I first heard the expression “digital humanities” when the UCLA Humanities Computing Facility changed its name a few years ago to the Center for the Digital Humanities. I was naive enough to think of this as an awkward attempt at originality, as though any use of computers, even as word-processors, to study the humanities had somehow created a new category of being. It took me a while to realize that this had become a standard term, and that although it did not imply quite the transformation of the substance of either computing or the humanities that the adjective-noun concatenation suggests, it nevertheless (in the manner of Barthes’ écriture, recently described in Chronicle 475) presupposed a transformation in the manner in which they might, and perhaps should, be studied—and in some cases, created.
There is no a priori rule as to what information we should seek to extract from cultural objects and the uses we make of them. The term “digital humanities” nonetheless raises hackles because it cannot avoid suggesting that the humanities “themselves” are digital, that the essence of esthetic experience makes it reveal more via statistical computations than through the traditional holistic interpretative procedures that in literature are called “close reading.”
One should no doubt expect that partisans of a new approach will make propaganda for it, especially since computer-intensive research is a far more attractive magnet for grants than the kind that requires only reading and writing, with an occasional trip to the library for items not yet in Google Books. The idea of DH seems to embody a newly objective, mathematical approach, in contrast with the traditional analog humanities that sought to grasp through esthetic intuition the overall unity—the “wovenness” or textuality—of the individual elements of a work. The esthetic consumer sees the separate signs that compose a work of art as iconic analogues of a reference-world that he imaginarily constructs as real, as a painting is seen as an analog of a real landscape. No doubt one wouldn’t want to prevent people from experiencing artworks in this way, but using this experience as the basis for one’s analyses is to rely on individual subjectivities with all their prejudices, whereas treating the work’s minimal components and/or our reactions to them as raw data allows the researcher to build an extensive data set that can reveal statistically significant patterns.
Whatever DH’s potential accomplishments as the basis of a critical methodology, I think it is far more important as a stimulus to reflection on the sense in which the digital is in fact the originary form of human culture, whose trace can be found in all its “analog” creations—and whose underlying presence has permitted the revolutions of modernism and post-modernism. For the art world was only able to demonstrate that its mimetic structures were not limited to the naiveté of the iconic because the “analog” iconicity of art as a mode of human representation is in fact a secondary accretion on its originarily digital essence.
No one familiar with generative anthropology will be unaware that Durkheim’s fundamental binary, sacred-profane, the anthropological equivalent of metaphysics’ being and nothingness, is the basis of human representation and thus of all human culture. The sign that is the kernel of language and all more complex cultural structures is founded in the first place on the 1-0 distinction between what is significant and what is not. Animals and even plants make such distinctions in practice, moving/growing toward some objects and away from others, and physicists can cite many kinds of polarities such as electric charge, magnetic poles, up and down quarks, etc. But whatever it may mean to speak of the digital nature of reality—and any such blend of physics and metaphysics strikes me as dangerously naïve—it is only with the human that the digital becomes an object of thought. There is less conceptual distance between a flower growing toward the light and an ape choosing a fruit than between the latter and the human designation of an object as the originary referent of the first word, which I have proleptically called the name-of-God. And, precisely, the solemnity we associate with the sacred, the reverence for the originary deferral of violent conflict that defines us as human, is something unknown in “nature.”
For those of us who have been around long enough, it is striking how much, within a relatively unchanged political configuration, attitudes toward textuality have changed. Where anti-capitalists spent the seventies reading Derrida and Althusser and Deleuze and Foucault and combing through the West’s foundational philosophical and literary texts for evidence of oppression—of women by men, “orientals” by occidentals, writing by speech, distance by presence, darkness by light…, all avatars of the originary “oppression” of the profane by the sacred—all this has now been simplified into a victimary mentality that retains the same fundamental oppositions but detaches them from their textual integument, claiming in fact to find them in the most minimal uses of signed interactions as “micro-aggressions.”
In other words, it is no longer necessary to engage with textuality, the “weaving” within which the oppressive bad faith of metaphysics lay concealed from the naive eyes of the masses until it was ferreted out by deconstructory minds of great power and subtlety. Now that “we” have all become aware of this bad faith, like the fabled emperor’s nakedness, it shines out for all to see in every deceitful word uttered by the oppressors, and is denounced by every authentic word uttered by their victims. If indeed conscious cultural reactions are limited to the two fundamental categories of oppression and liberation, it follows that we can only gain objective information about the esthetic effect of artworks by studying the subconscious effects of aggregates. And herein lies the other great advantage of the “digital humanities.” The digital humanist need not espouse victimary thinking in any active sense; DH provides a convenient haven for neutrals, conservatives, and those more numerous who, whatever their personal politics, are just tired of the ever more strident and pervasive victimary politics of the academy. Even if you agree with the principles of victimary thinking, there is little pleasure in obtaining the same results in article after article. If statistical analysis alone can be empirical, so be it.
