Monthly Archives: November 2012


The Administrative Limits of Digital Humanities

Dear Mark,

While you’ve kept working on the stats, I’ve been mulling a couple of our “to do” items.

Item one: Katherine Hayles’s recent book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Item two: the midcentury founding of Mass Communications, which caught my eye doing that earlier post on I.A. Richards. I decided to write about these two items together because each presents the project of ordering a motley array of scholarly experiments as an invitation to consider the relationship between academic research and administration.

For early Mass Communication, the managerial stakes were pretty explicit. Mass media were a crucial part of the war effort and academics were charged with understanding what propaganda could do. In Hayles’s account, the managerial challenges facing the Digital Humanities are dominated by a singular academic concern: how and whether digital humanists should mollify textual analysts in literature programs.

In the opening section of her book, Hayles presents the Digital Humanities as a reckoning with technogenesis. Mass media have changed in the last twenty years and humanists have a stake in understanding what those changes mean. The web in particular appears to have altered our relationship to media, causing us to pay attention in different ways than we used to. For some commentators, like Mark Bauerlein, such alteration amounts to a crisis for the humanities and for the populace. Kids today can only pay attention fleetingly. They cannot read deeply. As a result, the value of closely reading literature is largely lost on them.

Many digital humanists seek to sooth their alarmed colleagues. Hayles describes a posture of “assimilation,” which “extends existing scholarship into the digital realm” and “adopts an attitude of reassurance rather than confrontation” (45). Assimilationists include the journal Postmodern Culture, Willard McCarthy’s Humanities Computing and the Center for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College, London, as well as various efforts to build electronic editions of print texts. Assimilation means reconsidering “what reading is and how it works” and treating that as the chief puzzle posed by “the rich mixtures of words and images, sounds and animations, graphics and letters that constitute the environments of twenty-first century literacies” (78). If it is true that new technologies have brought about “cognitive and morphological changes in the brain,” that does not mean that deep engagement with literature is no longer desirable, Hayles assures her readers (11). “The NEA argues (and I of course agree) that literary reading is a good in itself,” she writes (55). But it is no good pretending that English professors and others will be able to persuade students to deeply engage with literature if they “are focused exclusively on print close reading,” she cautions (60). Instead, Hayles proposes “Comparative Media Studies,” defined as a set of “courses and curricula” devoted to assembling “reading modalities—close, hyper-, and machine—” and to preparing “students to understand the limitations and affordances of each” (11). In this program, literary scholars will be able to reflect on new media while reproducing their devotion to reading.

Not all digital humanists care as deeply about reading and literature as the assimilationists, Hayles notes. Its name notwithstanding, the School of Literature, Culture and Communication at Georgia Tech privileges cooperation with engineering and computer science departments, features digital media in its curriculum, and announces its interest in “the theoretical and practical foundation for careers as digital media researchers in academia and industry.” The LCC is more interested in “distinction” than “assimilation,” Hayles explains, and is less concerned with reading practices than with “new methodologies, new kinds of research questions, and the emergence of entirely new fields” (45).

Hayles’s account of assimilation and distinction requires her to ignore pre-digital humanities research that is not defined by textual analysis and close reading. Hayles portrays humanities scholars as capable of understanding visual media only as new and alien, as a disruptive surprise or excitingly dangerous supplement. It is only recently, she explains, that digital humanists turned “from a primary focus on text encoding, analysis, and searching to multimedia practices that explore the fusion of text-based humanities with film, sound, animation, graphics, and other multimodal practices across real, mixed, and virtual reality” (24). Hayles largely reproduces, in short, the reduction of the humanities to literary study that we’ve seen in a whole parade of “crisis of the humanities” arguments as well as in the midcentury education plan called the Harvard Redbook. Only by defining the “Traditional Humanities” as the literary and philosophical analysis of print is it possible to imagine that images come as a surprise to humanists or that the technical study undertaken at Georgia Tech’s LCC has a “less clear, more problematic, and generally undertheorized” relationship to humanities research (52). Certainly film and media professors have long been involved in thinking about technical processes and engineering problems–including but not limited to matters concerned with the chemical properties of film–even if they have not been making friends with computer scientists. The same could be said for any number of other kinds of humanists, especially perhaps those working with medieval and classical materials.

