Friday, March 8, 2013

Still further beyond the cave

Somehow the other day in the midst of tweeting the morning sessions of the New Directions in Digital Scholarship symposium I found myself once again accidentally having the "coding/building" conversation, this time with Jonathan Stray. Jonathan's an interesting interlocutor in this regard, since he doesn't come from an academic humanities discipline, but rather from computational journalism. But despite the sentiment expressed by all-around upbeat, positive-thinking guy Patrick Murray-John (and bless him for his general good will), I can't say that I found the conversation especially intriguing. In fact, I feel like I've had and seen this conversation a zillion times before, and so has everyone else.

To put it bluntly, I think the search for the digital essence of the digital humanities is a classic case of an unexamined and openly theological metaphysics of presence, whether described as "building," "craft," or, as Patrick put it, a "creative or experimental" relation to the tools at hand. (Creative and experimental as opposed to what? Conventional and obedient? Do we only count the using of "tools" if the using is against the grain? If so, remind me why we're building these things in the first place? Or, in other words, is the "creative and experimental" distinction anything other than a tautological insistence on the goodness of the good?)

So I really have nothing to offer in the way of furthering the conversation, feeling as I do that the conversation is in many ways a mistake. (The conversation we might have instead could involve looking at great work that's happening now and talking about what makes it interesting.)

Yet here I am, wittering on all the same. Why?

Well, in the course of our conversation Jonathan said something that struck me as illuminating:

Yes. This is also why digital humanists keep having The Mistaken Conversation, especially in a moment of institutionalization in which identifying standards for evaluation is highly consequential. There is shallow work, and one wants to raise the bar.

But here's the question: why does the desire to evaluate work—judge its quality—manifest as a desire to delimit the boundaries of the (self-consciously interdisciplinary) discipline?

To make an analogy, there's a lot of shallow work done in literary criticism, too, but we don't call it not literary criticism. We call it bad.

(We have our own metaphysics-of-presence hobbyhorses in litcrit too—I think work that fails to engage with literary form strikes many literary critics as "shallow," with all the resonances that a word like "shallow" entails.)

There seems to me to be something particular about maintaining standards by delimiting boundaries, and there's one other place that we see it all the time: science. There are, of course, judgments about "bad science." But what really gets people up in arms is instances of what gets judged to be pseudoscience—the ultimate affront, pretending to be science when you're not. To name something a pseudoscience is to declare it out of bounds, as not even playing the same language game as science.

There's a vast literature in the history of science establishing why the designation of "pseudoscience" is so thorny (Michael Gordin gives a nice rundown of this in the introduction to The Pseudoscience Wars, and there's a sketchy pulled-from-Zotero bibliography below).* And it's absolutely not for want of historians of science trying to find a boundary. For myself, I do not use the word "pseudoscience" at all, because I'm persuaded that when a theory is bad, what's bad about it isn't the fact that it's pretending to be science. I especially resist applying the term "pseudoscience" to the nineteenth-century scientific racism that I frequently encounter in my research. To endorse as real science only those results that we (a) currently accept and (b) find moral, even when this forces us to exclude concepts that were fully accepted by the scientific mainstream (it doesn't get more mainstream than Louis Agassiz), is presentist, and only functions to sentimentally preserve the purity of an idea of "science" that excises the disturbing vagaries of history and contingency that shape inquiry. Scientific racism was science. We don't get to expel it from the discipline(s) just because it makes science look bad, any more than we get to expel the Bohr model of the atom (which remains in high school chemistry textbooks as part of a teleological, progressive march toward the electron cloud model). Scientific racism structured its inquiries around premises that we now find indefensible—but all scientific inquiries are structured around premises of one sort or another, and we shouldn't expel scientific racism from the history of science in order to preserve the fantasy that they aren't. Louis Agassiz was (1) racist and (2) definitely a scientist, a very important one. We have to be able to hold both of these notions in our heads.

Okay, so I've used a pretty contentious example to demonstrate why I find "pseudoscience" to be a problematic term. But why do we want it so, so much? Why does it seem to make so much sense to repudiate ideas not only on logical or methodological grounds but with a charge of fraudulence?—on, in other words, ethical grounds?

And why do digital humanities and computational journalism, in a less charged but quite persistent way, seem to want to do the same thing?

I think the gatekeeping impulse has a great deal to do with a desire to preserve the field (is it a field?) as a site of virtue. This is what I meant when I wrote about "the virtues of digital humanities" in JDH. The discourse of digital humanities is charged through and through with a language of ethics, which makes the language of ethical breach (pseudo, shallow) a logical concomitant. As I tried to show in the JDH piece, we inherit this frame from a long tradition of framing empiricist methods of knowledge-production as sites of virtue—as, indeed, dependent on virtue, or, as Lisa Spiro puts it, "ethos."

Moreover, the ethical norms imputed to digital humanities (as a necessary concomitant of its praxes, I wish to emphasize) are strongly associated with hopes (and fears) about the institutional change that digital humanities might bring about—democratization of access, collaboration, shortened journal pipelines, dismantling of traditional academic hierarchies, more equitable (or magically invisible) labor models, just to name a few of the hopes pinned on this—what: field? methodology? cluster of projects? tendency? It's no wonder "who's in and who's out" continues to feel like a terribly pressing question, even though its answer seems as elusive as the answer to the "who's in and who's out" question in science.

Nothing I say here will much countervail the impulse to "separat[e] the pilgrims from the rakes," as Larry Laudan puts it. But I'd argue that we should stay conscious of why Laudan's tongue-in-cheek nomenclature actually applies with eerie accuracy—why deprecating "shallow work" is a matter of delimiting boundaries. Pilgrim's progress or celestial railroad, the ethical discourses around digital humanities shape how work is done.

* * * * *

*Thanks to Scott Selisker for pointing me to the Steven Shapin review that pointed me to this book.

While I was writing this, Lindsay Thomas tweeted a reference to Kristen Whissel's essay "Digital Multitudes" as one approach to the "what is digital?" question. In my laziness, I'm just going to link it for now [Muse paywall].

Bud, Robert. “‘Applied Science’: A Phrase in Search of a Meaning.” Isis 103.3 (2012): 537–545. JSTOR. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-century Britain. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print. Cambridge History of Medicine.

Cooter, Roger, and Stephen Pumphrey. “Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture.” History of Science 32 (1994): 237–267. Print.

Daum, Andreas W. “Varieties of Popular Science and the Transformations of Public Knowledge: Some Historical Reflections.” Isis 100.2 (2009): 319–332. University of Chicago. Web. 8 July 2009.

Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York : Cambridge, Mass: Zone Books ; Distributed by the MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Fyfe, Aileen, and Bernard V. Lightman, eds. Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-century Sites and Experiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Gordin, Michael D. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

Laudan, Larry. “Views of Progress: Separating the Pilgrims from the Rakes.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 10.3 (1980): 273–286. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Pennock, Robert T, and Michael Ruse, eds. But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009. Print.

Secord, James A. “Knowledge in Transit.” Isis 95.4 (2004): 654–672. JSTOR. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Spiro, Lisa. " 'This Is Why We Fight': Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities," in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012), 16-35.

Wallis, Roy. “Science and Pseudo-science.” Social Science Information 24.3 (1985): 585–601. Sage Journals Online. Web. 6 Oct. 2009.

Whissel, Kristen. “The Digital Multitude.” Cinema Journal 49.4 (2010): 90–110. Print.

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