Ramsay, Liu, cultural critique, and DH

I’m looking to extend a conversation from recent posts by Stephen Ramsay and Alan Liu, which are in turn parts of a longer conversation that includes Liu’s essay in the Debates in the Digital Humanities, the “dark side of DH” business, and the general intersection of DH and cultural critique. The intellectual projects Ramsay and Liu describe run parallel to my own ongoing book project, though I am coming from a digital rhetoric perspective rather than the humanities computing wing of DH. For those who are not familiar at all with this conversation, basically this is about responding to the cultural critique of digital humanities. This takes several generic forms.

  • Because programming languages and computer science reproduce hegemony (and here feel free to put in patriarchy, capitalism, etc.), making use of these puts one in service to those interests. And serving those interests is bad… just in case you didn’t know, so the point is that one should stop doing that and do this other thing, which may or may not be specified in the argument, but generally ends up meaning that one should end up moving in whatever direction cultural critique points.
  • The same argument except insert social media, the web, and consumer grade technologies (e.g. mobile phones, video cameras, video games).
  • The same argument but leveled directly at particular DH projects.

The one “nice” thing about cultural critique is that you can always count on it to make the same argument. I think it’s safe to say that Ramsay and Liu have more generosity toward critique than I do. Ramsay writes “Writing a book contra cultural studies seems to me to be the wrong direction entirely. I would like to make positive statements about what we’re doing, about why it’s different, and about the ethical problems it raises. The insights of cultural criticism are not so easily dismissed.” I understand Ramsay’s position, especially from within the DH world where speaking against cultural studies is likely to result in a lot of vitriol being sent in one’s direction. Actually, it’s all too easy to critique critique: because everything is always already subject to critique, and critique is interminable. Cultural critique is its own disciplinary hegemony, reproducing itself. It’s the thought police of the humanities, posing as skepticism but assailing its detractors as automatically being willing or (perhaps even worse) unwitting servants of hegemony.

But I agree with Ramsay that it is not worth doing that, but maybe for different reasons. For me, critiquing critique just feeds back into the same machine. The point is to move on from critique and do something different.

So here are some ideas in the spirit of moving on.

  1. Treat critique as a heuristic. Critique isn’t going anywhere and anything you do can be critiqued a half-dozen ways. So critique will also give you something new to do. You just shouldn’t treat critique as if it is telling you some horrible truth.
  2. Treat critique like your parents. You can love critique because it nurtured you through your intellectual growth. And you can remember how critique used to tower over you, appearing as an absolute authority. Maybe critique made you feel safe. Maybe it would scold or punish you. Maybe critique abused you. I don’t know. But now that we are all adults, we can see critique is just as screwed up and lost as the rest of us.
  3. Treat critique as a machine. It does certain things. It has inputs and outputs. It’s predictable when it is operated according to the established instructions. It’s true in the way a hammer or telescope or automobile is true. That is to say that it is true to itself.

Admittedly those ideas are presented with some humor and lightness. Critique believes in itself and sees itself locked in a death match with evil. Understandably it can be humorless. Of course injustice and evil and what not existed prior to critique. The questions of ethical and moral behavior, the challenges of making lived experience better, and the dangers of confronting those who act unethically existed prior to critique. We need to be able to question critique as a method without denying the importance of the objects critique studies. We also need to recognize that the particular modes of attack on all things digital by cultural critique may be fueled by disciplinary paradigms and historical contexts.

For example, Ramsay observes:

At the most basic level, we wonder what it means to use the tools handed down to us by corporations (Twitter, Facebook, mobile devices, etc.) to do something that is supposedly (to quote Google) “not evil.” We might just want a cup of coffee, but we are walking into Starbucks to get it. We also, I think, tend to “track” corporate trends. They get into mobile, we get into mobile. They get into data mining, we get into data mining. So asking whether we “channel, advance, or resist” is a good question. A serious question. A book-length question.

I think this is a good question to ask. It’s a question I would put into the context of how corporate, hegemonic technologies and processes like typewriters (built by arms manufacturers like Remington and Holocaust collaborators like IBM), printing presses, electrification, telephony, and so on (all the trappings of the second industrial revolution) were handed to the humanists of the early 20th century. How journals, monographs, and academic conferences followed corporate trends. And we should think about the reverse trend as well… how corporations make the literacy and cultural criticism we give our students productive. It’s a good question to ask: why do cultural critics want to attack DH methods, while ignoring that the print humanities have always had an equal complicity with the military-industrial complex? After all, it should be fairly obvious that publishing a monograph requires one to become as immersed in marketplace forces and corporate technologies as posting to a blog. Teaching 15 students in a seminar room serves hegemony just as well as teaching 15000 in a MOOC (maybe better since MOOCs are so ineffective pedagogically).

