digital rhetoric object-oriented rhetoric

mathematics and evil

I'm finishing up an essay for a new collection on rhetoric and the digital humanities that looks at the usefulness of a speculative digital rhetoric for dh, specifically big data applications. One of the points of commonality between speculative realism and digital humanities has been their interest in advanced mathematics. This has been pointed out before (see, for example, Michael Witmore's piece on the Ancestral Text in the Open Access edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities). Clearly Meillassoux's work connects with set theory but one could also think of Bryant's interest in cybernetics, DeLanda's use of simulation, or Bogost's work with programming. The use of mathematics and computing has also been a common point of the critiques lodged against both fields such as Alex Galloway's piece in Critical Inquiry or Tara McPherson's in the Debates book. In both cases, and many similar critiques, speculative realism and digital humanities are guilty by association. The warrants in these arguments are that we know that object-oriented programming is a tool for capitalist domination and that advanced mathematics has been built to devalue the human race and exploit our suffering for the profit of the few. So all we have to do is demonstrate that speculative realism or digital humanities rely upon such evils to prove their own evil as well. 

Of course there is another possibility that suggests that mathematics is a powerful way of investigating the world and that our philosophies ought to account for it. In that case, part of the argument that mathematics is a powerful tool is that people who are in power use it; there's no point in denying that. What makes less sense is the argument that suggests that because a tool is powerful we shouldn't use it to understand the world. 

If we think about these matters historically, as these critiques often insist that we should, the arguments become even odder. If we were to look at critical methods that have long operated in the humanities such as psychoanalysis or Marxism, it wouldn't be difficult to recognize the role that nineteenth and early-twentieth century math and science played in the formations of those theories. Similarly, it isn't difficult to identify the importance of industrial technologies to the development of modern scholarly practices. It wouldn't be that difficult to establish that the math and science underpinning Marxism, for example, were also used to hegemonic and destructive ends. And yet, somehow, century-old math, science, and technology are acceptable in the humanities in a way that contemporary math, science, and technology are not.

I understand the argument that suggests the digital humanities are "under-theorized." I would think of the situation somewhat differently. New computational methods can always identify new relationships and patterns within data and interpreting those relationships and patterns is a second step that is perhaps necessarily going to be a little behind the first step. I don't know that our legacy critical theories are of much use in this regard. On the other hand, I think those who are willing to engage more openly with contemporary math, science, and technology, including speculative realists but many others as well, might be able to develop, in conjuction with digital humanists, ways of theorizing the ontological and epistemological status of computational analysis. For my own part in thinking about a digital speculative rhetoric, I think the role lies in understanding the rhetorical function of nonhumans.

Regardless, I don't really see the benefit in passing these blanket judgments on departments across the campus from the humanities building. It seems to me that this is where the real antipathy toward speculative realism and digital humanities begins. Mathematics isn't evil, though it can be used for evil purposes. Shakespeare was put to use in English departments to perpetuate an essentialist, anglocentric, patriarchal ideology but that doesn't make Shakespeare a servant of industrial capitalism that should be abandoned. What is really at stake here, I believe, is a matter of disciplinary authority wherein these methods are not beholden to extant theories. It is understandable that humanists would not want to become epiphenomena of math or neuroscience or simulations. The response has been to attempt to turn the tables by asserting all math and science is primarily historical and cultural. Speculative realism and digital humanities do something different by rejecting this divide in a Latourian move. I don't really see how this is evil. It's more like different, though its not suprising when different is mistaken for evil.


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