Sunday, December 16, 2012

Big Thing Watch: Continental Theory and Digital Humanities

The Big Thing I have in mind, is of course, the one Ian Bogost invoked at the end of his post on object-oriented ontology and politics, though I’ve got rather different ideas about where it’s coming from and where it’s going.

That discussion has flared up once again and, to my mind, by far the most sophisticated discussion is taking place at Terrence Blake’s Agent Swarm. I particularly recommend the post, Badiousian Background to Galloway’s argument vs Dumbing Down of the “Controversy”, with contributions from David Columbia, Virgilio Rivas, Blake himself, and some remarks from me as well. The discussion of BADIOU’S AND GALLOWAY’S CLONES is not quite so full, but Philip has an insightful comment to the effect that Galloway has merely asserted a bunch of connections each of which must, in fact, be argued. He’s preaching to the choir—there’s a lot of that, of course.

I find Blake’s discussions useful precisely because Blake himself, and his commenters, are familiar with a Continental literature that is now foreign to me, though I studied Continental thought early in my career. In an ideal world I’d read that literature for myself. This is not that ideal world and my time, like theirs, is limited. So it is useful for me to swim in their waters on my terms and thereby establish common themes and ideas arising in very different discourses.

At the same time, I’ve been hanging out in a discussion at Ted Underwood’s digital humanities blog, The Stone and the Shell. Underwood and Andrew Goldstone have just posted a fascinating piece on work they’ve been doing with the corpus of articles in PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association), What can topic models of PMLA teach us about the history of literary scholarship? In addition to Goldstone and Underwood, Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Weingart and Matt Wilkens have joined in (me too). To my rather speculative mind they seem to be on the trail of the “memetic” undercurrents of the cultural evolutionary process through which philology split into linguistics and interpretive lit crit after World War II.

For a glimpse into the deep background of that split take a look at Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus, which appeared in Critical Inquiry. Geoghegan looks at the period during and immediately after World War II when Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan picked up ideas about information theory and cybernetics from American thinkers at MIT and Bell Labs. THAT line of development leads to deconstruction and post-modernism when it comes back across the Atlantic and crashes into the New Criticism in the middle and late 1960s—think of the 1966 structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins. Galloway and company are playing in and around those waters.

But another stream from those currents hits land in Boston where it becomes Chomksian linguistics, which in turn drove the expansion of linguistics into a fully autonomous intellectual disciplines. And an offshoot from that gave us computational linguistics, from which corpus linguistics emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s where the topic analysis stuff comes from.

1 comment:

  1. This is also Bernard Stiegler's conclusion, that poststructuralism left us with a sense of disappointment, that it somehow failed to live up to expectations. The solution for him is not to wipe the slate clean but to re-read continental theory and to think it further along, in relation to digital humanities.