Since we first started discussing our project, Mark, you’ve been annoyed at the reduction of the humanities to literary study. Hayles is clearly annoyed by it too, which is why she wishes that literary scholars would join her in Comparative Media Studies. But to the extent that she portrays media comparison as “reading” (“reading modalities—close, hyper-, and machine—,” as she puts it), I wonder how much of an advance this represents.

It should be said that managing the concerns of literary scholars “after the age of print” is not the only administrative concern in How We Think, even if it does dominate. Sandwiched in the middle of her book, Hayles pauses to describe an archival project focused on special collections of telegraph code books. She explains how the practices of sending and receiving code generated “a zone of indeterminacy…in which bodies seemed to take on some of the attributes of dematerialized information, and information seemed to take on the physicality of bodies” (147). This argument is science studies-esque, entirely reminiscent of Schivelbush and early Latour, and has almost nothing to do with literature.

Where other chapters in her book seek to manage technogenesis so as not to scare Bauerlein and co., Hayles’s chapter on telegraphy describes hyper-attention as “a positive adaptation that makes young people better suited to live in the information-intensive environments that are becoming ever more pervasive” (99). In this chapter, Hayles appears freed to move from the small to the large, from the “small percentage” of telegraphers and clerks who were “neurologically affected” by practices of sending and receiving code to the “wider effects…transmitted via the technological unconscious as business practices, military strategies, personal finances, and a host of other everyday concerns were transformed with the expectation of fast communication and the virtualization of commodities and money into information” (157). At no point were the stakes involved in the administration of these effects higher than in World War II, by which point “‘wireless telegraphy,’ or radio, had become the favored mode of communication” (155). Surveying the regulations and rules for coding during the war brings Hayles to her observation of just how far telegraphy had gone in facilitating an “historical shift,” one that anticipates our era “in which all kinds of communications are mediated by intelligent machines” (156-57).

You and I have been working for some time to figure out how and when literary study started playing the part that it plays in Hayles’s book. We used to argue that in the mid-twentieth century English solidified its hold on a core curriculum by opposing reading to viewing, the intellectual reflection of literary consumption to the contrastingly numbing reception of film, etc. My previous post on I.A. Richards suggests a more complicated dynamic, however. Richards helped position English at the center of the Harvard Redbook’s educational program and marginalized media study in the process, but at the same time he was also experimenting with film and TV as tools for mass education outside the academy. He received support from the Rockefeller Foundation as well as early public television.

My (admittedly superficial) research into the early days of Mass Communication in the 1930s and 40s suggests that such paradoxical allegiances were not unusual. Some of the most influential figures in that emerging field were English professors perfecting willing to stop behaving as if literature and reading were the center of their intellectual lives when they joined up with various interdisciplinary teams.

Rockefeller Foundation office John Marshall, who dreamed of a “genuinely democratic propaganda” and in 1936 first suggested that the foundation fund communications-related activities, was trained as a medievalist and taught in the Harvard English Department.

Wilbur Schramm, who organized the first Mass Communications PhD program at Iowa in 1943, had a PhD in English, a postdoc from the ACLS (in psychology), and from 1935 to 1942 directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

For his part, Richards was ever so briefly part of the Rockefeller Foundation Communications Group organized by Marshall. According to Brett Gary, Richards departed after his fellow group members largely ignored two of his papers on semantics. His departure, Gary argues, happened at a moment when quantitative research was beginning to dominate the group’s activities.

The opposition between qualitative and quantitative analysis crops up in much of what I read on the early years of Mass Communications. Disciplinary historians believe it pinched English types like Richards and also University of Chicago sociologists, who were actively considering communications problems but whose qualitative methods meant they were largely left behind when Mass Communications on their campus started to emphasize the tabulation of surveys.

