The Sickness Unto Digital

Stanley Fish was here at Stanford recently, for a talk entitled “If You Count It, They Will Come” where he proceeded to count the dangers of the digital humanities–something familiar to those that have read his New York Times column. I’m sympathetic to his argument, since as it stands his version of a digital humanist should not be defended by anyone. When Ryan Heuser, of the Stanford Lit Lab, offered up the lab’s work as an empirical movement, complementary to traditional humanities scholarship, Fish made no complaint about a digital humanities that looked like that. The digital humanities that troubles Fish is the kind of manifestos and true belief, that presume the digital will change the very fundamentals of scholarship and hierarchy in academia. When I suggested to Fish that he and I were relics, and that a new breed of scholar who was savvy both in reading Milton and writing Python would obsolete us both, he rightly pointed out that such a scholar would also send the true believers to the dustbin of history. He followed this up with a claim that he was not so late in his career that he could not, if he wanted to, learn such things. The Programming Fish would be a thing to see. But I was struck by my own disclaiming of “manifesto digital humanities” and how that fit into Fish’s criticism of his vision of digital humanities. It seems, without too much twisting, that there exists the same tripartite despair outlined by Kierkegaard but for the role of the digital in the production of scholarship.

The Despair of the Unknown Digital

That first level, where one fears something because they simply do not know what it is, or even that it exists. For Fish, the digital humanities is Google Ngram Viewer and a few undergraduate NLP exercises coupled with some really great archives. He thinks it can just go away, as if it was a thing that admitted to leaving, when there is no reasonable conceptualization of humanities scholarship that does not involve digitally-enabled methods. This despair can be seen amongst digital humanists themselves, some of whom seem compulsed to point out at regular intervals that the word ‘digital’ has linguistic roots such that anything created with fingers could be considered digital, or that this kind of thing has been happening for seventy or seven hundred years, an argument that ignores the rule that as a thing grows in scale it changes in nature. When Busa created his concordance, as one man working with IBM, he followed one model of production in the digital humanities where the scholar teams with a technical expert to create something without reference to earlier dynamic or interactive work. That’s still going on today in the digital humanities, but it’s going on alongside production where the scholar is the technical expert and the work is tied (whether theoretically or, via API, directly) to existing projects and standards. And that’s simply one reformulation of what it means to do digital humanities. It is not that we have a thousand Busas today, and will have ten thousand tomorrow, each obeying strict division of labor, but rather along with those Busas has come a dozen new species that approach such research and theory from many different methodological and practical perspectives. I remain a firm believer in the big tent, but I think it is a very big tent.

The Despair of Humanities Accounting

Here lies an almost direct comparison between Kierkegaard’s despair and the despair of the digital humanist, for when one realizes that digital humanities actually exists, it seems best to use it to create digital objects in great abundance and variety. The creation and counting and correlation of so many objects–that empiricism to which Fish was so amenable (and what Miltonist does not love to count?)–would seem to finally provide answers where only gestures were possible before. Taken by the ability to fill one’s vision with production drives faculty at research universities to become archivists and librarians on one side of the factory and statisticians (or statistician groupies) on the other. Except this devolves into information production and not knowledge production, in an age where we already swim in information. As Baudrillard explains:

Information is thought to create communication, and even if the waste is enormous, a general consensus would have it that nevertheless, as a whole, there be an excess of meaning, which is redistributed in all the interstices of the social–just as consensus would have it that material production, despite its dysfunctions and irrationalities, opens onto an excess of wealth and social purpose. We are all complicitous in this myth. It is the alpha and omega of our modernity, without which the credibility of our social organization would collapse. Well, the fact is that it is collapsing, and for this very reason: because where we think that information produces meaning, the opposite occurs.
Information devours its own content. It devours communication and the social.

The Despair of Digital Uncertainty

Once the creation of digital goods exhausts or overwhelms the digital humanities scholar, they can sink into an authentic despair over the feasibility of digital methods, objects, and tools to provide meaningful communication of humanities knowledge. No database is complete, no information visualization technique perfect, no publication method all-encompassing, and so the digital humanities becomes a salon, where humanities scholars can interrogate and examine the components and ephemera of digital scholarship, and suggest and gesture toward a one day complete representation of the complexities and uncertainties of humanities knowledge using digital means. They eschew the counting of their younger days, and wonder even if there is a digital humanities to argue for the existence or non-existence thereof.

That Relationship Between the Finite and the Infinite

It has been too long since I read The Sickness Unto Death, and so I do not remember if the despairs are hierarchical in Kierkegaard’s version, but I know they are not in the digital humanities. I find myself swinging between all three, though more in the latter two than the first. I don’t know if the analogy carries through to a conclusion and doubt that there is some enlightened form of digital humanities to strive for, but I think these broad categories fit, and present dangers perhaps not in their expression but in their expression to the exclusion of each other.

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