Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Moberly on the Nostalgic Continuum of New Media and Digital Humanities

In answer to a question about the intersections and differences between the first digital generation's rather exuberant too-often promotional academic fad "new media studies" and this second digital generation's rather exuberant too-often self-promotional academic fad "the digital humanities," rhetorician Kevin Moberly answers: "I worry that the answer is nostalgia." There is more, follow the link for all of it:
Justified by the oft-repeated, but rarely substantiated claim that the humanities is undergoing a crisis, digital humanities constructs the high technology of the present moment in much the same way as [did] proponents of the now largely-forgotten field of new media -- as a shift in the means of production that is synonymous in its historical and cultural implications to the introduction of the printing press... [F]or proponents of new media, this technological determinism is almost always symptomatic of a larger positivism... society is in the throes of a far reaching "information revolution," [and] computers... a means of... transcending the inherent limitations of human subjectivity. By contrast, digital humanists imagine computers... as a means of... recovering... performances... they celebrate as embodying human subjectivity in the ideal. Fascinated with the potential of digital technologies to re-imagine... great or valuable works, they turn to e-editions and digital archives not as a means of remedying the limitations of human subjectivity but of perfecting it: of teaching a generation of born digital subjects how to appreciate the timeless values manifested in classic (analog) works of art and literature. Whether imagined as a means of transcending or perfecting human subjectivity, digital technology is constructed as the catalyst for a... rebirth into a new era and a recovery of the glories of one that had been lost. Implicit in this belief is a corollary belief in a... lack or loss, a primitivism from which we are anxious be reborn. I worry that this... is constructed, in part, in the image of media studies, especially the branch... rooted in cultural studies. Scholars working in cultural studies... tend to be more interested in mass culture... pedestrian forms... It is not that they eschew literature or art, but that they recognize that such designations are always already political and particular -- indications of what a particular culture values at a particular historical moment rather than transcendent human values... Rather than celebrating [technology] as... a force in and of itself that exists independently of the people who produce, use, and are otherwise affected by it -- they approach technology... the same way that they approach literature and art: as a material (and therefore political) manifestation of the struggles in which various individuals, communities, and institutions engage... Concerned primarily with the present tense rather than the past or the future, cultural studies thus understands scholarship as a political and interventionist practice... I worry that Digital Humanities is motivated by a desire to restore the humanities, and, in particular, literary studies, to a future that is imagined to have existed before cultural studies. For it strikes me that digital humanities is interested in the past for much of the same reason that new media is interested in the future: because both imagine that high technology can provide privileged access to a sense of higher purpose, a spirituality, that has presumably been lost. Or, put another way, both imagine high technology of a means of exorcizing, once and for all, the horrors of the present tense.
There is a lot to agree with in this insightful and nicely concise formulation.

I do wonder if Moberly is a bit sanguine about the extent to which facile variations on cultural studies actually enabled some of the undercritically promotional excesses of new media studies (which in turn set the stage for its targeting by some digital humanists, even if I agree with Moberly that this response is reactionary).

I wonder also if there are other ways of narrativizing the shift from the new media moment to the digital humanities moment in the straightforward terms of first the cohort of professionalizing academics anxiously/boastfully testifying to their ambivalence toward the irrational exuberance of Clintonian digitality versus the cohort of professionalizing academics anxiously/boastfully testifying to their ambivalence toward the serial failures of the Bush-era dot.bomb and what turned out to be vapid/violative social media.

That is to say, an important part of this story is probably a matter of generational churn in an ever more precarious privatized academy, and also part of it is simply the slightly more critical echo in current scholarship of the tropes and conceits of the pop-tech press of the day of which academic discourse is too often a mere expression or symptom itself.

I'm sure the immemorial charges of the drift of both these academic fashions in technoscience discourse into the usual determinisms and autonomisms will seem annoying or congenial to their partisans in roughly equal measure -- we all know these risks are well nigh irresistible when talk turns to tech and that it is urgent to resist these tendencies. I suspect that Moberly would propose that these susceptibilities in technoscience discourse are embedded in its temporal orientation -- hence his mapping of new media, digital humanities, and media cultures onto future, past, and present -- and I personally sympathize with such a proposal, even if that very interesting and important argument isn't his focus and hence we get just a genuflection toward it rather than a sustained reflection.

That both the past and future orientations he criticizes are marked by "nostalgia" is the key to where I hope Moberly would go in a sustained reflection. To this I would append that futurity inheres in the plural present, which leads to an insistence on the political dimension of tech-talk (hence my endlessly reiterated insistence that "technology" is a mystification of technodevelopmental social struggles over the costs, risks, and benefits of change to the ineradicable diversity of its stakeholders). It seems to me this is also where Moberly rests in his conception of politicized media cultures arrayed against the reactionary politics of de-politicization in his foils, via instrumentalism in new media studies and via moralism in the digital humanities.

That this quandary is yet another re-enactment of the grappling by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud with the displacement by scientificity of European philosophy misconstrued as thought inaugurating critical theory is exactly to be expected and has its own nostalgia in tow doncha know?

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