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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. 

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We are finally admitting that the reading and writing practices of our students are changing substantially, and also that the new models of literacy are not just an aberration but are gradually turning into the norm. As a matter of fact, the book is irremediably being displaced by the digital media as the main vehicle for the written word. Thus, more than ever, it seems more and more ridiculous to deny the incipient future of a digital formatted academia.

If art colleges’ faculty remain static, they’ll only get to increase the already existing gap between paper based and digital based cultures. Consequently, and honoring the —presupposed— open mindness of the humanities, we should start taking digital text and digital culture more seriously; because not admitting its validity is no longer an option, a choice or a personal stand. One of the main reasons being that screen text has become the main, if not the only, textual media for a great deal of students. And, leaving aside any kind of servilism, we need to  arrive to an agreement with the student body to try to avoid a conflict that renders any deeper understanding between the two parts impossible.

Katherine Hayles (How we think, 2012), pays special attention to the different modes of reading among students these days —deep reading on one side, hyper reading on another. On one hand, she acknowledges the important loss in the transition from one mode to another. On the other hand, she is completely aware that there is no way back, and points out the benefits of hyper reading and the possible benefits deriving from the hybridization of both practices.

The downside of hyper reading appears to be obvious after a brief analysis: flooded by data, hyperlinks and stimuli, the attention span decreases, leaving students only able to focus on a text for reduced amounts of time and having their understanding impoverished due to the over ambitious desire to know quickly and easily. The benefits seem less powerful, but we are not yet fully aware of them: students are able to skim through information quickly and they tend to find the data they need faster.

Apparently, we are experiencing the disease of extreme wealth, the indecision and  the overwhelm of an unlimited an non linear powerful medium.

Well, having reached this point, the obvious solution is to combine both mentalities and to try to change the new reading for the good instead of defending the old regime and offering a sometimes rather passionate and impulsive resistance to hyper reading. What should we get from each mode then? or maybe, What can we save from deep reading that can improve the new literacy?

Among all the things we need to save, merge and promote, there is one that affects the core of hyper reading: selectiveness of materials. One of the biggest problems of the hypertext is the abundance of contents, binging info can collapse our brains and make it very hard for us to grasp and to comprehend any of the materials read.

Critical thinking starts at a very basic level when we speak of web content. Internet is not like TV, we have to actively choose what we see —a cold medium in terms of Marshall Macluhan— which gives this medium way more possibilities of contrasting and offering more choices to adapt to our informative needs.

However, the internet is also full of useless and even pernicious and false information. Therefore, teaching students how to select and manage information critically, should be the main worry for teachers and potential docents.

Unsurprisingly, I cannot avoid connecting Hayles’ comment to the actual social status of digital culture and its day to day usage implications. If we applied the same selective attitude that we use for selecting recipes or news online to digital cultural objects, we would be contributing to the proper curation of online materials by discriminating the useful and valuable knowledge from the not contrasted and careless information than the miracle of the web allows. And only if the users adopt a critical attitude towards cultural objects and regulate the contents in a popular way, we will be able to claim the real democracy of the internet.

It was only after two semesters of graduate school when I started to develop a personal approach to writing my papers, my imprint became very clear after only four research papers were produced. It was also then, when the hurly burly started and I encountered one of those people with an individual office and a salary four times mine. Apparently, my approach was boring and old-fashioned, not original. It really sounds stupid and pretty silly, but I even had to deal with some sarcasm and mockery when I was told “go ahead, and good luck trying to present a paper on the intricacies  of the narrative instance.” I do not really want to give too many details on the topic of the paper, but I can tell you it was a highly formalist approach.

When I took my first literary theory class around 11 years ago, I remember being stunned by the ideas of the Russian Formalists, I was so innocent that I even had to be told what form was. Jakobson, Skhlovsky, Warren and Wellek, they were my inspiration for a long time. However, I soon realized their deficiencies, which did not keep me from  loving them.

