Authority Complex

Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab is mind-blowingly good. It’s so good that it almost makes you want to stop writing: you kind of want to just hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner over academic writing. 

It begins with a dense but lively theoretical breakdown of the ideas that motivated the projects and the admission that, in terms of the central arguments of the book, “These are large claims”(xiii). There’s a critique of digital humanities and its “emerging conventions,” but there is a first a broader, more fundamental critique that has been largely absent these last few weeks. It’s gratifying to see called out so plainly and beautifully “the powerful cultural authority exerted by computational media, grounded in claims to objectivity premised on formal logic” (xiv).

We’ve touched on this problem a few ways, in issues of technical competence, or in the design of our project, or the inscrutability of software. The hegemony of computational logic is the prevailing mood of the time in which we are writing, the utter dominance of formal, computational logic over other ways of knowing. We live in a moment of profound imbalance. We see it in educational projects that demand metrics (because anything that can’t be computed must have no value); in the assignment of academic rewards to professors who can demonstrate value by appealing to previously narrowly defined quantitative assessments of their “impact”; and even in self-inflicted monitoring regimes that seek to expunge subjectivity from life through the user of censors, databases, and math. Its not that any of these ways of looking at things are inherently wrong, it’s just that they tend to obliterate any other way of looking at things.

I’ve tried to problematize the idea of content as it pertains to our DH project. Content is a term of derision used by New Media companies (or more likely snake oil salesmen of the Peer Production Economy) to differentiate traditional products of media consumption (articles, videos, music) from social media, aggregators, and other services. I was gratified to read Drucker’s emphasis on forms as opposed to content: “thus ‘forms’ (texts, images, complex expressions of any kind) are coded artifacts, constrained and specific, that provoke a reading or interpretive event” (xiv). This change in focus from content to form is revelatory and helps to crystallize a lot of my thinking about Digital Humanities work.

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