The Digital Humanities: An Accidental Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Posted by on Mar 26, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping

[Submitted by Adam Foster]

Past blogs[1] I’ve written have argued there is an inherent politics to academia. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s notion of State philosophy – that is to say, a philosophy that renders the thinker“a strictly dependent organ with an autonomy that is only imagined yet is sufficient to divest those whose job it becomes simply to reproduce or implement of all of their power (puissance)”[2] and “a fully legitimated subject of  knowledge and society” with “each mind an analogously organized mini-State morally unified in the supermind of the State”[3]  – I argue that there are restrictions to the types of messages one can present in academia if they wish to be accepted by peers, institutions and publishing apparatuses . The Digital Humanities – though in some ways they challenge traditional modes of scholarship – are no exception; like all things there exist unspoken codes and norms to which one must adhere to, lest their work be rejected as inadequate for not sufficiently addressing the topic at hand. However, the question I have yet to answer is what this dominant message is. After all, in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought there are not State philosophies but a single State philosophy; one across all terrains and environments of the digital humanities. If this is to be true, then it follows that the Digital Humanities would be part and parcel of the unifying movement – that is, rendering everything in accordance with the single ideology of the State (not as a nation-state but state of being). One that is indicative of rigid disciplinary boundaries and adherence to a prescriptive disciplinary-specific methodology. It is this question that I will now address.

The Digital Humanities’ current fascination with data is indicative of the concept of State philosophy. INKE is no exception, with one of the questions that motivates this year’s research being “how can we visualize big data sets?” Given the fact that the Digital Humanities are a discipline that takes place in the confines of an environment that operates through data, this notion at first does not seem either surprising, our out of place. However, when one analyzes this relationship between data and the Digital Humanities, it becomes clear that it is indicative of State philosophy – not in so far that the fascination with data is State philosophy – but that it leads us back to the overarching State philosophy of scholarship as a whole.

By working with these big data sets, the Digital Humanities continues to work within the tradition of State philosophy’s scholarship. These data sets are comprised of the utterances, images, texts, and other miscellanea that make up traditional scholarship: journal articles, monographs, primary texts, and the sources used in crafting these texts. The goal of working with big data is to attempt to work with all of these pieces instead of being put in the position of having to fragment the whole of scholarship through having to select what one includes in their scholarly work, and thus excluding others. This does avoid further politicization of scholarship by avoiding the politics of selection that is indicative of liberalized scholarship; that is, the importance of and intricacies of the individual’s interpretation over that of the whole’s interpretation. However, State philosophy has already enacted this politics of selection at a higher level; many alternative historical sources have been lost due to their rejection from the canon. A prime example may be the Gnostic gospels. Having been rejected as non-Canonical, there was an attempt to purge them from the world as they create nuance and challenge the message of the New Testament. This applies to other sources as well; things are not included in big data sets because they have been long forgotten and ignored to the extent we no longer are aware of their existence. Therefore, these data sets inherently reproduce State philosophy.

The ontology of the current academic-State philosophy is not one that is immediately apparent and clear cut; there exist no surface similarities between what is currently in the mainstream in a discipline like biology and what is mainstream in the humanities. However, if one considers the fascination with data and what that inherently means in itself, one finds similarities to what mainstream hegemonic scholarships does.

What the Digital Humanities fascination with big data attempts to do is to capture all of scholarship; it seeks to bundle up scholarship into data and then attempt to make sense of it using statistical processes, and capture all of its potentiality. By potentiality, I refer to the possibilities for a body (in this case a body of work characterized by the data set) to enter into ontological movement and act in a particular way; by capturing its potentiality, the Digital Humanities attempts to harness and dictate what a data set can do. Cataloguing is akin to capturing insofar that it partitions the source into specific functions and places; it renders it a machinic-body wherein everything has a particular and specific function, incapable of doing anything else.[4] At first this seems ideal; why use one article when it is possible to harness all articles, along with books, lectures, and so forth? The problem is that it only reinforces the reductive and exclusionary practices that exist with the system of scholarship; that is, it continues State philosophy instead of enacting nomadic thought.

Drawing on the Romantics view of utilitarianism and its relationship to the alienation caused by industrialism, Andrew Prescott argues that“if we see the digital humanities as merely extending mechanistic arithmetical procedures into the realm of cultural endeavour then they indeed mark that death of the spirit which Coleridge so much feared.”[5] Though the Romantics and Prescott refer here to phenomena much different from that of Deleuze and Guattari, Prescott’s statement holds true; the Digital Humanities fails to create a system of innovation. Instead, they become a machine like entity that reproduces old scholarship in a seemingly new way. The spirit Coleridge speaks of, a flourishing of life and intelligence,[6] is not lost. Digital humanities do not mean to reproduce traditional modes of State philosophy, and have the genuine passion and intention of creating revolutionary new modes of scholarship. The task then is simple. If their intentions are true, then what ought they be doing instead, or, what issues should they be attune to?

