The Political Aesthetics of Digital Humanities Environments

Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping

[Submitted by Adam Foster]

            My previous blog for INKE (See “Policing The State of Scholarship” [1]) conceived of scholarship and academia as being akin to a state, with strict laws, rules, regulations and norms akin to modern civilization; only certain things are allowed, and one must adhere to the rules of society. To elect not to partake in the status quo was to exist on the fringes of what is considered  mainstream, and unofficial forces police scholarship to maintain the status quo. The central thesis was that scholarship is inherently political, and by replacing this status quo state of scholarship with a new one is not to do away with politics all together, but rather to replace it with a new set of politics. I argue that we, as digital humanists, must be attune to the political message of scholarship the new knowledge environments crafted will boast, and consider if they do indeed change the inherent politics of scholarship. I wish to unpack this notion further by asking how the politics of a digital learning environment can be analyzed. This ultimately leads to a consideration of aesthetics.

The turn to aesthetics stems from the notion that what is intrinsically important and revolutionary about the digital humanities is the means by which it presents its message. Therefore, one must consider the meaning of how digital scholars present their work drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message,” referring to the idea that “the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves,or by any new technology[2].” This is to say that the medium is a reflection of our argument. We ought then to consider these mediums, which are in turn environments. For many scholars, politics and aesthetics can be (or perhaps inherently are) intertwined. Jeremy Waldron defines political aesthetics as “a general consideration of what a well-ordered society looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like to the touch [3].” Given that the environments we are concerned with are digital, Waldron’s consideration of the political aesthetics  is not a perfect match, however, the spirit of his message remains true; we ought to consider the means in which we experience these environments through our perceptions, even though they are here non-sensory. The way in which these environments are experienced delivers a message. The concept of cartographic thinking offers a means of understanding this phenomenon; Michael Shapiro and Sam Opondo posit that cartographic thinking “inaugurates new ways of thinking, with an emphasis on practices that dissipate/distribute bodies, functions and movements, it becomes apparent that cartography is much more than a spatializing practice […] to speak of a new cartography […] presupposes a struggle between the aforementioned “policing forces” and the forces of “politics” that disturb or interrupt the refrains, ontologies and rhythms that seek to configure what is intelligible, sensible and therefore possible [4].” In other words, the act of crafting a new cartography – which these digital environments do by challenging the norm of traditional scholarship – confronts the policing forces and challenges our traditional modes of thinking; it is through this phenomenon that the message Waldron’s considerations suggest emerges.

There are thus two classes of individuals that must be considered: the cartographer (those who created the digital environment) and the traveller (those who use the digital environment). One might think of the traveller as an aesthetic subject. Michael Shapiro describes aesthetic subjects as “those who, through artistic genres, articulate and mobilize thinking […] their movements and dispositions are less significant in terms of what is revealed about their inner lives than what they tell us about the world to which they belong [5].” While Shapiro’s subjects refer to subjects within the arts – literature and cinema in particular – his consideration is none the less useful. It demonstrates that the subject is able to reveal aspects of the world in which they exist – in this case, our digital environments. The question that follows is to elucidate how exactly such a subject is aesthetic, if they are at all. Deleuze and Guattari describe aesthetic impressions to be “often sensible qualities, odors, lights, sounds, contacts, or free figures of the imagination, elements from a dream or nightmare [6].” While this first categorization of aesthetic impressions are missing due to the digital nature of the environments we are concerned with, the second are not; engaging in digital environments, there is the possibility for the imagination to influence the traveller’s view of the topic they are exploring – and these may produce visceral reactions as well. It is tempting to revert back to a psychological model – which Shapiro opposes to the aesthetic subject [7] – however, in so far that the psychological model is inherently concerned with the individual’s response to the environment and not the environment and topic as a whole, it is not an apt model. One individual’s response to a poem is not the importance of scholarship, but rather the fundamental meaning of the poem is very much of importance.

In analyzing the cartographer, one must turn to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Calling Foucault the new cartographer, Deleuze writes:

The history of forms, the archive, is doubled by an evolution of forces, the diagram. The forces    appear in ‘every relation from one point to another’: a diagram is a map, or rather, several superimposed maps. And from one diagram to the next, new maps are drawn. Thus there is no diagram that does not also include besides the points which it connects up, certain relatively free or unbound points, points of creativity, change and resistance, and it is perhaps with these that we ought to begin in order to understand the whole picture. [8]

