digital humanities and the close, hyper, machine

As you may have seen, the LA Review of Books completed its series on the digital humanities today with an interview with Richard Grusin. I don’t know Richard all that well, though of course I am familiar with his work, and our paths did cross at Georgia Tech when I was a Brittain Fellow in the nineties. I have expressed some disagreement in the past with his arguments regarding the “dark side” of the digital humanities, but I’m not going to rehash those here. Instead I want to focus on this interview and connect it with some other ideas banging around in my head these days.

Grusin begins with this:

In the 1990s, I was really enthusiastic for this change because I was convinced that Western culture had undergone a major transformation in technologies of representation, communication, information, and so forth. It seemed to me that since education was not a natural form — it emerged at a certain historical moment under certain historical and technological conditions — and since those conditions were changing, we needed to change our response to it.

I’m not sure what to make of the past tense here. Is he no longer convinced there has been a “major transformation”? Certainly he still sees education as a historical process, and as such it would be only logical to assert that technological changes would result in educational changes–regardless of the degree to which “we” steered those changes. I put “we” in scare quotes as I’m not sure who is in that group. And, to be clear, education has changed a fair amount in the last 20-25 years. Maybe not as much as some other aspects of our culture, maybe not in ways we like, but it has changed.  And while we should (and do, extensively) discuss larger technological, economic, and other cultural forces that have shaped those changes, we (meaning those of us in the humanities, and English Studies in particular) should acknowledge our general, collective failure to rise to this challenge over the last quarter century.

If I were to summarize the response of English to the Internet over the last 25 years (roughly the period of my participation in the profession, starting in grad school), I’d say we ignored these changes at our peril and got steamrolled.

But on to the next quote, actually two quotes:

digital technologies in the classroom are really a way of engaging students, both in terms of talking to them about social media and in terms of objects of analysis. This is the life students lead. And as a teacher I think making what you teach relevant to your students is really important.

I think there are two places where digital work in the humanities is being done, and often being done outside the academy. One of these places is participatory culture. There has been an explosion of students writing online, be it blogging or fan fiction or whatever. And I think this is really one of the places where digital work in the humanities is being done as a result of changes in technology. We haven’t really made enough of a connection between this kind of participatory culture and the classroom, but I think we are moving in that direction. The other place is in the classroom. We think of the public in a kind of consumerist way. But our students are also the public.

In effect, here are the changes mentioned in the earlier quote. Humans interact in fundamentally different ways than 25 years ago. They routinely make things, share things, and do things that were largely unimagined in the 90s. This is as true of our students as it is anyone else, maybe more so. Undoubtedly those digital cultural spaces are replete with social, political, ethical, rhetorical, and aesthetic challenges. In other words, there’s plenty for us humanists to do there: plenty for us to study, to make, and to teach. I imagine that’s what Grusin was thinking himself 25 years ago. Maybe it’s too late now for the humanities. Maybe. But no one can really know that and there’s no point for humanists to act as if that were the case.

So when we think about the digital humanist engagement with these issues (and here I’m going back to the other part of the title of this blog post), we think about questions of the impact of technologies on literacy and thinking (or at least that’s where my head goes). I’ve been thinking about Katherine Hayles’ now familiar distillation of reading practices into the “close” (what you were taught in grad school), the “hyper” (what teenagers do on their phones), and the “machine” (what some many of the DH debates are about). As I was mulling these over in my head, I kept repeating them: close… hyper… machine… close… hyper… machine… Close, hyper machine.

Sure, it’s obvious. It’s that phone in your pocket. That machine that is close against your body, prone to spasmodic and hyper vibrations and tones. It’s that device you touch an average of 2,617 times every day. [I’ll give you time to insert your own joke here.]


The smartphone works as a good starting point for what interests me. However I also want to think about a more abstract machine, but one that is no less proximate, intimate, or excitable for its abstraction. Grusin notes his own enduring interest in mediation, and that’s what at stake here. The smartphone is one instantiation of an interface between the human body and the digital media ecology, but there are others. On the other side of that interface are a plethora of nonhuman interactions, and then, somewhere beyond them, there’s you, reading this text (that is, assuming that you’re a human reader). It’s important to investigate all those nonhuman interactions, but our relations with these close, hyper machines are equally pressing (pun intended). If we can think about media, documents, genres, software, hardware, discourse, symbols as these close hyper machines that activate our capacities for conscious thought (as well as other affective, subconscious, and unconscious responses), then I really think we’re on to something durable as humanists. That’s what I think Grusin was seeing in the 90s. Certainly other people were seeing it, other humanists (Ulmer comes to mind).

I know all this digital humanities talk is largely about something else. It’s about what literary scholars are going to get up to in the next decade or so. As I’ve said before, that’s not a problem to which I give much thought. I do find interesting the ways they articulate digital media when they argue for or against this or that. I wish I could say that now that this LARB series is over we could just put all that business in the rear view mirror.  Certainly we could use with a more productive discourse about how the humanities will operate in the digital world, maybe one that started by drawing on the rich existing conversations in media study, the cultural study of technology, and digital rhetoric about these matters.

buzz… buzz..