This text was written in a spirit of frustration with what I then experienced as a tendency to superficiality within the Digital Humanities. I paste it here as a reaction to reading Chad Wellmon’s Sacred Reading: From Augustine to the Digital Humanists, a text that make my own attemt at understanding something seem itself perhaps somewhat superficial. At the same time, the point I was trying to make is not the same as Wellmon’s. He ends his essay with the suggestion that ”digital reading” should be seen as yet another expression of the typically modern ”knowledge-seeking curiosity”. Here I think there is a crucial distinction to be made. Scientists sometimes get obsessed with curiosity – what Kuhn talked about in terms of game-addiction and ”normal science”. Such work may result in wonderful things, or atomic bombs. This, I think, is something quite different from at least some (not all!) of the fascination with technology driving the Digital humanities. There is something here that I think is more similar to the fascination with the sacred; it is a kind of bedazzlement, the typical characteristic of which is that it does not produce anything new – and it does not want to do so either. It just want to enjoy standing in wonder – like the football fan that just wants to enjoy the game, and then another one, and then another one, never being transformed, never having any influence on the outcome.  This is a theme that I also discuss, in Swedish, in the post Begriplig och obegriplig matematik. Such bedazzlement is no bad thing in itself – it is part of what a philosopher like Robert Pfaller would consider makes life worth living. It contains a lot less potential for destruction than ”knowledge seeking curiosity”. But it also, I think, has its drawbacks. This is what I wrote:

While humanistic work and making technology work both present fascinating challenges, the point of this contribution [presented at the NORLIT conference in Gothenburg, 2015] is that they are different and that it is important today to be attentive to the specificity of the humanities. I will start by explaining what I mean with these two kinds of challenges and then point to a first problem: that even though both are valued, those pertaining to technology are much better in tune with the presently dominating values of modern society. I then come to the crux, namely that digital reading presents a quite peculiar threat to the humanities, in that it pretends to be both humanistic and technological at the same time, and thus to realize both sets of values in the same single move. With reference to psychoanalysis I will try to show that digital reading is indeed a very pleasurable activity to engage with, but an activity that has the drawback of being (in a technical sense) superficial. My concluding question is how the humanities can engage with technology and participate in a development of its technological underpinnings, while at the same time avoiding this superficiality.

What is the humanities? When teaching courses to students from the whole liberal arts faculty it became obvious to me that this administrative category contains quite some more diversity than is usually acknowledged. It was difficult to find common ground. Instead of aiming for descriptive accuracy, I will therefore present a personal suggestion, loosely based on how the specificity of the humanities has been discussed before, and designed to bring out clearly the point of my argument.[1]

Let me thus suggest that to do humanistic work is to be passive and receptive, to listen and interpret; to try to understand. It is to work for comprehension of the strange and foreign, but also to stretch the imagination out of the ordinary and envision new possibilities. The humanities does not build, it does not produce; it is not useful. The humanities is unpredictable and potentially inconvenient in that it takes itself to stand over and above common sense and established values; it passes judgment, without objectivity, without merit and without evidence; it allows itself to be incomprehensible as well as uninteresting, even though it may also be playful and popular. It is an autonomous reflective intelligence in society that cannot be controlled without at the same time being perverted. To be part of that intelligence is not easy. Why not call it a challenge?

Programming (here understood as a kind of work with technology) is something entirely different. It is more similar to what Thomas Kuhn (1962) called “normal science”. You have a vision of what you want to build that does something by means of interaction with the world; a vision of a new being. At first this will not work. But then you try harder – and eventually, it may perhaps work. You need to be utterly familiar with your tools; know not only your programming language, but also your libraries; your editor; your documentation; your Google. Following Kuhn, one can say that programming is fascinating and pleasurable in a similar say as playing a game.[2] Technology is always built into the world, as a piecemeal improvement (cf. Popper, 1945, p. 157ff) – improvement, that is, from the psychological point of view, of the satisfaction of watching the program run, but today – and importantly for my argument – also from the perspective of politics and economy. It is a game where society rewards the winners.

Most valued today is activity, productivity, innovation and competitiveness. The economy encompasses everything, and everyone is to contribute: We are to build, share and enjoy – while money circulates and grows. If you choose to engage with text, you should not read, but write, texts that can be counted (not read) as pieces of knowledge (i.e. “publications”), that contribute to the great project of scientific knowledge production, in turn making the economy increasingly “competitive”.[3]

While programming should not be confused with entrepreneurial creative financial speculation, programming nonetheless fits much better with this modern mindset than reading. Following my definition of the humanities above, to read is characteristically humanistic: you sit there, alone, in the quiet, and let yourself encounter something once written, with no other immediate effect than your own inner transformation, big or small. It is not difficult to see why reading does not fare well today. Why read? What is produced by that? What is innovated? How does that contribute to economic growth? Who cares?

