The CODEC team have initiated a bookclub which meets every other Tuesday lunchtime. Recently I was asked to pick the reading for the first meeting and then to write up the conversation afterwards in the form of a blog post. Sadly, so much is happening in CODEC at the moment that I have only just got round to writing this post.
I asked the group to look at David Berry’s introductory chapter from the book he edited, Understanding Digital Humanities (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). In the chapter, Berry gives an overview of the development of Digital Humanities within the modern academy as a reaction to massive growth in knowledge, data and ways of working. He talks of the “new infinite archive” and the academy’s reaction to this in terms of waves:
- wave 1: the process of digitization, development of infrastructure, focus on quantitative aspects of knowledge and research
- wave 2: the embedding of digitally native artifacts into research, generating new environments for research which is much more qualitative, experiential and emotive.
Berry’s understanding is that the first wave replicated the old forms of scholarship in digital terms – that it was essentially mimetic, digitally reproducing established disciplines. However, the second wave, exemplified in the Digital Manifesto, creates entirely new “disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies and new production models” (Berry quoting directly from Presner’s version of the Digital Manifesto - see more on this below).
The group had a long and intense conversation about Berry’s work. Our conversation was prefaced by a reminder that photography changed everything – or rather than the experience of playing with a pinhole camera reinforced that the image created was not the same as the image viewed with the eye – photography framed reality and changed reality, reformed, remodeled reality... Of course, it’s not quite that simple – the arts and humanities have always sought to frame reality. But there is a parable here about that move to see reality through the screen, and so the overriding important of the screen in modern life.
So we talked as well about a popular/populist view in contemporary hermeneutics as dealing with texts as a window (historical/sociology of past cultures), as a frame (historical-critical approaches like text, form, redaction criticism), as a mirror (reader-response, ideological criticisms). We wondered whether Digital Humanities were pushing us further to think of a hermeneutics of the screen – observation, distancing, a lack of power to change, passivity of the part of the reader, a kind of reflexive circularity in thinking about the thinking – meta-hermeneutics?
We talked about Digital Humanities as yet another control mechanism whereby something new simply replicated the control patterns of the past in demanding a new form be created to feed the capitalist machines. Some of us have been reading Heidegger’s “Question on Technology” which makes a similar point. A river crossed by a bridge remains a river. The technology of the bridge does not change the river’s essence (Dasein). However, when a hydro-electric power plant is set into the river, the river is dammed up into the plant – the river becomes a resource for the plant, its essence has been changed. Modern technology, for Heidegger, turns everything it touches into a resource waiting to be used up – what Heidegger calls Gestell. (If you are interested, I think Marika would recommend you read Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies” as well).
I’m not convinced that Heidegger is right here. Or if he is, then he misses the change which the bridge effects. The river is now a crossable river. It has changed. It is no longer a barrier but a path. And the bridge actually changes the structure and fluidity of both river and riverbed. The bridge is as much a piece of technology as the hydroelectric power plant. It changes the river and the context of the river. The river’s Dasein is simply not the same with bridge as it was without bridge.
Earlier in the piece, before he runs away with his control metaphor (Gestell), Heidegger had talked about technology as a place of revelation. In other words, technology reveals something, like Art does, about the nature of things. McLuhan, of course, argues that technology is an extension of humanity’s capabilities which reveals what is gained by that extension but also what is lost (probably best read through Shane Hipps reflection. A car extends the human faculty of movement, but in driving, we lose the connectedness with the earth, the rhythm of walking which, as Wittgenstein used to say, is the only way to do proper thinking.
Then other thing about the Heidegger push to control is that this is exactly what Digital Humanities seems to want to avoid. I mean, you have read the Digital Humanities Manifesto (linked above already! READ IT!!!)? The whole essence of which is an attempt to blow apart the old ways of being a university, the closeted lone academic image and in its place create collaboratories of academics working together in the humanities just as in the sciences. I’ll quote a paragraph from Berry (p.3), quoting Presner’s version of the Manifesto:
“Digital Humanities 2.0 is deeply generative, creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is ‘born digital’ and lives in various digital contexts…[it] introduces entirely new disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies, and even new publication models”
In a talk in 2003, Alan Liu talked of the new concept in the humanities of teams working together like scientists – or even of new ventures where students and staff worked collaboratively, where we consciously “intermix faculty from the humanities, arts, sciences, engineering, and social sciences”. That was over a decade ago - lots has happenned but...lots remains left undone!
Such places are the collaboratories of the Digital Humanities.
CODEC is designed specifically to be a collaboratory.
Our current work with the Institute for Advanced Research Computer to explore a UK Data Centre on Religion Analytics is not an accident. We have just sent off a research centre bid for a 250K project looking at Data in Religious Communities. It is a joint project with our iARC colleagues. We want to purposefully push against the boundaries and silos of some of contemporary academia.
CODEC is consciously a Digital Humanities Project.
But not just because we are tech-centred. It is because for us, for me as Director certainly, “digital” is shorthand for larger cultural shift – a Kuhnian paradigm shift perhaps, towards greater democratization, flatter hierarchies, shifting in disciplinary boundaries, the use of technology to ameliorate the feeling of incompetence in the wake of information overload, and the fusing of various disciplines and technologies to offer new paradigms for research. It is, of course, so much more…but space doesn’t allow us to explore too much more.
One final point, Berry raises the point (p.5) that computer code facilities everything nowadays – as Matthew Fuller points out: “all intellectual work is now ‘software study’.” I see the point and agree with the sense that the ubiquity of code and coding could further change society, especially if our children are taught to code from an early age. The shift from Greek to Latin was not just one of vocabulary but one of semantics and linguistics. Greek is a much more fluid language, with a greater tendency towards metaphysics than is available within Latin – although you have to admit they did well. The shift from medieval French to English transformed British life and not just in a political dimension. Code is not a full language with which we communicate with one another. But the structure and flow of this new language may well have an even greater role to play in our future paradigms. What would it mean to do theology in the language of Code?
Pete Phillips, CODEC Director