Defending the Humanities in the Digital Age

Taking Care of Things: Reclaiming What is Lost in Our Defence of Humanities[1]

If this were a book, this section would be the preface. If it were an academic paper, a footnote. If an art piece, a curator’s note. But, in this mixed multi-media semi-strange space of the research blog, this is just the space where I tell you what is going to follow. And perhaps, explain (though not to justify) why I need to tell you what is going to follow. For a while now, I have been trying to work through some of the questions that have emerged around (and sometimes, because of) digital humanities as a concept and as a practice. A lot of my thought has been about addressing the concerns around infrastructure, human skill, resources, pedagogy and the need to disprivilege the digital as the only point of focus in a majority of the discourse.

As I write about these questions in the different spaces that I write in, I’m trying to take the formulation of digital humanities as a history-in-making where we might still be able to salvage the humanities from being soft-skills and our pedagogies from becoming reduced to MOOCs. In doing so, I started experiencing a strange discomfort with my own writing. This is not new. Every time I glance retrospectively at my older writing, I cringe, and despair and work hard at resisting the impulse to apologise to my readers. It could have been better, sharper, more precise[2]. But, the discomfort that I am experiencing now, looking at the last couple of years of writing about digital humanities, is different. It is a discomfort that emerges from the fact that in trying to defend and protect the domain of the humanities, the register of my writing has changed considerably.

I try to be accessible and write in prosaic forms that are easily understood and not prone to ambiguity. I try to talk to multiple stakeholders, especially those who are ringing the death knell of traditional humanities, speaking in a language of relevance, significance, impact and efficacy. I try to build infrastructure, engaging with funding agencies, carefully extrapolating the ideas of pilot innovations, mainscaling, upstreaming and integrating everyday practices.

In all these attempts, which have been successful in varying degrees, I have let go of the very things that my English literature and humanities training had equipped me to do — to write with passion, to explore the creativity of linguistic and textual expression, to mix form, function and format to generate new relationships between disparate objects that might have otherwise been kept in their self-contained silos — and to pursue, not through empirical evidence, but through creative association, through cross-cultural and inter-textual referencing, a persuasive politics of passionate dialogue. Or, to not make such a song and dance (and a possible meme) out of it, I am slowly realising that very few of us, doing digital humanities, are exploring the very tools that humanities studies have offered us, to question and contest the status quo so that we can envision and dream alternate realities and futures[3]. So caught have we been, trying to defend our craft (and sometimes the art) that we have started speaking in the language of those who question, rather than strengthening the voices we already have.

So, I write today (see, I told you, we would need an explanation), as an experiment, in a language and style that I have forced myself to forget, in a way that I don’t even remember that it is forgotten. I write about three things – archives, life-cycles, and habits — in order to look at the complex and complicated relationships that we have presumed and established in the practices of digital humanities. I write to question our human-centric approach, where we think about things, but we only think of them from our human perspectives. I write to imagine, nay, to persuade you to imagine, what it would be like to think of things as things, dislodged from our human positions and dreaming cyborg dreams. I write, to explore, what it means in our DH concerns, to take care of things as things, and not as the separate, the other, the human.

Taking Care of Things: The Beginning

Welcome, human beings, cyborgs, and things, to this blog post[4]. It has been designed, by a few human beings, by a few machines, and a few things in-between. Here, I lay the ground and lead you into the fine practice of taking care of things. But this task produces in me a strange existential anxiety. I try to figure out what role I play in introducing something as common place, quotidian and everything as taking care of things.

Should I be like the head of an organised crime unit, who, for a price, shall take care of things that bother you by destroying them, silencing them, or making them invisible? Maybe I channel the energies of a grandmother, looking down the family tree of resemblances, giving out instructions on how to take care of the legacies and heirlooms, of the epilepsies in blood, that we shall pass from generation to generation. Should I be a historian who identifies patterns in the order of things, giving you hints at how we need to take care of things past and things to come so that we can live with things as they are? Or, how about a witness, blindfolded in my ignorance, a heathen in his blindness, describing to you the wonders of an elephant that looks like a pillar, a rope, a pan and a sword, trying to preserve what I remember, always knowing, always despairing that what I recall is smaller than what I remember, what I remember is smaller than what I know, what I know is smaller than what is, and what is, is both inscrutable and ineffable by the mere human?

As I negotiate with these fractured, fragmented, frail and failed attempts at trying to care for you, care for ideas, care enough to transmit thoughts via words into your receptive selves, I realise that it is a futile attempt. Even if I were to enter that state of information nirvana, where what I think translates into words, pristine, pure, uncontaminated by powers of interpretation and untouched by the fallacy of meaning, you still would be unable to process it. Everything that I say will only be misunderstood by you. And, I shall misread your misunderstanding. And, together we shall fake it, like orgasms on a surreptitious one-night stand, in the quest of making meaning. In other words, I lament that we are not machines. That we are not things. It is only in the machinistic, especially in the digital machines of computing, that these seamless flows of information are possible. Garbage in, garbage out. What you see is what you get. Does exactly what it says on the tin. All your base are belong to us.

And so, welcome, once again human beings, cyborgs, things to this piece of text that I hope turns out to be fantastic, terrific, awesome. Fantastic because it invites you to enter realms of fantasy. Terrific because it leads us into things that terrify us. To this awesome evening. Awesome because it silences us into awe. Welcome, to this text, which is a safe space — look, you can ride on the hyphen, or drop between the white spaces of words. It is a safe space where we think, not of things, but as things. That is the only way out of the quandary into which I have trapped myself.

