Technology in Theory and Practice: "Technology and Critique"
Response by Ted Underwood

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The alien is already in here with us"
[On April 2, 2012 the Unit for Criticism held its annual Graduate Student event. This year it was a panel of three graduate students on the topic of Technology in Theory and Practice. Below is the text of a response given by Ted Underwood (English), the first of two posts on the event.]

"Technology and Critique"

Written by Ted Underwood (English)

I’d like to thank the organizers of this event, Mike Black and MC Anderson; also, of course, Lauren Goodlad and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. It is a pleasure to be here to respond to these great papers, and this is an exciting moment to be discussing technology in relation to critical theory.

The papers we heard tonight were extremely diverse. They come from different disciplines, and even from different colleges. Some of them consider technology primarily as an object of study — Mark Keitges looked, for instance, at “designed learning environments” like those designed by VilĂ©m Flusser in order to assess their educational potential. Others considered technology primarily as a means of study: Mel Stanfill was interested in software as a tool that facilitates scholarly inquiry into other topics. Safiya Noble combined both approaches; she is studying the way search technology represents black women and girls, but she also critiqued the tools that are available to carry out that study.

I’m dwelling on the diversity of the papers because diversity of this sort can’t be taken for granted. The very existence of this panel suggests that we collectively believe technology is an emergent theme in the humanities and social sciences; in other words, something is happening now in relation to the topic. But the papers made clear that there is no single thing happening. In fact, our disciplinary home bases may still define what it even means to engage technology as a topic.

For some disciplines, like literary studies or history, this is a relatively new phenomenon and one that has not been easily assimilated. As a result, scholars from those disciplines who engage deeply with digital technology have tended to constitute themselves as an extradisciplinary community that goes by the name “digital humanities.” An extradisciplinary community is much less necessary for scholars in disciplines like communications, where electronic technology has long been a central object of study. I’m drawing attention to these contrasts mainly to emphasize that we’re talking about pragmatic responses to a problem that presents itself differently depending on your social location. There are not, in my opinion, very clear methodological boundaries between media studies, critical code studies, and digital humanities. Intellectually, these are overlapping projects: all of them consider technology at times as an object of study and at times as a means.

Now, in way this is a dull conclusion to reach, because it means that I’m not going to be able to construct a clear taxonomy of different “methodologies” or “schools of thought.” There are real divisions out there: not everyone is enthusiastic about the term “digital humanities,” for instance. But I believe those divisions are at bottom social rather than methodological. If you try to define “digital humanities,” you rapidly discover that it’s a tactical coalition lacking a single methodological center — perhaps best defined by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum as scholarship transmitted by a particular, very lively Twitter network.

Of course there is something self-reflexive about that, because Twitter is itself a technology. So perhaps it is not dull after all to say that these scholarly projects are divided socially rather than by conflicting methodologies. That also means that they are divided in large part by different technologies of scholarly communication. Journals, blogs, Twitter, conferences, unconferences, discipline-specific indexes of secondary literature — are precisely the things that define scholarly communities. So this is a third aspect of technology that needs to be factored into our discussion: technology as an object of study, and as a method of study, but also as a mode of communication that organizes study by defining scholarly institutions. And this third category interestingly complicates what it means to reflect critically on technology.

“Theory” is a slippery word that I hesitate to define. But Alex Reid has usefully observed that when humanists talk about the intersection of “theory” and “technology,” they are often concerned more specifically with “critique,” and especially with a kind of critique that has at its core a monitory or gatekeeping function. In this model, we need critique to decide how much and what kind of technology we should allow into our disciplines. The goal is to distinguish useful kinds of technology from kinds that would coarsen our discourse, making it reductive and positivistic. Imagined in these terms, the value of critique springs from the fact that it can preserve a necessary reflective distance on technology. Possibly other social institutions have already been corrupted by intrumental rationality, but we can still count on critique to watch technology skeptically, and close that gate when necessary.

I imagine that you can see where I’m heading with this. If, as I suggested, our scholarly institutions are already defined by particular technologies of communication, then this model of reflective distance may entail a bit of wishful thinking. Our institutions of critique are already pervaded and shaped by specific technologies — like say, Kritik, the blog on which you're reading this response. The depressing way to put this would be to say: it’s too late to close the gate. The alien is already in here with us, and if you seal that airlock, you’re merely sealing us in with him.

But actually I don’t see this reflection as depressing at all; I see it as opening up an alternative and rather useful model of critique. We might say, I’m here, technology is over there, let me critique it before it gets any closer. But there is also a model of critique closer to hacktivism. I am — we are — already embedded in technological systems, so how might we edit those systems? What tempting points of reflective leverage are opened up by the the technological constitution of our own discourse? How might we tweak the infrastructure to make the game itself more interesting? In this model, the technology pervading scholarly life becomes a handle that gives us a grip on otherwise tricky reflexive problems of self-remaking.

