Un blog divulgativo

Mes: septiembre, 2013

Why do you paint?

The lack of essence in technology makes its own utterance slippery and dangerous. How do we phrase it, is it right to treat it like an agent: “Technology changed my life”. What does this person mean exactly? Well, we´ll never know if we are listening here to an avid reader who just bought an e-book and does not need to carry books anymore, a worker who lost her job because of an assembling robot, or a scholar who embraced computer assisted text analysis.

We have already overcome the awe that we experienced when we accepted the application of reason and quantification in every aspect of our lives. In addition to the former idea, this process of technology awakes a clear desire for the refinement of information that has substantially affected the rendering of our environment. We have now found another obstacle in our way, and whether we   jump over it or go around it, we´ll have to face the question: (how) has technology affected art?

This question and the subsequent answers offered are what we call in Spanish “a blister exploder,” which refers to its necessity as well as its distressing character. There are usually two opposite ends when it comes to the answers. One would probably represent a marriage between the creative mental process and the craft of the artifact —because art still offers products, closed and finished in one way or another. The other pole is represented by “art for art´s sake” supporters and the conceptual artists, who would consider the artisanry accessory to art —hopefully not diminishing the labor.

Technology has not been able to alter the concept of artistic creation per se, which still entails the manufacturing of an original piece resulting from a productive cognitive process. However, the developing of modern techniques has greatly influenced the distribution of art and its means of representation. The assistance of technical progress got rid of one the main assets to society found in art: representation of reality.

After photography was invented, painting had to be reconceived. It becomes more “artsy”, if we want to say it like that. Some people become possessed by a violent feeling when they think the Dutch masters are under attack. Nevertheless, since we know that Vermeer was a well-known user of the camera obscura, wouldn’t he have loved to have had at least a polaroid camera? And the hard question, how would the XVI and XVII century painters approach abstraction? I do not dare to answer.

So, if video killed the radio star, did photography work the same way with painting? No, it just changed the portrait industry. If we agree on the idea that technology brings up speed and efficiency —seen in fast processing of the data we are handling— we can perfectly relate technology to the highly intangible nature of the avant-garde movements. This statement might seem obvious and repetitive, because we all know that modernists wrote poems about the technological wonders, cars, weapons, etc. We have been told so since grade school. However, my point of departure being the nature of technology (and its speedy nature) and not art history, it is extremely pleasant to arrive at this proposition.

The metaphor that parallels technology and speed —a matter of time after all— expands, consequently, to the motion pictures. The ability to capture a sequence of motion and not only fragments of it, works almost the same way as the affair between painting and photography. The problem of static representation, once solved, turned into the problem of representing motion. What happened is that the basis for cinematography was already settled with the apparition of photography, and due to technology’s exponential growth, cinematic representation made its appearance soon after.

Umberto_Boccioni, 1913 Synthèse du dynamisme humain

Umberto_Boccioni, 1913, Synthèse du dynamisme humain

Artistic representation was also concerned with the same question. In fact throughout the beginning of the century the studies of light became the subject for Moholy-Nagy and the enthusiasts of photography, and painters abandoned the inert nature of fruits and landscapes in order to try to represent what they could only  picture in their minds and which could only be imagined by that time. Quickly, technology unveiled the secrets of movement, and painters and sculptors moved to the spatial realm and elegantly deposited the time dimension in the hands of technology. And that is a partial description of what I consider the most intense historical interaction between art and technology, and maybe one of the causes of the weak impact that art has on society nowadays.

To finish, I’d like to show my respect to all those hardcore fin-de-siècle curious men who stared at the sun for too long and died manipulating highly toxic but amazing products.



Family, state, and technology

The level of presence that technology has acquired in the public and private sphere has reached a point in which we can no longer consider the progress of technique as a tangent universe. In other words, if we imagined a Venn’s diagram, there would not be a shared area between both entities; mainly due to technology’s nature and expansion.

To some extent, the areas where technological advances have been implemented, have to abide by the logic of scientific progress. As we can read in Technology and science as ideology by Jurgen Habermas: “The progressive rationalization of society is linked to the institutionalization of scientific and technical development.” (82) Consequently, if the mechanisms that create and rule technical advance, e.g. reason and instrumentality, intervene within the social sphere, they will influence every aspect of it.

Coming back to the first paragraph, we need to consider how the technical advances have already become a big presence that crosses through our daily actions. And this does not only happens because we live highly assisted by technology or due to the increasing tendency to machine operated services —instead of the classic human to human interaction. Moreover, the implementation of rationality has jumped the fence and it is also shaping our private spaces, imprinting the technological watermark in our lives.

Trying to make things easier, I’ll explain this the same way I worked with my mother during last summer, when I purchased their first DVD player — I have to stop here and emphasize on their particular passionate and criterialess ressistance— and drew what I see when I think of technology in our lives:

photo 2

My mother’s view of technology and its presence in the social and private realm.

