Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Show Them Our Screens: Live Coding, Digital Humanities, and the Obscurantism of Close Reading

After watching Stephen Ramsay's video essay on musical "live coding," I had what I can only describe as a small ecstatic moment.This, I felt, was truly interesting, truly hybrid. If many aspects of Digital Humanities that I have commented on in this blog are strained with competing interests from the sciences, the humanities, and the many, many populations outside the academy, the work of Andrew Sorensen, the "live coder" whose performance Stephen Ramsay annotates in the video to which I've linked, offers a refreshing panacea to that ideological strife. Sorensen's performance is wholly at peace (what other language to use? at one? comfortable? self aware?) with its own hybridity. To my eyes, the practice of live coding holds together at its core the threads of performance, computation, language, sensual aesthetic experience, and critical awareness,all in a beautifully layered lump of sound. This is no McGannian deformance, nor is it a Morettian reduction or abstraction. This is composition.

In reading the blogs of some of my fellow DH students over at Northeastern University I came across a discussion of Alan Liu's essay "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Humanities?" He, like many other scholars laboring in the (sub)field of Digital Humanities takes as his subject the disconcerting relationship between DH and the broader field of humanities (whatever that is). Some of this essay reads like a temporally dislocated continuation of C.P. Snow's old treatise on the two academic culture, but on the whole. Liu's take remains fresh to my eyes. My sense of his argument is that what DH has lacked since the very beginning is a strong critical voice. The few exceptions - Liu points to Moretti as one example, I would also suggest Wilkens and McGann as two others - reserve their perspective of cultural criticism by remaining firmly rooted in what is in the end a rather traditional mode of textual analysis. Liu connects the dearth of cultural criticism in DH to the growing cultural irrelevance of many university humanities programs. Though again, the "humanities" remains vague here, Liu's argument seems clear enough: DH can lead the humanities back to a STEM-like relevance again if only it will recover its voice for cultural criticism.

I, like fellow grad blogger dherdoyle, feel somewhat dubious about reorienting our perception of the humanities around the rather instrumental, cultural-relevance bellwether that Liu's essay seems to suggest. On the same token, what good is cultural criticism that no one outside of the academy pays attention to? I'm reminded here of TOPLAP's manifesto as it is cited in Ramsay's video. The second demand made by TOPLAP (an organization for support and promotion of live coding artists) in its manifesto is thus:
Obscurantism is dangerous. Show us your screens.
The motion of the live coder is to lay bare the language, the syntax of electronic composition. It is the quintessentially self-critical work. Its agenda? Commitment to clarity and computation. In his commentary on Sorensen's live coding, Ramsay necessarily resorts to mixed metaphors and hastily constructed portmanteaus to describe the performance. He uses phrases like "playing the comments" to describe the bizarrely naked collusion between raw LISP (the coding language that Sorensen uses) and musical theory. It is this very nakedness that, to my mind, suggests the kind of contribution that the so-called Digital Humanities can make to not only the academy, but the socio-intellectual discourse field (ha) at large.

To translate an aesthetic work into computation is to the humanist the ultimate abstraction. When we look at a document like House Of Seven Gables that has been rendered newly byzantinian by TEI markup, it is easy to feel as though the soul has been stripped. With the advent of data the age of intuition and close reading walks out the door. And yet it may be the very nakedness of computational languages that, upon translating the aesthetic work, lays bare the many intimate interfaces between artist and art, performer and performance, player and game. When TOPLAP demands we show them our screens, they are demanding that we no longer pretend to know what we do not.

This is the threat of DH to the rest of the humanities. Committing to DH is the humanities' concession that the broad claims it has made from the staggeringly small canon that it studies are in some very important way, quite inadequate. We have been hiding our screens from view, and the decline of the humanities stature in the university, let alone public opinion, has suffered because of it. If Liu is right - and he is at the very least not at all alone - in suggesting that STEM fields have far outpaced us in terms of cultural relevance and that that is in fact a bad thing, then it seems quite natural to look to the STEM fields and find out what it is that they are doing right. To that end, Manovich's work on visualization, Moretti's graphs, maps, and trees, McGann's acts of deformance, and Wilkens' cartography all adopt some aspect of data-based investigation. These are, I'm becoming more and more convinced, valuable in their own right. However, perhaps they are each barking up, if not the wrong tree, then not quite the right one. The live coders show us what our lesson from STEM ought to be: down with obscurantism.

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