Review of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

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The Emergence of the Digital Humanities
Steven E. Jones. Routledge, 2013. ISBN: 978-0415635523.

It’s pretty clear that The Emergence of the Digital Humanities was written by a distinguished scholar of British Romanticism. As an expert in everything from Mary and Percy Shelley to nineteenth-century print history and the Neo-luddites, Steven Jones has already wrestled with many of the same issues that interest digital humanities scholars: the materiality of technology, the role of politics in technological change, and the responsibilities inherent in making things. And yet, the true innovation of Jones’s book lies in its rejection of the very thing that attracted many Romanticists to fields like new media studies and hypertext criticism: the magical alignment of cyberspace with Romantic idealism and critical theory. I’m reminded of that canonical work of hypertext fiction Shelley Jackson‘s Patchwork Girl and her distinctly Derridean sentiment that “all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing.” Of course, for Jackson, such an idea was literally true of the html that constructed her work: images of body parts were composed of various hypertext tags, which were made up of words leading to more links and more words. Yet it also betrays an ideology that sees digital media as enveloped in a transcendent linguistic space, where materiality is less important than the words used to describe and produce computational effects.

By rejecting this vision of computational experience, Steven Jones performs a service for digital humanities scholarship not unlike Jerome McGann‘s call in 1983 for a historically-informed rejection of The Romantic Ideology. “Much of the digital humanities work during the decade the followed [the 1990s],” Jones argues, “[…] was undertaken, not in avoidance of theory or in pursuit of scientistic instrumentalism, but against disembodiment, against the ideology of cyberspace” (24). This shift, from a cyberspace transcendence to a more focused interest in the various materialities underlying digital experiences, is what Jones — following William Gibson — identifies as the eversion. For Gibson, the eversion is the experience where “[t]he ubiquitous connectivity that we’re all take very much for granted, and are increasingly depending on, has become our Here. And the disconnected space, you know, when you can’t get your Wifi to link up, or when your cellphone won’t work, that’s become our There” (qtd on Jones 19). Jones sees the eversion as the way “the (imagined) virtual and physical are linked; not dual, separate realms, but two possibility states, always already available” (23). The ubiquity of the eversion is perhaps best explained by a bit Louis CK performed on the Conan O’Brien show in 2009 (particularly from 1:25-2:30):

Jones explains that the connection of data with physical objects has guided many of the innovations in digital technology since 2005: the development of mobile media platforms, the rise of social media applications, and the spread of maker culture. These events parallel some of the best scholarly developments in the digital humanities, all of which join the computational with the physical: Matthew Kirschenbaum’s rejection of screen essentialism for forensic materiality, Kari Kraus’s turn towards design fiction, Jentery Sayers and the MakerLab’s construction of “Kits for Cultural History,” Lori Emerson’s work on the materiality of interfaces in e-lit, Wolfgang Ernst’s assertion of an operational short-circuiting of cultural history by electronics, and Jussi Parikka‘s turn towards geology as a material history for digital media. To be sure, not all of these figures see themselves as part of the digital humanities as a discipline, which is really Jones’s point. For him, the digital humanities isn’t a discipline, but rather an evergence of several different fields: (new) media studies, media archaeology, computers and writing, humanities computing, and digital history — to name just a few. For him, the digital humanities “emerged in association with, sometimes borrowing from, developments in ‘vernacular’ as well as academic new media and media studies, including especially in the areas of art publishing, and video games. Some of what it borrowed it kept. And some topics and approaches simply live at the fractally uncertain border between the two fields” (7). If cyberspace is not an entirely separate realm, then the interdisciplinary practices of the digital humanities show how academic fields are not entirely separate either.

Jones’s chapters develop this notion of the digital humanities as an evergence that fractally superimposes itself onto other fields even as it studies the evergence of cyberspace. Most of them filter this experience through his own experience with video game criticism. For instance, the chapter on “Things” parallels a discussion about Bill Brown’s Thing Theory and Object-Oriented Ontology with observations about Microsoft’s Kinect motion-controller for the X-Box and the video game Skylanders, in which players buy plastic action figures that are placed on a platform and appear in the game as their avatars. In the process Jones follows historian Bill Turkel in arguing against the metaphysical notion of “digitization” for the comparatively more materially rich idea of “transduction.” “When archival artifacts,” Jones continues, “[…] are digitized, they are not beamed up, atomized, blown to bits, and removed to another (digital) plane. [Rather,] the thing is marked by the record of its history, in total, as it has made its way through the world, and those data are merely captured, perhaps augmented, and transformed by digitization” (136-7). Likewise the chapter on “Dimensions” pairs QR codes, those relatively mundane and somewhat annoying printed images instructing mobile phones to load a webpage or activate an app, with a discussion of James Bridle’s New Aesthetic, the multidimensionality of coded text, and games like Jonathan Blow’s Braid and Phil Fish and Renaud Bédard’s Fez, in which a 2-dimensional character can shift the background in three dimensions. To explain the interconnection between these phenomena, Jones invokes the superimposed urban spaces of China Mieville’s novel The City and the City. “The frission of this experience, the chill of recognizing once-hidden data manifest as a series of protuberances into everyday life, is like living in those overlapping cities, straddling two alternative worlds or two dimensions of existence” (69).

Such a description invokes the uncanniness that must be felt whenever our colleagues encounter the digital humanities. It isn’t a discipline, and yet it seems to persist everywhere: colonizing arguments, seeping into multiple fields, emerging from the cracks in disciplinary edifices like the tentacles of the Lovecraftian elder gods that inspire Mieville’s fiction. Such a description is far from what was once described as “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” and yet the same sinister potentiality pervades the eversion of the digital humanities. You can even hear it echoing as a haunted double rhyming with the title. Not The Emergence, but The Evergence of the Digital Humanities. My only disappointment with Jones’s account is that it sometimes stops short of fully evoking the otherness that is at the core of the evergence. In the chapter titled “People,” for instance, he reassures us multiple times that humans are at the center of the digital humanities. When discussing Kirschenbaum’s forensic materiality, Jones seems to argue that materialities count “because they are the product of human design” (81). Earlier in the chapter, he contrasts the evergence with Gibson’s cyberspace by calling the latter “sublime, inhuman, a vast and empty nonspace” and noting a “shift in emphasis” including “an increasing focus on the fact that the network is peopled, and, in a fundamental sense, is people” (73). I do not wish to disagree with Jones’s point, which is similar to the Web 2.0 arguments about the fundamentally social aspect of network computing. Yet I also think that such arguments, as beneficial rhetorically as they may be for people disturbed by the more uncanny or weird aspects of the eversion, tend to reinscribe the dominance of humanity at the expense of understanding how the eversion is already putting us into contact with untold numbers of non-human actors. Let’s not forget that the most active editors on Wikipedia are, by far, bots and algorithms. The shift may not be between the inhuman and the human, but against the notion that these categories are entirely separate from one another. Still, I believe Jones’s The Emergence of the Digital Humanities to be a — perhaps the — fundamental text on DH. As someone who has been part of the digital humanities since my arrival as a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech in 2009, I can say that no other book has so — I’ll say it — uncannily explained my own experience and thinking to me. This book is a true gift, and anyone interested in or concerned about the digital humanities should read it.

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