18 October 2013

Post-Digital Humanities

This post forms part of a panel discussion as a response to a lecture given by Professor Willard McCarty at Kings College London, at the event called "The Digital and the Human: Remembering the Future of the Digital Humanities" on 17th October 2013. 

Today we live in computational abundance whereby our everyday lives and the environment that surrounds us is suffused with digital technologies. This is a world of anticipatory technology and contextual computing that uses smart diffused computational processing to create a fine web of computational resources that are embedded into the material world. Thus, the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, to the extent that to talk about the digital presupposes a disjuncture in our experience that makes less and less sense. Indeed, in a similar way to which the "online" or "being online" has become anachronistic, with our always-on smart phones and tablets and widespread wireless networking technologies, so too, perhaps, the term "digital" assumes a world of the past.
Post-Digital Philips Transitions (lighting installation, 2007)

Cascone argued as long back as the year 2000 that "the revolutionary period of the digital information age has surely passed. The tendrils of digital technology have in some way touched everyone", coining the term post-digital as a means of thinking about it (Cascone 2000: 12). Indeed, the explosion of digital information and data, combined with contraction in the time available to deal with it, has created a tendency to understand the "digital" as a "spectatorial condition", whereby we assume that "the result is that we filter and graze, skim and forward" (Bishop 2012). In a similar way to that of the art world, whereby "mainstream contemporary art simultaneously disavows and depends on the digital revolution", today mainstream humanities research equally disavows and depends on the digital – to the extent that to ask the question of the distinction raised by the digital for the humanities, is a question that the digital humanities has sought to address (McCarty 2005, 2013).

The digital humanities, at its most straightforward, is the application of computational principles, processes and machinery to humanities texts – and here I use texts to refer to all forms of materialised cultural forms, such as images, books, articles, sound, film, video, and so on. Indeed, "the digital humanities try to take account of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point towards a new way of working with representation and mediation, what might be called the digital ‘folding’ of memory and archives, whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way" (Berry 2012: 2). Much of the early work of the digital humanities was focused on getting traditional humanities materials into a form whereby they could be subject to computational work, so through digitalisation projects, new digital archives and databases, and the "marking up" of texts to enable computational analysis. However, the digital humanities have also had to come to terms with new forms of digital collections and archives, such as the web itself and the archives made from it, e.g. the Internet Archive, and indeed of archives and databases that may be made up of data about data, so called metadata, and computational non-human-readable materials.

Thus, we enter a time of a new illegibility, whereby we might say that we can no longer read what we are writing – we increasingly rely on digital technology both to write and read for us as a form of algorithmic inscription. Not only the new forms of grammatization but we are entering a phase whereby the grammatization process produces symbols and discrete representational units which become opaque to us even us they are drawn from us through technical devices that monitor and track us. As Stiegler writes, digital technology engenders,
a process of the grammatization of flows, as a process of discretization – for example, of the flow of speech, or the flow of gestures of the worker’s body – [this] is what makes possible... technical reproducibility and thus... control, and therefore, by the same stroke, the organization of short circuits inside the long circuits constitutive of transindividuation (Stiegler 2009: 40).
This process of transindividuation, through practices such as a humanities education, create the psychic structures for the possibility of thinking at all. They are constitutive of the development of the "maturity" of the individual and the collective formation and education of intelligence and knowledge. It is through transindividuation that Stiegler argues that the ability to "think for oneself" is developed, and which he has used to outline what is a "life worth living", a concern to which the humanities have traditionally been linked (Stiegler 2013). It is here, in its destablising and deconstructing moment, that Stiegler argues that the digital as presently constructed, undermines the development of attention, memory, concentration and intelligence.

Indeed, the question the digital poses to the humanities is addressed directly at what Lakatos (1980) would have called the "hard-core" of the humanities, the unspoken assumptions and ontological foundations which support the "normal" research that humanities scholars undertake on an everyday basis – for example the notion of a hermeneutically accessible"text" as a constitutive and foundational concept. Digital humanities has attempted to address these issues with notions of "close" and "distant" reading, particular practices related to dealing with both small and larger numbers of texts. However, it remains somewhat ill-equiped to deal with the hermeneutic challenges of computer generated data which nonetheless contains some sense of internal structure, meaning and in some instances, narrative, but which is structured in "chains" that are not conducive to human memory and understanding. Indeed, it raises the question of what the research programmes relevant to a post-digital humanities might be – and this is a question of both research and practice, theoretical work and building things, technologically engaged work and critical technical practice.

