Thursday, April 17, 2014

To Capture Infinity in a Bottle: The Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism

The Gist: The only way the digital humanities are going to develop a cultural analytics that is sui generis is by thinking about the nature of computation itself in relation to human minds, as embodied in human brains, and as developing though interaction with other minds through various media and in groups of varying size and social structure. Otherwise the digital humanities will have no choice by to borrow its cultural concepts from other discourses, as it is now doing.

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Let has start from some passages. First up, Alan Liu, from “Why I’m In It” x 2 – Antiphonal Response to Stephan Ramsay on Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism (September 13, 2013):
The digital humanities can only take on their full importance when they are seen to serve the larger humanities (and arts, with affiliated social sciences) in helping them maintain their ability to contribute to the making of the full wealth of society, where “wealth” here has its older, classic sense of “well-being” or the good life woven together with the life of good.
Compare that with Willard McCarty, A telescope for the mind? (Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): “What can the digital humanities can do for the humanities as a whole that helps these disciplines improve the well-being of us all?”

Back to Liu:
It seems to me that digital humanists can and should evolve a mode of cultural criticism that is uniquely their own and not a mere echo of fading humanist cultural criticism by treating their immediate objects of inquiry (academically-oriented technologies and methods) as always also “mediate objects of inquiry” bearing on the way the human beings they wish their students could become (and they themselves could be on their best days) can really engage meaningfully with larger social agents and forces....The goal is to do research, to teach, and to live as if humanities technology is constantly intertwined with, reacts to, and acts on the way the links are now being forged between individuals (starting with those in the academy where we teach and conduct research) and the social-economic-political-technological constitution of contemporary society.

What it comes down to is that the digital humanities need both to work on tools and methods in their own institutional place (the academy) and to develop a capable imagination of the relation of that unique institutional place (or family of variant institutional spaces) to the other major institutions that play a part in enabling or thwarting the passageway from private human subjectivity to public social sensibility.
It seems that Liu is imagining a cultural criticism centered on institutions and society, one that treats computers and minds as black boxes whose inner workings remain unexamined. In this practice it seems to me that the ideas about culture and society would likely come from already existing bodies of work.

Stephen Ramsay gets down to it in a comment to Liu (and others):
I think we have lost the sense (in cultural criticism, and even more within in DH) of this idea that humanistic inquiry should lead to particular ways of life — particular choices concerning not merely how to view the world, but how live in it. This is, of course, the original meaning of *ethica*, and I think that if the humanities (including DH conceived as a form of humanistic inquiry, and not merely another branch of STEM) is to survive, it needs to reconceive its entire reason for being.
Is it possible to derive an ethos, an ethics and an aesthetics, from computation? That depends on what computation is, no? And we don’t quite know what computation is. And by “we” I don’t mean us humanists, I mean we, the intellectual community. When serious thinkers–Steven Wolfram (A New Kind of Science) most visibly–propose that the cosmos in computational in nature, the nature of computation itself must be considered up for grabs.

Let’s return to McCarty, who took the title of his essay, “A telescope for the mind?”, from Margaret Masterman, a mid-20th Century British polymath who had studied with Wittgenstein and was one of the founders of computational linguistics.
“Analogy is an identity of relationships” (Weil 85), not of things. Thus the computer could now be to the mind, Masterman was saying, as the telescope was to 17th-century observers, enlarging “the whole range of what its possessors could see and do [so] that, in the end, it was a factor in changing their whole picture of the world”. She suggests that by thus extending our perceptual scope and reach, computing does not simply bring formerly unknown things into view, it also forces a crisis of understanding from which a new, more adequate cosmology arises. ... She was not alone in thinking that the computer would make a great difference to all fields of study, but she seems to have been one of the very few who argued for qualitative rather than quantitative change–different ideas rather than simply more evidence, obtained faster and more easily in greater abundance, to support ideas we already have in ways we already understand.
Will the further development of the digital humanities lead to that qualitative change–in our ideas about the mind, about culture, about history¬or will that development only give us more kinds of evidence to bolster "ideas we already have"?

Finally, Franco Moretti. Consider his most recent pamphlet, “Operationalizing”: or, the Function of Measurement in Modern Literary Theory (December 2013 PDF). He’s been examining Hegel on Antigone. The payoff comes at the end of the paragraph but I give you the rest so you can get a flavor of the moderately strange world in which Moretti has been walking:
The protagonist is a utensil; character-space, is an instrument. The protagonist is a utensil because it belongs to the world of readerly common sense, and doesn’t go beyond it. Character-space is an instrument, because it’s the realization of a theory that wants to understand something “that does not fall under the domain of our senses”: instead of individual characters, the relations among characters. That’s why, in the end, its operationalization produced more than the refinement of already-existing knowledge: not the protagonist, improved, but an altogether new set of categories. Measurement as a challenge to literary theory, one could say, echoing a famous essay by Hans Robert Jauss. This is not what I expected from the encounter of computation and criticism; I assumed, like so many others, that the new approach would change the history, rather than the theory of literature; and, ultimately, that may still be the case. But as the logic of research has brought us face to face with conceptual issues, they should openly become the task of the day, countering the pervasive clichés on the simple-minded positivism of digital humanities. Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study. The time has come, to make them explicit.
I cannot but agree with those last two lines, so I will repeat them, but this time in my own voice, and with emphasis: Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study. The time has come, to make them explicit. Notice that it is computation that has the theoretical consequences, not the digital computer, not Baysian inference, not topic modeling, not HTML markup, not Perl, not a concordance, not visualization, not this and not that.


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It is my belief, and has been for years, that working out those consequences will inevitably lead to “the collision of computational and human reasoning processes,” as Willard McCarty put it to me in recent correspondence.

I’ve thought about this a great deal and have much to say, but nothing to say quickly, nor even things I can point to that seem adequate to me. It remains to be worked out.

So I’ll conclude with a few quick remarks.

My first point, the one made to me years ago by my teacher, David Hays, is that computation is subject to finite resources. In order to have some effect in the world a computation must issue in a result. No real computation can go on forever. The number of computing elements–processors, memory, neurons, whatever–is always limited and time is finite.*

If we follow that line, not to the end, but further along, we’re going to see something that looks like an account of why poems, rituals, stories, designs, pictures, songs & dances, and so forth, are necessary to human life. Our brains are, in theory, capable of infinite computation. But in practice, infinity is always out of reach. The only way to bring those infinite computations to a close is to tell a story, paint a picture, or dance a song.

That’s where we’ll find our ethics, our aesthetics, and our cultural criticism.

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*A couple hours after initial posting: Let me add, as addendum, some remarks by my friend and colleague, Tim Perper, who was trained as a molecular biologist and eventually ended up studying manga and anime by way of human courtship and sexuality:
The only comment I'd add is that information is a property of physical systems. Here, the word "system" is not a catchall blobby sort of term, but specifically refers to elements or components, themselves physically real objects, that are linked together physically (e.g., by telephone wires, by acoustic waves, and so forth) that can exchange certain kinds of energy. All of this can be reduced to astro-babble ("I exchange mental energies with my cat") unless we understand that information is realized ("instantiated") in the physically real modification of a carrier (e.g, an electromagnetic waveform).

So information is a physical property of matter in the same -- exactly the same -- sense that heat is a physical property of an object in a system. One of the great breakthroughs in SW [Shannon-Weaver] information theory was the demonstration that information is mathematically related to entropy and therefore to heat and the other basic components of thermodynamics.
So we’re getting down to some pretty basic stuff. The computational view is about information, and information is material. Hence computation, real computation, is material. It follows that the computational view is materialist through and through.

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