Let Me Show You What I See (part II)

In the last post a while back I gave a run-down of Rosenbloom’s attempt to build secure foundations (if I may use that overworked metaphor) for the digital humanities. Read his attempt. Read my recap. Proceed.

First off, what have we learnt? We have learnt that in order to be heard at all one must be published in Digital Humanities Quarterly, uh, this is obviously the first take home point.

But seriously … the first point of criticism that I will make is that though Rosenbloom leans heavily on the philosophy of science it is interesting that philosophy itself must necessarily fall outside of the four great scientific domains as he conceives them. But I’m sure Rosenbloom would agree that the philosophy of science has helped increase his understanding of this problem space and was in some way a bridge to his conceptual framework. If this is the case then philosophy is at once scientific (using Rosenbloom’s definition of scientific) and yet outside every great scientific domain. What are we to make of this?

Second off, the contrasting of understanding versus shaping seems to have echoes in the more standard contrasting of theoretical with practical or in another way the formal with the applied. Again, what are we to make of this? The formal sciences are often seen as a great scientific domain, but in Rosenbloom’s conception of things they all seem to fall under computing science. I’m not saying that he is wrong, I’m just saying that in the usual way of seeing things, they are seen as their own separate thing.

Third, and this is more of a meta-point. It occurs to me that really we should settle these debates in the digital humanities using methods from humanities computing if we were to stay true to our motto, “shine a computational light on problems in the humanities”. I have an idea how that might happen but that is for another day. The debates in the digital humanities inhabit a problem space in the humanities surely, traverse this problem space with computational methods I say.

Let’s proceed the more traditional route for now though. Which is words on a page, digital and virtual though that page may be. What exactly is the problem? Why is Rosenbloom even putting forward a conceptual framework in the first place? It is because institutionally and methodologically digital or computational methods challenge, or at the very least cause us to revisit the methodological issues of the humanities. This feeds into the perennial crisis in the humanities. I will demonstrate how I make that link. Whatever the purported crisis in the humanities is claimed to be I claim that really what the humanities suffers from is a deep-rooted methodological and epistemological angst. In less highfalutin and less obscurantist jargon the humanities does not know how it must know what it must know.

If you think that a strange viewpoint let me present to you the birth of the humanities. Because it is here we should look. It is here where the Rosenbloom’s of the world should look. I asked our coordinator, Brendan Dooley, in a kind of jokey aside at a tedious academic meet n greet, “where-from the humanities”. I did not at all expect the answer I got. Chalk it down to my endless ignorance, my dismay at which drives me to dithering procrastination. Dooley said Petrarch. I had not expected Petrarch. But Dooley is a professor of Renaissance History and this is exactly the factoid that should reside in his nonce. Curiously though, as coordinator of the digital humanities programme here I do not recall Dooley having ever shared this salient factoid. But then again, maybe nobody had asked, “where-from the humanities”.

What the majority (that’s a hedge, I’m guessing that it’s actually all) of the arguments in the debates in the digital humanities fail to do is enquire into the origins of the humanities. Granted we must give an account of the digital but we must also give an account of the humanities and that means giving an account of the origins of the humanities. That is the way to proceed. That it took me two years to ask the question myself is worrying. Maybe humanities scholars (I dislike the term ‘humanists’ for some unknown reason) are so acquainted with the origins of their own meta-discipline that my enquiry is seen as trite or pointless. But sometimes the best questions are exceedingly obvious, at least superficially.

It turns out that Petrarch is called the “father of humanism”. This is interesting. It makes us realise that the humanities hasn’t always been a feature of the academy and that there was a period when it came into being. I won’t dig too deeply into the historical intricacies (me, a historian? never) but I will say that up until Petrarch or thereabout what was thought to be the proper object of study was theology or law or logic: things of this nature, austere, absolute, you get the idea. A change occurs around this time: man is deemed to be worthy of study in his own right. How to do this? By studying the works and history of man. And how does one do this? Mainly by literary and artistic criticism and the compilation and study of histories. I really should read up more on this era but it is my feeling that what could be called the humanist turn which eventually led to secular humanism and the loosening of the grip of religious temperament in Europe at least had its origins in ideas that crystallised around about the time of Petrarch. This is important. Petrarch also coined the term, “the Dark Ages” which enabled the term Renaissance. This is how meta-narratives are built. And meta-narratives, like most narratives, are fictions.

