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Alexander Galloway: "The idea that the humanities are in decline is simply false"


The LA Review of Books talks to Alexander Galloway about the digital humanities, a subject he’s uniquely qualified to speak about; as a programmer and hacker, he understands the technical side of the digital, and as a professor of media studies he knows the disciplinary norms of the humanities. Galloway contends that far from withering away, the humanities remains a subtext of many other disciplines, including the technical disciplines. An excerpt:

Even though you are not a “DH flag-waver,” I am wondering if you think there are any digital or media subfields that yield, or will yield, the most benefit to the humanities and why?

As I said, I do think we are faced with a two-cultures problem, and part of why I get frustrated with main-line digital humanities is that this problem is seldom addressed directly. There is one approach, which investigates the nature of letters and numbers, and there is another approach, which focuses on the use of letters and numbers for other ends. I think most of DH has been the latter. And, while this may be slightly unfair to DH, I do think there is a fundamental difference in method and really maybe even in culture or epistemological framing (which of course doesn’t preclude interesting mixtures and hybrids). And, of course, there are a lot of interesting people working in the field who don’t fall into this trap. I fully acknowledge this. To flesh this out a little more, I think the first approach comes out of a fundamentally modern stance that seeks to reveal “the conditions of possibility” for digitality if not symbolic systems as a whole. And, incidentally, this first approach tends to be much more historical, which is also a characteristically modern impulse, whereas the second approach tends to be more pragmatic and, one might also say, scientific. The former aims to determine the specific nature of digitality, whereas the latter aims to use digitality as a vehicle. The second approach doesn’t really care about modernity’s fundamental question as to the condition of knowledge; what it cares about is the relative obscurity or transparency of letters and numbers. So if the first approach is essentially modern, then the second is, shall we say, medieval! The second approach asks if there is a hidden or obscure detail of a text that only an algorithm can uncover. It is a kind of hermeneutics, I guess, only in reverse. Ultimately it comes down to this: if you count words in Moby-Dick, are you going to learn more about the white whale? I think you probably can — and we have to acknowledge that. But you won’t learn anything new about counting. That’s the difference between the two approaches, and I think a lot of the misunderstanding between the two methods (or cultures) of working with digitality is due to this difference.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

Well the old cliché from the first internet boom was that if you wanted a mediocre job at a dot-com, study computer science, but if you wanted to run the company, study semiotics. At the time an astounding number of people in the dot-com scene had studied under Donna Haraway, or written their thesis on Roland Barthes. And this is still true today. Remember the old chestnut about the humanities contributing to the formation of critical thinking skills and to the understanding of history and culture, or remember even the now passé idea of cultivating a kind of moral sensibility, that literature is a way to experience empathy and to view the world from a perspective that is not one’s own — all of these things are still true. And the whole idea that the humanities are in decline is simply false. Contrary to popular wisdom, humanities departments routinely cross-subsidize other parts of the university. Enrollment is huge in the humanities. For example my department at NYU is one of the largest in the school in terms of student enrollment (which translates to tuition dollars). When people question the relevance of the humanities they are often masking other goals and intentions. Still, the humanities needs to do a better job acknowledging digital literacy as part of their core competency. Even today, in language and literature departments, computer languages are not considered viable to the same degree as natural languages. Of course there are complex social and cultural reasons for privileging natural languages over machine languages, but in general the humanities needs to stop thinking of computation as an entirely foreign domain, and instead consider computers to be at the heart of what they have always done, that is, to understand society and culture as a technical and symbolic system.

Image of Alexander Galloway via Vimeo.