The Digital Humanities and the Revenge of Authority

That has always been my aim, and the content of that aim — a desire for pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power — is what blogs and the digital humanities stand against.

Stanley Fish in his blog post on The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality starts by setting himself up as an example of what the digital humanities stands against. We know that his tongue is in his cheek because he prefaces this aim for authority by mentioning David Lodge’s character Morris Zapp “whose ambition, as his last name suggests, is to write about a topic with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” It is a lovely move that he returns to at the very end when he reminds us that we are reading a “column, oops, I mean blog.” He can disarm his critics by mocking the authority he really has while using it. That authority comes from, among other things, writing a column/blog in the New York Times. Fish is a slippery Zapp, and he knows it.

What does he do within this outer frame? He uses the image of Zapp to make contrasting sense of the digital humanities through Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy” which presents the digital humanities as everything Zapp isn’t. He is painting the digital humanities into the other of the caricature Zapp, which is another caricature reminiscent of early enthusiasts like Ted Nelson and George Landow that argued that computing will liberate us by being anti-authority (ie. that hypertext liberates readers from the authority of the author and so on.)

This setup follows up on his previous column The Old Order Changeth which discovered that the new new thing at the MLA is Digital Humanities (see my earlier blog entry that argues that we are not the type of new thing Fish thinks we are.) He sets up a digital humanities that is (again) the latest fad that he can authorize through noticing it and then wittily critique (in the blog column to come.) He gets to be its prophet and eulogist in three posts just as he gets to both zapp us and be one of us bloggers. It is, after all, in having the first, middle and last word, or at least the last question, that you really transcend mortality for authority.

I’m guessing that the questions he is going to ask of the digital humanities (in his next column) are like those that Matthew Reisz raises in another witty essay Surfdom and they are of the “so what” category. Fish hints at what is to come when he quotes Jerry McGann to the effect that the digital humanities have to clearly demonstrate important contributions. No doubt he will pronounce on what we have demonstrated and what we will eventually contribute and what we can’t contribute at all. This is setting the field up for the sort of invidious game of usefulness or value that no field benefits from, least of all when the prosecutor also gets to be judge. Imagine asking about contributions in other fields? What exactly has cancer research done with all that money? What’s the use of astronomy? Has any work of art ever made a difference? These questions are easy to ask and devilishly hard to answer.

I would like to say, “lets not play that game,” but now that everyone has noticed that there is a lot of activity in the digital humanities they are rushing to judge it. To do that judging they have to do two things – they have to reify the field into some one thing that can be judged at all and then they have to introduce a metric against which it can be measured. I say “introduce” because, for the game to work, the metric can’t be obvious or readers will wonder if anything measures up. For that reason these metrics are generic qualities like meaning, importance, usefulness, freedom and so on. Reisz wants to know if digital tools have freed us to explore new ideas. Is there any way to measure that? What hoop will Fish want the digital humanities to jump through?

Whenever critics introduce quick questions or metrics the pedantic philosopher in me wants to slow the pace and change the questions that frame the discussion (not that Fish is in discussion with me.) I want to pull the Socratic move of dialogizing the issue forever which is the equivalent to sending it off to a committee. Fish and Reisz are columnists who have limited space to zapp us out of our self-satisfied slumbers – they will tire and move on, leaving us on the field of dialogue. We might as well try to make something of their drive-by questioning. (You can see my Responding to Surfdom here.) We should take the questions they raise seriously even if we have to translate them to do so. In that spirit I want to introduce three questions that help me reframe what is happening and that I think people discovering the field should ask of us.

Q1. What is the digital humanities such that you can think through it?

Q2. What would a digital contribution from the humanities be you?

Q3. How can you discuss digital humanities work with others?

Q1. The first question tries to open up the discovery of the digital humanities for you the reader. Reisz and Fish summarize a field with a tradition of at least 50 years of experimentation into something they can tackle in a column. For Reisz it is the digitization of content and for Fish it is another liberatory theory. I personally think the digital humanities is a craft that brings computing practices, concepts and language to the building of digital artifacts in the humanities. For that reason I think Fish is missing the point when he picks a recent book to stand in for what is a non-textual discipline. It is a bit like thinking you can figure out how to swim from a book, which raises the question of how you would learn about the digital humanities if you can’t only read about it. Is it fair to say that only if you practice it will you know it? For that reason I think we (both within and without the field) should ask how people can think about it.

Q2. The second question follows the path that others are taking in asking for examples of value while also building on the first question. To think of it as a craft you need to find examples of the objects that are crafted. If you ask what would interest you from the humanities you can compare what you think is important to what is being made. Again I address you as I don’t think we have negotiated a metric of importance that everyone will agree on. Rather than pretend we know what freedom to explore means or what important contributions are, lets talk about what you want from the humanities. The ability to listen to a broader community and in many different ways try to address them should be one of things we are doing in the field.

Q3. Which brings us to the last question, which is about how we discuss the field? Do these questions help? Do Fish or Reisz use their authority to open discussion or question it down? Do you have what you need to have a discussion (if you want to)? Have self-identified digital humanists helped you think and talk about the digital? (And how would we know what can help?)

I just finished an essay by Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe titled “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimilies” (in Switching Codes, edited by Bartscherer and Coover, 2011.) They contrast an example of traditional restoration (of a painting) to a digital reproduction project as a way to discussing how the digital can intervene in the career of a work of art. The traditional restoration of Holbein’s Ambassadors was apparently a failure while the digital reproduction of Veronese’s Nozze di Cana returned a high-quality facsimile to its original site in Venice to great acclaim. For Latour and Lowe it is all interpretation in a career or trajectory of a work. Even just maintaining the original in a museum or archive is an act of interpretation. In fact, Latour and Lowe don’t believe we would even think about an original like the Mona Lisa (and want to see the real one) if it wasn’t copied widely. What matters then is the quality of the intervention not the type of intervention. Interventions enabled by digital methods like the scale reproduction of the Nozze di Cana are in a continuum of ways we try to reimagine our culture. Latour and Lowe give a concrete example of a digital project that mattered and with it a theory of how mattering happens such that we can discuss interventions which is a way of intervening ourselves. Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels made a similar point in Deformance and Interpretation – that all interpretative moves are deformative. They change the flow of reception and they should. No one wants the humanities to have no effect. (Or, if it has no effect then we won’t know it.) The digital humanities are bringing a chaotic array of toys, tools, practices, methods, ideas, jargon, and projects into the humanities not as another theory with which to summarize the world from an armchair, but as a way to extend the humanities through digital experiments and talk about those experiments. It isn’t really one thing such that it can be put back into some box because some inadequacy has been discovered. The digital humanities wants to extend the toolbox available to those who care enough to intervene, teach people how to use the new tools, and support a context for talking about their use. Fish is … ooops, using one of those tools too to intervene. Good for him.