Thursday, May 19, 2016

Who put “The Terminator” in “Digital Humanities”?

In thinking about the current discussions provoked by the LARB takedown of digital humanities I’ve been thinking about the term itself: “digital humanities.” The term itself yokes together the opposite poles of a binary that’s plagued us since Descartes, man and machine, the human and the mechanical. I suppose that’s part of its attraction, but also why it can be so toxic.

In these discussions the term itself seems almost to float free of any connection to actual intellectual practice. Given the impossible scope of the term – see, e.g. the Wikipedia article on DH – its use tends to collapse on the binary itself. And if one is skeptical of whatever it is, then the “digital” term becomes those nasty machines that have been threatening us for centuries, most visibly in movies from Lang’s Metropolis through the Terminator series and beyond.

I certainly count myself among those who find the term somewhere between problematic and useless. More usefully, I think the many developments falling within the scope of that term are best seen in terms of a wide variety of discourses emerging after WWII. As a useful touchstone, check out a fascinating article: Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus,” Critical Inquiry, Fall 2011. He looks at the period during and immediately after World War II when Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan sojourned in NYC and picked up ideas about information theory and cybernetics from American thinkers at MIT and Bell Labs. You should be able to get a copy from Geoghegan's publications page.

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