Don Quixote for the Digital Humanities – Part I

The digital humanities (DH): if this topic excites among librarians a buzz verging at times on rapture, there are perhaps good reasons for that. After all, the humanities, as I have argued, have for their omphalos the library (or some such metaphor). Librarianship, on the other hand, has traditionally been a bureaucratic profession, concerned with the construction of order by application of a rule, rather than with the work of reading and interpreting; with the cataloging and stewardship of works, rather than with the consecration or desecration of texts. The digital humanities (DH), however, promise a fresh symbiosis (according to a recent OCLC report) between categorization and interpretation, bringing the work of librarians and humanists into a zone of more intimate contact. From text mining, to the creation of digital scholarly editions, to the construction of new analytic tools, the DH represent a confrontation between the humanities and the concepts of data and metadata; the fact that these data and metadata often pertain to textual objects beckons to librarians’ expertise.

But there are larger bones to pick. Let us suppose that, in the oracular words of OCLC, “‘the Digital Humanities’ […] will soon be considered ‘the Humanities.'” Is this prophecy cause for unqualified celebration? Does the ascendancy of the DH herald a world of broader access and deeper appreciation — a world in which digital surrogates bring ancient papyri into middle-school classrooms, and algorithmic techniques explode the canon, letting observation and insight traverse the most obscure nooks and neglected crannies of the archive? Or as more skeptical voices suggest, does this ascendancy betoken “the managerial and bureaucratic imperatives” (Eyers — see below) that more and more permeate higher ed, targeting now even those slow and steady herbivores, those workhorses who require for their upkeep only a library card and a quiet corner — the readers of texts?

Let’s look at two recent critiques of the DH — by Jeff Rice and Tom Eyers — following their suggestions to an errancy that might let us escape the hype.

For both of these critiques, the DH are a flawed enterprise insofar as they mean business as usual. On what business that is, however, Rice and Eyers disagree. For Rice, theories and practices of the DH resist challenges to the traditional purview of the humanities: hermeneutics. That is, they persist in their attachment to the project of what Rice calls “de-coding” images and texts, a decoding that aims to reveal a meaning that would otherwise remain obscure. To this concept of meaning as revelation, Rice contrasts what we might call a practice of meaning as ramification. Drawing on Roland Barthes, he writes

we consume and produce myths (representations); our task is not to interpret them in order to uncover their deception, but to appropriate them into new logics and communicative methods (which may or may not result in further issues of deceptive representation) so that the mythology is recognized as part of a larger communicative act.

After a review of hermeneutical approaches to the DH, Rice proceeds to model his alternative, “re-mythologizing” approach to a digital text — the notorious AP photograph of a cop pepper-spraying Occupy protesters. Rice regards the photo as “suggestive” of a variety of political and cultural meanings (how could he not?), but he insists that “the photograph […] is not the agent of suggestion”; rather, in a Deleuzian spirit, he locates the power of suggestion in “the network of forces” with which it links up. That network obviously includes the history of Leftist civil disobedience, which is a history itself rife with visual texts — but also an unfinished history, with respect to which this particular photograph re-opens wounds in the collective psyche. Drawing again on Barthes, Rice writes that

the meaning that wounds is not in the image’s representation itself or even in the detail […] but in these two other temporal moments, moments not represented in the image. The pepper-spray photograph brings together a present-time image (the police officer spraying kneeling, arm-locked protesters) with a series of images not present.

If this observation reflects a mode of reading different from the hermeneutical, I confess that I don’t quite grasp in what the difference consists. Rice’s emphasis on the multiple nodes of signification involved in a single image seems intended to resist the closure of a single interpretation. All the same, one wonders what to make of the suggestion, familiar enough to students of the humanities, that no interpretation achieves closure. Wouldn’t any act of interpretation, being an event begetting its own vulnerability to suggestion (a.k.a. Derridean differance), invite such ramification, even though in spite of itself? Nor do I see how Rice’s suggestion pertains to the DH specifically. The image from the protest circulates in digital form, it is true, but that fact seems rather incidental to his discussion. The DH appear in his argument mainly as a field of metaphors, suggesting the concepts of network, coding, etc., rather than as a set of material and discursive practices in their own right.

