Sunday, July 10, 2016

DH and Critique (DHpoco), with a Nod to Latour (via Felski)

I just now came across this three-year old conversation, Open Thread: The Digital Humanities as a Historical “Refuge” From Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability? It’s a long and very interesting conversation, with 166 comments between May 10, 2013 and May 14. I am reading the conversation in the general context of the May 1 LARB critique by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouille, and David Golumbia, Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities. This not-so-old conversation is distinguished by the variety and number of participants and it’s overall civility.

My purpose, however, is not to attempt either a summary or analysis of the conversation, but to highlight two voices I find particularly resonant. First I look at Chuck Rybak, who speaks up for “poetics/form/rhetoric.” Then Rafael Alvarado suggests that DH should not subordinate itself to the Ministry of Cultural Studies.

The Work Itself

Chuck Rybak, from the third day:
This is an amazingly varied and interesting discussion thread–thank you Roopika and Adeline.

When I look at the opening quote, I immediately wanted to paste in the entirety of Marjorie Perloff’s essay “Crisis in the Humanities.” Instead of the entire piece, I’ll settle for this paragraph:

“It is, I would argue, the contemporary fear and subordination of the pleasures of representation and recognition –the pleasures of the fictive, the what might happen to the what has happened–the historical/cultural– that has trivialized the status of literary study in the academy today. If, for an aesthete like Walter Pater, art was always approaching the condition of music, in our current scheme of things, art is always–and monotonously– approaching the condition of “culture.” Indeed, the neoPuritan notion that literature and the other arts must be somehow “useful,” and only useful, that the Ciceronian triad —docere, movere, delectare– should renounce its third element (“delight”) and even the original meaning of its second element, so that to move means only to move readers to some kind of virtuous action, has produced a climate in which it has become increasingly difficult to justify the study of English or Comparative Literature.”

Since I’m a creative writer and lit prof who teaches a lot of poetry, Perloff means a lot to me as a critic. My sense is that Perloff would reject the word “refuge” and replace it with something like “return.” But a return to what? Simply, a focus on poetics/form/rhetoric. When I first started dabbling in DH work, I was immediately struck by how text-centered the enterprise is, and that has proven very useful pedagogically, especially when working with an undergraduate population who often prefer to flee the text as quickly as possible and get right to ideas in the abstract. In short, I’m sympathetic to Perloff here because I think it approaches this question in terms of embracing an interest rather than primarily rejecting something else. Perloff, in that essay, gives respect to cultural readings of works like Ulysses and Heart of Darkness, especially as they relate to empire, etc. Still, what Martha Smith might describe as a refuge (or seemingly so), I hear someone like Perloff saying what’s needed is a return to poetics. Perloff wasn’t writing about DH, but I imagine one thing Perloff would respect about some DH tools are their ability to hone in on language/aesthetics and treat a poem as a unique rhetoric, stylistic artifact, etc. I’m learning so much from reading this thread, but I chafe a little bit against the notion of a “refuge” from a specific set of concerns, largely because it might attribute an act of will where someone might just be pursuing their particular interests.

And having written this, I can also hear the response: “Perloff, as you demonstrate, is exactly someone who would see this as a refuge.” I’m not sure I could completely rebut that. PoCo is not my area of study/specialization, so I really am offering this very generally.
I note that there was no response to this comment despite the fact that, as Rybak noted at the end, he was using Perloff to advance the kind of position that was brought into question by the thread. Perhaps, because it was late in the conversation, people were tired.

Now, consider a passage by Derek Attridge, which is from a dialog he had with Henry Staten, “Reading for the Obvious: A Conversation,” World Picture 2, Autumn 2008. It has nothing to do with DH, but it speaks to Rybak/Perloff in the face of the demand for critique:
As you know, I’ve been trying for a while to articulate an understanding of the literary critic’s task which rests on a notion of responsibility, derived in large part from Derrida and Levinas, or, more accurately, Derrida’s recasting of Levinas’s thought, one aspect of which is an emphasis on the importance of what I’ve called variously a “literal” or “weak” reading. That is to say, I’ve become increasingly troubled by the effects of the enormous power inherent in the techniques of literary criticism at our disposal today […] The result of this rich set of critical resources is that any literary work, whether or not it is a significant achievement in the history of literature, and whether or not it evokes a strong response in the critic, can be accorded a lengthy commentary claiming importance for it. What is worse, the most basic norms of careful reading are sometimes ignored in the rush to say what is ingenious or different. (The model of the critical institution whereby the critic feels obliged to claim that his or her interpretation trumps all previous interpretations is clearly part of the problem here, and beyond this the institutional pressure to accumulate publications or move up the ladder.) We may be teaching our students to write clever interpretations without teaching them how to read...
Attridge and Staten went on devote a book to the practice of weak reading: Derek Attridge and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, Routledge 2015. Each chapter takes the form of back and forth conversation (via email) about a poem or maybe two. Their object is to find agreement as much as possible, and to clearly articulate disagreement where necessary [1]. They note that they are not trying to replace or displace critique, but to lay a foundation from which other forms of criticism can advance.

