis"), "theory," and so on. As he points out, he is able to talk about many different things. This is great and is generative of so many ideas, but I think Bryant's confusion as to the nature of his "field" is precisely what so many of us in graduate school are struggling with. Partially this is because new "fields" (or the master signifiers that designate a specialization) are created. Despite the fact that Bryant is correct that there is no "master discourse" that can serve as some sort of foundation (Philosophy, Science, etc.), there are still new master discourses formed, picked up, and disseminated. I am very far from arguing that this has not always been the case, but the introduction of the "digital" as an object for study as well as, as Bianco puts it, a "set of methods or practices," means that as graduate students we are struggling to not only learn how to expand theoretical perspectives on scholarship, philosophy, and literature in completely new ways -- not just new interpretations of texts that negotiate previous interpretations. That is, my object of study was pretty clear at one point: literary texts. I could say that my object of study is now "writing," but "writing" is really any moment of inscription; this includes videos, images, objects, bodily movements, DNA, etc.

This is what Sid Dobrin tells us when he says that we should do theory. --But how? Part of this task seems to be to find new "texts," but instead of making the text the focus, the object, and thus the purpose for the interpretation, the interpretation serves as an example in a larger argument. True, this happens in more "traditional" literary scholarship in dissertations and books, but I am still floundering around, trying to figure out what "my" argument could possibly be (in the larger sense). Perhaps this is a regular condition of graduate school.  But the rhetoric of Digital Humanities suggests otherwise.

In some sense, perhaps all I'm saying is that I miss contributing to a tradition rather than a current conversation; But perhaps this is less the fault of the university or graduate education, and more because, as Bianco suggests, publics have caught up with the academics and are doing more interesting things and thinking more interesting things that form relevant and meaningful practices that address our collective situation. Perhaps the speed at which thought is created and disseminated is even more intimidating to a nascent academic than it used to be because of "middle state publishing." No longer am I merely trying to produce some sort of "original" thought or argument in the midst of peer-reviewed journal articles and books accessed on EBSCO Host, but the conversations on the blogs as well.

I feel like more academic books are being published that address interdisciplinary theoretical and practical issues than ever before. I'm not only trying to catch up -- I'm trying to get ahead.

1 comment:

  1. My response to your post and more generally to these tendencies takes off from a few quotes by Baudrillard:

    "Languages are so beautiful... only because they are incomparable, irreducible to one another. It is by this distinctness that they exert their particular seductions, by this otherness that they are profoundly complicit. The true curse is when we are condemned to a universal programming of languages. Democratic fiction of language in which all languages would be reconciled under the umbrella of sense and good sense. Fiction of information, of a universal form of transcription which cancels out the original text. With virtual languages we are currently inventing anti-Babel, the universal language, where all languages are confounded and prostituted to another. A veritable pimping on the part of communication which is the opposite of the magic illusion of otherness." (p 91, The Perfect Crime, 1996)

    So the contagion and total communication between disciplines might not be the great tendency we think it is. The speed of the orgy masks a profound lack of romance. A flattening out not only of level, but of content and originality. Economy of perfect exchanges leading to non-events, false advantages, making for machined languages whose wasted words are flung by the thousands into a dead hyperspace no different from the unread academic journal. Too much concupiscence and rapidity, too little steadiness and focal direction, and we lose the ENIGMATIC nature of all radical writing: imagining we have made a statement, we make nothing, succumbing to the demand to make perfect sense, to be readily understandable by our readers, to be broadcast and accessible, if not simply colloquial and pedantic. End result: flashy polemics whose impact is instantly nullified in the turbulence of sex and death. Positions swept away the moment they come in contact with the turbid, sticky substance of each day. Sacrifice mystery for the sake of "reality" and you will lose the mystery of reality in the process.

    "As for ideas, everyone has them. More than they need. What counts is the poetic singularity of the analysis. That alone can justify writing, not the wretched critical objectivity of ideas. There will never be any resolving the contradictoriness of ideas, except in the energy and felicity of language." (p 104)

    Original thoughts are aided by discussion, of course. But patient silence and blind ambition, heedless of the cultural averages of opinion, will, I believe, water them much better and more thoroughly. It will give them a chance to last. As we drift more and more into middle states, as new trends multiply ad infinitum, as the norm becomes interdisciplinary (orgiastic), I hope that we personally do not lose our ability to pursue our research according to its dictates and to not be dissuaded from our own careful craft: to keep the faith less in the democracy of ideas than in the poetic singularity of our analyses-- and of ourselves.