Hegel might have enjoyed following the dialectic of literary study as it emerged as a discipline in the late 19th century and especially after WWI. The interwar practitioners of “close reading,” notably the so-called New Critics in the US, were generally speaking politically conservative, even reactionary (“Southern Agrarians”). Their interest in close reading was to reaffirm in not-quite-yet-empirical ways the essential complexity and problematicity of modernist culture—in contrast with the “Victorian” culture of the pre-war era—as both a substitute for and a subliminal illustration of the sacred. The “twisted” or “woven” aspect of the “text”—and reading modernist poetry confronts the reader with plenty of weaves and twists—which in the deconstructive era, journals like the 70s-vintage Tel Quel (a title taken from Paul Valéry) would never tire of reweaving into their critical discourse—was a sign of its creative paradoxicality, its ability to bootstrap itself into reality from nothingness, which is indeed the way language, and all culture, self-generates. To return to my original point: the work’s overall potential for abandoning the iconic to become a kind of fetishized thing-in-itself, as a whole as well as in every one of its details, depends on the “digitality” of the creator’s fundamental decision, whether a propos of a detail or of the entire project, simply to posit its significance. As the modernists discovered, the plastic artists most prominently, it is the potential sacrality of the work itself that ontologically precedes and permits its creation. I’m not very impressed with Malevich’s White on White (is it really more of an artwork than Duchamp’s urinal?) but it certainly illustrates the principle that the important thing about esthetic significance is that one can postulate it: this white-on-white square is an artwork, the artwork—the core of human culture itself.
None of this was understood anthropologically; for one thing, New-Critical literary study, in the context of a still relatively confident classical-analytic philosophy, retained the metaphysical tradition’s blind faith in the eternal neutrality of (mature) language, which never needed to be discussed in originary terms. The point of interpreting a poem was to show how the poet’s use of words created a new cultural entity, which we from our perspective might well consider, as the New Critics did via religious models, as a model of the originary creation of culture. For these critics (mostly poets themselves) were very much aware that their admiration for literature and its paradoxes was, at the very least, a kind of displacement, and indeed, a transfiguration, of our reverence for the traditional religious repositories of the sacred.
“Close reading” for the New Critics was essentially a search for and a demonstration of each individual author and work’s implementation of paradox, whose illogic embodies and exemplifies the bootstrapping function of language to create meaning while presenting it as already there. The anti-model of such criticism was banal literalism, the scholastic reading of texts as essentially propositional statements—the model for which had been the traditional study of classical texts, where the difficulties of Greek and Latin made it above all important simply to understand their vocabulary and syntax. Today we might have more tolerance for literalism even in one’s native language, now that the bulk of young people read little if at all in school such writers as Dickens, Fielding, the Bronte sisters, Austen, Melville, Hawthorne, Scott, writings once called the “classics” in an English-language context. I very much doubt that the average high-school student today would be able to read a Dickens novel on any level without spending a good deal of time with a dictionary and perhaps a grammar-book (or website). In any case, the New Critics assumed that students had enough literal understanding to appreciate the inherent paradoxicality of all cultural products. Seen as bringing to light the creation of human culture ex nihilo in a given literary or artistic work, this kind of analysis eschewed any but the vaguest “theories of literature,” but lent itself to systematization through its concern for detail, leading to the stylistic syntheses of European writers such as Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Georges Poulet, or in the study of Western art, Wölfflin, Panofsky, Gombrich….
Deconstruction, the beginnings of which we can trace to Barthes’ écriture in the 1950s, was the victimary heir of close reading in what Nathalie Sarraute called the ère du soupçon. It too sought paradox in the workings of the text, but the point was not to celebrate the rich layering that culture built up from its bootstraps, but to denounce the whole construction, necessary and inevitable as it was, as fraudulent. We were, in sum, always already in the domain of Frankfurt’s BS (see again Chronicle 475, or 429). The act of deconstruction was from an anthropological standpoint both admirably subtle and immensely naive, a kind of emperor’s-new-clothes denunciation of a naked body that was only thus once all its cultural integuments had been “deconstructed” away, leaving it to perish in the cold. Since deconstruction remained in the domain of metaphysics, never conceiving that mature language had to be generated out of something simpler, but assuming that it was always already there for all its constructions to be denounced, it had no inherent respect for the paradoxical self-constructions it ingeniously discovered. Derrida’s greatest intuition, that of différance, was in fact not “deconstructive” at all; deferral is precisely what we need in order to construct; it is ultimately the (temporary) interdiction of violence. But Derrida’s adherence to what with all due respect one can only call the imbecility of latter-day European-leftist politics, making heroes of such as Abu Mumia-Jamal, was reflected in the victimary turn of deconstructive thought, which made not just the “West” but all civilization, all language, even that of “Rousseauean” noble savages (cf Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes tropiques and its famous leçon d’écriture—see Chronicle 388), dependent on oppression—and not just of women by men, for Derrida’s world was always already hierarchical; “big-men” haunted the very beginnings of humanity.