Michael Shapiro’s analysis of Blues epistemology and the aesthetic subject provides fruitful grounds for answering this question. Looking at the emergence of blues in the 20th century as a case wherein African American subjects enacted a process of liberation from white ways of understanding and categorizing society, Blues epistemology emerges as a new way of knowing and thinking in the world. Similarly, the aesthetic subject emerges as a way of thinking and understanding the world when we reject traditional, statistical and experimental based models of social science research. In regards to the first concept, Shapiro contrasts plantation block explanation  — indicative of a search “for a singular aggregating concept —”[7] with blues epistemology which has two touchstones: “the first involves the constant reestablishment of collective sensibility in the face of constant attacks by the plantation block and its allies,” and the second, “social relations in the plantation south” that constituted a “historic commitment to social and personal investigation, description, and criticism present in the blues.”[8] This demonstrates how there exists more than one epistemology, or means of engaging in the act of knowing and learning. The aesthetic figure is contrasted to traditional, experimental based models of thinking.[9] These models start with the large space external to the subject and attempt to explain the interior realm of the subject, by way of a concern with the psychological subject.[10] One should note that the interior is indicative of the State and its philosophy,[11] and thus the clear undesirability of this model for moving within instead of expanding knowledge outside what is known is clear.  The aesthetic subjects instead are “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.”[12] This should be the goal of the digital humanities – to explain the world at large. I will argue this is true, and that the scholar is the aesthetic subject.

Previous blog posts have elucidated the democracy as an ideal state of academic scholarship, and one that is inherently unobtainable as long as we do two things. First is to limit our scope to individualistic or liberal readings of the studied topic. Second, if we create digital environments that limit the possible interpretations by limiting the tools available to the digital humanities scholar, for this creates an inherent argument as to what interpretations or arguments are valid. Therefore, it is clear we ought to open up Digital Humanities in so far that we mobilize it to nomadic thought outside of the peripheries of the State and venture into the vast expanses of what is possible instead of creating a playground for certain arguments. The digital humanities user is the aesthetic figure insofar that its movements mobilize interpretations that concern the scholastic world at large.

The question that follows is how do we ensure the digital humanities user becomes an aesthetic subject opposed to the psychological one? Instead of looking at the aesthetics of the subject through his sensations and affects in the real world, instead we ought to aestheticize the environments, as previously noted. In doing so, one does not impose an ideology on the digital humanities tool, but rather adopts an attitude that is attuned to how these environments impact their users’ interpretative capacities, and may reveal undesirable restriction. By creating open and unbiased environments, one can observe the way the subject experiences the environment through virtual affects. Disagreement or different interpretations will create dissensus. It is true that this is not harmonious, as unifying under a singular concept of plantation block explanation or State philosophy does. However, this disagreement appreciates the inherent pluralism of scholarship and interpretation. Such an environment must conform to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the smooth space. Smooth space is space in which “one “distributes”

oneself in an open space, according to frequencies and in the course of one’s crossings” referring to “nomos —nondelimited, unpartitioned.”[13]  In other words, it is unterritorialized land that is available to be settled by that who occupies it. In terms of digital humanities, a smooth space would be an environment that is completely malleable and does not restrict what the user is able to do.

What does such a model look like? It is perhaps a utopian, and thus unobtainable model. Any model I have seen to some degree limits what the user is capable of doing. Indeed, the very concept of the model is to impose certain restrictions on the world to manicure and manipulate it into a certain way for a user to use in a predetermined way. Therefore, it is not a question of what a model will look like, but rather, how can we create a model-less aesthetic digital humanities.

 

Bibliography

 

 

Deleuze, Gilles. “Nomad Thought.” In The New Nietzsche, edited by David B. Allison and David B. Allison. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

———. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Foster, Adam. “INKE » Policing Of The State of Scholarship.” Accessed February 4, 2014. http://inke.ca/2014/01/22/policing-of-the-state-of-scholarship/.

———. “INKE » The Political Aesthetics of Digital Humanities Environments.” Accessed February 4, 2014. http://inke.ca/2014/02/17/the-political-aesthetics-of-digital-humanities-environments/.

Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Prescott, Andrew. “An Electric Current of the Imagination: What the Digital Humanities Are and What They Might Become.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (June 26, 2012). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/.

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

 



[1]   Adam Foster, “INKE » Policing Of The State of Scholarship,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://inke.ca/2014/01/22/policing-of-the-state-of-scholarship/; Adam Foster, “INKE » The Political Aesthetics of Digital Humanities Environments,” accessed February 4, 2014, http://inke.ca/2014/02/17/the-political-aesthetics-of-digital-humanities-environments/.

[2]   Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 368.

[3]   Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 4.

[4]   Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 1–2.

[5]   Andrew Prescott, “An Electric Current of the Imagination: What the Digital Humanities Are and What They Might Become,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (June 26, 2012): 8, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/.

[6]   Ibid., 7.

[7]   Michael J Shapiro, Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn (London; New York: Routledge, 2013), 54.

[8]   Ibid., 56.

[9]   Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 3, 11.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, “Nomad Thought,” in The New Nietzsche, ed. David B. Allison and David B. Allison (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 149.

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

[13] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 481.

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