Finally, to round this out, let me offer a passage from Rita Felski, Doing the Humanities (With Bruno Latour), p. 9:
Meanwhile, we would also benefit from exploring styles of criticism more willing to combine disagreement with empathy, that are more dialogic and less diagnostic. It is hardly sufficient, for example, to explain away attitudes one does not agree with by invoking the nefarious force of ideologies and isms. This kind of analysis —which portrays one’s opponents as being driven by hidden structures that only the critical theorist can penetrate—speaks about others rather than to them, in the discourse of the vanguard. Criticism can only hope to engage others—rather than chastise or admonish others-- if it is also willing to put itself in their shoes.
The Arrogance of Critique and the Resistance of the Physical

What an excellent thread. I write to make only one general observation, although I wish I had time to develop several, especially in response to some of specific points and challenges being made. It is this: critics of DH 1 (to use Ramsay’s recent category) honestly and deeply believe, following Jameson, that politics defines the horizon of interpretation of anything and everything and, more specifically, that /(race|gender|class|identity)/ defines the horizon of politics. The problem is that this is a frame within which no successful discourse is possible, if by success we mean some form of intellectual agreement or social accord. No one can win an argument about identity, and no one can escape a conversation about it without being accused. It is very much like a game of tag. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is another view of interpretation out there that one must juxtapose to Jameson’s: the machine is the horizon of interpretation, and the abstract machine, as represented by computation, provides a deep and rich source of reflection, a meta-discourse, a la Gregory Bateson, that can allow us to play out the politics of identity in a new and perhaps more fulfilling way.
Let me interrupt Alvarado with a remark by Andrew Smart from a bit earlier in the conversation:
I also think there is a limit to the social construction of the digital by virtue of the fact that digital technology, at its lowest level, relies on the physical laws of how information is represented in voltage. The way computers and networks work is determined (or maybe very constrained) by the laws of physics. Obviously what you use these tools for is more open – but still limited or constrained. We can’t yet use computers to travel back or forward in time.
That is, we cannot treat computers as mere creatures of the ideologies of those who build and use them. They are subject to the brute resistances (and affordances) of the physical world. I would note also that human biology offers resistance to cultural construction and thereby offers possibilities for liberation from oppressive construction.

Alvarado continues:
In this view politics is, as Hobbes argued, just another discourse that emerges from a special kind of machine (society). I like to imagine DH 1 as a kind of post-anthropological anthropology, something in line with Levi-Strauss’s remark that “the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man.” The machine is not pre-interpretive, but it does wonderfully blur the boundaries between nature and culture, causality and meaning, and it provides a way out the klein bottle of identity talk. So there is nothing inherently at odds between these two discourses — the embeddedness of computation in culture is not at issue. What is at issue is whether the discourses of an Adorno or a Butler can be transposed and slotted into to the area of computation and conduct business as usual. I do not believe they can, and this, I believe, is something like what Type I digital humanists have in mind when they resist the charges of Type II digital humanists that they are not sufficiently aware of the dynamics of identity in their work.
I’m not sure how the figure of the Klein bottle works, but I like the way Alvarado positions the machine between nature and culture.

As one might imagine, David Golumbia notes: “This is quite a good assertion of what I would call exactly the view that concerns me most.” Yes. And they go back and forth a bit. But I’m going to give Alvarado the last word:
But your concerns sound so officious — as if DH, to have any legitimacy, has to show its papers to the Ministry of Cultural Studies. That is what I object to — that we are somehow beholden to this particular discourse. When you say that “it seems deeply incumbent on [DH] to be able to articulate to other humanists why it does not constitute a turning-away from the concerns shared by most non-DH humanists” you write as if there are a clear set of concerns there and you are waiting, with your foot tapping, for proof that DH is part of the group.
And again, to round things out, Rita Felski, Doing the Humanities (With Bruno Latour), pp. 2, 9:
That intellectuals in the humanities so often invoke “critique” as a guiding ethos and principle may speak to the stubborn persistence of an either/or mindset: the fear that if one is not negating the status quo, one is therefore being co-opted by it. [...]

Critique, in fact, often insists on its difference from mere criticism, understood as disagreement or objection, by underscoring its superior vantage point and epistemology. In traditional ideology critique, this is a matter of contrasting the illusions or delusions of others to the critic’s access to truth; in poststructuralist critique, techniques of troubling and problematizing now signal the critic’s self-reflexive distance from the naïve or literal beliefs of others. In both cases, though, we see the methodological asymmetry that characterizes critique. Ideas that scholars object to or disagree with are traced back to hidden structures of which actors themselves remain unaware—ideological, psychic, linguistic, social. Critique itself, however, remains the ultimate horizon—it is not an object to be contextualized, but the ultimate context: a synonym for rigorous and radical thought. Hence the deeply asymmetrical nature of the discourse of critique: “I speak truth to power while you are a pawn of neo-liberal interests.”

[1] I’ve written extensive commentary on the book, William Benzon, Notes on Attridge and Staten: The Craft of Poetry (2016) 52 pp. URL:

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