Last week I attended the 2013 Digital Humanities conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, and came away with a strong and renewed sense of what the field is about and where it is heading. The talks I attended were on the whole engaging and many showed signs of genuine innovation, at the levels of method, theory, self-reflection, and even domain-specific research results. (I hope to describe some of these talks in more detail in other posts.) The field has definitely come into its own and has developed a new condifence, even a swagger, that comes with public recognition and from the satisfaction of achieving clear and compelling results in the application of its methods. I do not recall, for example, a digital humanities research project with the comprehensibility of Jenny Clay’s “Mapping Homer’s Catalog of Ships,” a tour de force presented by co-investigators Courtney Evans and Ben Jasnow (this year’s Fortier Prize winners), and developed in collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at Virginia. I am sure many humanists outside of the digital humanities, and not only classicists, will grasp both the method and its results, and will be inspired to ask interesting questions of both Homer and the researchers on the basis of this understanding. Google’s Ngram Viewer and the related Culturomics school had something of this effect on humanists at the annual AHA meeting couple of years ago, but we still don’t know what their results are about—“word death,” being something much less than culture, notwithstanding.
What surprised me about the conference, though, was that in spite of this success, the ethos of the field—the attitudes of the people I met and with whom I reconnected—has remained that of a community (gemeinschaft) and not yet that of a society (such as the MLA), although signs of a shift in this direction were evident as well. I say “in spite of” because with success often comes competitiveness and enclosure. Instead the meeting possessed a good deal of what George Eliot called “fellow feeling,” or what Victor Turner called communitas. This result was no doubt due in large part to the skill of the organizing community in orchestrating the event on so many levels, including the social (social as in Amy Vanderbilt, not Max Weber). It also has to do with the scale of the DH community, which remains relatively small. But there is another reason too: I am happy to report that the digital humanities is still founded on a situation, a generative source of ideas and practices that make intellectual innovation possible. How else to explain the sustained collegial interaction among hard-core computational statisticians, enthusiastic crowd-source librarians, and crtically-minded post-colonial theorists? These groups inhabit quite different intellectual spaces during their day-to-day lives, and are brought up in completely different intellectual traditions. (Ask yourself: is there any one major text that all digital humanists are likey to have read? A cultural anthropologist can cite many, and so can a computer scientist.) Whereas most discplines are united by a discourse tradition (in addition to a less visible practical expertise in working with specific forms of data), the digital humanities is, continues to be, united by something else: a love of digital technology and an optimism that, in spite of its dark side, technology can help advance the work of interpretation and edification (as Richard Rorty used to say) that lies at the heart of the humanities.
It’s true—digital humanists as a group are united by a shared love of digital technology, not an unselfconscious technolophilia, but nonetheless a fundamental embrace of the protean power of the computer—as algorithm, as database, as network, as media player, as mobile platform, as desktop machine—to do things with texts and images and other vehicles of collective memory that cannot (or would not) otherwise be done. What other connection is there between maker lab historians and topic modelers from computer science? Among these and the many other practices associated with DH there is no shared paradigm in Kuhn’s sense, no replicable example of intellectual work that unites all of them. Instead there are many more or less well developed methods, each competing for attention and playing more or less well with others, even if certain ideas, such as graph theory, cross-cut many of them. (Which explains why so many digital humanists are averse to “defining” the digital humanities.) Encompassing all of these is the shared experience of applying some specific digitally-informed technique to some equally specific interpretive problem, refracted through the humanist’s sense of nuance. (In an earlier piece, I half-jokingly called this the experience of transductive plasma—the liminal, creative play that arises when we cross-map the heterogeneous domains of old and new media.) When digital humanists get together, we bond over the stories we tell about our experience in this space, a space that continues to yield ideas, surprise, and joy, even when our efforts fail there, and even as it becomes surrounded by gawkers, picketers, and the occasional heckler.
This talk of love is of course meant to illuminate Willard McCarty’s lecture, given on the occasion of his accceptance of the Busa Award at the conference. Of the many things touched upon by Willard in that talk—and there were many—his insistance that one ought to engage in the digital humanities for the love of it was the one thing that ignited after-talk conversation. “What’s love got to do with it?” tweeted one attendee, quoting Tina Turner, and raising the issue of sexism in the field. Others pointed out that exploitation of love forms the basis of the current academic serf economy. But, if I am correct, we digital humanists are already in it for the love of it. We get that. So why the fuss? Beyond the inevitable generational conflict being played out here—between younger formally trained digital humanists for whom the very term “academic” has become a contested category (think “alt-ac”) and an older self-taught generation for whom the liberal arts served as a refuge from the insistent demands of capital and the need to always have a point—there is a another question we should be asking ourselves, and which I think lies the heart of what Willard was getting at. Given that love has everything to do with what we do, the question becomes, to borrow from Bo Diddley, who do you love? What do you love in the digital humanities and why and how?
