Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Thinkable and the Interesting: Katherine Hayles Interviews Alan Liu

Back in October of 2008 Katherine Hayles interviewed Alan Liu about the use of digital technology in the humanities. That interview is one of 20 you can access on the web HERE.

I’m particularly interested in Liu’s remarks here and there on “thinkability” and what people find interesting. Liu wonders why, for example, when online publication allows for multimedia texts, most online scholarship is fairly traditional in form and presentation. This particular topic takes from a discussion of an online journal Liu has been involved with, Postmodern Culture.

The following remarks are relatively early in the 50 minute interview (my transcription):
Hayles (6:05): Have you seen a kind of real evolution in the kind of articles submitted to your journal? That is, do you see many more multi-media projects?

Liu: On the whole I’d have to say “No.” Obviously there has been some of that, and there are journals like Vectors that have emerged recently and have tried to promote that kind of thinking. But it’s really quite amazing that the profession as a whole has been pretty conservative and resistant to the sorts of things that you can now do and that I think would be wonderful if more people did, and that I’d really like to see. I love to see stuff like that come into the journal more often.

It does appear but for people to be doing serious thinking and scholarship in a new mode, that simply takes a lot more than I guess 10 or 15 years to actually happen. It does happen, but ask yourself when was the last time you’ve written an essay that requires the new technology in a way that couldn’t be done in a print journal.

Hayles: In your view is the bottleneck in people’s concern whether these multimedia works would be accepted by their evaluation committees or do you think it goes to what people want to produce?

Liu: Probably neither. It’s certainly not the former. I think it’s closer to the latter. But it really has to do with how they think and how they can think and what they know how to think and what appears as an interesting thought.

My experience from the beginning has been that while there was a lot of chatter about whether electronic documents would be accepted for promotion and tenure cases and so on, this was never a problem. We never heard from anyone that they were turned down or that some entry in their CV was discredited because it was published by a peer review journal that happened to be online. Just the contrary. People were very consistent in having good experiences about it.

But I think it’s very hard, despite much talk about a move to a digital culture and a different way of thinking and so on, and despite the sort of stronger versions of Kittlarian and McLuhanesque arguments about the relationship between thought and technology, it simply seems that it takes longer to, than so far we’ve experienced, to move to a new way of thinking because we have these new technologies. It may be that you can – I know you’ve made some of these arguments yourself – can look at traditional technologies, like print, and see how the thought expressed in them now features or is influenced by a new kind of culture, new technologies. I can see that and I think that’s a fair claim and it goes to topics like attention and organization much more so than the nature of the actual object that’s produced.

That last distinction – between attention and organization on the one hand and “the nature of the actual object that’s produced” on the other – is crucial. That’s what speaks to “what they know how to think and what appears as an interesting thought.”
And that’s certainly what interests me. What is thinkable now that wasn’t thinkable 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

I don’t know how much weight Liu meant to place on the distinction between thinkability and interestingness, but I think it’s an important distinction. Something can be thinkable, but not interesting. In particular, I’ve written quite a bit about the nature of and need for better descriptive work in literary studies, but that work isn’t going to be done unless people find it interesting. It’s not that I regard such descriptive work to be the final resting point of inquiry but rather, it is just difficult and sufficiently time-consuming that it won’t be done unless people find it interesting in itself.

In two recent working papers, Two Disciplines in Search of Love (pp. 8-12) and Corpus Linguistics for the Humanist (pp. 13-15) I’ve argued that some of the techniques of the digital humanities have increased the conceptual range of humanistic thinking by creating new forms of description implying new objects of description. But will these newly thinkable objects prove interesting to humanists?

Consider these remarks, which are considerably later in the interview and which focus on the question of meaning:
Hayles (37:49): Just to ruffle your feathers a little I’d like to mention a quote that Tim Lenoir came up with during my interview with him. He’s been working on large data-mining projects on patent applications to determine when one can spot the emergence of a new technology platform. And as a historian of science of course this is very interesting to him. But his kind of quip was “Forget meaning; follow the data streams.” I’re making precisely the opposite argument, but the reason I’m juxtaposing with what you just said is that, is it possible that our encounter, engagement with digital technologies will actually begin to shift some of those foundational assumptions that you were just articulating?

38:54: Liu: No question, it’s certainly possible. He has a lot of allies. And I think from my perspective the question is why is that so appealing? what is the powerful desire that we feel to move away from interpretation, and from theory, and to get into data streams instead of asking those kinds of interpretation questions about data streams? But maybe I’m going to be in the minority asking that question in a few years because of that attraction of those lines of thought.
That is, these digital humanists find something interesting that is not so interesting to Liu himself. While some things are newly thinkable, these new objects of thought are interesting to some, but not to others. 

Note however that these new objects of thought weren't brought about by a change in presentation medium. They've been brought about by the adoption of new tools and methods for working with the raw materials of humanistic inquiry: texts.

Liu continues on:
Some of the people I’ve mentioned, and one can add some of Deleuze’s work, oddly enough, and others, have really prepared the way for this kind of anti-interpretive, anti-hermeneutic, anti-phenomenological line of thought. And there just is a huge desire to think this way. It’s fair to ask why we have this desire. And I think some of the historical work you have done has also shown where some of that has come from, like the work on the Macy conferences [on cybernetics? – WLB] as being the origin of the disarticulation of meaning from information. Can there be information that doesn’t have meaning? Is there really information there, or does information already assume a degree of implicit or explicit understanding. Do we want a culture of fact, so-called, without interpretation? Can there be such a thing?

As a post-modernist I don’t believe that there are neutral facts, a culture of things without thought. What we’ve tried to do is not put the two in conversation but to produce models in which language and thing become one thing, become indistinguishable. That’s one of the dangers of the pull and the power of the metaphor, if you use your term, the homologies, to use mine, of digital environment in relation to thought.
Given Liu’s recent essay in, The Meaning of the Digital Humanities (PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423), I wonder if he might reconsider these remarks. To be sure, what made that article work is that Liu chose an example (Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method) where the investigators themselves made the leap to meaning, but much of the article was devoted to explaining the methodology required to obtain a result interpretable in (traditional) humanistic terms. It’s not at all clear to me that the work would have been done if the investigators hadn’t found it intrinsically interesting and satisfying.

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