some digital humanities encounters at #mla12

I suppose it is fair to say that I passed through MLA this year. I was only in Seattle for one day (Saturday) when panels were going on and attended four that day, including my own. It's the first time I've presented at MLA in over a decade. It's not really a conference that I've ever considered to be in my discipline. And if you want to understand why, you can go to this search page for the program and look at the drop-down menu of subjects. There are only two subjects that are not some kind of "literature:" linguistics and "the profession." Rhetoric is a subheading of "General Literature," but my panel was in Electronic Technology, also in "General Literature." Obviously, I can't really operate in a world that views everything as some kind of literature. But that's fine. As I said, it's not my conference or professional organization. 

What I want to remark on is precisely this tendency to view the world and its objects as various kinds of literature, which is perhaps a little like that "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. That said, I don't want to make sweeping generalizations but only talk about how I saw this phenomenon in the panels I attended. Specifically, I noticed a familiar though curious-to-an-outsider tendency to value close reading and demonize clarity. The latter is one of the places where I think rhetoricians and literary scholars really differ. Certainly rhetoricians understand in principle and investigate in particular the cultural contexts that define and perpetuate certain values regarding clarity. We've read all the same theory as literary scholars. At the same time, as teachers of writing and as writers ourselves, we realize that it is not easy to be clear.

In short, I'm hoping this post makes its point clearly. I'll even proofread it (once) before I press publish!

Obviously some texts are difficult to understand even when the author is struggling for clarity. And certainly in some artistic/literary contexts, difficulty is an objective in itself. Regardless though, some things need to be clear so that others can be difficult. Finnegans Wake is of course a difficult text, but the words are clearly printed on the page, right? I mean if everything was difficult and unclear (e.g. signage in a conference center), I probably wouldn't be able to make my way to your panel presentation to hear about how awful clarity is. So English sets itself up in opposition to clarity as part of its kind of loyal opposition role that it plays throughout the 20th century in relation to a nationalist, industrial, technocratic culture (while at the same time demanding clarity from students and from colleagues in the writing they produce). The value on close reading is interconnected with valuing difficulty. Through close reading, difficult texts are made more understandable. Or if you dislike the idea of degrees of clarity then I could say close reading makes texts understandable in a different way that is more amenable to the values of literary studies.

Honestly these are traditional and recognizable values in the discipline. So I was curious to see how they were embedded in the literary studies version of digital humanities. Personally I find the opposition to clarity in computer interfaces somewhat bizarre. I've certainly been in conference presentations where the WiFi doesn't work or someone's web page won't load or the file they have won't open on the computer that's availabe to them, etc. etc.  I've never really seen anyone celebrate these interface failures. Does anyone think such things are desirable? That's not to say that a digital literary/artistic work that investigates interfaces isn't worthwhile, and I'm certainly not suggesting that we shouldn't study or critique interfaces. But sometimes I wonder if people make the arguments they do only because they are confident that no one is going to take them seriously.

Meanwhile, the close reading issue is trickier. The arguments I saw ranged from suggesting that using digital media in the classroom (in this case making a video game based on a novel) made the students read more closely to a more global argument that it was necessary for English to demonstrate that close reading was a valuable practice in relation to digital media. I asked the panelists if they felt that close reading was so central to literary studies that they couldn't imagine the discipline without it and if they were concerned that close reading might play itself out. Of course we realize that there are various "distant reading" projects going on, but it is hard to imagine distant reading replacing close reading. (And I should note that close reading is also a central feature of rhetoric.) There was thoughtful response to this, including the observation that other academics beyond English identify English with close reading and recognize that practice as the thing we do, as what we bring to the table, methodologically speaking.

While that may be true, I think it is also a problem. In part because I see close reading as a fairly specific mode of analysis and that there are many other forms of investigation that examine objects closely. Indeed actor-network theory could be practiced that way and I wouldn't call it close reading, because what close reading does (whether in a New Critical or in a more contemporary theoretical frame) is leap from a specific feature of a text to some global theoretical predisposition. So the Marxist critic reads the text closely in search of class issues and not surprisingly find them, etc., etc. 

In my view, close reading seems particularly ill-suited to practices related to digital media, in part because it might have the tendency to treat digital media as if it were print. I'm also not sure that it does a good job of identifying productive units of analysis. Perhaps we can say that it is misleading to look at a text on a page and treat those words as units independent of the technological production and networks that bring them into being, as the traditional close reading would insist we do (the text itself with its "intrinsic" meaning).  However, I think it is somehow more problematic to look at a video game or an interactive digital work and treat it as if it were a text, as if it were literature.

So while I certainly wouldn't want to characterize all of literary studies digital humanities as doing this, let alone the wider frame of DH, I do think this paradigmatic disciplinary perspective that leads literary scholars to view objects as literary could be a problem in the long-term challenge of engaging with the digital. I don't know how they will work around it. That's their issue. No doubt, rhetoricians have their own similar problems, which I'm sure to be addressing when 4C's comes around, if not sooner.