digital nonhumanities… excerpt

At work on the third chapter in my book this break, titled “digital nonhumanities.” Here is a brief excerpt discussing Alan Liu’s 2013 PMLA article “The meaning of the digital humanities,” along with Matthew Jockers and Ted Underwood. The point here is fairly straightforward. The mainstream humanities’ objection to digital methods is the belief that it represents a scientistic faith in machines that is really incompatible with the humanistic traditions that Liu calls its “residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity.” Critical theory builds on these yearnings as I discuss below. Either way though, the argument against the digital is that it places an uncritical faith in the capacities of machines, on what Liu calls the fallacy of separate human and machine orders. My point is that the critique of DH relies upon the exact same fallacy. As such, the real “crisis” represented by DH (at least potentially) is not that it values machine over human but that it might actually move beyond the human-machine divide into a new ontological order…

The complaints often lodged against the digital humanities accuse its practitioners of overlooking the lessons gained from critical theory in terms of understanding the dynamics of ideology, power, and other, variously named cultural forces in shaping knowledge. Another, more Latourian approach would investigate the many actors operating in the formation of digital humanities research. Liu notes this as well, writing that a science and technology studies approach would recognize that “any quest for stable method in understanding how knowledge is generated by human beings using machines founders on the initial fallacy that there are immaculately separate human and machinic orders, each with an ontological, epistemological, and pragmatic purity” (416). Instead Liu suggests that digital humanities methods, like those in the sciences, require “repeatedly coadjusting human concepts and machine technologies  until  (as  in Pickering’s  thesis about ‘the mangle of practice’) the two stabilize each other in temporary postures of truth that neither by itself could sustain” (416). For Latour this coadjusting is not flaw; instead it is precisely the way in which knowledge is constructed. For Liu, however, such processes put the humanities in a crisis, where “humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity—must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, workplace, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or,  even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co-opt humanistic meaning” (419). This is a familiar story, at least as old as Matthew Arnold, in its identification of the technoscientific world as a threat to humanity, but it is more interesting in this context as it would seem that the humanities here suffer from the same “initial fallacy” as the sciences in seeking a separation from machines. Perhaps it is not so much the sciences that ignore the role of machines in the “temporary postures of truth” that they produce as it is the contemporary humanities with their faith in the truth revealed through theory. If the fallacy of separate human and machine orders is rejected, then neither the traditional humanistic yearning nor its more progressive, contemporary, theory-driven version appear less mechanistic in their methods than those of the chemistry laboratory. In other words, while on first glance, the difference between the digital humanities and its print-based predecessors may appear to be the employment of technologies in the production of knowledge, this appearance relies upon a mistaken belief that humans and machines are ontologically and epistemologically separate. It is possible that the digital humanities might offer a method to move beyond this fallacy and abolish the divide between humans and nonhumans on which the humanities has been traditionally established, though it would be premature to suggest that the field is doing this now.