Trying to keep it simple, this picture aims to express how technology as a separate entity influences just a little bit our personals lives, or we could say that it will influence as much as we want or need. This is a widespread mentality in an extensive number of people who do not find themselves participating of the technological shift that we are inevitably undergoing.

Next picture, however, matches —at least inside my head— Habermas views about the way technology extends its tentacles and imposes the rational and purposeful thought, coating the less practical compartments of our existence with rather instrumental criteria.

How technology wraps around us, like a warm imposition.

How technology wraps around us, like a warm imposition.

Admitting the validity of this second idea does not suppose any moral conflict or the subscription to a determined ideology. The fact is that in the process of making technology part of our lives, we also need to break our habits into practical, logical steps, directing these efforts toward the ends that our instruments are helping us to achieve.

Consequently —admitted the omnipresence of rationalization— what we get is a set of highly intentioned actions. Actions which entail the aim to control, to fulfill an explicit objective. Following Habermas, the implementation of technology requires control over nature and now also over society.

If we try to apply this ideas to the study of literature in the most simple way, it does not take too long until we see the conflict. Some of the objectives are not as clear when we talk literary criticism, the products refract in many directions. Nevertheless, the use of different approaches should enable the possibility of interlocking the variety conclusions in the study of literature and literary history.

That is not the case for the practices we know in the Digital Humanities sphere. Projects in DH respond to very specific needs and clearly stated purposes, how could we otherwise design a digital tool in order to work with text or create a visualization for a literary work? It gives the impression also seems that different tasks do not interfere with each other.

This reformulation or re-representation of the contents is indeed one of the most significative implications of digital scholarship. The kind of control we need to achieve over the objects of analysis, pushes us to break down the literary artifact to its minimal units so we can play and rearrange it into a list, a graph, or whatever object we can create.

I am not oblivious to the deeper meaning of the technical flood, and I am the first person who is afraid of the expansion of rational thinking to every sphere of human existence. However, I am convinced that the real danger does not reside inside universities, or at least not among faculty: the actual danger lays in the sketchy and potentially harmful overlapping between the economic system and the politic sphere.

And, in order to make a very simple point, I have a third image, the one that my mom understood perfectly, and the one about which she would not complain, but the one to which she would resign and say: do you need to go to school to learn that?


The simplified picture, the one that shows which criteria shapes society after all.


So, you open the book and remove the jacket, I do not like jackets, they make me nervous. Then you engage in the reading and find yourself in front of a terrible trick, a siren who charms you with her song and a promise of life underwater. I drown, I literally felt overflown by an easy logical progression of terms. That’s the worst part, knowing that you are not facing a very complex rationale —I just realized I am using this word after reading the book, so there was definitely some gain— but  you have to submit to it, surrender and admit that you were distracted, reading literature under your desk when all these concepts were taught to you in high school. And even worse, I am a person who acknowledges the “superiority” of science, the unbiased knowledge, and its total responsibility for the progress of humankind.

Sadly, one admits that, at least, there are the biographies. But just right then, the pedant in me appears, and I allow myself to question the narrative of those lives, the style of the author, maybe something else. I don’t know if you have ever gone boar hunting, I haven’t personally —but I come from a hunting family. Well, these awesome creatures are famous for their determination and stubbornness —not forgetting the great flavor— which make them a very dangerous animal. According to my uncles and grandfather, if you do not kill them quickly, they go for you, they do not care about anything, instead of running away and licking their wounds, they chase and destroy blindly, they do not care.

This is a central piece of my personal imaginary that I would never force anybody to fully understand. However, I hope it is visual enough to illustrate the resistance with which some scholars, students, and parents approach (humanities) computing. They —we?— feel attacked and offended, exposed and useless. Of course it is obvious that logic and computing will shed some light over the most famous and blurry questions within the arts. But it could be argued, that it would only explain it in scientific terms that later the digital humanist will be in charge of interpreting and understanding, hopefully.

Consequently, if my first reaction to the book was pure enthusiasm, soon it turned into angst, which rapidly led to frustration and lastly, a defensive violent outburst that made me bang my head against the table repeatedly. I have never faked understanding of a text, and I will not do it now. Being conservative, I calculated that I’d need around three weeks of daily reading in order to fully comprehend all the implications of the logical reasoning depicted in the book. Needless to say that from the very beginning I understood the political and economical obstacles, and personal nuisances that season the actual point of the book: at least now I know the names and some of the history of calculus, and see computing as a logical exercise. I just cannot follow the mathematical reasoning in the book, not sufficiently to keep a constant analytical reading.

Despite my “failure”, I enjoyed my reading and extracted some knowledge, inversely proportional to the great deal of time invested. And what is more important, I scheduled an informal lunch with my roommate’s father, who is an expert in informatics, and asked my friends in the philosophy department for a good (and easy) textbook in logics.