The problem might be that critique is something of a blunt instrument. Maybe I’ve only presented it as such here. No doubt it would take more than 1000 words to pursue this argument with care. I am generally with Latour here. I would no more deny the realities of human suffering and injustice than I would deny climate change. I would argue that our understanding of these conditions is flawed as critique stands like a house of cards on a modern ontological worldview that doesn’t work. I see the humanities cultural critique of the digital as driven by a disciplinary methodological paradigm that wants to keep churning. In short the response to cultural critique should not respond to the critiques themselves (unless one finds them heuristically useful). Instead, we need to investigate a different ontological mode (and the methods it might suggest) and recognize the inertial drag of our print legacy on our disciplines.

So, for example, I think Liu is asking some very important questions at the end of his post:

How can digital methods be used to uncover what I called micro-, meso-, and macro-level identity formations that unpredictably and rhizomatically link between “individuals,” “groups,” “classes,” “nations,” and “globalism”? For example, what is the human meaning–-i.e, the affordance for significant human understanding, action, and interaction–-of viral biopolitics at the cellular and sub-cellular level; of equally but differently viral contagions of influence at the institutional level (where corporations and governments, for instance, today infect universities through the vectors of MOOC’s, “accountability” measures, “impact” studies, etc.); and of truly global-scale flows of information-cum-capital?

But I wouldn’t feed this investigation back into the language of cultural critique. I am very interested in how the university conceives of digital literacy–the policies, curriculum, pedagogies, and other investments that are made in this vein both in terms of undergraduate teaching and faculty scholarship. In fact, you could say this is the overarching topic of my work. I want to understand how these systems/networks/assemblages/objects operate. I do not want to begin with the answer to the question, as cultural critique would. I want to create understanding, tools, and activities in this arena that try to make the world better, even though I only have a provisional and localized understanding of what “better” might be and how to achieve it. But they will never satisfy critique. So what?

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10 thoughts on “Ramsay, Liu, cultural critique, and DH

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  1. I find myself agreeing with most of this, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the guts to write it myself. A piece I’ve found useful on this topic (and I actually got this lead from Alan Liu) is Rita Felski’s essay contrasting “critique” to “the hermeneutics of suspicion”: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/431 She tacitly prefers the latter.

    I think that essay is really smart about the limits of a particular stereotyped contemporary stance, without falling into the opposite trap of seeming to close off politics or skeptical reflection more broadly construed. I also think your final paragraph is very good at that. Maybe “rhetoric” is going to be a fruitful model for us all here — as a practice that has always been political, but actively and creatively political, rather than purely “negative” or “secondary,” to borrow Felski’s terms.


    1. Thanks Ted. I will have to read Felski’s piece. The phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion” is familiar to me. Without reading it, I suppose I would say, following Ulmer, that I am more interested in heuretics than hermeneutics, in inventing an constructing knowledge than discovering truth. Briefly scanning Felski, she seems to account for such an approach, so there may be some useful connections there.


    1. Michael’s link points to an excerpt from Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor. I think that’s an interesting book. Well worth the read. The methodologies I have pursued in studying digital media over the last 15 years or so could be fairly labeled as “post-Deleuzian,” especially if you want to describe Latour as such (which sometimes even Latour seems to do). It’s people like DeLanda, Massumi, and of course many other folks (one gets to a surprising amount of reading over the years).

      In the 20 years since I first stepped into grad school, I’ve encountered plenty of verbal vitriol. The suggestion that something “would improve your reasoning” is a fairly light ad hominem jab. In grad school, the “red theory collective” (as they called themselves) would attack anyone who did not share their convictions with the certainty that no other position was morally or intellectually acceptable. Having a interest in Deleuze meant being “ludic,” which was apparently a code word for being a reprobate. Being a rhetorician who studies technology in departments that were predominately about literary study has often meant being perceived as the devil incarnate. And that takes all kinds of forms from personal attacks to strategic bureaucratic moves. I’ve constructed a career around being a necessary evil.

      But we’ve all been through these things, right? Hell, one of my colleagues called another one a “lunatic” on the department email list this morning, and it’s not even 8am yet. The one thing we all should know is that “theory” and a through humanities education does not produce people who are more civil or ethical. Sometimes I fear that nothing will “improve our reasoning,” to use your phrase.

      So you can read through this blog. And there are a 1000+ posts over 10 years, so even I’m not sure what you’ll find. You will find some bold claims. You will see me say that I don’t find the methods of cultural critique particularly useful anymore. You will see me argue that the disciplinary paradigms shared among rhetoric, literary studies, and many other humanities are outmoded. You will see my claim that our general disciplinary approach to digital media is misguided.

      I don’t think you’ll find me making personal attacks. And I’m certain that you won’t find me accusing other scholars of being complicit in oppression or murder simply because they employ research methods that are different from my own.


      1. I didn’t consider my comment a personal attack, even though I did not take the time to engage more thoroughly with your text. I find some of your rhetoric here extreme (evil, devil, oppression, murder), and it may be that you are reacting / responding to some similarly extreme rhetoric aimed at you or your circle. I think I’m stepping mid-stream into some larger dialogue (or rhetorical warfare).

        But, having spent most of the day trying to read up on current debates in DH, I do see that there are lines of argumentation and self-critique that echo earlier parallel discussions about the politics of technology.