What is relevant to our present subject is the draining-away of textuality by a radically close reading that, rather than seeking each text’s uniqueness, sought rather the common ground of all texts in the authorities’ self-promoting pseudo-demonstration that the oppression from which they benefited was inscribed in nature. Deconstruction in its better moments is indeed a mode of close reading that allows for genuine insight, even if always associated with a negative valence. But once one had shown that texts A, B, C, … are despite their ostensible variety all agents of a societal écriture, in their contempt for which the deconstructors went far beyond (and in the opposite direction from) Barthes’ denunciation of Stalinist rhetoric in Le degré zéro de l’écriture, there seemed little point in continuing to cultivate the exacting practice of close reading for so little gain.
The era of deconstruction, which retained a European (or as they now say, Eurocentric) focus, was succeeded by the post-colonial or poco era, in which the high cultures of Europe surrender their cultural energy to their former colonies, subordinating any attempt at literary or artistic evaluation to the considerations of victimary politics. I am not without sympathy for this undertaking, however much posturing it gives rise to, for there is indeed something of interest in attempts at creating new national cultures—if only in judging whether the new can become more than a resentful double of the old. But by its very “sociological” nature, post-colonial literary study can rarely afford the luxury of close reading. There is just too much cultural alienation to be overcome for there to develop the mutual confidence between author and reader within which the confident creation of an original “textuality” can take place, and a critical clerisy arise to interpret it on the example of the symbiosis between the New Critics and modernist writers in the inter-war Anglosphere. The French-African or -Caribbean author is generally writing in a non-native language and primarily for a non-local audience. However subtle his own sense of language and culture, he cannot share it confidently with his readership in the manner of the founders of the great literatures of Europe (and, presumably, of Asia). Or to put it in other terms, there is too much to tell, as opposed to construct out of language alone; before we can witness how well African writers create edifices of words, we have to know what life in Africa is all about. The result is that literary study becomes more sociological than textual; form is demoted to the handmaiden of content.
It is in the final stage of this draining away of textuality that we reach the “digital humanities.” If all interpretation, all unraveling of the mysteries of textual intricacy has been shown to lead to the same set of “phallogocentric” myths, and yet we all continue nonetheless to obtain esthetic pleasures from artworks, then the only empirical realities with which we have been objectively in contact, the words and syntactical structures of the text itself (or the forms and colors of a painting, the notes and chord progressions of a piece of music…) can alone reveal to us the authentic roots of what we experience as the “unity in variety” of esthetic pleasure. And since as necessarily analog-iconic consumers of the artwork, we lack conscious access to the effect on us of these elements, the only means to discover the authentic human (anthropological?) core of our esthetic experiences is by treating these and other “objective” textual elements as so much data to be processed. This perspective accepts that there is indeed something in the text worthy of anthropological interest, but that only digital methods can bring it into objective focus.
I hope this discussion makes clear that, however caricaturally reductive its scholarship has often been, it is unfair to accuse the digital humanities of disrespect for their subject-matter. On the contrary; rightly understood, the instinct of the digital humanist is to preserve the sanctity of the artwork by removing it from the reader’s overt, conscious judgment, which in an academic universe dominated by victimary thought can only arrive at a predictable, and generally negative, political conclusion. By “bracketing” textual consciousness, corrupt even at its most subtle, the digital humanist becomes able to examine how texts and artworks in general interact on an unconscious level with our psychological and even physiological mechanisms. And although such studies are admittedly best carried out through laboratory analyses of human subjects, experiments are costly and time-consuming, subject to IRB restrictions, and generally unavailable to those with humanistic training. For humanists, the alternative option is to study the texts or other artworks themselves, but as aggregates of minimal signifying elements whose variation over various parameters—nation, era, author, genre, gender…—allows the analyst to ferret out, not “meanings” exactly, but correlations of these elements with historical moments, social classes, genders, national cultures, that provide information about humankind as a whole.
But the faith behind such studies remains that of all semiological systems: that a work of art, like any cultural object, is a complex of binary choices between what is significant and what is not, whether it be a word, a phoneme, a pixel, a timbre… We take this for granted, and indeed can find “choice” mechanisms in nature that operate on what appear to be similar principles; but the colors of a bird’s wing are not “chosen” but selected, whereas the artist or poet chooses the elements of the artwork in an effort to infuse it with sacred Being, now as at the moment of human origin.
A subsequent Chronicle will discuss more concretely the theory and practice of the “digital humanities.”