It is in this context that we should understand digital reading. Such reading has many benefits. Much more can be read, of course, faster, with higher precision. But what is probably even more important is how digital reading calls for other activities as its prerequisite: the building of appropriate tools, education of the people that can build these tools and operate them, the establishment of centers, conferences and networks. Thus reading can be connected to technology, to innovation, to productivity and to the very popular activity of bureaucratization. And suddenly, reading fits with the world and can be successfully promoted, as a contributing factor to the competitive economy – if only in its updated form, as “digital”.

What has thence happened can with reference to Freud be called displacement, as the result of a conflict that has at least partly turned unconscious. People engaging with digital reading think that they love to read, but in fact their desire is elsewhere, caught by the institutionalized and accounted-for values of productivity and innovation. Another useful term is delegation: the reading, that takes too much time and effort, is delegated to the computer, in the same way as a Tibetan monk delegates her praying to the praying-wheel, spun by wind, water or electricity, so that she can do what she desires more. The computer does the boring reading, so that the “humanists” can take on the much more exciting challenge of constructing and using technology. Digital reading is a compromise formation, in that it does two things at the same time: it avoids reading, at the same time as it is reading. It thus makes it possible to “cash in”, at least potentially, the benefits of both – psychologically, scientifically, economically. But digital reading can also be called pseudo-activity in that the innovation and building leads to nothing but a reading that never actually occurs. Because the arrangement hinges on the pretention that computers can read and from the humanistic point of view  at least, they cannot.[4]

In fact, most fancy algorithms for corpus analysis are developed for the purpose of supervision and manipulation of large groups of people, for the benefit of corporations such as Alphabet (i.e. Google) or states or transnational organization.[5] The story here is similar to that of statistics and the social sciences, who became the handmaiden of the states emerging around the turn of the 19th century. While it does not seem that many humanists will manage to put themselves in the role of experts of the new methods of governance that are emerging with digital text processing, the argument that digital humanities make humanists employable is an attempted step, at least, in that direction.

Not only does proper engagement with the humanities challenge your identity and the taken for granted world in which you personally live. It also challenges the social order, in that it actively aims for transcendence. Method was invented and brought into the humanities to contain this tendency. Today, method and technology join forces in the work of containment: insofar as humanists focus on building tools, the order is safe.

Unfortunately it is not quite that easy. The humanities too are underpinned by technology, and this technological pinning is changing continuously, and with it the aims and means of humanistic activity. Thus, the choice is not between accepting or rejecting technology, but concerning how to engage with technology in a way that is true to what one can perhaps call the spirit of the humanities. I leave it as an open question what new technology would benefit the kind of humanities that has been the focus of this presentation.

References

Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos: neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. New York: Zone Books.

Davies, W. (2015). The Happiness Industry: how the government and big business sold us well-being. London: Verso.

Graeber, D. (2015). The utopia of rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Illich, I. (1993). In the vineyard of the text: a commentary to Hugh’s Didascalion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Illich, I., & Cayley, D. (2005). The rivers north of the future: the testament of Ivan Illich. Toronto, Ontario, New York: House of Anansi Press; Distributed in the U.S. by Publishers Group West.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mirowski, P. (2013). Never let a serious crisis go to waste: how neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown. London: Verso.

Pfaller, R. (2014). On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners. Verso Books.

Popper, K. (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies. London.

Reckwitz, A. (2012). Die Erfindung der Kreativität: zum Prozess gesellschaftlicher Ästhetisierung. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.


 

[1] I think here mainly of the discussion around 1900, in terms of Geisteswissenschaften, Kulturwissenschaften, Idiographic inquiry, hermeneutics, critical theory, etcetera, but also of Illich (1993).

[2] I speak here mainly out of my own experience.

[3] This view of modern society is inspired by Brown (2015), Davies (2015), Graeber (2015), Illich (2005), Mirowski (2013) and Reckwitz (2012).

[4] This analysis broadly follows Pfaller (2014).

[5] Besides predicting and controlling the behavior of consumers and students, it was a wake-up call for me to realize that such technology is also used to predict eruptions of civil unrest. Not only for the police, but also so that large corporations can adjust their logistics. I have personal experience of how much easier it is to build computer programs that extract “interesting” information, than to make programming part of the kind of activity that I here describe as humanistic.