I don’t think we have to make a final choice between these models of critique. All of the papers we heard tonight expressed some concern that technology could be used in reductive or deterministic ways. But all of them were also engaged in a critical project that resembled hacktivism. Mark’s emphasis on reflective design made the hacking dimension of his project very explicit, but I would say that Safiya was also, implicitly, proposing to redesign search technology. Mel is arguably using data analysis software to hack scholarship itself. I would add that scholarly communication is yet another thing we can hack: in reflecting on technology we are opening up a possibility of reshaping our own institutions to become livelier, more innovative, or more equitable. I’m encouraged, for instance, by the scholars who recently organized a boycott of the academic publisher Elsevier to protest its extortionate pricing, and by the scholars at PressForward, who are redesigning peer review to foster a more open and more interactive kind of scholarship.

Of course, imagining critique on the model of hacktivism raises some puzzling questions. As presently constituted, critical theory involves knowledge of a particular intellectual tradition. How would we graft new technological practices onto that tradition? Is it possible to link Michel Foucault to software design — and if we try to do that, won’t contact with the sciences inevitably put us at a disadvantage? Obviously, I can’t offer a full answer to that question in the paragraph that remains. But tonight we heard Mel Stanfill link queer theory to data analysis, and I doubt that roping in The Archaeology of Knowledge would prove any more difficult.

Personally, I suspect that academic humanists have been too diffident in relation to science and technology. We should go ahead and plunge in when necessary, just as we would plunge into a field like sociology if we needed to understand a particular problem. Humanists are smart people; I don’t think we’ll be at any disadvantage. In the domain of text mining, at any rate, my experience has been that the math is not especially difficult. The difficulty comes in interpreting the results. For instance, computer scientists have designed a set of algorithms that do what they call “topic modeling,” but I suspect that these algorithms often identify patterns that are closer to “discourses” than to “topics” in our ordinary sense of the word. In cases like this, the sciences need what we can contribute intellectually. And we, in turn, need them politically. To make critique matter, we are increasingly going to have to crack open some black boxes, figure out how they work or could work, and rebuild them appropriately. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but an exciting challenge, and one that our panelists tonight are already engaging.


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Lauren said...

First, I want to say what a great panel this was--MC and Mike (the Unit for Criticism's Research Assistants who handle a wide range of indispensable tasks including the organizing of this yearly event) did a great job and I'm inspired by the work of Mark Keitges, Safia Noble, and Mel Stanfill as well as by my colleague Ted Underwood's way of putting all together.

One of the many things I got out of the event was a connection I perceived between the eclectic research now being undertaken under the rubric of digital humanities on the one hand, and cultural studies: the pre-digital critical project (which is part of the Unit for Criticism's institutional history in its organizing of the conference and subsequent book on the topic from the early and mid-90s. Some people expect digital humanities eventually to form itself into a discipline but I think it just as likely that, like cultural studies in and since the 1990s, it will migrate into existing fields and disciplinary formations where, no doubt, it will have an impact on key questions and perhaps also disciplinary boundaries and self-definitions.

The points are too complicated to articulate well in the space of a comment and also I'm not the best person to make them as a "newbie" to digital humanities (do people still use that word?). But I'll try. Both Ted and Mel (and at the panel itself, Mark and Safia as well) seem to share the sense that "critique" will continue to inform humanities work after the technological/digital turn; that it is perhaps embedded in the "humanities" aspect of that work. One question I have is how this kind of participation will be different from science studies and another is how (in terms of institutional practice) do DH scholars try to get the "tech" scholars as interested in this humanistic enterprise as digital humanities scholars have become digital/technological enterprise? So often humanists try to cross that divide but what is going on in the sciences?

Ted said...

Great questions, Lauren. I agree that we're probably not looking at a separate discipline. What exactly DH will become is hard to say, partly because it includes such a diverse range of people -- including librarians (who may or may not be faculty depending on the institution) and academic professionals as well as faculty from different disciplines. It's hard for me to see how it can be fully assimilated in a discipline, but just as hard to see how it would become fully independent.

That is also in part my answer to the question about getting tech people interested in the humanities. My own feeling is that DH is very different from science studies precisely in this respect: there are already a fair number of computer scientists actually doing DH, or collaborating with DH projects. You generally don't get a grant in this field unless it passes muster with both the scientists and the humanists. So DH is not "about" information technology in the way science studies is (more or less) about science. In fact, in the case of DH it's often hard to say which discipline is studying which. My experience is that people in informatics are very interested in understanding specific problem domains (to them, we're a problem domain!), because they want to prove that the tools they invent are actually understanding/addressing real-world issues.

Does that mean that the tech people are immersed in humanities to the point of reading Foucault? Well, not usually. But there's already a fair amount of implicit pressure on them to do so: witness the extended conversation about theory in the first issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities, just out today:

Ted said...

And as long as I'm citing that issue I should cite this part in particular, where Ben Schmidt makes a pretty good counter-argument to my arguments on this topic:

Lauren said...

These are great links, Ted, thanks! Perhaps a reading group could be organized?

Ted said...

It's a good idea. I think Shawn Ballard may already be developing some plans of that sort.

Lauren said...

Great - one fall unit event already in progress can probably incorporate this kind of reading material. More on that in the weeks ahead! said...

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