Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Something Big This Way Comes, Redux

I’ve lived my entire adult life reading assertions that something really big is happening in the world. Certainly intellectually. New ideas and modes of thought. And I believe it. But just how big?

Copernicus (1473-1543) big? Kepler (1571-1630) big? Newton (1643-1727) big? As big as the three of them taken together? Copernicus and Kepler changed the way we described the movements of heavenly bodies; but it wasn’t until Newtonian mechanics that we had a new causal model for their motions.

I’ve already commented on this remark Ian Bogost made about certain recent philosophical controversies back in 2012:
Sometimes I regret having gotten back into the "traditional humanities" after spending the last ten years in a weird hybrid of liberal arts and engineering at a technical institute. For it deals with the greatest irony of conservatism: a conservatism whose hallowed tradition is a purported progressive radicalism. Things are changing in philosophy, and that change is terrifying to some and liberating to others—perhaps it should be both. This conflict, if that's really what it is, is evidence of something big.
Now I’ve come across this remark Stephen Ramsay made in 2011 concerning the “digital humanities”:
The astonishing thing isn’t, in the end, the ways in which high-performance computing and mega-scale datasets transform the humanities; rather, it’s how much of the hermeneutical basis of humanistic inquiry — the character of its discourse and the eternal tentativeness of its “results” — remains invariant. The revolution is not hermeneutical so much as methodological.

Which is not to say that it is any less of a revolution. In fact, it might be more revolutionary than anything that has happened in literary study in fifty years, precisely because the traditional humanities disciplines are so radically (if you’ll pardon me) undermethodologized. And that’s precisely why we need to get our metaphors right.
Fifty years? The (in)famous structuralism conference was held at Johns Hopkins in 1966. More revolutionary than that? (But then just how revolutionary was that?) More revolutionary, and yet Ramsay still wants to lay back in hermeneutics, which may perhaps be traced back to biblical hermeneutics, which, depending on how you reckon things, is as old as dirt, or at any rather goes back to the higher criticism of the 19th Century.

But then Bogost places himself in a philosophical tradition that goes back to Hegel.

And, in a different reckoning, we’re all footnotes to Plato.

Much of which IS nonsense.

Ideas do change, and radically so. Unfortunately, literary studies seems to have exhausted the rhetoric of revolution during the last quarter of the previous century and so we know longer have a sense of how to measure these things – as if they could be measured.

Are we just out for another spin around the hermeneutic wheel, this time supercharged by digital tech? Or are we actually going to make fundamental changes in what we do, how we do it, and where we’re going? Are we willing to set forth on the uncharted sea?

Me, I have little choice in the matter. I’ve been lost for decades. At the moment I’m thinking that digital criticism – only one aspect of the digital humanities – is something of a crapshoot. Maybe yes, maybe no.

I will say this: The computational horsepower is important. It allows us to depict and describe phenomena heretofore hidden. But it’s not the main event. What’s important is how we frame explanations. That’s what’s got to change. That’s where the challenge is, the danger, and the possibility of new and deeper understanding.

Can we possibly bear that, a deeper understanding of the human mind, of culture, of society?

We’ll see.

* * * * *

Addendum: This post contains a skeletal chronology of the cognitive revolution which I've also run in parallel with a chronology of literary criticism. That's part of the background for this post. It provides some "calibration" for the judgements in this post.


  1. A very interesting discourse. Is it possible to measure the amount of radicalism or revolutionary processes in present time? Don't we need the spectacles of the the future to look back and judge today?

  2. What I think, Otto, is that I'm working farther from, say, 1960, than Bogost or Ramsay. But, yes, it may take, say, another 50 years to know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.