Digital humanities and an object-oriented democracy #mla12

Here is the text of my brief roundtable talk at MLA.

When we look at digital humanists and those who study technology in writing studies, we discover a field of methodological silos with long histories situated in a context of broader disciplinary antagonism. Still for decades we have gotten along fine, hardly paying any attention to one another, until two things happened. The first was the technological revolution of the last 15 years, which has dramatically expanded the work we might do and made the study of digital media a more central subject for the humanities. The second was the invention and popularization of this term the "digital humanities," which unlike humanities computing, has come to mean something larger. Not only are there now more people than ever with an interest in what humanities computing has become, but there are a far wider range of scholars, not only in writing studies but also in new media studies, game studies, and the cultural study of technology who never considered themselves in humanities computing but now find themselves drawn into this umbrella term, the digital humanities. We¹ve reached a point where Stanley Fish writes in the NY Times that the digital humanities includes "the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure ….in short, everything."

I don't think anyone intended that. But if it hadn¹t been the "digital humanities," it would have been something else, some other term, that would have thrown us all together in the context of this expanding digital-technological revolution. While that work is ongoing I believe we face another larger common task in rethinking the relationship of the humanities toward digital culture and literacy. A dozen years ago I chaired a panel at MLA called "Is technology killing English Studies?" Though obviously much has changed, we are still largely there, still uncertain of the relation between English and digital media, perhaps more uncertain than ever of the profession's future. Fortunately we don¹t require common answers or even common questions about the role of the digital for the humanities. What we will require, I believe, is a realization that we will no longer be able to operate as if the capacities of digital technologies did not exist then one could have operated in the 20th century as if the typewriter or industrial printing did not exist.  What those capacities will be remains undetermined. While waiting for a connecting flight in Detroit, I ran into Alan Kay's famous line, "the best way to predict the future is to invent it." I wonder how many people wandering that airport would realize that Kay's line, delivered in Palo Alto in 1971, was a death knell for Detroit not a celebration of the great modern industrial project. And despite our pseudo-Luddite protestations, that's what English and MLA are as well, great modern industrial projects. Of course we haven't had our Detroit moment, our higher ed bubble continues to stretch. Perhaps it won't burst.

On the other hand maybe we can toward invention anyway In my view, the significant division between literary studies and rhetoric lies between hermeneutics and heuristics, between interpretation and invention. It¹s fair to say that literary studies has focused on interpretation to the same degree as writing studies has focused on invention. The digital humanities, while having a disciplinary loyalty to interpretation, is also very committed to invention as the "less yack more hack" refrain suggests. However I believe we need a wider scope of invention. In my view Kay's techno-optimistic line remains a modernist faith. As such I would offer instead Bruno Latour's "Compositionist Manifesto." As Latour has long argued, the principles of modernity are flawed. While his work has been taken up in our field, particularly by those in science studies, I don't believe we have adequately considered our disciplines' own fatal modernity. In addressing this concern, Latour invokes Benjamin's backward-looking angel but notes that contrary to Benjamin’s interpretation,

the Modern who, like the angel, is flying backward is actually not seeing the destruction; He is generating it in his flight since it occurs behind His back!… What the Moderns called “their future” has never been contemplated face to face, since it has always been the future of someone fleeing their past looking backward, not forward. This is why… their future was always so unrealistic, so utopian, so full of hype.

Latour's interest in this piece is with the far more pressing issue of our ecological future than with our discipline or higher education. However I believe this applies to us as well, particularly as we seek a role in the defining conversations of our time. Perhaps it is just the rhetorician in me, but I read Latour's call as a call for a new ethos, a rethinking of relation, not only among humans but among all objects, what he refers to elsewhere as an "object-oriented democracy." So how do we do that? As a rhetorician I think it means asking how do we turn our backs to the modern faith in a public sphere of deliberative democratic rhetoric founded on "critical thinking" and argument, the linchpins of rhetorical education starting in first-year composition. That kind of disentanglement is not easy, but if one manages that and then turns toward our prospects, what does one see? What can we compose at that point? The entirety of rhetorical relations must be rethought with an eye for the objects that have always been there. It doesn't mean that we stop making arguments, but that we approach their composition differently. This is both an abstract philosophical project and an applied challenge. It means asking how we create technologies that allow us to see and compose arguments differently, with a cautionary eye toward a nonmodern, object-oriented democracy. And while this would impact composition, I think it begins with humanities scholarship. And that is a project in which we might all participate.

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