digital humanities object-oriented rhetoric

we have never been the humanities

I've been think more about Latour's argument, extending it toward the discussion of the "crisis" in the humanities and the potential role of digital humanities in that crisis. It strikes me that even though some of the humanities have intellectual histories that precede the modern era, that much of what today is practiced as the humanities obviously arises from the invention of the modern university. The humanities operate in the quartered world Latour describes of Nature and Society, Universality and Locality. The traditional humanist is the antimodern, bent on saving the subject from the catastrophic reductionism of science, though some humanists move to the modern side as Marxist materialists (though I think even they ultimately seek to wriggle free of the reductive, scientific implications of Marxism), and yet others become postmoderns who "always perverse, accept that the idea is indeed catastrophic, but they maintain that it must be acclaimed rather than bemoaned" (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 123). However, even as they oppose one another, these sides maintain the divisions that create them and organize the modern world. Clearly the specualitve realist critique of correlationism stems from a rejection of this absolute division between human subjects and a world of objects. 

As Latour continues elsewhere,

Modern humanists are reductionist because they seek to attribute action to a small number of powers, leaving the rest of the world with nothing but simple mute forces. It is true that by redistributing the action among all these mediators, we lose the reduced form of humanity, but we gain another form, which has to be called irreducible. The human is in the delegation itself, in the pass, in the sending, in the continuous exchange of forms. Of course it is not a thing, but things are not things either. Of course it is not a merchandise, but merchandise is not merchandise either. Of course it is not a machine, but anyone who has seen machines knows that they are scarcely mechanical. Of course it is not of this world, but this world is not of this world either. Of course it is not in God, but what relation is there between the God above and the God below? Humanism can maintain itself only by sharing itself with all these mandatees. Human nature is the set of its delegates and its representatives, its figures and its messengers. That symmetrical universal is worth at least as much as the moderns' doubly asymmetrical one. This new position, shifted in relation to the subject/society position, now needs to be underwritten by an amended Constitution. (138)

So what happens if/when humanists stop promulgating their side of the argument? In a way, science already has, as cognition becomes a site of scientific measurement and simulations come to dominate our understanding of the social. What happens when humanists take up digital machines to carry their studies beyond the separable realm of the human subjective, social space and into a hybrid network of objects that are more than objects and subjects that are other than subjects? If pre-digital writing and literacy machines and practices could reveal an irreducible then shouldn't digital machines and practices be able to do the same as well, except perhaps on a larger scale of data? Shouldn't more data and more information processing lead us to develop more complex descriptions rather than more reductive ones?

In Latourian terms, the humanities crisis lies in its insistence on continuing to investigate a modern space that has collapsed. It hasn't collapsed because everyone accepts Latour's argument. Clearly that's not the case. It's collapsed because science has outgrown its domain and our response cannot be what it has been: to insist that there is no real science. As Latour recognizes, "the moderns were not mistaken in seeking objective nonhumans and free societies. They were mistaken only in their certainty that that double production required an absolute distinction between the two terms and the continual represssion of the work of mediation" (140). Undoubtely I would describe the study of that mediation as rhetoric, repressed out of this perceived necessity in the modern age. Instead, the humanities would recognize no absolute distinction among objects, humans, and societies but rather bring their investigative powers into the places where science can never go: beyond the laws of the natural world and into the irreducible complexities of the living world where thought arises and actions take place. The digital humanities with their feet already firmly in a world of objects would seem well placed to move in this direction.

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