At the same time, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the sites where the digital humanities is weakening this divide would also be sites of controversy with the print humanities. For literary studies, Ted Underwood argues that a quantitative approach generates controversy primarily “because it opens up new ways of characterizing gradual change, and thereby makes it possible to write a literary history that is no longer bound to a differentiating taxonomy of authors, periods, and movements” (2013: 16). Underwood explains that evolutionary patterns of gradual change contradict the contrastive study of literary periodization that have defined the disciplinary paradigms of literary study. How is periodization connected to the fallacy of separate cultural/human and natural/machinic orders? The analysis of large collections of texts representing decades of literary production and the resulting detection of patterns of influence, development, or evolution suggests that literary production operates across networks that exceed the scale of individual human authors. While postmodern literary theory has diminished the role of the author that was already less prominent in the discipline, given the “intentional fallacy” of New Criticism, than it is in mainstream culture, there remains, in the extrinsic, cultural interpretations of literature, some exceptional, agential role to be played by the authorial subject. Even if the author’s role is overdetermined by culture, it remains on the cultural side, as opposed to the natural/nonhuman side, with its capacity for immanent change as opposed to an obedience to transcendental, natural laws. Periodization is evidence that symbolic action is a uniquely human trait; it is evidence of the ontological divide between humans and others. As Matthew Jockers remarks following his own digital-humanistic investigation, “Evolution is the word I am drawn to, and it is a word that I must ultimately eschew. Although my little corpus appears to behave in an evolutionary manner, surely it cannot be as flawlessly rule bound and elegant as evolution” (171). As he notes elsewhere, evolution is a limited metaphor for literary production because “books are not organisms; they do not breed” (PAGE?). He turns instead to the more familiar concept of “influence.” However, influence also reasserts the human/nonhuman divide. Certainly there is no reason to expect that books would “breed” in the same way the biological organisms do (even though those organisms reproduce via a rich variety of means). If literary production were imagined to be undertaken through a network of compositional and cognitive agents, then such productions would not be limited to the capacity of a human to be influenced. Jockers may be right that “evolution” is not the most felicitous term, primarily because of its connection to biological reproduction, but an evolutionary-type process, a process as “natural” as it is “cultural,” as “nonhuman” as it is “human,” may exist. Regardless of whether one is convinced by such are argument about literary history (and even Jockers and Underwood remain skeptical), it is evidence that the controversy the digital humanities presents lies not in its assertion of the ontological divide between humans and nonhumans, or more precisely in its preference for the measurement of machines over the interpretation of humans, but rather in its erasure of that divide.

  • Seth Long

    Jockers may be right that “evolution” is not the most felicitous term, primarily because of its connection to biological reproduction, but an evolutionary-type process, a process as “natural” as it is “cultural,” as “nonhuman” as it is “human,” may exist.

    That’s great. When is this going to be published so I can cite it?!

    Also, I think this question is precisely what Moretti struggles with in “The End of the Beginning.” He concludes that DH methods generate valuable objects that have “no equivalent within lived experience.”

    • I thought I just did publish it ;-). The book manuscript is still in process, so the publication of that is still down the road.

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  • Seth Long

    You know, the more I read, the more I think that the fear of using evolutionary metaphors is based on an idealized vision of evolutionary theory. By saying that evolution is “rule bound and elegant”, Jockers is referring, I think, to the tight, tree-like nature of evolutionary ancestry. Even Moretti contrasts cultural evolution with biological evolution by saying that the former reticulates but the latter does not.

    But look at this, straight from the NSF:

    Understanding the tree of life has been a goal of evolutionary biologists since the time of Darwin. During the past decade, unprecedented gains in gathering and analyzing phylogenetic data have demonstrated increasingly complex genealogical patterns.

    . . . . Our current knowledge of processes such as hybridization, endosymbiosis and lateral gene transfer makes clear that the evolutionary history of life on Earth cannot accurately be depicted as a single, typological, bifurcating tree.


    Look at what we’re discovering about hominid ancestry in humans—different populations seem to have small but detectable genetic material from now-extinct hominids (e.g., Neanderthal in populations that migrated out of Africa). Evolution, even recent human evolution, is more network-like than people have thought, especially at the sub-species margins.

    I don’t pretend to understand the science as deeply as a geneticist, but I can recognize many of the arguments from my work in historical linguistics. If we take critical precautions, I don’t see why we need to be so apologetic about using evolutionary metaphors given how “untidy” evolution itself has become (e.g., critical precaution: the folks at the blog I just linked are more convinced that evolutionary metaphors for culture and language are apt as “phenotypic” but not “genotypic” metaphors).

    We don’t need to come out on the other end showing that our metaphor holds a one-to-one correspondence with biological evolution. As you say, we just need to show that it has guided us toward, helped us discover, observe, and measure some “evolutionary-type process.” What’s the alternative? That cultural artifacts and cultural transformations are chaotic messes lacking any regularity or patterns? Maybe. Or maybe not.

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