When I came to graduate school, I started to discover deconstruction, gender theory, structuralism, and my universe broadened way too much. I was not able to understand how there could be such a contradiction between followers of different approaches if, after all, each of them is flawed, skewed and opportunistic —in the sense that we all distort images and manipulate concepts in order to make them fit better within our ideas. Nevertheless, I started to become familiar with more quantitative approaches to literature and to other humanistic disciplines. I had my doubts about such a “cold” method, but I understood that we actually needed to cool down a little bit, so that being impersonal was ok; and finally I started to look at this approach as I  look at gender studies and deconstruction: it was a genre.

That’s why I found Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees interesting. In the graphs section, Franco Moretti studies the evolution of genres in history, their birth and their decay, and he provides some indicators to identify these movements that seem to be cyclical: they are the middle distance, placed in between the ‘event’ (the individual case) and the ‘longue durée’ (the historic long span form the annals school). Therefore, these cycles “constitute temporary structures within the historical flow¨ (14).

If we apply the definition to our own case, it is not difficult to parallel literary genres with literary criticism genres. And even more, if we believe in these historical cycles, we can easily claim that the Formalists are trendy again, simply because their ideas fit better in the newer realm of DH and quantitative studies. Moretti points to Skhlovsky and his theory of the rising new genres, based on the obsolete”artistic usefulness” of previous genres: “because as long as a hegemonic form has not lost its ‘artistic usefulness’ there is not much that a rival form can do: there can always be an exceptional text, yes, but the exception will not change the system”(17).

Although Moretti states that this is not enough of a reason to explain the whole process, I would like to explain what came to my mind concerning gender studies, theory and digital humanities. In the first place, critical theory, as a genre of the literary studies always seem to lack a down to earth approach, what they do is   fancy and they sound even fancier; I actually do like them, they practice a sort of spiritualism that really fits literature and its characteristics. However, they were proved more of an obscure discourse and a scholarly trend after Alan Sokal’s quasi artistic contribution to Social Text Journal, in which he pretty much denied the existence of a singular real world outside the individuals. That is totally a “monstrosity,” as Moretti calls these productions of older genres (17).

The case of gender studies is also similar. Although the need to explore literature and art in the way women or queer studies did, they have a very finite source of inspiration, which is the human body. For this purpose we can look back to the  80’s and 90’s and see how the artists had a strong focus on sex, and the social roots of genders. This is all true and relevant, useful for younger generations, but it may seem a little accessory to emphasize these views too much, given the actual social panorama of material scarcity.

As of today, the world is involved in a serious material crisis, in which we are seeing social wealth being threatened by the unmeasurable desire for maximizing profits and speeding up production processes that a small privileged social sector is imposing. This is the reason why, in my opinion, the measurements, quantities and maps pose one of the most appealing contribution to the academic scene. The general public and also the specific audiences are demanding a more concrete down to earth discourse, and we cannot ignore or disregard the disconnection that  exists between humanists and humans. And that was  just a personal opinion, but  the universities are hiring professors who can offer courses on digital competency and who have ongoing  material projects; and that is not me, it is the numbers talking.

The middleman

482px-Baldassare_Castiglione,_by_Raffaello_Sanzio,_from_C2RMF_retouched

One of the most important concepts that we find in Software Takes Command  (2013) is that of ‘media’ -medium, maybe? However, after a good deal of the reading being done, the term ‘media’ starts losing some of its meaning. That’s why it might be of extreme convinience to stop and reflect briefly about the pressence and meaning of this key element of our cultural production and social organization.

Personally, I understand the idea of ‘media’ or ‘software media’ in the most material sense. When it comes to think about the two ends relation that we establish -as humans- with a source of information, it is impossible not consider the effects that the intermediary is going to have in our understanding and comprehension. Manovich clearly directs his attention towards the influence that software has on our understanding of the digital, and as he is going to point out, the software medium is not a simple channel with no influence on the content. Nevertheless, software presents to ourselves as  high content bearing media -what we could rephrase in MacLuhan’s terms saying that the “medium is the message.”

In fact, the influence that software has over the process of creating  information seems to overpower the influence attributed to the digital environment. The main difference that we could find if we were to compare the two “media” -and the use of this term is prone to become abusive and meaningless- is that software is some sort of comsuption media, while the digital is what could be consider storage media. If we stick to these ad hoc definitions, the distinctions become clearer: the digital environment constrains the types of information, while the software influence is going to be more focused on the way of arranging and consuming that digitally  stored information.

