Friday, March 21, 2014

Computer as Symbol and Model: On reading Alan Liu

I’ve now had a chance to read Alan Liu’s essay, “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423) and have some thoughts about the way he stages computing. In this post I want to follow the outer edges of his argument in an effort to situate myself in his discursive field.

Let’s start with this early passage (p. 410):
For the humanities, the digital humanities exceed (though they include) the functional role of instrument or service, the pioneer role of innovator, the ensemble role of an “additional field,” and even such faux-political roles assigned to new fields as challenger, reformer, and (less positively) fifth column. This is because the digital humanities also have a symbolic role. In both their promise and their threat, the digital humanities serve as a shadow play for a future form of the humanities that wishes to include what contemporary society values about the digital without losing its soul to other domains of knowledge work that have gone digital to stake their claim to that society.
I think that’s right. I also think that assigning the digital humanities a symbolic role is a clever and crucial bit of staging, for it places digital humanities at the distance Liu needs to treat them as an object requiring interpretation. And interpretation has been the central activity of literary studies for the last half-century or so. We know how to interpret things.

But I want to narrow the scope a little. What interests me is not the digital humanities as symbol, but the computer and computing and, I would suggest, that’s what all but consumes Liu’s attention in this essay. The computer as symbol is quite familiar to many humanists, for computers, robots, and other artificial beings figure centrally in many of the texts we examine. There the computer generally functions as an Other, often malevolent.

Liu wisely chooses to ground his inquiry in a specific example, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac’s A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (May 2012, 68 page PDF), which I’ve previously discussed on New Savanna, From Telling to Showing, by the Numbers. There are two reasons he chose this paper. In the first place, it is methodologically sophisticated, state of the art as they say. Second, Heuser and Le-Khac arrive at a tentative conclusion about those 2958 texts that is meaningful in traditional humanistic terms, terms argued by Raymond Williams. That allows Liu to examine just how they were able to wrestle meaning from a computer.

He quotes Heuser and Le-Khac as asserting (p. 411): “The general methodological problem of the digital humanities can be bluntly stated: How do we get from numbers to meaning?” Numbers are the domain of the computational Other while meaning is in the domain of the human. That’s one opposition.

After a bit of discussion Liu introduces another opposition (p. 414):
They help advance an important, general digital humanities goal that might be called tabula rasa interpretation—the initiation of interpretation through the hypothesis-free discovery of phenomena.
The opposition is between “interpretations” (my scare quotes) the computer generates purely algorithmically vs. results obtained when the investigator somehow specifies semantic content the algorithms are to look for. At this point I detect hints of humanistic background radiation in which “tabula rasa interpretation” is posited as a prelapsarian mode of inquiry vs. the sinfulness of hypothisizing driven by human desire. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, so in the digital humanities the “goal is to banish...human ideation at the formative onset of interpretation” (I used the ellipsis to fig-leaf the phrase “or at least crucially delay”).

Continuing on, Liu asserts:
However, tabula rasa interpretation puts in question Heuser and Le-Khac’s ultimate goal, which is to get from numbers to humanistic meaning (“qualitative arguments and insights about humanistic subjects—culture, literature, art, etc.”). It is not clear epistemologically, cognitively, or socially how human beings can take a signal discovered by machine and develop an interpretation leading to a humanly understandable concept unless that signal (in order to be recognized as a signal at all) contains a coeval conceptual origin that is knowable in principle...
Now Liu is ready to mount an argument demonstrating that Heuser and Le-Khac’s tabula rasa wasn’t, in fact, blank. It was already written upon.

As Liu advances that argument he (quite properly) invokes science and technology studies (p. 416):
I invoke especially the postmodern branch of STS (e.g., Feyerabend; Latour; Pickering), whose “against method” view of science (especially in its weird relations with technology) is that any quest for stable method in understanding how knowledge is generated by human beings using machines founders on the initial fallacy that there are immaculately separate human and machinic orders, each with an ontological, epistemological, and pragmatic purity that allows it to be brought into a knowable methodological relation with the other—whether a relation of master and slave, cause and effect, agent and instrument, or another.
There we have it; it is a fallacy to believe that “there are immaculately separate human and machinic orders.” Whatever the central problem of the digital humanities is, it isn’t that of getting from the order of numbers (res extensa?) to the utterly different order of meaning (res cogitans?). Rather, Liu suggests that (p. 416) “digital humanities method—converging with, but also sometimes diverging from, scientific method—consists in repeatedly coadjusting human concepts and machine technologies until ... the two stabilize each other in temporary postures of truth that neither by itself could sustain.”

