The Chainsaw And The Scalpel: Impressionistic Ramblings about Computers in The Humanities

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Between conversations, cigarettes and classical music we spoke of chainsaws and scalpels. Nothing was cut, of course  - no zombie gore in the dismal corridors of Jadavpur University. We were talking about the role of the digital in the Humanities. The digital, somebody said, is like a chainsaw: it hacks away efficiently at great masses of data. The bigger the archive, the better the number crunching and the data analysis. The data has to be coded, metadata added and very human judgements tagged on to a text-now-turned-into-data. Fascinating stuff and I’m dying to write my SQL to get info out. I’ve done it before on coded interviews, on human voices and on feedback; the chainsaw-queries paring down the database to the shape of my logic. Masses of poetry analysed; unanticipated connections made. Algo-rhythm.

As the chainsaw whirrs non-stop, my doubts begin. I remember Lev Manovich saying in his now classic text, ‘Vertov stands half-way between Baudelaire's flâneur and computer user: no longer just a pedestrian walking through a street, but not yet Gibson’s data cowboy who zooms through pure data armed with data mining algorithms.’ I know what I’ve missed; the flaneur, checking out the streets randomly and the chap that’s not quite in any fixed role of the two mentioned - a Dziga Vertov moving through streets aiming his movie camera often at minute details and recording everything. The camera as scalpel - making small but significant incisions. These can be marked up - lines on a light background. Scalpel. Pale scale.

So when one skips in the ‘in-between spaces’ between hyperlinks, those marked-up words or those not-marked-up words, one carves out stories in miniature. A digital scalpel or a chisel even carving out narratives where one least expected them. The digital is not a tool, neither is it about tools; here’s the game reloaded: the digital is not a tool. Derrida calls it ‘originary technicity’. Technicity as how the technical affects the me. A pacemaker is not just a prosthesis (see Tim Clark’s superlative summary of Derrida’s position); it’s life as well as technology. The same by the way goes for a pen. The pen as an extension of the hand. The number as an extension-technology of the finger - digit. A heightened form of the finger-technology is here with us and is writing in the skies.  Digital. Not a prosthesis.

So I was digital at the very outset; I am digital, a finger-hand-nerve machine; wired and rewired. So am I a chainsaw or a scalpel? I cannot choose as a becoming-machine. As an originary machine that is in process still. So Chainsaw/ Scalpel is media-specific. Digital Humanities research in many cases seems to be missing the forest for the trees. Chainsawing through database forests leaves splinters everywhere and one walks on them. The broken  are pieced together as stories and they reload as other stories. Kate Hayles sensibly points us to media-specific analysis. To club everything that is computer-mediated into the  crammed all-encompassing category of the digital is neither fair nor plausible. In analysing the narratives, we often miss the stories. Employing our chainsaw logic gates is great; we, however, miss out the cultural assemblage that is inextricably plugged into the text-crunching assemblage. The analysis needs to be flexible and to adapt. The amount of data does not matter. What matters is the process - whether this is about designing queries to analyse data or about constructing narratives in the leerstellen.The digital is not one tool; it is … media-specific and it is many. An assemblage.

Let’s not oversimplify. Tool / app / plugin is part of the digital assemblage. Your chainsaw suddenly turns into a swiss knife. Or even better, a swiss knife in becoming. In the context of originary technicity, we are neither originary chainsaw or originary scalpel: we are both and simultaneously none of these. Instead of tools, let us think of mindsets, of methodologies and of thinking through this. Mindsets and methodologies.

I haven’t written my customary conference report about the MARG conference so this’ll have to suffice. At the moment, the hotly debated area of Digital Humanities is struggling to carve out definitions - with chainsaw or scalpel. What has emerged with each incision or each hack is at once a chipping-away and an addition.  The Digital Humanities are a multiplicity. It’s like those five blind people trying to figure out an elephant. It’s an elephant get it. The leg-assemblage connecting to the trunk-assemblage and to the tail-assemblage: get it? A multiplicity.

As I walk the vast stretches of the Mojave Wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas, a left mouse-click makes my chainsaw whirr furiously in the emptiness of data. Comforting  - but I’m still unsure. Much depends on how one looks and where. Plug in the chainsaw-assemblage to a precision plasma rifle assemblage and to many others. Now that’s comforting. Well, as comforting as it can be for a lonely traveller in a wasteland.

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