As a way of tackling the question “Whither the humanities?” and the thorny issue of defining “digital humanities” in relationship to that question, I offer this: maybe one strategy is to talk about what can make intellectual work humane.
First, let us leave aside the rhetoric of “crisis.” Yes, if we are talking about the humanities in academia, there are changes that might be called a crisis: fewer majors, fewer resources, and a variety of vigorous attacks on humanistic practice from inside and outside the academy. Are the subjects of the humanities—expressive culture, everyday practices, meaning and interpretation, philosophy and theory of human life, etc.—going to end? No. Will there be study and commentary on those subjects in the near-term future? Yes. There will be a humanities, even if its location, authority, and character will be much more unstable than they were in the last century.
If we want to speak about and defend the future of the humanities with confidence, it is important to concede that a highly specific organizational structuring of the highly specific institution of American higher education is not synonymous with humane inquiry as a whole. Humane ways of knowing and interpreting the world have had a lively, forceful existence in other kinds of institutions and social lives in the past and could again in the future. To some extent, we should defend the importance of humane thinking without specific regard for the manner of its institutionalization, in part to make clear just how important we think it is (i.e., so that our defense is not predicated on self-interest). We should do so even if we think (as I do) that the academic humanities are the best show in town when it comes to thinking humanely.
I keep going back to something that Louis Menand said during a 2013 talk at Swarthmore College, where I teach. The problem of humanistic thought in contemporary American life is not with a lack of clarity in writing and speaking, and it is not with a lack of “public intellectuals.” The problem, he said, is simply that many other influential voices in the public sphere do not agree with humanists and the kind of knowledge and interpretation they have to offer.
With what do they disagree? (And thus, who are they that disagree?) Let us first bracket off the specifically aggrieved kind of highly politicized complaint that came out of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s and is still kicking around. I do not think that is the disagreement that matters, except when it is motivated by still deeper opposition to humanistic inquiry.
What matters more is the loose agglomeration of practices, institutions, and perspectives that view human experience and human subjectivity as a managerial problem, a cost burden, and an intellectual disruption. I would not call such views inhumane; they are more anti-humane. Proponents of such views do not believe that a humane approach to the problems of a technologically advanced global society is effective or fair; they believe that we need rules and instruments and systems of knowing that overrule intersubjective, experiential perspectives, and slippery rhetorical and cultural ways of communicating what we know about the world.
The anti-humane is in play:
When someone works to make an algorithm to grade essays.
When an IRB adopts inflexible rules derived from the governance of biomedical research and applies them to cultural anthropology.
When law enforcement and public culture work together to create a highly typified, abstracted profile of a psychological type prone to commit certain crimes and then attempt to surveil or control everyone falling within that parameter.
When quantitative social science pursues elaborate methodologies to isolate a single causal variable as having slightly more statistically significant weight than thousands of other variables, rather than just crafting a rhetorically persuasive interpretation of the importance of that factor.
When public officials build testing and evaluation systems intended to automate and massify the work of assessing the performance of employees or students.
At these and many other moments across a wide scale of contemporary societies we set out to bracket off or excise the human element, to eliminate our reliance on intersubjective judgment. We are, in these moments, as James Scott has said of “high modernism,” working to make human beings legible and fixed for the sake of systems that require them to be so.
Many of these moments are well-intentioned or rest on reliable and legitimate methodologies and technologies. As witnesses, evaluators, and interpreters, human beings are unreliable, biased, inscrutable, ambiguous, and irresolvably open to interpretation. Making sense of them can often be inefficient and time-consuming, without hope of resolution, and sometimes that is legitimately intolerable.
Accepting that this is the irreducible character of the human subject (the one universal that we might permit ourselves to accept without apology) should be the defining characteristic of the humanities. The humanities should be, across a variety of disciplines and subjects, committed to humane ways of knowing.
So what does that mean? To be humane should be:
Incomplete. The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson has complained that the humanities offer an “incomplete” account of culture, ethics, and consciousness (and has kindly offered to complete the account by removing the humanities from the picture completely). What Wilson sees as a bug is in fact a feature. The humanities are and should be incomplete by design—that is, there should be no technology or methodology we might imagine as a future possibility that would permit complete knowledge to be achieved via humane inquiry, nor should we ever want such a thing to begin with. A humane knowledge accepts that human beings and their works are contingent on interpretation, meaning that much—if not absolutely anything—can be said about their meaning and character. And they are contingent in action, meaning that knowledge about the relatively fixed or patterned dimensions of human nature and life is a very poor predictor of the future possibilities of culture, social life, and the intersubjective experience of selfhood.
Slow. As in “slow food,” artisanal. Humane insights require human processes and habits of thought, observation, and interpretation, and even those processes augmented by or merged into algorithms and cybernetics should be in some sense mediated by or limited to a handcrafted pace. At the very bottom of most of our algorithmic culture now is hand-produced content, slow-culture interpretation: the fast streams of curation and assemblage that are visible at the top level of our searching and reading and linking rest on that foundation. This is not a weakness or a limitation to be transcended through singularity, but rather a source of the singular strength of humane thought. We use slow thought to make and manipulate algorithmic culture. Social media users understand very quickly how to “read” its infrastructures, but it is slow thought, gradual accumulations of experience, discrete moments of insight, that permit its speed. There is no algorithmic shortcut to making cultural life, just shortcuts that allow us to hack and reassemble and curate what has been and is made slowly.
