BABEL 2012: doingness, interdisciplinarity, and the digital humanities (as an afterthought)

October 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

During my time as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine (a “theory school”), we would from time to time extol the virtues of the “public intellectual,” a role familiar, as it was often pointed out, to European intellectuals but rarely embodied in North American academe. The claim was (and is) both true and not true; at once sensationalist and realist.  What really makes a public intellectual, anyway?

Yet the re-consideration of the public intellectual did emerge at a moment (my moment in graduate school: late 1990s-early 2000s) when things were on the move in higher education.  Or, so it seemed. There was residual scarring from the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s; there was the continuing consternation over jobless graduates in the humanities (still consternating); and there was deep concern over the infiltration of modular corporate forms into academic governance and autonomy (still consternating). There’s no question that a tremendous amount of energy came out of this moment, resulting in new organizations for alternative careers for PhDs, along with re-evaluations of how and why the humanities is what it is.  [**There was also the answer to the culture wars in the form of the digital humanities, which I’ll re-visit at the end of this post].

However, beyond new organizations advocating for the humanities PhD, and a meta-evaluative stance on the assumed principles that inform the humanities, the most interesting esprit of this moment was the formation of a milieu of “doingness” within academic life.  “Thinking” gave way to “thinking and doing.”  Doing took on many forms.  At my graduate institution, faculty members(Ex 1, Ex 2, Ex 3, ones with established reputations in specialized fields within the humanities) began to promote parallel identities structured around “doingness” and “withness,” a proximity and relationship to knowledge that expanded the boundary of scholarly activity.

While you could argue that doingness is simply a re-constituted version of the public intellectual (perhaps companion to the many re-constituted or re-formed Marxists and theorists of various sorts that have come to the fore), there is something more powerful, productive and interesting about academic doingness.  Doingness is action: to make, act, perform, or cause. But doingness is also a delicate and untidy assemblage of form and action.  To do something implies a form or a some-thing, but a form or some-thing that must happen in time, through time.  Moreover, the time that doing inhabits is not a singular closed time or a time over-burdened by its conceptual finishing point.  Consider, for example, the phrase “doing time.”  It’s slang for prison.  But it also evokes the notion that something else might happen in the doing of the time (think, plan, perhaps escape?).  If you’re “doing time,” you’re acknowledging a restrictive form (“yes, I’m doing it), but you’re also playing at the edges of a time that still must unfold, must embrace at least the potential for other futures, deviations, and the emergence of other forms.  Doingness also invokes a pedestrian tone for labor or work.  Or, more aptly, it hints at the activity of the amateur.  The amateur, as Carolyn Dinshaw has examined, employs not just the activity of the non-professional, but is a practitioner of doingness that does it “for love.”  Love of what?  The mere doingness of it (an object, a feeling, an affect, a thing…? Don’t know yet, still doing it).

My own professional investments (post-graduate school) have evolved in step with the organization, BABEL.  If there is an example of a doingness as a mode of becomingness (for the love of…!), for me, it is BABEL.  Last week was the Second Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group (Boston), and my experience there reflects how interesting academic (or para-academic) doingness can become.

BABEL is about experimentation.  And, of course, there is still enough lingering energy from the old academic guard that anything experimental eventually has to be put in its place (“You just can’t keep doing that…”).  BABEL IS an intellectual movement; it has achieved that level of influence and accomplishment.  BABEL also has its critics, many of whom claim that BABEL “plays” to much at the boundaries of the professional and the amateur, making dalliances of the hard lines of disciplinary specialization and separation.  Or, as it has been put to me directly, “What exactly is BABEL trying to do?”

Some thoughts on the doingness of BABEL, in dialogue with last week’s conference, followed by a brief observation of how BABEL’s doingness can inform (alter the course?) of the most sweeping manifesto for doingness in the humanities at present, the digital humanities.

One of the most interesting pieces I have read of late is Henry Turner’s Isis essay, “Lessons from Literature for the Historian of Science (or Vice Versa): reflections on “Form” (Isis, 2010, 101:578-589).  Turner’s essay is relatively brief yet truly rich.  It begins as a commentary on a means for reinvigorating what we now commonly describe as interdisciplinary work, examined through a more thoroughgoing and expansive exploration of form, across the humanities and the sciences.   He first highlights how the various notions of forms across disciplines imply some truly beautiful and productive tensions (stylistic forms – texture, small-scale; structural forms – large-scale, systems; material forms – modes of expression, appearance; social forms – lived or cognized relationships, traces).  However, where Turner ends up in his essay is not arguing for a cross-analysis of how the boundaries of various forms might speak to one another, but to a careful elucidation of the “in-time-ness” of form.  He invites into the conversation many of the “formalists” from the early modern period, from whom we now calculate many of our current disciplinary forms, to show how they defy any conceptual or representational boundedness.  The early humanist program included not just reading, but “practise”: “you shall doe well to use your hand….” (Philip Sydney, quoted in Turner). As Turner emphasizes toward the end of his essay (in pointing to the importance of Bruno Latour’s work), form should move beyond “reductive notions of ‘representation’ or ‘meaning’ as the ultimate fulfillment of a principle of form and toward a notion of function: form does things, it doesn’t simply mean things” (586).  We understand form as a function of meaning; we are less equipped to understand form as a function of time.

