Blog Post

DH, NA, and the Messianic Streak.

As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy. -Whitney Kimball, Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

DH is the square cousin of NA. The main critique of NA, like my critique of What Technology Wants, is that it is an act of imagining that machines are actually sentient, not that they actually are. Still, there's a little bit of a messianic streak that comes out of a lot of DH and NA. From the same post, Kimball's take on NA founder James Bridle:

New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.” - Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

So it goes. It also goes to show that whenever bright individuals cast an opinion on burgeoning scenes (both rightly and wrongly) they often use language designed to cast suspicion on any group: comparing it to religion. What greater linguistic guilt by association could there be other than implying that the interests of an entire group of people is somehow akin to the  great Satan of the unbelievers? Stanley Fish uses the same guilt by association technique that Kimball does, but instead of going after a slightly kooky but mostly harmless bunch of image-lovers, he takes a shot at some hyper-literate, theory-obsessed fellow humanists.

The anti-methodology that refuses closure and insists on fecundity facilitates — no, demands — sharing, and builds an ever-expanding community of digital fellowship, an almost theological community in which everyone explores in “the inexhaustible nature of divine meaning” (“Reading Machines”). -Stanley Fish, Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation

Not in response to Fish, but around him, Stephen Ramsay brings out the heart of Fish's discomfort seemingly through another problem altogether:

A literary criticism that can only advance claims that are shown to be empirically valid is as deadening to the project of the humanities as a computational activity for which humanistic discourse lies permanently beyond its ambit. Risks need to be taken in both cases. In the former, the risk of saying something humanistically true but empirically false; in the latter case, of saying something empirically true that is humanistically false. -Stephen Ramsay, Stanley and Me

Depending on what frame of reference (humanities or science) you use, something can be true in one but not the other. The Foucaultian Librarian in me spots the easy binary that Ramsay drops. It is an issue that comes up with subjects and disciplines, when "(u)ltimately, we can easily end up believing in useful fictions as if they are true. In such cases we fail to recognize when the fictions take on a life of their own and we allow these fictions to separate from their own stories." (James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Definitions and Challenges” p.84). Why settle for an either/or? Fish and Ramsay are locked into a real battle where the lines around academic disciplines have hardened into truth, with job descriptions, grants, fellowships, postdocs, careers, and the kinds of things we'll teach our students on the line. To Ramsay's point, when the dividing lines of discipline harden to such a point that two separate accounts of what is "true" are incompatible, it begs the questions of whether or not the project has the right outlook. Truth has and always be a slippery and frustrating beast, but the academic bifurcating of it will only continue to distort the usefulness of education writ large. One of the most exciting parts of DH is the ability to move between humanistic and empirical frames. Fish, it seems, is stuck on the dividing line in disciplines.

What seems to unsettle humanists is that religiosity, and it keeps things locked in the humanistic/empirical binary that holds to those "real world" factors surrounding higher education and research. The "messianic" streak found in NA and DH are both a result of both emphasizing scales and perspectives that go above or outside of the level of an individual human life (especially those which can be illuminated by empirical techniques), such are the forces that aggravate Fish, as described by Benjamin Schmidt:

Leaving individuals out of the story altogether, in other words, better acknowledges that there are other forces at work that operate orthogonally or antagonistically to human freedom. At times, that will be less dehumanizing than forcing histories that are properly about collectives to pretend that individual actors could or did make the difference. -Where are the Individuals in Data-Driven Narratives?

There are the rules and that's fine, both the individual and large forces are part of the humanistic and empirical story of all of us. Finally, I'd like to thank Mr. Zizek for giving the whole of the United States (seems to include scholars) carte blanche to do as we like with ourselves, let alone our disciplinary frames of reference:

In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts – before decisions or choices are made – there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom – the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the “freedom to choose”. -Slavoj Žižek, Why Obama is More Than Bush with a Human Face (Thanks to Mrs. Tsk*)


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