There are many things we love, of course, too many to enumerate here. But I think one can describe a history of DH by creating a genealogy of love interests, and of how love itself has changed over time. McCarty did just this in his talk, or at least he produced the outlines of such a history. It goes something like this. In the beginning was the computer—not the commercial product that has now become a vector of capital formation and government control—but the abstract machine that materialized on campuses around the world sometime in the 1950s and 1960s and which inspired fascination—the early signs of love—for both its utility and its ancestry. Its utility, we now know, was somewhat oversold at the time. But its ancestry was a glorious thing—for here was the material offspring, the eversion to use Gibson’s term (with compliments to Steve Jones), of an entire cosmology that gets born in 1948, the year that information theory and cybernetics burst onto the public scence and transform science forever. To early digital humanists, the computer was the avatar of an informational cosmology (or, if you like, an informational imaginary), a movement whose origins may be traced at least as far back as Hobbes and Leibniz and which underwent profound development after Kant in the long nineteenth century, not only through the work of Babbage and Lovelace, but of Laplace, Boole, Gibbs, AT&T, Turing, MuCulloch, IBM, and many other strands that were to be joined in a new synethesis, to a degree not seen since Aristotle, and under whose sign we still live. The love that McCarty describes I take to be a continuation and maturation of this fascination, in which playing with computers to model texts, for example, becomes a combinatorial glass bead game in which an understanding of the stuff of mind, of the limen between textual meaning and machinic causality, is at stake.
All of this changed with the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Berners-Lee’s singular invention, the social link—added to a charged mix of pervasive personal computing, the deregulation of the Internet (Al Gore’s contribution), and a healthy BBS network—changed everything. For whereas before this event the computer could remain as much an object of contemplation as a tool for getting work done, from this point on its social utility as a node in a free, instantaneous, and gloabal publishing network would dwarf everything else. At this point, to borrow Sun’s motto, the network became the computer. The computer qua comptuer became sublimated to the human-computer network as a dominant social form, a sphere of exchange that would end up reshaping everything from commerce to consciousness, precipitating its own forms of culture and modes of social organization. Open Source, for example, far from being just a new way of producing software (with roots in a decades-old free software culture), became an ethic and a paradigm for social interaction of all kinds, from collaborative authoring to everything that would eventually be dubbed “2.0.” What I heard McCarty say is that when the Web happened, things shifted radically for those in humanities computing, away from a concern for computation and modeling and toward mass digitization, archive building, blogging, and social networking. Lost in transition was an appreciation of the computer itself, the abstract and universal machine, its historical and epistemological significance as a wonderful problem, which after all had become a vertex among a set of edges.
You can see that there are at least two modes of affection here, operating at different levels in the same system and relating to two great phases in the history of the digital humanities. The love that McCarty declares is a Heideggerian care in which the machine is the horizon of the interpretation, if we understand “machine” to be something that encompasses atoms, genes, bodies, societies, and computers, emergent metastabilities out of which appear properties of agency and mind. It is the great Idea, materialized and evolving, that stands before us in this moment. It is new and resists reduction to the old tropes of power, desire, class, even play. In many ways, this concern is very close to Harraway’s project, which explores the same problemetic (as we used to say) but with a good deal more suspicion—the machine, for those fields of representation which seek to encompass it, is a “dangerous thing,” to echo Lakoff.
Our new mode of love is different. Ours is a happy instrumentalism, a bright-colored pragmatism buoyed by the cachet of the Open Source ethos that spawned it, and inheriting the latter’s social optimisim and implicit moral superiority vis-à-vis neoliberal corporatism. For us, technology is less of a sacred flame and more of a camp fire; we embrace it for its playful utility and social engagement, not for its gravitas and oracular power. We celebrate the successes that quantittive and digital methods have in illuminating the nature of historical sources (such as Homer), but we do not typically submit these methods to the same through-going critique that we apply to the sources themselves. (In all of the talks and posters presented at DH 2013, I think only one even came close to being critical of technology itself—one on “Google’s prosthesis,” which takes seriously the fact that Google is in the business of advertising more than anything else.)
I do not mean to suggest that humanities computing did not possess its own kind of instrumentalism. The general sense one gets in reading the work of Sperberg-McQueen, Renear, and Unsworth, to cite a few of the luminaries from the period in which I discovered DH, is a deep respect for computer science and for the analytical concepts that came along with it—context-free grammars, first-order logic, and knowledge representation. Unlike, for example, Lucy Suchman and Diana Forsythe, two anthropologists who pioneered ethnographically-informed critiques of digital technology, these thinkers regard computer science as a fundamental good, a new frame within which to investigate longstanding issues in the study of texts and literature. Which is not to say that they accepted the frame at face value. Rather, any critique would emerge in evaluating how well these methods handle the complexities of humanistic data. And this is very close to where we are now. But the great difference between then and now is that we are much less philosophical.
Nor do I mean to suggest that digital humanists have a blind love of technology, a gung-ho technophilia that is blind to its limitations and potential evils. For one thing, we digital humanists are picky about the technologies we love. Gaming has still not made its way to the center of the tent, and relational databases—unless buried under the stack of a Rails application, where they are domesticated and dressed to behave like object models—remains less cool than non-SQL alternatives. The heart of the digital humanities remains in the textual edition and the archive and this bias still exerts a profound influence on what gets in and what stays out. For another thing, DH has in recent years become more and more closely allied with Media Studies, a field that specializes in the social critique of technology on the one hand and emphasizes its aesthetic dimension on the other. If the marriage goes through, I expect to see hybrid forms of digital humanities work in which critique drives method as much as method drives research.
In the end, I think Willard’s point comes down to this: humanities computing was philosophy by other means; digital humanities is post-philosophical. Now that we have reached a certain level of success, we digital humanists would do well to consider how we may become more philosophical, remembering that the first half of that word is love.