Allowing for general differences in intellectual outlook and background, I have no problem with that. The world does not consist of utterly different machinic and human orders and the construction of knowledge in many domains does in fact consist of “coadjusting human concepts and machine technologies.” How could it be otherwise?

The fact is, I negotiated my truce with the machinic order years ago, when I decided to throw in my lot with the nascent cognitive sciences. Just what cognitive science is has always been somewhat vague and fuzzy, if not problematic. But the central enabling conception has been that we can conceive of the (human) mind as come kind of computer. To be sure, cognitive scientists used the computer as a tool to crunch data and run experimental apparatus, but above all they used it as a model of the mind. We can even use computers as a means of simulating mental processes, albeit in carefully proscribed ways

Some have even believed that the model is so very good that one day we’ll be able to build an actual mind or, in a different version, one day mind will spontaneously arise out of computer. That last claim/hope/dream is, of course, something that humanists interrogate when they consider the computer-as-symbol.

What has struck me is that the digital humanists I’ve read seem utterly uninterested in the computer as model of the mind. As a tool, yes. As a model, no.*

I suspect that disinterest in mostly casual in the sense that the technical tools one uses in modeling the mind in computational terms are not directly useful in their examination of texts. But I suspect that some of this disinterest is strategic; thinking about computing as a model for the human mind is institutionally dangerous. In the context of widespread humanistic suspicion of technology, using computational tools for anything more “invasive” than word-processing and email is more than many of their colleagues can countenance. Swimming against that tide is difficult enough. But to actually think about the mind as some kind of computer, that’s going over to the Dark Side. There be dragons.

And yet, one might argue that we have always already been there, or, if not always, at least since World War II. Consider a fascinating article by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2011: 96-126). He 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. While the American thinkers were elbow deep in practical problems–sending signals through wires, guiding anti-aircraft guns, among them–they also saw their concepts as ways of thinking about the human mind. And it was the mind that interested Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan and those who followed on them.

And so we return to Alan Liu (pp. 418-419):
It is not accidental, I can now reveal, that at the beginning of this essay I alluded to Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology. Structuralism is a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system (e.g., as modes of production; Weberian bureaucracy; Saussurean language; mass, media, and corporate society; neoliberalism; and so on) that has forced the progressive side of the humanities to split off from earlier humanities of the human spirit (Geist) and human self to adopt a worldview in which, as Hayles says, “large-scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces . . . many of which are nonhuman.” This is the backdrop against which we can see how the meaning problem in the digital humanities registers today’s general crisis of the meaningfulness of the humanities. The general crisis is that humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity—must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, workplace, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or, even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co-opt humanistic meaning.
We have always already been there.

By way of ending, though not concluding, I would like to invoke one of those pop-culture knowledges. For the last several years I’ve been investigating Japanese manga and anime. Judging from those stories the Japanese have a somewhat different concern about computers than we do. One of the central figures in Japanese popular culture is Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom (Astro Boy in the English-speaking world). Atom is an extraordinary robot who makes his way in a world of humans and robots in the form of a ten or eleven year old boy. The central theme in many of those stories is civil rights for robots (see my post The Robot as Subaltern: Tezuka’s Mighty Atom). The themes of hyper-rationality and lack of affect that are so central to Western stories of computers and robots are at best secondary in these Japanese stories.

Does Japanese popular culture have something to teach Western humanists about the place of computer technology in the world?

* * * * *

* A tweet by Matt Kirschenbaum
led me to this paper by Willard McCarty, What does Turing have to do with Busa? (PDF). It speaks to that issue.

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