How to begin investigating, let alone solving this problem? If it is true that the very logics upon which DH is predicated begins with the principle of concealment for the sake of cleanliness, how can we turn these digital discourses back on themselves in a critically productive fashion? I believe Johanna Drucker's essay "Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship" begins to get at some of the ways the digital can begin to work against its own cultural logic, though perhaps not in the way that she intends to. The basic thrust of Drucker's essay consists of a call for humanistic criticism to play a more central role in what Ramsay would call the practice of "building." Drucker closes her essay thus:
Our challenge is to take up these theoretical principles and engage them in the production of methods, ways of doing our work on an appropriate foundation. The question is not, Does digital humanities need theory? but rather, How will digital scholarship be humanistic without it? (94)This seems to be basically the same question McPherson asks. It's clear that digital scholarship is effective as a mode of knowledge production, but what in particular makes it useful to the theoretically committed humanist? Both McPherson and Drucker seem to suggest that only by integrating the more traditional modes of humanistic criticism at the level of "building" can we really think about DH as an actually humanistic endeavor.
The trouble is, it doesn't take very long before we run into some imaginative difficulties on this trajectory. What, after all, could Foucauldian code look like? Is it possible to write a computer language that inscribes Marxist critique at the level of Python syntax? The answer right now looks to be unequivocally "no." The computer knows only binary, and criticism necessarily undoes the polarizing work of the either/or construct. Drucker begins to get at this apparent absurdity in her examination of a digital reconstruction of a Roman forum:
If we embark on a project to study inscriptions in the Roman forum, for instance, should we simply take a virtual simulation, a fly-through model made on a standard 3-D software platform and place the writing on the variously appropriate surfaces? Or should the ways signage works as an articulation of space, the species of "spaces" described by Georges Perec, be merged in a mash-up of Christopher Alexander's "pattern language" with Gaston Bachleard's poetics of space and the Foucauldian analysis of spatialized regimes of disciplinary control structured into and structuring architectural and social relations? A ridiculous proposition emerges from that impossible sentence. (92)This is exactly the trouble with trying to, as McPherson says in relation to race issues in the digital humanities, "hold race and computation together in a systemic manner" (153). There is something about the way computers work - not only internally, but on our own social heuristics - that simply makes sustaining cultural criticism difficulty. It is as if computation necessarily imposes the lenticular modularity that prevents academic cross-pollination and therefore insulates praxis from critique.
At the end of Drucker's frustration, however, she asks whether or not the ridiculous proposition is really ridiculous? Whether the impossible sentence must really be thought of as impossible Drucker's own analysis takes her into a critique of visualization as a way of representing data, that it always distorts and represents incorrectly or ideologically. Though she seems essentially right about this, I would submit, briefly, that this distortion is not a problem as long as it is self-reflexively implemented. Indeed, it seems to me that distortion is the deformative act that McGann wants from the beginning. Perhaps distortion is even what the critical act has always been. However, I want to move past Drucker's critique and entertain for a moment what a digital construction that uses its own tools against itself might look like. How, in other words, might a program "show the screen," not only of itself but of the cultural logic in which its lenticular modularity originated?
I want to suggest that a certain kind of video game is one way of thinking about this possibility. The simulation, it seems to me would make room for dynamically representing the many theoretical considerations Drucker describes in her Roman forum project. Indeed, video games can simulate quite complex ideological structures that make clear the network, not the node, as McPherson might say. Next time I hope to get into some of the ludic possibilities for DH criticism by way of Paradox Interactive's game Victoria II. If anyone has other ideas of games that might solve some of Drucker's problems, I'd love to hear what you think.