Personally, I would place Manovich’s reflection on the broader discussion about the effects and influence that the mere idea of mediation has brought to modern society. To have a clearer idea, we could include other concepts such as the narrator in literature, the middleman and money in business or the courtisan code in society. Those instances of intermediation are elements which have drastically shaped the modern world.

The narrator, the unreliable one, of course, is one of the main facilitators of the literary discourse. Without his skewed perception, the story would be reduced to a series of happenings, not necessarily interesting and meaningful. If the properties of the digital are defined by the particularities of the software, the properties of the literary come to definition by the particularites of a given narration. A variation on this intermediary role, but one that serves to the ilustration of my point, can be found on a early modern Spanish play called “La Celestina.” In this work, more of a dialogued novel than an actual play, we can see how the information is totally mediated by the matchmaker character, whose mission is to get as many benefits as possible from her love business. The most striking feature of this work is that we do not have a stated narrative instance, there is no third person narrator. However, it is not hard to demonstrate that the character of the old Celestina is a sort of  narrator. The greedy woman is a mediator in every sense, she meddles between the lovers, interpreting and manipulating the information, phrasing it on her own terms, and then she mediates between the actions displayed and the reader, reinterpreting the happenings for us in monologues scattered throughout the text. As a software, she incorporates an specific language for an specific environment with specific constrains. I honestly believe that we inhabit a highly mediated space in general, and the beginning of this mediation or codification has been brought by what I consider two of the most important elements in the consolidation of our actual practices and behaviour: the apparition of money and the codification of the european courtisans during the renaissance. If we think about it, the latter appears to be a mediation at a very basic level, one that pertains the person itself and the human mind and body when cultural transmission was highly oral and personal. So maybe, in the same manner than Davis began his Universal Computer dating back to Leibniz, we could consider the idea of wirting a history of media, and starting with a chapter on Castglione’s The Book of the Courtisan.

DIY, Culture and Technology

Last week I visited Omaha over Fall break. This city, which resembles more my hometown (Bilbao) than my actual place of residence (Lincoln), offered me a glimpse of what is going on among some of the younger collectives in town, especially the one that could be considered DIY and Punk culture. My friends do not necessarily subscribe to this social movement, however, we all support most of its values and proposals.

During a conversation about literature, I mentioned to my friend a short story that I think he would enjoy. I offered him the pdf, which I thought would be the most comfortable and efficient way to share a text I own. He hesitated and said, “that’d be cool, but I’d rather have the physical text”. Well, as you can imagine, my instantaneous reaction was to question that assumption: “Is not the visualization of a PDF on the screen physical enough?” —my move was kind of pedantic and to some extent demagogic, but we are friends.

He was really open about the idea, and soon we all agreed that it’s not the “lack of physicality” of technology that makes bits and pixels spooky, and neither was it the screen essentialism  that repelled him. As a matter of fact, in the first part of  Mechanisms (2012), Matthew Kirschenbaum offers us a rather romanticized and fetishized view of the materiality of digital media, where inscription and carving are still valid concepts. The book explains the process of creating, deleting, and retrieving lost information; but he does it in a way that highlights the physical part of the processes of creating data. He deals with the most down to earth side of computing and digital storage, and he really succeeds in shedding some light on the really obscure realm of computers innards.

What is the problem then?

R1-04104-004A

After reading the book, I realized that my friends —and everybody who has compost and chickens in the backyard, like to can goods, brew beer, grow vegetables, and are involved in any sort of productive activity— were not simply afraid of the ethereal and the mystic-like digital realm. Although Kirschenbaum provides an argument, in case any of us still feel uneasy about the microscopic scale at which technology functions, when he suggests that part of the idea of immateriality roots in the assumption of a computer’s flawless functioning. Right on, Matt! That is a huge concern for us.

Humans like symmetry, and most of our constructions seek that out. It is balanced, pleasant to the eye, and very safe —in every sense. Nevertheless, when it comes to art, we want the imperfect, we do not want to build as if people were going to live in our artifacts. We want gaps to fill up and curves to straighten —but humanly— so the byproduct is not round or aseptic. What we like, is the anecdotic quality of objects we can see, and also taking advantage of accidental imperfections in our subjects. Then, there is the problem: machines are too consistent and they look perfect to our eye, our sight slides down the object, without a chance to hold on to any prominent feature.