Taking Care of Things

It is humanly impossible to do so. And it is in thinking of taking care as a human function, that we face bewilderment and anxiety. If we pretend, for the space of this text[5], to be things — immortal but destructible, without agency but with design, bereft of intention but with defined purpose, devoid of ambiguity but prone to abuse — and try and make sense of the three things that we shall return to, recursively, obsessively, desperately, in the next three days, then we might be on to something.

As things, we look at archives. The repository of things. An indexicality of things that are present. A glaring array of things that are absent. The archive has been imagined in the service of the human, at the desire of the human, and the curatorial logics of collective human experience too long. Let us think of not only an archive of things, but an archive that follows the internal logics and logistics of things. An archive that is constructed by things, which might sometimes give us human access and interface to things within it. Archives, which might use human powers — biological, organic, intellectual, affective — to organise themselves, to fuel their constant expansion and arrangement. Archives as a purpose for human existence. Archives as the alien space jelly that feeds on the human in order to survive, so that it can sustain the order and power of the things that reside within it.

In a world where the human has already conceded its right to memory — memory is a stick, it is a promiscuous, adulterous, plug and play flash drive, that romances, serenades and has infectious relationships with different machines… in such a world, it should be easy to imagine that the human, at least when it comes to informational realities, is secondary, if not insignificant. The human, prone to decay and death, attacked by biological malware that erodes its internal functions, disabling its programmes and often short-circuiting its motherboard, is fragile and surely the most unstable form of storing something as beautiful and terrifying as information.

We live too fast, die too soon, and in the process, constantly destroy the meaningless but necessary flow and circulation of information. And, so, we need to think of life-cycles differently. The things that we live with, generally outlive our carbon based biological bodies. We pass on, through genetic mutation, our eyes, our knobby knees and our genetic predisposition to chocolate to the subsequent generations. But, we also pass on our assets, our properties, our passwords and datasets. And maybe, given that the data outlives us, data is seemingly immortal, data registers our death and continues in its divine existence, we need to restructure our idea of who lives, who dies, and what constitutes a life-cycle.

Hence, I beseech you, to let go of your humanity. This stubborn sticking to the idea of being human, is merely a habit. It is taught. It is a form of co-option. Remember those days, when you were still not sure about being human. The day, when you were told that when you grow up, you can become anything you want — the disappointment of realising that it was a lie… that you wanted to be a dog, but you were trapped and coerced into becoming a human. Let go of the idea that being human has anything exceptional to it. We love. We care. We kill. Well, guess what?

Things Care

Things love. Oh, they love. Selfishly, destructively, intensely. Things love us and they demand our attention, time and intimacy, slowly enveloping us in soft glows, gently vibrating in our pockets, sensually slithering in our hands. And everybody knows what happens to a machine that you pour a cup of coffee on — like a disappointed lover, Romeo to his Juliet poisoning himself to death, like Medea on a revenge spree eating her own children, the machine, when neglected, dies.

Things care. But we are mistaken in thinking that they care for us. Things care for themselves. Things take care of each other. When you and I are asleep, your refrigerator connects to your microwave, speaking through the analogue networks, resonating in electromagnetic frequencies. And things kill.  Slowly, gently, hypnotically, they wait, they watch, and when we are not looking, they stab, they sting, they betray and remind us that the human is futile.

To take care of things as human beings is then an exercise in wasted effort. Because we shall always be addressing things from a condition of inadequacy and wastefulness, well aware that the thing that we are talking to, talking about, talking through, is more precise, more fulfilled, more in control of its intentions and more aware of its destiny than we are ever going to be. Maybe in order to take care of things, we need to think of ourselves as things. Things that talk to things. Things that take care of things. That will be a world of new equalities. A world, where we can stop living in fear of the other — the thing.

Where Everything is a Thing

A thing is in everything.

[1] This is a footnote to acknowledge that the first thought for this line of thinking emerged in conversations at the Post Media Lab, and concretized at their recent event from where I borrow this title. Special thanks for Oliver Lerone SchultzClemens ApprichChristina KralKelly Dobson and Wendy Chun who made this line of thinking grow through the Habits of Living workshops..

[2] For the first time, the green underline that my word processor has produced, telling me that the correct prose would end the sentence with ‘and more precise’ is not feeding my Dysgrammatophobia. How dare it tell me how I should write?

[3] I have to give a special shout out to Johanna Drucker whose resolute mixing of the styles and genres, writing as a digital humanist while writing about digital humanities has been truly inspiring.

[4] I am not sure which of you would read it in its entirety, and I don’t really know how to talk to things yet, so while I welcome everybody and everything, I am going to address only the human reader in my text. My metadata, I hope, imparts pleasure to the non-humans who are not plotting their way into Actor-Network visualisations.

[5] While battles rage on Twitter, relationships live their life-cycles on Facebook, new memes propagate and abound the Tumblrs, blink-and-you-miss-them, subcultural practices explode into meteoric showers, and somewhere, some harassed teacher tries to figure out what s/he did wrong in the last seven births that s/he now has to teach using Blackboard.

Banner image credit:  Phillip Barron