Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship Higher Education

the humanities and digital exposure

I've been out of town over the holidays and then racing to a meet a deadline the last few days, so now I'm getting a chance to catch up on a few things here. There were a couple interesting stories out of MLA, including the role of Twitter at the conference, @briancroxall's virtual participation (academhack has a good post on this), and a story on Inside Higher Ed which seemed to misrepresent a panel with John Schilb and my UB colleague, Arab Lyon, but caused a stink on the WPA-L nonetheless. Though quite different, all were stories, in part, about the humanities (and rhet/comp) in crisis and the question of the "digital."

Back to all that in a moment…

While that was going on, I was hacking away at the aforementioned deadline, working through the potential intersections between DeLanda's exteriority, Nancy's exposure, and Agamben's exposition. As I see it, what we are really talking about here is an outside. Not an outside as a beyond (as in outside the body) but an outside as a surface (as in the outside of the body, i.e., the skin). It is with these relations of exteriority that the assemblages subjectivity and community emerge. We can see in these assemblages tendencies toward territorialization and superlinear overcoding, but there are also potentials for deterritorialization and decoding. So it was only "natural" for me to be reading these MLA stories with these concepts in mind. 

It's in that context that I read and agree with Dave Parry/AcademHack's contention "instead of thinking of the word digital as an adjective which modifies the humanities, the humanities 2.0 model, I am more interested in how the digital effects not how we do the humanities, but rather how the digital can fundamentally change what it means to do humanities, how the digital might change the very concept of 'the humanities.'”

The humanities is in some respects the archetype of tradition, whether one traces back to classical philosophy or "only" to the rise of humanism in the renaissance. Last week, by coincidence, I was writing about the first MLA convention in 1884, a conference where they decided to begin the publication of PMLA. For 125 years the assemblages of discipline have remained largely the same. In short, our work is heavily territorialized and coded.  There is no doubt that digital technologies intersect the assemblages of the humanities as a decoding and deterritorializing force. Similarly, there's no doubt that the territorializing forces of the humanities might seek to apprehend digital "tools" in a way that might reinforce or extend their territories. 

What we might learn from Nancy or Agamben is that the humanities, as a community or assemblage, can only emerge through its relations of exteriority. Our concern with the digital is a concern with exposure. As individual scholars we are warned about the exposure of blogging, of social media, of video, etc. As a discipline we announce our concerns about the exposure of our traditions to digital media. What I take from Parry is that our conversations about the digital ought not to focus on scholarly blogging or teaching in Second Life or courses in new media (which isn't to say we can't talk about those things), but instead that we must begin by recognizing that the humanities have always emerged through these relations of exteriority and that our relations with the digital, in this sense, are no different. 

To bring this point to a more solid moment, I was watching this video of Jean-Luc Nancy at the European Graduate School. Near the end, he discusses a simple topology of the body as skin stretched across a tube. Then air passes across/through that tube, creating reverberations, sound, a voice. This is a relation of exteriority, a touching, as he says. Without it, there can be no voice. Writing has its own topology, its own surfaces, its own thresholds. The digital, in turn, offers new relations of exteriority: a new voice, if you will. Self-evidently, this blog is one such site. How else would I be with you now? I am with my computer on this site with these words, and later, you will be doing the same. This is a relation of exteriority yes? through this assemblage? Is it a matter of the humanities? Are we "with" the humanities here as well? I think so.

Don't worry, it's been a few years now and the humanities seems to have survived its exposure to my blog. If the "humanities" have been around for 25 centuries and PMLA, as the first journal of its kind, has been around for 125 years, then we've had journals for 5% of the history of the humanities, mathlete. Over that short span, we come to a time when tens of thousands of English Studies scholars publish thousands of articles in hundreds of journals every year. Would anyone imagine that those assemblages have not altered the relations of humanities? Of course not. The 95% of the pre-PMLA humanities was irrevocably altered by its encounter with "the academic journal" and that infernal beast known as the "blind-reviewed article." After all, we spent the better part of the last century doing our best to look like a science of some sort!

And that's… ok. As I see it, the humanities ought to investigate such relations of exteriority rather than resist them. Even "traditions" only emerge through exposure.