        Asking how technology reflects asymmetries of power or privilege, or re-entrenches the interests of those who design, employ, deploy or control it, does not necessitate creating camps of “good” and “evil,” and I think that Google’s maxim either reflects naiveté or distracts from the important questions… Hence, your blog text rang alarm bells for me.

        If throwing in Winner’s piece without sufficient discussion was impolite and counter-productive for dialogue, I apologize. I don’t know you and haven’t read your 1000+ blog entries. But I’ve spent enough time with IT professionals to know that these analyses of technology and privilege are not common knowledge.


      2. That’s fine Michael. You don’t know where I’m coming from, and I don’t know where you are coming from. I agree that the rhetoric here is extreme, but it is the nature of the conversation that you have stepped into, as you say, and it is part of the reason why I make this argument about cultural critique as being unproductive.

        However, the part I’m trying to focus on here is about methodology. I absolutely agree that we should study the political and social role of technologies, but my approach would be more Latourian. After 20 years of reading the cultural critique of technology I find it to be a bit of an echo chamber.

        I’ll just also add, that I probably would have responded more favorably to your initial post if you had written something like “Your post makes me think of Winner’s Whale and Reactor where he says _____. What do you think?” So I’m sorry that we got off on the wrong foot.


      3. Yes, I should have said, “How would you respond to Winner’s critique of … as in this excerpt.” I blame my infant for sleep-deprivation, and I stepped between battle lines prematurely and unawares (but have to extricate myself to a degree now!)

        After having a paltry few more hours to read a few more snippets of the larger dialogue, it seems to me that it might be useful to separate at least a couple of issues (sorry for any redundancy with ideas that may be floating elsewhere):

        (1) How do practitioners of DH (or whatever you want to call it) reflect on their work and how it intersects with power and privilege? (There must be some reflexive analysis here, or it wouldn’t be academia, right?)

        (2) Even if we understand and acknowledge the problematic nature of the technology we use, how it is produced, the inherent biases or limitations of what we implement, etc, how will that change how we are or should be engaged in our own projects that share in these problems?

        As you point out, all technologies can be positioned as problematic in their origins, or in their production, etc., and DH (or digital technologies in general) need not be singled out for exception — except that they are the new kids on the block and draw attention to themselves, and there may be a psychological factor (i.e., pre-internet academics who feel mystified or intimidated by them).

        The production processes of computers themselves are troubling: rare earth elements mined from lands taken from indigenous peoples, parts made by cheap labour, obsolete and toxic machinery disposed in third-world settings, etc. Is this a more resource intensive process than in other technologies? I’m not in a position to argue that, but the nature of heightened expectations for research and productivity hardly allows us to ignore the benefits of using it.

        I appreciated Alan Liu’s comment that, “Humanist cultural critics can write all the books and make all the speeches they wish about how individuals must relate actively to groups and classes, and then about how the assemblages that result can act on the top-of-system social powers. But it is like shouting across a far chasm. The bridge from the individual to society that those critics are able and warranted to act on directly has been knocked down.”

        And I do agree with Alan that there are reasons to be cautious about how DH allies with the corporatization of academia, an industrial / quantitative paradigm of “knowledge production,” etc.

        But, where does that leave us? Does cultural critique simply make us uncomfortably conscious of how we are implicated in patterns of exploitation and privilege, but render us unable to challenge those systems meaningfully or offer alternatives? I don’t have an answer to that, and I think it’s one that should deeply trouble us. But this knowledge won’t stop me or most people from continuing their work or pursuing their research goals, or cause me to condemn others for being trapped in an imperfect system. Does this render our “critical practices” impotent and our careers meaningless? (Open questions!)


      4. These are all great questions. They are the ones we need to work on. And by “we,” I don’t mean only DH folks. These are larger questions of how to live in a digital world. They are the questions that interest me as a scholar and drive my work (though I tend to focus on their relevance within education). I’ll take a stab at some of your particular questions.

        1. DH is a large constellation of fields. In my particular corner, which is digital rhetoric and computers and writing, there’s been a lot of discussion about access, the “digital divide,” identity issues online, different cultural uses of digital media, digital literacy narratives, and so on. But we’ve been doing this work for 30 years. I think that if one is experimenting with what are very new methods for the field (e.g. topic modeling of a large literary corpus), one has to have a chance to do something before reflecting on what one has done.

        2. Here is where I would turn to Latour, who comes out of science studies. So Latour talks about the ways in which various technologies and practices contribute to the construction of scientific facts. He doesn’t do this to suggest that the facts are not true. To the contrary, his point is to explain how facts are strengthened through their construction. I think we need to look at technologies in the humanities in a similar fashion. The library and the archive, which become represented in a monograph in a series of quotations, references, and a bibliography, might be our lab in the traditional print humanities. No technology is perfect. We need to develop practices for constructing strong knowledge.

        I think the answer about what critique does is actually fairly simple. Critique will never build anything. It’s a method for posing problems. So we need something to follow upon it.


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