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Critique of the "Digital Humanities Manifesto"

Remarks on the Digital Humanities Manifesto:

There are, to put it diplomatically, issues with this manifesto, both in its precision of terminology and critical thinking. First of all, the term "digital humanities" is fuzzy. Does it mean the cultural study of digital information systems, or simply the use of these systems in humanities research and education? If the latter is meant, why differentiate between humanities and other fields of study and not talk about "digital technology-based research and education" in general?

Paragraph 1 of the manifesto states that...

Digital humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated.

This is a straightforward paraphrase of McLuhan's "end of the Gutenberg Galaxy", with the only catch that McLuhan referred to analog media - film, radio, television. So it seems as if the authors thoroughly confuse "electronic" and "paper" with "digital" and "analog". But, technically seen, the movable type printing press is not an analog, but a digital system in that all writing into discrete, countable [and thus computable] units.

On top of that, there are very contemporary positions in the so-called 'new media' field that are much more differentiated and a few steps ahead in their reflection of the relation between online and print publishing. In his introductory essay to the first Mag.net reader, Alessandro Ludovico soundly argues that "print is becoming the quintessence of the web", a stable long-term medium for which the unstable medium of the Web serves as a production and filtering platform.

Like all media revolutions, the first wave of the digital revolution looked backwards as it moved forward. It replicated a world where print was primary and visuality was secondary, while vastly accelerating search and retrieval.

The common assumption that media studies suffer from a lack of mid- and long-term memory is a confirmed by this paragraph. Historically, the opposite is true. In their "first wave of the digital revolution", the humanities chiefly associated the new technology with holographic visuality of "virtual reality" and "cyberspace". The humanities needed about ten years to catch up and grasp that computing and the Internet was based on code, and thus on linguistic logic.

Now it must look forwards into an immediate future in which the medium specific features of the digital become its core.

First of all, "the digital" is not a medium, but a type of information; information made up of discrete units [such as numbers] instead of an analog continuum [such as waves]. The medium - the carrier - itself is, strictly speaking, always analog: electricity, airwaves, magnetic platters, optical rays, paper.

To insist on this terminological precision is not just some technological nitpicking, but of political significance. It reminds of the concrete materiality of the Internet and computing that involves the exploitation of energy, natural resources and human labor, as opposed to falsely buying, by the virtue of abstraction, into the "immateriality" of "digital media".

The first wave was quantitative, mobilizing the vertiginous search and retrieval powers of the database. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, even emotive. It immerses the digital toolkit within what represents the very core strength of the Humanities: complexity.

As it remains totally vague what this "second wave" represents - YouTube and social networking as the next evolutionary step after Google Search? [Seriously? How young are the people who wrote this?] -, it is nearly impossible to seriously discuss this argument. It also seems quite futile to argue whether the humanities or sciences have the better grip on "complexity" - a word which is a systems theoretical null signifier typically serving as a dialectical device for reducing the very thing it means; saying that something is "complex" is a truism, and thus a simplification.

Aside from that, the above argument is seriously flawed in its implicit assumption that there was no, or less, social and cultural complexity involved in what it calls the "quantitative" formalisms of databases and programming. It's a blatant regression behind the research of critical media scholars [like Matthew Fuller, Wendy Chun, McKenzie Wark and many others] and hacker activists of the past decade; research that has shown again and again how these very formalisms are "qualitative", i.e. designed by human groups and shaped by cultural, economical and political interests through and through.

Interdisciplinarity/transdisciplinarity/multidisciplinarity are empty words unless they imply changes in language, practice, method, and output.

And the words in this paragraph are just as empty because they state a completely generic truism.

The digital is the realm of the open: open source, open resources, open doors. Anything that attempts to close this space should be recognized for what it is: the enemy.

I'm slightly tempted to put the above paragraph, as a sarcastic joke, into my E-Mail signature, because it is the perfect [if for sure unintended] joining of the ideological opposites of a liberal Popperian ideology of "the open" with a right-wing Carl Schmittian agonistic rhetoric of "the enemy".

I'll stop here in order not to produce a prolonged rant - and sincerely apologize for my harshness if the "Digital Humanities Manifesto" should turn out to be a text written by younger students.

22nd January 2009
Tags 16mm, analog, art, book, cultural theory, deutsch, div, economy, education, film, gnu/linux, internet, literature, music, nederlands, neoism, performance, photo, poetry, politics, super 8, systems, theology, video.

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