Illegible. By this I do not mean “jargon-filled prose” in the sense that has inspired so much debate within and about the humanities. By illegible, I mean that humanistic thinking and expression should exhibit a permanent, necessary skepticism about all political and social projects that require human subjects and societies to remain firmly legible and transparent to authority. Often the political commitments of humanists settle down well above this foundational level, where they are perfectly fine as the choices of individual intellectuals and may derive from (but are not synonymous with) humane commitments. That is to say, our political and social projects should arise out of deeply vested humane skepticism about legibility and governability, but as a general rule many humanists truncate or limit their skepticism to a particular subset of derived views.
Is this a riff on Isaiah Berlin’s liberal suspicions of the utopian? Yes, I suppose, when it is about configuring the human subject so that it is readily understandable by systems of power and amenable to their workings. But this is also a riff on “question authority”: the point is that if power can be in many places, from a protest march to a drone strike, the humane thinker has to be a skeptic about its operations. Humane practice should always be about monkey-wrenching, always be the fly in the ointment, even (or perhaps especially) when the systems and legibility being made suit the political preferences of a humane thinker.
Playful, pleasurable, and extravagant. My colleague in a class I co-taught last semester made me feel much more comfortable with my long-felt wariness about influence of Bourdieu-inspired accounts of institutions and culture, and how in particular they have had a troubling effect on humanistic inquiry that often amounts to functionalism by another name. My colleague’s reading of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think was to read it as calling attention to how often academics do not simply make judgments as an act of capital-d Distinction, as bagmen for habitus. Instead, she argued that this tendency was evidence for the persistence of an attention to aesthetics, meaning, and pleasure that is not tethered to the sociological (without arguing that this requires depoliticizing the humanities)—evidence that our intellectual lives not only should be humane but that they are already.
This is very much what I mean by saying that humane knowledge should be playful and even extravagant: that every humanistic work or analysis should produce an excess of perspectives, a variety of interpretations, that it should dance away from pinning culture to the social, to the functional, to the concrete. Humane work is excess: we should not apologize meekly for that or try to recuperate a sense of the dutifully instrumental things we can do, even as we also insist that excess, play, and pleasure are essential and generative to any humane society—that their programmatic absence is the signature diagnostic of cruelty, oppression, and injustice. This is what I think Albie Sachs was getting at in 1990 when he said that, with the beginnings of negotiations for the end of apartheid, South African artists and critics should thus “be banned from saying culture is a weapon of the struggle.” Whatever fits the humane to a narrow instrumentality, whatever yokes it to efficiency, is ultimately anti-humane.
So what of the digital? Many defenders of the humane identify the digital as the quintessence of the anti-humane, recalling the earlier advent of computational or cliometric inquiry in the 1970s and 1980s. Should we prefer a John Henry narrative? Holding on to the last gasp of the humane under the assault of the machine?
Please, please no. Digital methods, digital technologies, and digital culture are already a good habitus of humane practice and the best opportunity to strengthen the human temperament in humanistic inquiry.
Again and again, algorithmic culture has confronted the inevitable need for humane understanding, often turning away both because of its costs (when the logic of such culture is to reduce costs by eliminating skilled human labor) and because of a lack of skill or expertise in humane understanding among the producers and owners of such culture. I have long observed, for example, that the live management teams for massively multiplayer online games frequently try to deal with the inevitable slippages and problems of human beings in digital environments by truncating the possibilities of human agency down to code, by making people as much like a codeable entity as possible, by engineering a reverse Turing test. And they always fail, both because they must fail and because they do not understand human beings very well.
This is an opportunity for humane knowledge (We can help! Give us jobs!) and also evidence of the vigor of humane understandings and expertise, of how the human subject as we understand it recurs and reinvents so insistently, even in expressive and everyday environments that see a humane sensibility as an inconvenience or obstacle.
But this is not just an extension of the old; it is sometimes a very exciting way to be genuinely new. “Big data” and data analytics are seen by some intellectuals as an example of opposition to the humane. But in the hands of many digital humanists or practitioners of “distant reading,” the humane can become strange in very good ways. Thomas Schelling’s “segregation model” is not an explanation of segregation but a demonstration that there are interpretations and analyses that we would not think of out of ourselves, a reworking without mastery. The extension and transformation of the humane self through algorithmic processing is not its extinction; approached in the right spirit, it is the magnification of the humane spirit as I have described it.
This is not a C. P. Snow “two cultures” picture, either. Being humane is not limited to the disciplines conventionally described as the humanities. Natural science that is centrally interested in phenomena described as emergent or complex adaptive systems, for example, is in many ways quite close to what I have described as humane.
We might, in fact, begin to argue that most academic disciplines need to move toward what I have described as humane because all of the problems and phenomena best described or managed in other approaches have already been understood and managed. The twentieth century picked all the low-hanging fruit. All the problems that could be solved by anti-humane thinking, all the solutions that could be achieved through technocratic management, are complete. What we need to know next, how we need to know it, and what we need to do falls much more into the domains—in and outside of the academy—where humane thinking has always excelled.
Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.