Praise and some criticism followed many of the panel presentations at this year’s BABEL for their “performative” attempts.  That is, I heard many comments about how both the panels and plenary sessions were directly or indirectly trying for a performative tenor in their delivery.  I question this, and I question it because I think the implication to this statement is that these efforts were attempting to “enact” something that could otherwise have been expressed (through a paper, or video, or a discussion).  I think this is a misunderstanding, to an extent, of the kind of doingness that BABEL embodies.  If we’re talking about “the performative,” in the sense that I imagine thinkers like Judith Butler at least in part initially intended the term, i.e. a temporal disjunction, a break in time-routines, between psychoanalytic, social/discursive, and citational moving forms (transducting, literally), then perhaps.  But this is different than imagining that some of the work at BABEL was attempting to re-form, through enactment, a conceptual notion or framework.

There were many terrific, productive examples (too many to cover).  On Thursday afternoon, I helped lead a panel on retro-technologies and affect, and there were “found objects,” YouTube videos, and soul-scorching images, all of which chaotically moved against one another.  It was temporal chaos at moments: a video scanned against a voiceover (that itself refused timing); there was a tree, a built, made tree that stood while the panelist read; there were words from contemporary Iran and early early English; there were postcards that arrived too late and just in time.  On Friday, there were performances of “impure collaborations.”  As another conference participant noted, some commented on how variously these performances “worked.”  But really, we need a better sense of how they do.  For me these performances/performatives allowed me to encounter just how dramatically inherent temporal disjunction is to any real encounter with the substantive movement of form; of  what form does (cuteness IS suffering; they’re the same event, just happening at different times; Eileen Joy and Anna Klosowska reminding us how complicated and lovely academic doing for can be).

The doingness of BABEL as an encounter with the temporal disjunctions of disciplinarity really came across for me as well in the plenary sessions (I discuss the first two here; the final I want to work through in a following post, in reference to my new book-in-progress, The Distributed Sovereign).  On Thursday night, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton co-presented on doing work with terrestrial material both as a humanities scholar and as a scientist (Jeffrey Cohen is Director of the Institute for Medieval & Early Modern Studies, George Washington University and Lindy Elkins-Tanton is Director of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute).  This talk was a dance – its most affecting impact for me was what it did, not what it said.  Both scholars talked about how they are working with the very materials of earth and earth-creation, and both were exploring the extent to which their work opened up (more human-e) possibilities for encountering how the earth is not for us.  Yet, this talk was really about an encounter between disciplinary forms that goes beyond what the humanities can share with the sciences and vice-versa.  Jeffrey distributed a rock for the audience to touch and press into flesh.  We passed it around; we held it. The rock’s presence in the room held its own – its own time and place.  This was evident not only in the unexpected thrill one had when the rock arrived in your hand, but in they way that it evinced a kind of discomfort (joking, giggling:  an act out of sync with the movement of a conventional academic talk).

Lindy paused her talk with an animated timeline of “catastrophe” on the scale of the universe. This was a fascinating animation piece, one that continually scaled between time as human order and time as it becomes incomprehensible to human perceptual scales.  These two “acts” of the talk, moments of doing in time not representing, were powerful and affective demonstrations about not what is said or unsaid between disciplinary forms, but what they each do.  To further underscore this, there was a moment after their respective talks were Jeffrey and Lindy asked questions of each other from a disciplinary perspective.  This “representational” moment frankly seemed like a weak force in comparison with the strong attractors of the doing moments in the talk — the events that had to cope with time and form all at once.  The talk performed what Turner calls, attention to a moving “network of forms,” that really could not have found its form conceptually.

The second plenary, with Jane Bennett and David Kaiser was different from the first, but it too staged an encounter between disciplinary time-forms.  Bennett’s focus, in particular, on a “network of impersonal forces,” was a beautiful elucidation of the form of “posture.”  She examined “sympathy” as a network of posturing forms that run across poetics, cognition, and organic form (from Walt Whitman to Chicory).   At the center of her talk and David Kaiser’s, both structured around the notion of “sympathy as material power,” was what Bennett referred to at one point as, “protean monism,” that is, a substance that is a form in process, a substance in the making, in the doing.

What is significant to me about BABEL’s doingness is that its non-representational energies also manage to be largely non-utopian.  One of the charges against BABEL is that it seems to be enjoying itself too much, so my claim that it largely avoids utopian proclamations may seem suspect.  Yet, I think of the doingness encounters that I experienced at the conference this past week and I can’t help imagine how much more transversal, moving, and truly disjunctive (critically so!) they are than what I encounter in the digital humanities.  The digital humanities makes an appearance here because it is, really, the one form of supposed doingness that has emerged triumphant from the earlier consternating moment in academia I discussed at the opening.  In fact, the digital humanities came to its zenith with that now well-known pronouncement that the true digital humanities was about doing things and making things (for a thoughtful overview, “More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities” and Debates in the Digital Humanities).  Yet, for me, the digital humanities has yet to embrace the spirit of doingness that  I encountered last week in Boston.  Where are the performed/performative encounters between the moving “networks of forms” in the digital humanities?  Are digital humanists just “building out” a new disciplinary apparatus, one with computer logics assimilated and couched within its static structures?  How can something akin to BABEL’s doingness inflect the now institutionally sanctioned doingness of the Digital Humanities?


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