The closure that we needed

In this last post of the semester —hopefully not the last of this blog— we come back to the polemic question of how we define the nature of digital humanities in terms of a field, an academic discipline, and how we place it within the social labor of cultural critique.

The first question has no immediate answer, as we have said many times. However, we have to realize that as time passes, the collective of digital humanists are finding a voice, or at least we are seeing a discourse in formation. This leads us to, as David Berry said in his introduction to Understanding Digital Humanities (2012), “a humanistic understanding of technology.”

This movement towards a full incorporation of the digital in the process of cultural creation, dissemination, and analysis, is far from being complete or global. However, its impact and presence on the economical sphere and the educational institutions is clearly setting the norm for what I think is coming in the next years. We learnt from Heidegger that technology as implemented in modern society tends to an endless and destructive consumption of resources.

Therefore, the polemic of the debate will lie within the control of technological development and the possible restrictions of some of its harmful consequences. In academia, e.g. we are now worried about the new modes of reading (Hayles, 2013); are the “digital students” less resourceful due to an excessive material wealth? Is their attention span reduced? Does all that matter? Or, are we just being reluctant to to change the rooted practice of  long periods of “monotasking.” From a personal point of view, I see a slow assimilation process of technology inside the humanities departments rather than the old fashioned acceptance, tainted with a little bit of segregation: “it can stay here, but not mingle.”

After we create the awareness among scholars that we need to start accepting digital artifacts and projects as mainstream cultural artifacts with a highly interpretative potential besides their quantitative power, then we’ll need to start to consider the implications of these objects from the point of view of the sociology of culture. Alan Liu (“Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” 2012) shows a very interesting perspective on how to start thinking about digital works as social constructs. One of the simplest cases he makes is the one that claims that simply by moving from the individual book and its close reading to the distant reading of whole corpora we are already undertaking an analysis of culture in society —as literary scholars, we need to learn how to read data in the way we read quotes.

It does seem reasonable to think that displacing the close reading of a book to the close reading of the network formed by the relationships established between 1000 novels in terms of plot, genre, and distribution, is a highly socially-centered analysis of cultural objects. Mainly because we jump outside the literary text to consider the social text of culture.

As a conclusion then, we can say that our labor as digital humanists could be that of finding the human in technology and its applications. If we create gadgets and machines as extensions of our body parts as we read in Understanding technology, why not try to retrace the ideas behind any social or cultural manifestation of technology —besides the omnipresent qualities of making things work faster and more profitable for the markets.

However, we still find the problem of training: how can we ask our professors with little or no background in digital work, to understand what is being done by a new batch of grad students and faculty that are profusely tool-oriented and who have a digital fetish in the same way  the traditional tweed-armored professor has a thing for pretty bindings and marginalia? I understand their sloth and the lack of passion toward markup languages and command lines, because what we have just described is a clear case of nurture and there are obvious material constrictions when it comes to embracing such a radical change in these highly transcendental and metaphysical practices of life-problem creating.