It is now less difficult for me to better understand the position taken by some “humanists” towards computing. I’d like to propose laziness and sloth as a motivator for rejecting the inclusion and celebration of computing into the humanities. We have always been making the distinction between letters and numbers, distinction that is proposed to us without further questioning. It does makes a lot of sense that each individual channels his or her efforts in the most practical and beneficial way. However, we observe in the book how this distinction, that was not so extreme centuries ago,  has been becoming more clear cut as logic and math have proved to be extremely useful for more profitable ends than academic and philosophical matters and they have started to get mixed with economical and political interests. Nowadays, it seems we are reconciling those two worlds again, in a very long process, of course. I am obviously an advocate of this noble cause, though I wonder about my possible contribution. How can I battle for the convergence of the two cultures when I do not really know what one of them is going to bring? It feels now like embracing the French Revolution without haven’t even looked at their declaration of principles.

Surprisingly, when I abandoned all hope, I think I might have understood part of the reasoning behind Turing’s proposed model of computation —on a paper tape. Although I was thrown into the abyss again soon after. Probably because the foundation of my house rests on a semisolid pool of muddy mixed knowledge. At this point, I am in a terrible intellectual state, realizing that my deficiency is systemic and that I fit more in the post modern intellectual stereotype. Firstly I wrote about myself. Secondly, I never rejected obscure texts —I even accepted the simulacra!— and I claimed to understand them. Although when a text with (almost) an absolute meaning is presented to me, I fail to succeed.

Our need for closure (what is Digital Humanities?)

What is Digital humanities? Whenever we find this question on a text or title, we automatically know that we are not going to get an answer. Or at least, not an answer that directly fulfills the requirements of such a short and tough inquiry.

Perhaps, like Rafael Alvarado observes, all this excitement, movement, and action is directly proportional to the vitality and growth of the activities implicated. Somehow,  all the practices involved in the field, individually and as a whole, are the ones in charge of drawing the boundaries of what is and what is not —which seems to be alright  criteria, reliable. Self reflection and continuous questioning of one’s deeds and practices appear in today’s confusing scene as one of the most solid proposals or intellectual approaches. And the ultimate reason for the changing nature of this constellation of methods —the ends are more stable— is the constant evolution of the exercises, the fast paced motion that prevents us from a static definition.

Ideally, I’d like to consider Digital Humanities as a social field, having in mind Pierre Bourdieu’s concept. A space where we have different agents, which occupy different positions in a structure, determined by the specific acting forces within that field (e.g. coding is a highly respected attribute within the DH field, and it grants you respect as being strong is an important feature in the social field of kids at a camp). This definition could be stretched, and we could probably fit in other groups of academics, but only for now, we should stop and admire how the Digital Humanities creates it’s own values and different capitals.

The image of all these practices flowing and influencing each other is simply beautiful. Indeed, the notion of process appears constantly as a crucial agent in the DH work and it is showing is validity, posing questions among the offered answers and proposing endless projects with no other expiration day besides the end of funding or a total failure. The creation of an intellectual fabric —a text in the more structuralist sense— it is a complex and praiseworthy project. Nevertheless, there are some detractors of this notion, Stanley Fish would be a good example, who argue about the contrast between a text and a process. It is striking, however, the little flexibility shown by Fish, who does not really seem to consider the text beyond the material literary artifact.

Still having the notion of process in mind, we need to move to the most noble enterprise of all, the pursuit of knowledge. In this regard, DH practices seem to be offering something, the ubiquitous proactive attitude towards creation and culture building are by far the most appealing aspirations of our work —who would dare to go against this ideal? The results obtained and the mindsets displayed are moving us inevitably to the so called third culture. A conciliation between the humanities and the sciences knowledge, a promising marriage that humanize science and brings the scientific methodology to the humanities theories and objects of desire. Maybe, one of the reasons why the digital humanists are also good exponents of the third culture, is because of their overt dual nature. The historians, the literary critics,  are all well read people with a considerable amount of culture inside their heads. But what do we get when besides all the reading and analytical thinking we add all the technical skills that a computing background implies? The influence ought to be reciprocal, right? How could anybody remain oblivious to such a delightful exchange, the poetics of coding or the obviously recurring—and quantifiable— plot networks of the realist novel.

And indeed, this feeling of amalgamation between study objects and methodologies is to be more and more present, since the default digital versatility and knowledge is increasing at a quick pace, to the extent that acronyms like HTML or practices like web page design or maintenance are becoming as usual as emailing or burning  CDs (one of the practices that has become less popular). I’ll propose, in order to conclude, that the changing boundaries and the coevolution with the medium are two of the main reasons that make working in DH as confusing as delicious.