On Wednesday evening, April 8, Stacey and I attended a presentation at the campus research library by the UCLA Center for the Digital Humanities (CDH) entitled Creating Knowledge, Creating Bridges. It was both largely predictable and surprisingly appealing. The CDH director, Professor Willeke Wendrich, by formation an Egyptologist, put together a remarkably well organized program that featured, after some introductory remarks by her and the Dean, a series of six project presentations, each delivered jointly by a professor and a student. This program, involving thirteen persons, was scheduled to end at 7 PM, and for the first time in memory, it ended at 7 PM. With a single exception, the students were either current undergraduates or recent BA recipients, not the senior graduate students one would expect to find working with a professor on a research project. Several of those who had graduated spoke with enthusiasm of how the DH program had given them an important leg up for computer-oriented jobs.
Most surprisingly, the institution-affirming atmosphere of this tightly controlled program appeared to be truly spontaneous. UCLA, despite some of the negative stories that have appeared about it recently, is not North Korea. Indeed, what I found most heartening was the confirmation of the speculation in my earlier column that DH is indeed a refuge from victimary politics. Throughout the entire hour there was not one word about race, gender, sexual orientation, or “social justice.” None of the projects had any evident political component, left or right. I could not help feeling that this fact itself contributed to the warmth that pervaded the room. At last a group of university Humanities people could get together to share their work without flagellating their White Guilt and keeping track of micro-aggressions. That my former department was not represented either among the presenters or in the audience did not surprise me.
After the presentations, the audience was invited for the second hour of the event to sip wine and eat snacks while examining the six presented projects along with eight others in the “pods,” with large computer screens set up to be shared by groups of interested parties, that were the previous head librarian’s proudest creation. We were able to chat with several of the presenters and others involved in these projects. Only a few had a connection to literature; as might be expected, most of them dealt with matters more easily rendered by images and other types of mapping.
One project analyzed tweets along with other media activity to “take the pulse” of news events such as the Egyptian “Arab Spring” or the Japanese tsunami. A couple of the literary ones showed graphics of relationships between writers (one illustrated the translations of Goethe’s Werther) or of somewhat arbitrarily chosen textual elements, such as references to the aural or visual senses. One displayed a data-base created while doing research for a book that recalled to me the database I set up (which still exists) when I was working on my Carole Landis project, including searchable scans of texts—in this case from Spanish writings on sexuality in the early 20th century, in mine, in 1940s movie magazines. Otherwise, a professor of art history was working on the basis of archaeological evidence to reconstruct medieval buildings in Paris; Prof Wendrich herself had created an online encyclopedia of Egyptology; another project mapped out areas where ancient Inca sculptures of specific gods were found in Peru; another sought to construct a walk-through computer model of ancient Rome along the lines of an earlier model of Athens developed at UCLA. All in all, it was one of the most pleasant academic events we had attended on campus.
The reader will have noticed that what provoked my enthusiasm was less the content of the presentations and projects than the atmosphere of free interaction between faculty and students. As an old humanist, my instinctive reaction to DH had been negative, or at the very least, skeptical. I saw DH a bit cynically as a promising source of grant money—humanists know how hard it is to obtain funds for traditional research projects. In contrast to the New Criticism generation that dominated the profession in my schooldays, whose critics knew both literature and literary history in depth and had a sharp sense of the nuances of individual texts, when the practitioners of DH read texts at all it is via the “Distant Reading” recommended in the well-known work of that title by Franco Moretti (Verso, 2013), where the point is to skim through large numbers of mostly “non-canonical” works in search of some plot or style element that may then become the basis of a data set and illustrated in a graph: for example, Moretti’s study of 7,000 novel titles that shows how titles got shorter from the 18th to the 19th century and how different parts of speech, articles, etc., were used in them. Only a couple of the exhibits at the DH demonstration were even that “textual.”
Yet I am happy to say that this meeting converted me into a supporter of DH as a pedagogical approach. In DH, students and faculty, who deal with the collection and analysis of data rather than “readings” of texts, start at the same level, the professor’s authority being demonstrated solely in knowledge of objective techniques rather than in relatively intangible “wisdom.” Thanks to computers, the humanities are finally able to share in the hands-on concreteness of the sciences. And since, unlike the sciences where this has been going on for a while, the emphasis was on the newness of the digital methods themselves, the projects were chosen perhaps less for their intrinsic scholarly interest than for the ease with which they lent themselves to the generation of attractive displays.
