digital rhetoric

the future of digital humanities

Mark Marino at Writer Response Theory reports on a recent presentation by N. Katherine Hayles and Lynne Withey on this subject. Withey is at the University of CA press, and one of the things I can glean from this post is the ongoing challenge of establishing a working business model for digital publishing. As we know there are ongoing problems here including:

  • maintaining the model of authorial expertise and copyright
  • establishing a digital genre that would be analog to a book so that you aren’t continually reinventing the publication process
  • getting readers/users to pay for access.

I’m confident that some future digital publishing will follow this remediation of the monograph, but really it does seem to miss the point by a wide mark. When I think of many of the exemplary models of single-author digital scholarship, I see one of two things. Either they are pretty much just print texts online, or they are very experimental pieces that operate more like art than scholarship. Both of these things are fine, but neither are good arguments, in my view, for digital scholarship.

Marino reports Hayles identifies the following shifts in the move toward the digital:

  • "Decenters the individual human researcher (solitary work of genius)
  • Pushes toward collaboration (humanities scholars working with designers and other programmers)
  • Shifts expertise
  • Puts data-collection over meaning making"

As Marino observes, there would appear to be a notable shift toward social scientific and scientific modes of research here. Hayles uses the example of moving from Latourian ANT methods toward a Moretti-like distant reading analysis. I see where she’s coming from. I agree that computer networks allow us to deal with more data through a new set of analytic methods. Computer networks also facilitate collaboration, which includes the expertise shift. All of this runs antithetically to Withey’s concerns.

In all this shifting though, I think it is important to remember that the human still serves as a nexus in this network, particularly from our perspective, as… ummm… humans. That is, if I do a new critical reading of a poem, my body sits in front of the text. I read it and process it. Yes, I am connected to a network of cultural, disciplinary, ideological forces. I am in the middle of a network. And though I can try to sit back and decenter myself to a degree, I have to recognize that I am situated. I am where I am even as I am distributed.

Similarly, if I am analyzing an extensive corpus using distant reading methods, my body still sits in front of a text, the output of my data mining. I read it and process it. Yes, I am connected to a network of cultural, disciplinary, ideological forces. I am in the middle of a network. It is a different network than the one above, but a network nonetheless. I am situated and distributed.

As humanists, we can still focus on the experience of the body and consciousness, on the singular, on Agamben’s whatever while operating through the network, through data collection. In the old model of the humanities, data collection pretty much happened in graduate school. That’s when you read all the canonical texts in your literary period. That was your data set in literary studies, and the data set would bascially never change. Now we have experimental methods for producing new sets of data which certainly would result in new information about a broad range of writing practices. Of course we would still need to determine the meaning of such data.

Obviously the problem with digital scholarship is that it continues to reassert writing/publication as supplemental to knowledge production. That is, we continue to think of media networks as simply a different way to present the scholarly work we have always done. That’s not the case with Hayles, nor is it the case with many scholars experimenting in this area, but for the most part, looking at the typical humanities scholar, I don’t think there is much recognition that emerging technologies are shifting the material contexts of knowledge production.

That means that regardless of whether one chooses to embrace digital scholarship or not, the status of old methods of scholarship will necessarily be transformed. 20th century humanities scholarship was a product of industrial publishing technologies and Cold War-era higher education. Now we have new conditions. The 21st century will be no more like the 20th century than the 20th century was like the 19th century. That’s all we are seeing here, except that maybe now changes happen more rapidly. We need to take the core of the humanities–our concern with humanness in ethical, aesthetic, collective, and experiential/singular terms–and bring that forward into a new set of informational and media contexts.