This split between quantitative and qualitative may have been real but to privilege it occludes the truly messy collaboration in communications research and policy that was going on both before and during the second World War. The Rockefeller Foundation appears to have led the way in bringing together disparate squads, “younger men with talent for these mediums,” as Marshall called them, “men interested primarily in education, literature, criticism, or in disseminating the findings of the social or natural sciences,” who wanted to engage in “relatively free experimentation.”

Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz see similarly motley group activity at Chicago, where sociology served as “heir to the rich but scattered reflections on communications and the media that characterized European thought. At Chicago, as in Europe, interests were broad: media professionals and media organizations, media as agents of social integration and deviance, media as contributors to a public sphere of participatory democracy, and media as implicated in social change and in the diffusion of ideas, opinions, and practices.”

Karin Wahl-Jorgenson describes the activities of short-lived inter-disciplinary committees at Chicago that were “meant to explore, conquer, and die,” “to tag onto particular research problems, linked to individuals’ interests or urgent questions of social import.”

Especially during the war, there were policy questions that ran through all of these experimental efforts.

Gary sums up: “Anxieties about the relation between democracy and new mass communication technologies linked the emergence of mass communication research as a scholarly field with the growth of the surveillance apparatus of the modern national security state. The contradictory imperatives of modern liberalism–its simultaneous commitment to and fear of the expansion of the modern state, with its information and opinion control apparatus–pervaded the debates of the first generation of communication researchers….” Rockefeller researchers worked with and against governmental officers prosecuting the war. Schramm was involved in Roosevelt’s radio addresses, including the fireside chats. And so forth. As the war went on, Gary recounts, Rockefeller communications group members “regularly returned to the question of whether their focus should be primarily scientific (reliably measuring effects) or administrative (servicing the state’s probable interests in public opinion control).”

Wahl-Jorgenssen titles her 2004 article on the early days of Mass Communication “How Not to Found a Field,” which seems just about right. The pods that were moving in and out of government, conducting research and shaping policy would have fit awkwardly in any department, and where Mass Communication codified itself around quantitative analysis the price paid for methodological coherence appears to have been the exclusion of a whole array of earlier contributors. If Marshall and Schramm seemed more or less ok leaving their English backgrounds behind, Richards clearly was not and the continentally-oriented sociologists at Chicago were not willing to forget their past expertise either. When Richards left, of course, he was no more homeless than the Chicago sociologists who went back to their usual corridors. There’s a familiar model here, albeit more familiar outside the humanities than inside them, of the research group or lab that does its business for a while and then disbands.

The various Digital Humanities institutes and centers that Hayles describes in the first section of her book share something of this ad hoc feel as well as a recognizable desire to work with all sorts of strange bedfellows. “The Humanities Lab at Stanford University, formerly directed by Jeffrey Schnapp, modeled itself on ‘Big Science,’” Hayles recalls (34). Alan Liu at UC Santa Barbara asks students “to choose a literary work and treat it according to one or more of the research paradigms prevalent in other fields of study” (75). There is a “willingness” among many digital humanists, Hayles argues, to shed any “hermeneutic of suspicion…toward capitalism and corporations” and “reach out to funders (sometimes including commercial interests)” (41). Instead of departments, Hayles’s digital humanists want “flexible laboratory spaces in which teams can work collaboratively, as well as studio spaces with high-end technologies for production and implementation” (5).

In truth, the least interesting thing about the Digital Humanities in Hayles’s account is the need to manage its relationship to literature departments. Although I grasp why it is important for humanities professors and graduate students immersed in interdisciplinary collaboration to have home departments–just as it is important for scientists who join up on specific grants–it is frustrating, to say the least, that the narrow lens of literary study should so define how one values experimental humanities research.

Dipping into the history of Mass Communication teaches me that as recently as the 1940s the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation felt it entirely reasonable to empower a literary medievalist to organize media research that not only crossed disciplines but also got embroiled in governmental policy. Hayles’s book teaches me that conditions have changed notably since the 1940s. There is plenty of experiment in the humanities today, but to the extent that it must be obsessed with the purview of literary study, it seems hobbled, incapable of embracing the managerial challenges that mass media call forth.