LA Review of Books, interview series, 2016
LARB Digital Humanities interviews
"In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort. Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness. I totally understand why a 20-year old would choose to do astrophysics rather than literature. It’s so much more interesting in many ways, just for the pleasure of the intelligence. That is what the humanities have to work on."
"No, to make the humanities relevant you need something much bigger than the digital humanities. What the humanities need are the."
"in general the humanities needs to stop thinking of computation as an entirely foreign domain, and instead consider computers to be at the heart of what they have always done, that is, to understand society and culture as a technical and symbolic system."
As I said, I do think we are faced with a two-cultures problem, and part of why I get frustrated with main-line digital humanities is that this problem is seldom addressed directly. There is one approach, which investigates the nature of letters and numbers, and there is another approach, which focuses on the use of letters and numbers for other ends. I think most of DH has been the latter. And, while this may be slightly unfair to DH, I do think there is a fundamental difference in method and really maybe even in culture or epistemological framing (which of course doesn’t preclude interesting mixtures and hybrids). And, of course, there are a lot of interesting people working in the field who don’t fall into this trap. I fully acknowledge this. To flesh this out a little more, I think the first approach comes out of a fundamentally modern stance that seeks to reveal “the conditions of possibility” for digitality if not symbolic systems as a whole. And, incidentally, this first approach tends to be much more historical, which is also a characteristically modern impulse, whereas the second approach tends to be more pragmatic and, one might also say, scientific. The former aims to determine the specific nature of digitality, whereas the latter aims to use digitality as a vehicle. The second approach doesn’t really care about modernity’s fundamental question as to the condition of knowledge; what it cares about is the relative obscurity or transparency of letters and numbers. So if the first approach is essentially modern, then the second is, shall we say, medieval! The second approach asks if there is a hidden or obscure detail of a text that only an algorithm can uncover. It is a kind of hermeneutics, I guess, only in reverse. Ultimately it comes down to this: if you count words in Moby-Dick, are you going to learn more about the white whale? I think you probably can — and we have to acknowledge that. But you won’t learn anything new about counting. That’s the difference between the two approaches, and I think a lot of the misunderstanding between the two methods (or cultures) of working with digitality is due to this difference."
successes: "First, we have a much better sense of the deep history of digitality, pushing back against the notion that digitality is a late 20th-century phenomenon. Scholars are examining the alphabet itself as digital. Others are considering the algorithmic quality of weaving, mosaics, and automata that go back to the 18th century if not earlier. Second, we have a much better sense of how letters and numbers work in culture and society. "
"Richard Grusin, like all faculty, has moved from university to university marketing his own cultural capital to get a higher salary and is in a position where he is using and relying on neoliberal corporate money. The same thing happens in a lot of critiques of DH and a lot of these scholars are not sufficiently questioning their own institutional position and the position that makes possible their speaking at that moment. People attack the racism of UNIX systems, which is absolutely right to do, but we also need talk about the racism of print, in which these critics are writing." --> not questioning the grounds on which
Richard Jean So
on Richard Grusin's critique: "Again, everyone I know and have worked with in this field is aware of this critique and generally sympathetic to it, but for us the next step is what can we do with this critique, practically, to produce new knowledge."
on fields that have benefited from DH, "Oh, it's library and information science all the way, especially in terms of broad benefit to the humanities and helping it intersect with other fields."
"Well, sure, DH is complicit in the modern university in the same way that every other practice and part of the humanities that succumbs to certain logics and economies of production and consumption is complicit. So, part of that struggle to enter the mainstream academy I was telling you about succeeded insofar as we, too, in DH now participate in screwed-up metrics and systems of scholarly communication along with everybody else. I’m talking here about how almost everyone in the academic humanities is caught up in the provision of free labor and content to monopolistic, private journal and database providers that then sell us our own content back to us at exorbitant prices. And I’m also thinking of humanities scholars’ general complicity with mismatched demands between what we know might really benefit scholarship and open inquiry and the public good versus what our disciplines ask early-career scholars to produce — and of how parochially we measure their output and impact. In many ways, I think you could turn around and look to the digital humanities not as a sign of the apocalypse but for paths out of this mess. Here’s a field that has been working for years on open access research and publication platforms, on ways to articulate and valorize work done outside of narrow, elite channels, and on how to value scholarship that’s collaborative and interdisciplinary — instead of done solo, individualistically, and only made legible and accessible to fellow academics in little subdisciplines, which is still the M. O. of the broader field. And on a conceptual level, the data- and text-analysis and visualization strand of digital humanities is pretty much all about finding ways to nuance mechanistic quantification and turn it on its head — to better value and appreciate and elevate the ineffable, not in spite of numbers and measures but through them. I mean, that’s our research field."
"The fact that both of them are advancing, themselves, while simultaneously orbiting around each other like a kind of double star — the humanities on the trajectory of what they can mean and become in a digital age, on the one side, and technology with how it is continually inflected by human lives and understandings on the other — is, I think, why I’ve found this an endlessly fascinating field."
"There is also the larger writ question — and this gets to one of your later questions — of thinking about how much a humanist really needs to understand the technological underpinnings of a medium. We have never argued that humanists need to understand ink — or how ink is made — at the same time it is not unhelpful for humanists to understand the way in which knowledge is shaped by those who have access to ink, or even how the emergence of certain inks historically allowed different kinds of writing, which changed what people pursue. But in terms of most important trends in thinking about the lines of inquiry to get us to what is at stake in digital studies, it is thinking about media and medium, software and hardware, and where they stand in relation to the production of meaning and also how the technologies themselves produce meaning on the level of methodology and instrumentality. This, combined with the critical workflows familiar to race, class, and gender studies, moves us toward understanding, in a deeper way, how people make technologies, even as technologies also produce (or foreclose) new opportunities for personhood."
Jessica Marie Johnson https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/digital-humanities-interview-jessica-marie-johnson
"I think there are questions that the humanities has struggled with and for me those questions relate to issues of accountability: Are we accountable to students? Are we accountable to the communities our universities are in? Are we accountable to all of our students? Are we accountable to transgender students who want to use different bathrooms? On the surface those seem like things that are aside from humanities work and scholarship. But I think that what the humanities is grappling with is how to be relevant to a changing demographic and changing communities, both at the university level and within the communities in which universities are situated. I don’t think digital work is or is not going to be the key to answering these questions. I think the humanities has a justice imperative that it has not quite fulfilled as a mission (even as individuals continue to work and push that). I mean, what is your university’s investment in black studies, in ethnic studies, in women, gender, and sexuality studies? How are those being cultivated as spaces that serve students, communities, in productive ways? What kind of scholarship is being supported and about who, by who? So I think the 21st-century university has a lot of struggles and tensions that aren’t about the digital being the new fancy tool, but are actually about the extent to which the university is or is not accountable to increasingly diverse and stratified communities."