Quote That:

Above all, the New Aesthetic is telling the truth. There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period. We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things. -Bruce Sterling, An Essay on the New Aesthetic

Crafted for a heterogeneous audience with crisscrossing and even contradictory interests and needs, it is meant as a porous multiple construct: a guidebook for the perplexed, a report on the state of the field, a vision statement regarding the future, an encouragement to engage, and a tool for critically positioning new forms of scholarship with respect to contemporary society. -Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital Humanities, p.7


DH, NA, and the Messianic Streak.

As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy. -Whitney Kimball, Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

DH is the square cousin of NA. The main critique of NA, like my critique of What Technology Wants, is that it is an act of imagining that machines are actually sentient, not that they actually are. Still, there’s a little bit of a messianic streak that comes out of a lot of DH and NA. From the same post, Kimball’s take on NA founder James Bridle:

New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.” – Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

So it goes. It also goes to show that whenever bright individuals cast an opinion on burgeoning scenes (both rightly and wrongly) they often use language designed to cast suspicion on any group: comparing it to religion. What greater linguistic guilt by association could there be other than implying that the interests of an entire group of people is somehow akin to the  great Satan of the unbelievers? Stanley Fish uses the same guilt by association technique that Kimball does, but instead of going after a slightly kooky but mostly harmless bunch of image-lovers, he takes a shot at some hyper-literate, theory-obsessed fellow humanists.

The anti-methodology that refuses closure and insists on fecundity facilitates — no, demands — sharing, and builds an ever-expanding community of digital fellowship, an almost theological community in which everyone explores in “the inexhaustible nature of divine meaning” (“Reading Machines”). -Stanley Fish, Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation

Not in response to Fish, but around him, Stephen Ramsay brings out the heart of Fish’s discomfort seemingly through another problem altogether:

A literary criticism that can only advance claims that are shown to be empirically valid is as deadening to the project of the humanities as a computational activity for which humanistic discourse lies permanently beyond its ambit. Risks need to be taken in both cases. In the former, the risk of saying something humanistically true but empirically false; in the latter case, of saying something empirically true that is humanistically false. -Stephen Ramsay, Stanley and Me

Depending on what frame of reference (humanities or science) you use, something can be true in one but not the other. The Foucaultian Librarian in me spots the easy binary that Ramsay drops. It is an issue that comes up with subjects and disciplines, when “(u)ltimately, we can easily end up believing in useful fictions as if they are true. In such cases we fail to recognize when the fictions take on a life of their own and we allow these fictions to separate from their own stories.” (James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Definitions and Challenges” p.84). Fish and Ramsay are locked into a real battle where the lines around academic disciplines have hardened into truth, with job descriptions, grants, fellowships, postdocs, careers, and the kinds of things we’ll teach our students on the line. To Ramsay’s point, when the dividing lines of discipline harden to such a point that two separate accounts of what is “true” are incompatible, it begs the questions of whether or not the project has the right outlook. Truth has and always be a slippery and frustrating beast, but the academic bifurcating of it will only continue to distort the usefulness of education writ large. One of the most exciting parts of DH is the ability to move between humanistic and empirical frames. Fish, it seems, is stuck on the dividing line in disciplines.

What seems to unsettle humanists is that religiosity, and it keeps things locked in the humanistic/empirical binary that holds to those “real world” factors surrounding higher education and research. The “messianic” streak found in NA and DH are both a result of both emphasizing scales and perspectives that go above or outside of the level of an individual human life (especially those which can be illuminated by empirical techniques), such are the forces that aggravate Fish, as described by Benjamin Schmidt:

Leaving individuals out of the story altogether, in other words, better acknowledges that there are other forces at work that operate orthogonally or antagonistically to human freedom. At times, that will be less dehumanizing than forcing histories that are properly about collectives to pretend that individual actors could or did make the difference. –Where are the Individuals in Data-Driven Narratives?

There are the rules and that’s fine, both the individual and large forces are part of the humanistic and empirical story of all of us. Finally, I’d like to thank Mr. Zizek for giving the whole of the United States (seems to include scholars) carte blanche to do as we like with ourselves, let alone our disciplinary frames of reference:

In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts – before decisions or choices are made – there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom – the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the “freedom to choose”. -Slavoj Žižek, Why Obama is More Than Bush with a Human Face (Thanks to Mrs. Tsk*)

Jackie Onassis Kennedy and the Loss of the Archive

Guernica: You have lived a full and, by any standards, exceptional life.

Gore Vidal: Yes, I have. And I don’t need to live it again. Once is enough. Do you know Jackie Kennedy’s take on this? It was at the time when everyone was saying she should write her memoirs. “I know,” she said, “I know… but first of all, my secretary at the White House mistakenly threw out all my notes. And what can you do when you’ve forgotten everything?” Jackie thought it was surely a fine idea to write her memoirs, but that would also mean having to relive them. And I think that this, for her, would have been awful.

Guernica: But you’ve written your memoirs.

Gore Vidal: Well, I’ve never been to Dallas.

-Lila Azam Zanganeh and  Gore Vidal, The End of Gore Vidal

I wrote earlier on how we constantly produce new nostalgia every day by issuing forth a stream of our documented lives. As we publish these things, we create our own little archives and canons, even if they don’t belong to us. Our archives and canons collect our instant nostalgia, allowing us to curate a little. Still, nostalgia has a lot of interesting properties, but the most interesting is its’ relative toothlessness compared to its’ more dangerous cousin:

But America’s comparative acceptance—embrace, even—of nostalgia makes sense to me. It’s safer than homesickness because it’s neutered; it can’t be realized and won’t get in the way of work; it asks you to long only for something that no longer exists. -Francesca Mari, On Homesickness

Nostalgia is Every American’s Canon: Those thoughts we hold close, the stories we tell and retell when we flip through photo albums and debate with our friends and family over dinner and/or late-night one-too-manys. All of these things hang on the narratives of our lives, and extend to the cores of ourselves. If Teju Cole has taught us anything, it’s that even if we are the hero of our own stories, we can also be the villain  of someone else’s, and that goes to the same core. What stands out is the fact that our stories are narratives that we impose over the relative mess of our archives. They are the proof we give of our reality.

Thus we close the paradoxical circle: narrative structures, elaborated in the crucible of fiction….becomes both sign and proof of reality. Hence it will be understood that the effacement of narration in contemporary historical science, which prefers to speak of structures rather than chronologies, implying much more than a simple change of school: a veritable ideological transformation; historical narration is dying because the sign of History is henceforth not so much the real as the intelligible. -Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, p. 140

Barthes has a loop going, and we’re stuck in it: the reality of the story-proof takes on the face of reality, but the archive, and its’ place as a historical tool can disrupt our story-proofs. This is memory. Flawed in different ways than nostalgia, memory is the archive and library. Their role is not to replace, but challenge and augment:

In the 19th century, the role of archives changed from being depositories of legal titles to places where historians hoped to find the sediments of time itself.  -Sven Spieker, The Big Archive, p. 5-6

The sediments of time are the sediments of human activity and life. Without those sediments, made by people to specifically document things, all we can do is rely on our story-proofs, our nostalgia, to get us through our lives. Francesca Mari is right to say that these things can be safer, and sometimes, those acts of overwriting, of ignoring the historical structure, of forgetting the sediments of life can be powerful and purposeful, to ends good and bad. Jackie O. knew that well.