At the same time, and from a different direction, digital technologies have undermined and reconfigured the very texts that humanities and digital humanities scholars have taken as their research objects, and re-presented them as fragmentary forms, often realigned and interleaved with fragments from other texts. This interdiscursivity and intertextuality of the digital has, of course, been much remarked upon and even used creatively in the writing of new forms of digital and e-literature. However, in a new way, this process has, to follow Stiegler, begun to undermine the "long circuits" of culture, such that we no longer describe a method, such as the production of concordances within digital humanities, but actually a logic of computational media from which no "long chains" are reconstructed from their shorter counterparts. This, Stiegler diagnoses as a serious danger to societies as they deconstruct the very structures of education and learning on which they are built. Indeed he calls for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.

In which case, in the particular constellation of concepts and ideas represented by our increasingly computational societies, which Weiner described as a "social experiment" over twenty years ago (Weiner 1994: xv), should we ask about a post-digital humanities that is adequate to begin to address this problem?

In other words, in a time of computational abundance might it therefore be better to begin to raise the question of the "post-digital", in as much as we are rapidly entering a moment when the difficulty will be found in encountering culture outside of digital media. Indeed as Cramer argues, "in a post-digital age, the question of whether or not something is digital is no longer really important – just as the ubiquity of print, soon after Gutenberg, rendered obsolete all debates (besides historical ones) about the ‘print revolution’" (Cramer 2012: 162). This is to move away from a comparative notion of the digital, contrasted with other material forms such as paper, celluloid or photopaper, and instead begin to think about how the digital is modulated within various materialities.

Thus, the post-digital is represented by and indicative of a moment when the computational has become hegemonic. The digital is then understood as an historic moment defined in opposition to the analogue. We might no longer talk about digital versus analogue, but instead modulations of the digital or different intensities of the computational. We should therefore critically analyse the way in which cadences of the computational are made and materialised.

The post-digital humanities would then be attentive to our massively computational world and culture, but nonetheless attend to the ways in which culture is materialised and fixed in forms specific to digital material culture. That is, how culture is inscribed not just in moments of culture created by human actors, but also in the technical devices, recording systems, trackers, web bugs and beacons of the digital age, together with the giant databases they fill with narratives and documentaries about the great and the mundane, the event and the everyday. Attentive, that is, to the way in which human culture writ large, is also written digitally, in an open-ended arrangement of diverse practices and parts. A digital humanities with cultural critique, as called for by Liu (2012), is a necessary precondition for asking the kinds of questions that the post-digital raises in relation to questions of power, domination, myth and exploitation, but also in relation to the historical, social, political and cultural contexts that cadences of the digital makes possible today.


Berry, D. M. (2012) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Bishop, C. (2012) Digital Divide, Artforum, September 2012.

Cascone, K. (2000) The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, in Computer Music Journal, 24:4, pp. 12-18.

Cramer, F. (2012) Afterword, in Ludovico, A. Post-Digital Publishing, Onomatopee 77: Cabinet Project.

Lakatos, I. (1980), Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, A. (2012) Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?, Gold, M. K. (ed.) Debates in the Digital Humanities, accessed 11/1/2013, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20

Ludovico, A. (2012) Post-Digital Publishing, Onomatopee 77: Cabinet Project.

McCarty, W. (2005) Humanities Computing, London: Palgrave.

McCarty, W. (2013) Getting there from here: Remembering the future of digital humanities, 2013 Roberto Busa Award lecture, DH2013, University of Nebraska (Lincoln).

Stiegler, B. (2009) Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network, Theory Culture Society, 26, pp. 33-45.

Stiegler, B. (2013) What is a Life Worth living, London: Polity.

Weiner, L. R. (1994) Digital Woes. New York: Addison Wesley.

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