This is to say that the map is the very entering of forces into relation with one another, instead of a site or battlefield where forces collide [9]. The cartographer effectually brings forces into conflict with one another, creating a map as the user moves from one collision of forces to the next. What is meant by collision of forces is not yet clear; Deleuze argues a distinction exists between forces that are active and reactive, wherein “every force is related t others and it either obeys or commands […] the superior or dominant forces are known as active and the inferior or dominated forces are known as reactive [10].” In our considerations, the forces at play are epistemological objects; ideas and interpretations, as well as texts themselves of which we use to gain knowledge or seek to gain knowledge of. For example, one may bring a Marxist interpretation to reading of a poem only to find it is not apt; the poem thus becomes the active force dominating the Marxist theory. The cartographer may then stage a new encounter with the poem; this time, perhaps a feminist reading of the poem. This time, the interpretation is successful, with the feminist text being the active force dominating the poem, refining the pure potentiality of the poem into a specific stream or interpretation.

It is necessary to thus explore how these environments are thus structured around the collision of forces. For Jacques Ranciere, the politics is inherently aesthetic in so far that it is concerned with the “distribution of the sensible,” or “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it [11].” This is to say that the experiences of the environment can inherently influence the position of a body (in this case a scholar) in relation to the world they occupy. This is problematic in so far that the scholar is thus subservient to the environment – something that perhaps may not be avoided. However, one must not forget that, just as the cartographer has their resources of forces he can use to stage conflicts, so too does the traveller; they have their own ideas and interpretations. Once the traveller begins to stage their own conflicts, though, they transform into cartographers, branching out and exploring off the track(s) set out in the original environment.

The transformation of the traveller into a cartographer is the “ideal” politics of scholarship, in so far that it is purely democratic. Ranciere argues that what “characterizes a democracy is pure chance or the complete absence of qualifications for governing” and  that“democracy is that state of exception where no oppositions can function, where there is no pre-determined principle of role allocation [12].” This is to say that true democracy is marked by the lack of governance or restriction – just as is the case here for, while the traveller could follow the paths set out by the cartographer, they also have the option of staging new encounters. Therefore, as long as we as digital humanists enter the act of creating environments with the mindset of creating a tool that gives the traveller everything he allegedly needs (which is an assumption on the part of the cartographer in deciding what is nescessary), our environments will be inherently political in a non-democratic sense in so far that the outcomes are predetermined. A non-democratic politics of scholarship is undesirable insofar that there exists the hierarchy of the governed and the governing; the traveller is not able to interpret the environment any way they choose, but only one of the meanings the cartographer allows. The notion of creating an environment that has the possibility to stage any possible environment is not one that is easily realized. Therefore, we must be attune to the way the digital environments crafted are experienced by the traveller, what kind of encounters they will stage using it, and thus, what the inherent political message of our digital environments are.



Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Translated by Seán Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

———. Nietzsche & Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Theory and History of Literature v. 30. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Foster, Adam. “INKE » Policing Of The State of Scholarship.” Accessed February 4, 2014.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is The Message.” In Essential McLuhan, edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. London: Routledge, 1997.

Opondo, Sam Okoth, and Michael J. Shapiro. “Introduction : The New Violent Cartography: Geo-Analysis After the Aesthetic Turn.” In The New Violent Cartography: Geo-Analysis after the Aesthetic Turn, edited by Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro. London [etc.]: Routledge, 2012.

Rancière, Jacques. “Ten Theses on Politics.” Translated by Rachel Bowlby and Davide Panagia. Theory & Event 5, no. 3 (2001).

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London; New York: Continuum, 2006.

Shapiro, Michael J. Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.

Waldron, Jeremy. “Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate. 2009 Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures.” Harvard Law Review 123, no. 7 (2010): 1596–1657.


[1]   Adam Foster, “INKE » Policing Of The State of Scholarship,” accessed February 4, 2014,

[2]   Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is The Message,” in Essential McLuhan, ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (London: Routledge, 1997), 151,

[3]   Jeremy Waldron, “Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate. 2009 Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures,” Harvard Law Review 123, no. 7 (2010): 1624.

[4]   Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro, “Introduction : The New Violent Cartography: Geo-Analysis After the Aesthetic Turn,” in The New Violent Cartography: Geo-Analysis after the Aesthetic Turn, ed. Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro (London [etc.]: Routledge, 2012), 2–3.

[5]   Michael J Shapiro, Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn (London; New York: Routledge, 2013), 11.

[6]   Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, Theory and History of Literature v. 30 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 69.

[7]   Shapiro, Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method, 11.

[8]   Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 43–44.

[9]   Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche & Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, European Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 39–40.

[10] Ibid., 40.

[11] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London; New York: Continuum, 2006), 12.

[12] Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” trans. Rachel Bowlby and Davide Panagia, Theory & Event 5, no. 3 (2001): 10,

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