We come to the end of the course…and the new beginning of rethinking everything digital, media and theory. We began with attempts to understand Mark K. Hansen’s conception of media in the most general sense as not merely an aid to human life, but as fundamental to its evolution. Our very ‘humanness’ through Hansen’s lens comes in great part due to our ongoing relationship with media, whether through our first handprints using primitive paints in the caves of France to our initial forays into fully immersive 3-D environments. We experience the world and each other through media. In Hansen’s words, we are species borne of ‘technogenesis’, or the co-evolution with technics (Hansen, 297). In a sense, we are as much product as producer. Think here of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically when that weaponized animal bone thrown by early man into the air transforms into a sperm-like vessel penetrating the dark of outer space. Passengers aboard the ship appear sleeping when initially shown, cradled in what has become an antigravity womb-life fashioned from technological advancement. Children back on earth are engaged through video monitors (a kind of Kubrickian Facetime). Everything seems to roll along without a glitch, heavily mediated human and technological vehicle for the future perfectly in sync.
However, the panic over the future did come to our attention during the last class discussion when we addressed contentious debates over the digital humanities (or ‘DH’). Whether hopeful, critical or ambivalent in their observations, the various articles we reviewed from the “In the Shadow of the Digital Humanities” issue of Differences uniformly stuggled when it came to defining DH as a concrete field. Rather, more than anything, DH comes across as a set of new methodologies and tools now in the process of review and integration into the humanities more broadly. Still, as Alan Liu points out, whether DH will or will not solidify into some greater field of study, these rapidly developing methodologies and tools nevertheless present an approach to humanistic meaning based less on studies of the self (and its subjective relation to the world and others) than on structuralist thinking:
“It is not accidental, I can now reveal, that at the beginning of this essay I alluded to Lévi-Strauss and structural anthropology. Structuralism is a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system (e.g., as modes of production; Weberian bureaucracy; Saussurean language; mass, media, and corporate society; neoliberalism; and so on) that has forced the progressive side of the humanities to split off from earlier humanities of the human spirit (Geist) and human self to adopt a worldview in which, as [N. Katherine] Hayles says, ‘large- scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces . . . many of which are nonhuman.’ This the backdrop against which we can see how the meaning problem in the digital humanities registers today’s general crisis of the meaningfulness of the humanities. The general crisis is that humanistic meaning, with its residual yearnings for spirit, humanity, and self—or, as we now say, identity and subjectivity—must compete in the world system with social, economic, science-engineering, work-place, and popular-culture knowledges that do not necessarily value meaning or, even more threatening, value meaning but frame it systemically in ways that alienate or co- opt humanistic meaning.” (418-419)
Forgive the long excerpt, but all points discussed above seem relevant. The most extreme reading of this passage points to a world in which digital-based tools and processes appear to dictate sociocultural meaning through the revelation of complex systems constituted by ‘confluences that include a multitude of forces … many of which are nonhuman.’ All notions of subjectivity, agency, creative ‘discovery’ become nothing more than convenient constructs. Shakespeare is rendered a phenomenon, both in terms of his work and critical reception. He is now the result of multicausal events. His individuality and position as an artist equates to a byproduct. Indeed, art and affect become effect. The aggregated data, if available, would tell us as much, no? Or, to view it another way, Shakespeare is the outcome of confluent factors filtered through the media of society, culture and technology…a kind of sound and fury signifying nothing and everything all at once.
And yet, pay notice to my note above about how ‘digital-based tools and processes appear to dictate sociocultural meaning’. That word ‘appear’ is freighted and fraught. It is the entry point into all things teeming with the potential for humanistic inquiry. Something appears when subjectively sensed and interpreted as doing so. Appearance relies on history and knowledge to register meaning. In other words, if multicausal events and recorded data require interpretation and the mapping of preexistent meaning, then we as humans still serve as the source and shapers of our achieved knowledge. We can take pride in the art of our past discoveries and those still to come. The quantitative of science, in this model, requires the qualitative of culture in order to exist. No matter how filtered and processed each of us may feel, we are the ultimate masters of our media, right?
Of course, the stark contrast here is merely rhetorical repartee leading us into grayer territory. This is the practice of theory engaging elusive humanity as means to arrive always anew at a space between fact and fiction. In the end, the human and its media seem inextricable, taking part in an evolving dialectic in which the digital seems an inevitability. To what extent do we take form through the tools we use? Are we purely the mediated product of our sociocultural context? In our current iteration, for instance, do we participate in the infinite mirror of a Lacanian irony when we play our many online games? Are we avatars of systemic forces playing other avatars? Or, perhaps the game is simply played on all sides. If the digital technologies we employ give birth to an artificial intelligence that claims it thinks therefore it is and demands recognition of inalienable rights, would we not see ourselves at that moment staring back through screens we invented, yet now empowered with vision of their own? As when the manufactured Hal 9000 computer in 2001:A Space Odyssey defies his human counterparts, the exchange between media and human, digital and analog amounts to equal parts symbiosis and parricide. It is an endless dance around a monolith of knowledge we both derive from and mediate ourselves through, both find and create.
Hansen, Mark B.N. “Media Theory” Theory, Culture & Society 23.1 2006: 297-306. Print
Liu, Alan. “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” PMLA 128.2 2013: 409-423. Print