This atmosphere of confidence and energy, not arrogant about its accomplishments but cheerfully optimistic about future possibilities, contrasted so sharply with the dreariness of the “traditional” modern-victimary or antiquarian humanities lecture, that any observer would find it difficult not to see DH as “the future of the field.” Students would have to learn elsewhere to decipher the poems of Mallarmé or the ravings of King Lear, but even there they could certainly pick up a few pointers from the structural comparisons limned in “distant readings” a la Moretti.
What this suggests is that even as students continue, perhaps to a lesser degree, to receive a traditional formation in the humanities, the energy in the field will be increasingly siphoned off in the digital direction. The idea of imbibing wisdom from an older and wiser professor can survive in an era of increasingly rapid technological change, not to speak of victimary suspicion, only if the professor’s superior knowledge is concretely and unambiguously demonstrable. I would have no trouble teaching the French language because the student could see that I can speak it; the same goes for the facts and techniques that constitute the objective subject matter in all fields. But when it comes to the interpretation of texts, where there is no “right” answer but where the student is expected to bow to the professor’s superior knowledge of the work’s esthetic and historical context, passivity cannot, as when learning a language or technique, be immediately supplanted by activity. Hearing the professor’s interpretation, one can only begin to understand it and attempt to reproduce it, or at best to argue with it on its own terms. Today, the kind of patience this requires is in short supply, whereas the fast-evolving computer era increasingly provides opportunities for the kind of exciting interaction that we witnessed the other evening.
This is not to say that some students of the traditional sort will not remain, but they will be increasingly seen as antiquarians—unless their field of study is, as has become the rule in my ex-department and in many “language” departments, strongly victimary, often with a post-colonial emphasis. For the victimary too in its way allows the student an immediate bond with the faculty member, albeit of less purity than that procured by working together on a digital project. Those who agree to share victimary resentment and/or the White Guilt that its vicarious adoption assuages are prima facie equals; the professor cannot teach righteous indignation.
The once-exciting literary field has reached the point where, after decades of deconstruction, traditional interpretations of texts, and newer interpretations that would perhaps more lucidly seek in works of literature and art anthropological truth, have lost much of their attractiveness. They depend, after all, on a “hegemonic” conception of culture: they celebrate its firstness, and through the “priesthood” of the professoriate, transmit it to students, whereas the victimary, like the digital, rejects firstness and is consequently more conducive to communitarian attitudes. But if we must choose between these two ways of deconstructing the humanities in order to provide the new generation with anthropological insight, it is certainly preferable to see literary works broken down into data rather than reconfigured as documents of race and gender oppression. As I suggested in Chronicle 477 (“Digital Humanity”), returning the humanities to their sub-structural components to seek correlations that might otherwise go unnoticed is not at all unfaithful to the originally wonder-inspiring phenomenon of art, and of representation generally.
The originary analysis of a work of art is an attempt to grasp its anthropological significance. Like victimary thinking, GA too derives from la différance, through which it generates the order of human love rather than the anarchy of resentment. No doubt GA cannot expect to emerge victorious over its evil twin in the foreseeable future. Yet rather than resign ourselves to the triumph of the victimary, I think we can find in DH, in its refusal of political a priori (or at worst, a facile “Marxism” that sees modern culture in the light of “capitalism”) and its interest in obtaining results, a source of hope. No digital “results” concerning the esthetic, however trivial, should offend us. On the contrary, to the extent that our hypothesis is true, whatever objective truths are discovered about art can only enrich, in unanticipated ways, our understanding of how art in all its manifestations reproduces, by the familiar oscillation between sign and imaginary referent, the originary constitution of the scene of representation.
This is the second of the Chronicles intended as a basis for discussion at the forthcoming High Point GA Summer Conference. I have also been examining in detail the research produced by DH, using (at Stacey’s recommendation) the articles in the online Digital Humanities Quarterly (http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/) as a representative sample. I don’t think I’ll put my results a la Moretti in chart form, but I do intend to embody the conclusions I draw from this examination in another Chronicle to conclude this series.