Pre-Christmas Reflections

Remember my very first blog post in this space; the one where I discussed the difficulty of simply explaining what the heck it is we do to someone outside the field?

Well, this will be the last blog post required for ENGL 946, and somehow I feel as if I've come back full circle to the very beginning, albeit in a slightly modified way. One of my undergraduate professors once made the assertion that education, especially specialized graduate education, changes your perception of the world in an irreversible manner. In application to the pursuit of a Humanities degree, I think she meant you simply become very jaded as to the corruptness of human nature. I mean, how wouldn't you? After having read many, and many more, mostly 19th century novels like Sister Carrie, The Portrait of a Lady, or Uncle Tom's Cabin, how can you believe in the success of pure human intentions anymore? Corruption wins. After a while, everything seems to end like an episode of Law and Order: SVU — there is a conclusion, but it is always somewhat unsatisfactory. In the Humanities, you can't untake that red pill. Once you know, you cannot unknow.

So, when Rushkoff, in a very preachy manner, I might add, tells us about the need to know how to program, it sounds to me very similar. Red pill or blue pill. Program or be programmed. We have to choose to either become users and consumers of programs created by others. In this sense, perhaps, we become not only users, but used as well. Or, — and here Rushkoff presents the alternative as if illuminated by a single ray of sunlight breaking through a cloudy sky (with ominous organ music in the background) — we can just learn to program! Ta-da! And, don't forget, "computers are frightfully easy to learn" (Rushkoff 133)! (hack, hack)

But, just to be fair, I don't really think that Rushkoff is seriously asking all of us to become Ruby and SQL experts, capable of programming on every possible platform out there. Agreed, his tendency to pepper his writing with emphatic exclamations, promoting that "Programming is the sweet spot, the high leverage point in a digital society" (133, emphasis in original) makes him sound a bit like a New World leader trying to convince you to join his cult. "And when the future computer aliens descend from above, they will only take with them those chosen few who have passed the test of ‘Hello World'…, and those select few will become the leaders of a new chosen society…" But, back to serious, no, really I think that Rushkoff is rather trying to point out how an awareness of the biases of digital media necessarily changes our perception of them. Basically, he's asking us to take that red pill and become jaded. But also way less manipulatable.

So, what does that mean, then, for being a Digital Humanist? As Liu points out in his article, "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?" it means both becoming, being, and remaining aware of the biases introduced by the tools we use as well as being able to put this knowledge to practical use. When, as Liu reassuringly delineates, "parents come up to chairs of English departments at graduation to complain that their daughter's humanities degree is only good for working at Starbuck's" (499), as Digital Humanists we get to tell that parent that "yes, but she also now knows of the underlying cultural functions of the barista position — including the linguistic etymology of the term — and their economic role in the larger corporation structure of twentieth century consumerism! And, since she has also learned how to code, she can reprogram that POS!" But, again, here my own sarcasm (jadedness) shines through a bit too much.

So, again back to serious, where are we — where am I — after a full semester of reading Digital Humanists' thoughts on thoughts… and on computers? It seems as if Drucker brought my thoughts to the point in her article when she writes about the realization that OHCO-based languages are oppositional to aesthetic considerations, that it "did not lead to new methods grounded in humanistic theory. Arguments emerged; discussion was heated, insights profound, then scholars shrugged and went back to coding" (88). Ha! Who sounds jaded now? But, really, those considerations, those debates, those discussions — in short, this class — are important to be aware of, just as it is important to have at least a passing knowledge of programming and coding (or, at the very least, its function) as a Digital Humanist. They are considerations, theories, and systems of thought that deeply affect what we produce from the very beginning, because, just as Rushkoff (and Hayles, and Manovich, and…) argues, they affect how we think.

As a final reflection on this semester then, I can only say that reading the theories surrounding Digital Humanities certainly has also affected the approaches I take to coding. And this goes beyond the jaded, roll-my-eyes reaction of "yeah, yeah, computers change my thinking." The simple awareness of this circumstance already perhaps has its effects. I try to teach my undergrads how to read critically, how to close-read perhaps. Now it is my turn to leave my comfort zone (however uncomfortable for my undergrads) and realize that close reading is already a very specialized method of interpretation in literary studies. Let's learn to read distantly! I can't yet predict where that will take me, and perhaps I don't want to. I've taken that red pill; there's no way back. But, perhaps, I can learn to be a bit less jaded — over time.

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