But we do not fear perfection, and we definitely do not hate mechanization. Even more, we partially embrace the creativity of technocracy and celebrate massive storage of data. How wise would it be to reject the major shift in knowledge preservation and dissemination that hard drives made possible?

The itch comes from somewhere else, and I believe the origin is the disconnection between user and creator that digital technology implies, to some extent. And even with a friendly explanation like Kischenbaum’s, there are still other sketchy innuendos which remind me of the food selection process: I am not against some food brands just because I am a “rebel,” I have real concerns, and I want control over my life, so my rule is not to eat any products whose labels are longer than this blog post.

Summarizing, I think that the major fear resides in the massive and careless production, in the detachment of men from their environment and in the “stupidization” of most of my citizen fellows, who do not question their technological habits and let themselves be told what to eat, what to listen, and what to watch. In addition —and I believe this is becoming a recurrent topic— I would like to suggest a more strict compartmentation of our live’s practices and to decide to what extent we want to depend on complex technological processes or on electronic systems that surpass our understanding and senses. Finding a balance is extremely difficult, but a gradual and thorough incorporation of the technological apparatus is the only healthy solution for an intelligent world.

On Walter’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Nobody would have any problem in recognizing how well technology nests inside capitalist ideology. At least, that is an idea that I think modern society and all of our consumerist acts back up to some extent.

Walter Benjamin, in his article “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, explores some of the implications of the intersection between technology and art, which ultimately leads him to involve the capitalist system that would become the absolute and dominant ideology during the second half of the XX century up today. The main notion explored in the article is that of the “reproducibility of art works” and the implications of the incorporation of technology into the essence of art and beauty.

The first question that came after the reading of this piece was somehow general and probably too vast: to what extent does the creative context of capitalist society shape art? There is also a very similar and interesting one: how is art also a ‘victim’ of the pragmatic secularizing process that technology bears —in the sense that it loses its mysticism.  The ultimate consequence of considering these previous questions is the possibility of a reformulation of the concept of beauty, or maybe the straight questioning of beauty’s existence within capitalism.

Benjamin uses the concept of “aura”. This idea could be parallel to the je ne sais quoi that they use in French, the exact same expression appears in the title of Benito Jerónimo Feijoo’s essay El no sé qué, (1733) work in which the Spanish author, reflects on a concept similar to Benjamin’s “aura”. Many authors have searched art hoping to find the meta-artistic quality that confers that something onto the products of human creativityThis feature would probably be the artistic beauty that goes further than perfect representation or harmony among the constituents of any piece derived from artistic creation.

The elimination of that aura is the main consequence that applying technology to the production of art has. The ability to reproduce the same piece with any loss, as many times as we need, erases the uniqueness of the piece of art. However, we can argue in the first place that this is mainly the case of sculpture and image, and we could continue by saying that in the case of literature the effects of technology —the implementation of print— are primary  constituents of our modern understanding of this human activity.

Personally, I am partially in favor of thinking that technology has no destructive value per se and that only the outcomes of its application are the ones that can be labeled as negative or violent. Well, in this context, one of the consequences of the mechanization of the arts could be measured if we were to look at the more modern art that was produced during the XX century. At a more general level of art —since we already touched photography on a previous post— what we can see is how the artistic procedure moves totally to the intellectual realm and is confined to the idea in the artist’s head.

 

What I mean is that what we are doing here is eliminating the aura from the artifact, because it really does not have it anymore and because it is a perfect representation: a rounded, finished piece. If we only have reproductions, the original piece does not really matter and what is more, in conceptual art, the idea is the asset and the objects where the ideas are contained, are usually only worth the price of the materials of which the object is made —an idea that makes a lot of sense in Jeff Koons art, for example.

To some extent, the fact that art has lost part of that exhibitional and representational value lies at the bottom of the foundation of an elitist art which is totally detached from a great percentage of society. Benjamin highlights the massive nature of cinema, however, the cinema that has the congregation power is the one that was already criticized of being frivolous eighty years ago. The nature of art has shifted, and now it constitutes a highly individual activity based on invisible mental processes: depriving it consequently of a strong social or historical function.