Crisis, what crisis? Really? Is there a crisis in the first place? Yes. But don’t focus on percentages or totals graduating or any of that. Crisis, which etymologically speaking derives from decision is an apt designator in this instance as it highlights the indecision that has in part debilitated the humanities project and by extension an indecision which the digital humanities has inherited. What is significant about the digital is not some kind of paradigmatic revolution. What is significant about the digital in the context of the perennial crisis in the humanities is that this refocussing on methodology gives us a space in which we can step back and look at what it is exactly the humanities is meant to be all about in the first place and how it is meant to be going at what it is about. All this requires philosophical insights. Strange then that philosophy departments are housed administratively and institutionally with humanities departments.

Science went through the same wringer. Of course it did. I am most emphatically not setting up that tired dualism. If something proceeds by the scientific method it is scientific. Up until now I am guessing that the methodological crisis in the humanities has been located by commentators within the qualitative/quantitative debate. Where qualitative is a shorthand for the human and messy and quantitative is a shorthand for the numeric/machinic and precise. I reject this duality, again this is talk for another day — this is not how I would characterise the science/humanities debate.

Nowadays we reject theological explanations. We demand scientific explanations. The same tectonic move in the history of ideas that can bring about these altered worldviews and demands also allows us to consider man as worthy of scrutiny. If we are to take the scientific approach however we would study man and his relations and society with a ruthless objective dehumanising gaze. But that is not how we go about things. What we have done is assert that we can “know man” or in other words “explain ourselves to ourselves” by looking at our literary, artistic, architectural and historical works. Generally, this was done initially by reading verse and history. The practise developed from there. Take note that the novel form was developed after the humanist turn. This is not a coincidence, nothing in the history of ideas happens out of coincidence.

For one who does philosophy I am mentioning history a lot. I have become as deeply suspicious of the historical project as Plato was suspicious of the poets. I think Plato missed a beat though, the poets never claimed to stand in for the reality they were imitating whereas historians (all hand-waving aside) do. History, narrative history is as much a product of literature as the novel is. I am not denying that things happen and that in happening they can be recorded. I merely want to point out that the story that I construct about my own life is just that, it is a story, it is not me. It’s just a nice fiction that I overlay on my actual being whatever that is. History is an accumulation of memoir and purported event. For the longest time I held fiction and reality in opposition such that reality partakes of the real or true and thus fiction must partake of the unreal or untrue. But fictions are neither true nor false. Fictions are as real as reality is real, they just generally have less footnotes.

My point is (to crib from Rorty’s playful characterisation of philosophy as “a literary genre”) that history is not something very far removed from the rest of literature. It is a literary genre that pretends to strut about the stage as fact. Mostly what history-as-narrative does is create and sustain collective identities. This is what I do when I construct the story of my own life, I create a narrative thread upon which to hang my identity.

Properly when we speak of history we should say which history: political history, economic history, history of ideas, popular history, and so on like this. That history until Marx was predominantly aristocratic history is undeniable in retrospect. The science of the past is archaeology, not history; the science of man is anthropology, not sociology.

What is undeniable also is that the digital humanities have finally breached this methodological beachhead. That disciplines like computational stylistics use wads of raw text as their proximate object of study highlights the textual nature of the humanities. We were always meant to use the text as a vehicle to get to the “human condition”. That is the entire methodological premise behind what happens in the humanities. We study Holden Caulfield and Lolita in the same way we study Julius Caesar. And not only that, we recognise now that a mere sliver of actual-existing humanity is immortalised in text. And only a sliver of all fictions become canonised. Characters like Holden Caulfied and Lolita are the emperors of our time.

I don’t deny that the desire to turn the microscope on ourselves is very powerful. I would question however our deci-millennial attempt. Literature does many things. I think the humanities has always fudged the many different functions of literature and art architecture. There is much consolation and despair and beauty and ugliness to be mined in the word- and art- and built-hoard of humanity.

I thought I could say what I wanted to say and I see now that I couldn’t. Oh well.