digital humanities

invention and digital humanities navel #dhdebates

I appreciated Ian Bogost's post from a few weeks ago on the state of digital humanities navel-gazing. As he concludes, "currently, what one does in the humanities is talk about the humanities. This is particularly true of the digital humanities, some of whose proponents are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work." Perhaps there are historical reasons why, at this particular moment, the humanities are so self-reflective. No perhaps about it, actually. We are somewhat lost at sea and the "digital" is part of the reason. This does not mean, however, that reflection is productive, and certainly not all reflection is productive. At some point, as Ian suggests, it's a matter of getting back to work. A point that Mark Sample also makes.

Maybe, from this point of view, rhetoric and composition has a built-in self-reflexivity in its research into writing and the teaching of writing: we research what we do and what our students do. (Of course, it's a big field so that's not all rhet/comp scholars do.) Getting back to work for me means continuing to investigate the ways in which digital technologies and networks shape rhetorical practices. I am particularly interested in the problem of rethinking rhetorical education to address shifting literacy practices. This, to me, is not narcissistic, though it does involve looking at the rhetorical practices of humanisits since it is fairly clear that what we will teach students is a function of what we do ourselves.

To this end, I am interested in Stanely Fish's most recent DH post in the NY Times and Ted Underwood's response. Fish concludes (complains?) that digital humanities "will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play." Maybe so. Though there are probably a dozen other interpretive methods that also have little place for this method. But his more salient criticism (and you can read the article to see how he makes it) regards the ways in which he suggests digital humanities scholars develop their arguments and provide evidence for them. He puts it this way:

The direction of my inferences is critical: first the interpretive hypothesis and then the formal pattern, which attains the status of noticeability only because an interpretation already in place is picking it out.

The direction is the reverse in the digital humanities: first you run the numbers, and then you see if they prompt an interpretive hypothesis. The method, if it can be called that, is dictated by the capability of the tool.

I would suggest that Fish's method is also "dictated by the capability of the tool." The primary tool in this case is Fish himself (please excuse the pejorative connotations of that sentence). The point is that Fish's method is also constrained by the capacities available to the relations between a human reader and a text. In either case, I wouldn't say "dictated" as I wouldn't attribute a deterministic relationship here. That's another misunderstanding. Fish appears to suggest here that his "hypothesis" arrives ex nihilo. I doubt that's actually the case. My first guess is that Fish, like most literary critics, would build an interpretation while reading a text, and that while certainly one might have some tenative hypothesis before cracking the book open, it would be based on readings of other books. I mean this is why literary scholars focus on a particular period, right? Because it is part of the disciplinary paradigm that books written in a particular time and place impact one another with special significance.

So I believe what we have here is a significant misunderstanding of invention. Underwood makes a similar observation. He writes

The basic mistake that Fish is making is this: he pretends that humanists have no discovery process at all. For Fish, the interpretive act is always fully contained in an encounter with a single piece of evidence. How your “interpretive proposition” got framed in the first place is a matter of no consequence: some readers are just fortunate to have propositions that turn out to be correct. Fish is not alone in this idealized model of interpretation; it’s widespread among humanists.

The underlying misunderstanding is painfully ironic. Fish is resisting the assistance of digital techniques — not because they would impose scientism on the humanities — but because they would force us to acknowledge that our ideas do after all come from somewhere.

Hmmmm…. if this is actually the case it would explain why humanists struggle with teaching writing. It would also be ironic in the sense that so much of literary criticism focuses on exploring the historical and cultural contexts that inform the production of literary work while denying that similar contexts inform their own compositions. However I will go a little farther with Underwood's argument and suggest that it is precisely a scientistic conception of invention/discovery that leads to this belief in the eureka moment. 

Let's recall that at the heart of the typical scientist objection to Latour is his contention that scientific knowledge is constructed. In the conventional way of thinking, scientists want to claim that scientific knowledge is discovered in nature rather than "made up" in the lab. In this view, construction equals fiction. On the flipside, literary scholars in Fish's tradition want to claim that literary knowledge is discovered in the literary texts rather than being constructed in a lab (or a DH computerized process). In rhetoric, not surprisingly, we have made an extensive study of the history of invention. We can see how rhetoric gets slowly stripped of its canonical elements until it arrives in the Modern era as little more that Style. The processes of invention get supplanted by scientific methods of discovery on the one hand and the eventual emergence of a Romantic conception of inspiration on the other. 

It's for reasons like this that I can appreciate Cheryl Ball's response to the recent Profession issue on digital scholarship. That is, I think it's fair to suggest that rhetoricians have some understanding of how invention, evidence, and argument operate, and, from this rhetorician's perspective, this whole discussion seems a little simplistic. 

So let's rehearse some of the basic concepts here. Composing is a networked phenomenon because thinking is always already relational. I mean you are composing/thinking in words right? You didn't invent that language, right? So, that's obvious. Thoughts are constructed. Arguments are constructed. Evidence is constructed. Scholarship is constructed. That is, these things are composed of other things. That doesn't mean they can be explained solely by those other things. Nor does it mean that we fully understand (let alone control) the processes of construction. However, I think we can recognize in this current (if somewhat navel-gazing) conversation, that a shift in the available compositional networks has created some discomfort. It causes us to recognize the constructed, networked characteristics of our legacy practices, characteristics that we had come to ignore (or forget) because they had been normalized.

In turn we are faced with choices that we never really recognized as choices before. We took invention to be natural. We read a book, and an interpretation came to us.  Of course we had training and such to help us, but regardless of our methodological/theoretical preferences, in literary studies it ultimately came down to reading a text and developing an interpretation. Regardless of methodological differences literary interpretations were generically the same in general length, uses of evidence, structure of argument, etc. etc. The same was true in rhetoric and, I imagine, the rest of the humanities.

But that's no longer the case. Now we have real choices to make that make real differences in the knowledge that we produce and the communities in which we participate. They make real differences in what we understand literacy to be and as such what we will teach to future generations of students (which is ultimately what concerns me). And here I would stretch far beyond the arguments related to "distant reading" which are the focus of Fish's piece (and another error he makes, conflating this one practice with the entirety of DH).  

In the end, I think it is entirely accurate to say that digital humanities from distant reading to middle-state publishing (like this blog) does little to improve our ability to conduct pre-digital scholarly practices or answer the questions of a pre-digital humanistic disciplinary paradigm. Digital technologies did not arrive to resolve the questions of the print humanities anymore than late industrial technologies arrived to resolve the questions of a pre-industrial humanities. As I often argue here, we are faced with ethical questions regarding how to proceed. What do we take from the 20th century into this one? Set aside, for a moment, the navel-gazing debates over methodological minutiae and consider what larger questions the humanities seek to answer in this century.

I certainly do not want to make a claim that I know what the humanities should be. I have a hard enough time finding my own scholarly way. However, I will make the argument that what the humanities was in the last century was largely conditioned (though not determined!) by the capacities of an industrial culture and that now those capacities are different and as such the humanities will change. Maybe the humanities will diminish or even disappear, but not necessarily. However they will change if for no other reason than the technological infrastructures on which they once relied have changed.

It's up to all of us, individually and collectively, to figure out how to get back to work. 


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