Tom Eyers’ critique takes the opposite tack. For Eyers, the DH are insufficiently hermeneutical. By way of a discussion of the work of Franco Moretti and Frank Ramsay, Eyers argues that interest in the DH accompanies a renewed positivism — a positivism best exemplified by Moretti’s polemical rejection of close reading in favor of quantitative approaches to the study of texts. If such approaches represent, at their most extreme, “an unapologetically empiricist variant of scientific rationality,” they are problematic precisely because they smooth over, in favor of their own powers of suggestion, what remains difficult about (literary) texts:

When viewed from a distance, then, texts seem attractively delineable and open to analysis, as mere coordinates on a map, lacking in resistance to their conscription in webs of historical causation […].

Eyers’ depiction of the text as an object that resists interpretation seems to me nearer the mark than Rice’s assumption that interpretation can succeed in “de-coding” its object. For Eyers, the hermeneutical stance involves a sensitive, non-dogmatic practice of reading, one alive to the ambiguities and deformations and detours provoked by the text in its “singularity” — the singularity in which the text “shakes loose from its context and effects a spontaneous change” in our capacity to respond to it. Eyers captures the singular insight of the humanities: that the text worth reading has something to teach us. It teaches us how to feel about it. For that very reason., this kind of reading cannot, pace Moretti, proceed algorithmically or methodologically.

In making this argument, Eyers draws on Louis Althusser’s elaborations of Marx, but it is to Althusser’s sometime student, Jacques Rancière, that these observations return us. Like the text bristling against its context, Rancière describes “the pensive image,” in which “regimes of expression […] intersect, creating unique combinations of exchange, fusion, and distance” (p. 125). Like Rice, Rancière takes as his point of departure Barthes’ description of the photographic punctum. For Barthes, the photograph forecloses the contemplative attitude (the studium) associated with traditional works of art. The essence of photography, for Barthes, lies in a visceral immediacy by which the viewer registers the intrusion of an affect — the wound in virtue of which Rice characterizes the image from Occupy. But Rancière claims – quite rightly, I think – that the idea of the punctum, when applied to the very photographs that Barthes takes to exemplify his theory, flattens them. Barthes’ demand for immediacy threatens to short-circuit precisely those networks of suggestion so important to Rice. For Rancière, the key term is distance, by which he seems to have in mind art’s power to mediate among diverse forms or styles of imagination.

What does a “pensive image” look like? I think, for some reason, of works of feminist video art, particularly from the early years of the medium — when artists seized the opportunity afforded by a new and relatively inexpensive technology in order to make images that challenged the dominant regime of images, especially those of television and film. Grainy images, unpolished images, images in which a critical distance takes as its vehicle a visceral immediacy, courting the power to disrupt our habits of image-consumption, and to contest the commodified objectification of women and others that such habits consent to — like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). Watching Rosler declaim each ordinary kitchen implement in a sort of seething deadpan, such that the scene appears more operating room or torture chamber than kitchen,  one thinks, “What is this?” The piece defeats one’s expectations — Rosler’s persona is like a demonic other to Julia Child — even as it offers to the senses and to the critical taste something that is not lightly put down. An irreverent gravitas, you might say (in contrast to the pablum of the mainstream, which even when being “irreverent” manages to respect and rehearse the dominant norms).

For a more contemporary example, check out Teju Cole’s Twitter essay “A Piece of the Wall.” His piece adopts a medium keyed-up for the pithy, the immediate, and the ephemeral, bending it against itself in a meditation on racism and immigration policy that suggests in fragments an unbearable weight of landscape, history, and death. This kind of art strikes me as exemplary for a digital humanities because it refuses the gloss and flat sensuality of technology; it rubs technology the wrong way — not in order to expose the technological as such, but in order to deploy its novelty in a way that re-opens the question of what it is that we think when we think and that we feel when we feel. Its mediation is not dialectical — i.e., building toward a synthesis in the critic’s definitive interpretation — because it remains resolutely “sensible” (Rancière, p. 132). Like the protesters’ turning public space to new purposes, art occupies the senses. Or as Joanna Drucker writes, echoing Gertrude Stein,

Composition is demonstration. The arts […] have their strongest impact as embodied examples of a practice that has no purpose whatsoever except to be. In a world as corrupt as ours, as fully administered, and as instrumentally managed, only the sheer act of nonfunctional, undirected artifice can register as an alternative, to counter the stifling regimes of conditioned behavior with an opening toward experience. All art has to do is to call attention to itself as a demonstration of differentiation.

[to be continued]


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