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Re: <nettime> Digital Humanities Manifesto
Florian Cramer on Fri, 23 Jan 2009 00:44:19 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> Digital Humanities Manifesto


Thanks, Kim, for informing the list about this. -

It's always difficult when online discussions branch into different
threads on different sites. But it seems as if there are enough
significant differences between the "digital humanities" discourse on
the UCLA site and the discourse on Nettime to post critical remarks
here rather than on the original site.

There are, to put it diplomatically, issues with this manifesto, both
in its precision of terminology and critical thinking. First of all,
the term "digital humanities" is fuzzy. Does it mean the cultural
study of digital information systems, or simply the use of these
systems in humanities research and education? If the latter is meant,
why differentiate between humanities and other fields of study and
not talk about "digital technology-based research and education" in
general?

Paragraph 1 of the manifesto states that...

| Digital humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent
| practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the
| exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced
| and/or disseminated.

This is a straightforward paraphrase of McLuhan's "end of the
Gutenberg Galaxy", with the only catch that McLuhan referred to
analog media - film, radio, television. So it seems as if the authors
thoroughly confuse "electronic" and "paper" with "digital" and
"analog". But, technically seen, the movable type printing press is
not an analog, but a digital system in that all writing into discrete,
countable [and thus computable] units.

On top of that, there are very contemporary positions in the so-called
'new media' field that are much more differentiated and a few steps
ahead in their reflection of the relation between online and print
publishing. In his introductory essay to the first Mag.net reader,
Alessandro Ludovico soundly argues that "print is becoming the
quintessence of the web", a stable long-term medium for which the
unstable medium of the Web serves as a production and filtering
platform.

| Like all media revolutions, the first wave of the digital revolution
| looked backwards as it moved forward. It replicated a world where print
| was primary and visuality was secondary, while vastly accelerating
| search and retrieval. 

The common assumption that media studies suffer from a lack of mid-
and long-term memory is a confirmed by this paragraph. Historically,
the opposite is true. In their "first wave of the digital revolution",
the humanities chiefly associated the new technology with holographic
visuality of "virtual reality" and "cyberspace". The humanities needed
about ten years to catch up and grasp that computing and the Internet
was based on code, and thus on linguistic logic.

| Now it must look forwards into an immediate future
| in which the medium specific features of the digital become its core.

First of all, "the digital" is not a medium, but a type of
information; information made up of discrete units [such as numbers]
instead of an analog continuum [such as waves]. The medium - the
carrier - itself is, strictly speaking, always analog: electricity,
airwaves, magnetic platters, optical rays, paper.

To insist on this terminological precision is not just some
technological nitpicking, but of political significance. It reminds of
the concrete materiality of the Internet and computing that involves
the exploitation of energy, natural resources and human labor, as
opposed to falsely buying, by the virtue of abstraction, into the
"immateriality" of "digital media".

| The first wave was quantitative, mobilizing the vertiginous
| search and retrieval powers of the database. The second wave is
| qualitative, interpretive, experiential, even emotive. It immerses
| the digital toolkit within what represents the very core strength of
| the Humanities: complexity.

As it remains totally vague what this "second wave" represents -
YouTube and social networking as the next evolutionary step after
Google Search? [Seriously? How young are the people who wrote this?]
-, it is nearly impossible to seriously discuss this argument. It
also seems quite futile to argue whether the humanities or sciences
have the better grip on "complexity" - a word which is a systems
theoretical null signifier typically serving as a dialectical device
for reducing the very thing it means; saying that something is
"complex" is a truism, and thus a simplification.

Aside from that, the above argument is seriously flawed in its
implicit assumption that there was no, or less, social and cultural
complexity involved in what it calls the "quantitative" formalisms
of databases and programming. It's a blatant regression behind the
research of critical media scholars [like Matthew Fuller, Wendy
Chun, McKenzie Wark and many others] and hacker activists of the
past decade; research that has shown again and again how these very
formalisms are "qualitative", i.e. designed by human groups and shaped
by cultural, economical and political interests through and through.

| Interdisciplinarity/transdisciplinarity/multidisciplinarity are
| empty words unless they imply changes in language, practice, method,
| and output.

And the words in this paragraph are just as empty because they state a
completely generic truism.

| The digital is the realm of the open: open source, open resources,
| open doors. Anything that attempts to close this space should be
| recognized for what it is: the enemy.

I'm slightly tempted to put the above paragraph, as a sarcastic
joke, into my E-Mail signature, because it is the perfect [if for
sure unintended] joining of the ideological opposites of a liberal
Popperian ideology of "the open" with a right-wing Carl Schmittian
agonistic rhetoric of "the enemy".

I'll stop here in order not to produce a prolonged rant - and
sincerely apologize for my harshness if the "Digital Humanities
Manifesto" should turn out to be a text written by younger students.

-F


-- 
http://cramer.pleintekst.nl:70
gopher://cramer.pleintekst.nl






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