As a conclusion, I’d like to throw an idea that might seem a little extreme —or maybe not. Capitalism as well as technology are not essentially mean, as we said. However, they have the power of consuming. They are often not sustainable in the sense that their totally legitimate, perfect acts tend to exhaust resources and have a very clear and rational agenda. Therefore, I’d like to propose something like a revision of a new ethics of technology, in which the functions and spheres in which technology acts are regulated by an institution or a governmental organism. Yes, I am European and I love regulatory agencies.

 

 

It is difficult to look at it if it is under your nose.

In Understanding Media, MacLuhan drops two of the most intense affirmations about the development of technique and the influence of technology in the human being that I have read so far. Or at least he does it in a very explicit manner. Firstly, he asserts that technology splits everything into smaller units. By saying that, he is pointing to what I believe is at the essence of technological action: reformulation of any content or problem into small intelligible units. The other main idea, is the one that explains technology as the extension of the nervous system —metaphor that is probably the one we all apply to our discourse when we mentally conceive of technology.  Combining and applying both assertions poses a big implication, a real one I hope: a human being who is completely aware of his own environment at a personal, local and global level. We keep on breaking up units, with a sledge hammer first, a chisel then, and finally, we have become so curious that we are able to split atoms —I do not really know if we apply a tool to them.

Excuse me if I get personal here, but I’d like to know if anybody who reads this did undergo the same experience as a child: I clearly remember having the habit of splitting breadcrumbs until the butter knife was too blunt to perform, then using my dad’s knife until I cut the table and my mother yelled. That happened all the time —the urge to know the components of objects, of food, that’s how all kids are, right? At least until they discover drugs and alcohol and become responsible adults.

This first idea that I mentioned before —technology as an ‘expliciter’ —is really important, extremely crucial, and totally worth being examined with some care. If we keep in mind that MacLuhan wrote this in the 60’s, how come we are now in this state of terrible ignorance? Where is the expected progression? There is a big problem with digital natives and the distance they are not able to acquire when dealing with their homeland technology.

Let me try to illustrate my point. In language teaching there has always been a big debate between what it is better, a teacher who has the target language as a second language, or the native speaker, who was born immersed in the language and whose mental processes are recreated in that language. Well, the debate, as most debates, is endless, obviously. However, it would be good for us to explicate the reasoning of both ends of this discussion and to apply them to the case of technology in society.

For those of you not familiar with the idea, I’ll make it more explicit, technological style. I am a native teacher of Spanish language and literature, my students are happy and relieved when every first day of class they confirm that “Mr. Moreno” is indeed a foreigner who mumbles and curses in Spanish. What they do not know, is that I rely incredibly on my intuition, which has worked pretty well up to now, but that is far from being beneficial and practical for beginning language learners. I often struggle to simplify grammar, and my explanations could be labeled as esoteric on some occasions. Bottomline, natives know their stuff, but sometimes not the places where things come from. On the other hand, non natives usually have a great control of gramatical rules, a better structured knowledge, and the motivation and love for a culture that it is not their own.

If we apply this to our context, we can see the parallelism clearly. Natives show an impressive intuitive control over gadgets, and it is such a pleasure to observe a 10-year-old little being navigating on a screen menu with the same naturality with which my grandfather gutted a pig. Nevertheless, we need to be careful with these technobeings, otherwise, we may fall into one of those dystopias where everybody is suddenly dumb except for that poor guy whose physical condition would allow him to carry the knowledge chip.

Then, the only thing we really need to do, is to sensitize young generations about the origins of technology and talk them into knowing the underlying processes, at least to some extent, so they are aware of what they are doing when they incorporate technology into their deeds. We absolutely do not need every kid knowing how to code —like in academy?— but if they rely so much on technology, and they do not have the chance not to, shouldn’t there be at least a bigger proportion of them who should know the grammar of the language they speak?

As a final remark, I’d like to bring attention to ‘curiosity’, the real engine of everything, the trigger of Macluhan´s passion about the medium, the motivation of foreigners to learn another language, and the ultimate reason why we all are here.

 

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:

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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?

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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.