Digital Synesthesia or the Point Of the Digital for the Humanities

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  1. 1. Jan Christoph Meister

    Universität Hamburg (University of Hamburg)

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In his forward to the first edition of the
Companion to Digital Humanities Roberto Busa (2004) declares:

“Humanities computing is precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression (…) in the widest sense of the word, from music to the theater, from design and painting to phonetics, but whose nucleus remains the discourse of written texts.”
The revered pioneer’s claim was at the same time modest, and universal: universal in terms of attesting ‘automation’ relevance across the entire spectrum of the humanities; modest in terms of reserving its application to analytical procedures. Although Humanities Computing has meanwhile morphed into DH, similar programmatic pragmatism still characterizes current text-book style introductions to the field (see e.g. Thaller, 2017). DH’s internal methodological self-reflection however has long identified an exclusively pragmatic self-definition as reductionist (see among other McCarty, 2005; Beynon, Russ and McCarty, 2006; Vanhouttee, 2013; Krämer and Huber, 2018; Deck, 2018).
This is friendly fire though: nuances and methodological arguments within the DH are of little concern to hard core humanists, as Fish (2018) demonstrates. He labels the digital humanities ‘an anti-humanistic project, for the hope of the project is that a machine, unaided by anything but its immense computational powers, can decode texts produced by human beings.’ The substance of the argument is absurd; the fact that it continues to find an audience among traditional humanists warrants attention though. One cause of irritation is the focus of current DH research on methods such as stylometry, topic modeling, sentiment analysis, NER, SNA, visual pattern analysis, word2vec etc. All of these share an epistemological and, perhaps ontological premise (Capurro, 2010) which the traditional humanities cannot readily accommodate: in distant reading approaches human culture and symbolic practice are primarily conceptualized as a phenomenon of data patterns evolving over time, not as experiential and meaning-making artefacts.

To many digital humanists the empirical focus of Humanities Computing and DH initially provided a welcome antidote to the plethora of changes-in-paradigm, grand visions and anti-realistic ideologies that have emerged since post-modernism became
en vogue
(Nida-Rümelin, 2018). Then, from the early 2000s onward, DH began to acknowledge that the mere identification of data patterns equals
ἐμπειρίᾱ in the Platonian sense of: experience without knowledge of reasons and causes for the experienced phenomena. And so the empirical paradigm in DH was gradually counter balanced by the hermeneutic again; a process that is ongoing. But the outside perspective onto DH differs distinctly. From the traditionalists point of view DH is at best a ‘Hilfswissenschaft’, an ancillary science whose purpose is to support the old humanities disciplines–a problematic label (Sahle, 2015) for a field of practice which itself has finally begun to engage in discourse on the
Critique of Digital Reason
(the Kantian motto of DHd 2018 at Cologne University; see Sperberg-McQueen, 2018).

Moretti (Hackler and Kristen, 2016) attributes the difficulty of supplying a plausible

to the vagueness of the label itself:

Digital humanities is simply a formula that has come to identify a large field. I use it only because everybody uses it and everybody will use it. But, frankly, I don’t like it. I think it means nothing, whereas ‘quantitative’ and ‘computational’ mean something.”

But there is more at stake than terminology: it is the
Computationality of Hermeneutics and a hermeneutic ethos which DH has to deliberate and communicate more prominently, as
van Zundert (2016) points out. And it is precisely the topos of a fundamental lack of such ethos which skeptical and polemic interjections questioning the humanistic legitimacy and legacy of DH raise time and again. Take Fish (2018): ‘It is true, as digital humanists claim, that a corpus that has been digitized can then be searched for patterns the naked eye could never discern–frequency patterns, contiguity patterns, collocation patterns (…) The problem is that once such patterns have been uncovered, there is no legitimate route from them to the interpretation of texts.’ For Fish the only ‘legitimate route’ from data to interpretation is the one whose point of departure is a concrete author subject, or as he puts it: ‘Interpretation can’t get started without the prior identification of an intentional agent.’

May this critic saunter down the yellow brick road of intentional fallacy; we will take the philosophical high way: The search for a plausible ‘route’, a genuinely humanistic method to connect ‘data’ with meaning motivated among other Dilthey’s 1883 distinction between the objective explanation of external natural phenomena in the sciences (
Erklären) and the subjective, re-enacting comprehension of inner phenomena of the mind and soul (
Verstehen) in the humanities. Dilthey highlights
reflexivity as the key characteristic of the workings of the human mind, and as that of humanistic methods for the study of its artefacts and practices. But Dilthey (1923) also points out the impetus to interpret even our ‘Erklären’-motivated findings in terms of a ‘Verstehen’-motivated reflexivity:

“(…) the same human will then turn back from nature to life, toward himself. This return of man to the experience by which nature exists for him in the first place, into life within which alone meaning, value and purpose appear, is the other great tendency which determines scientific work.” (own transl.)
The application of hermeneutics is thus not restricted to works of art and symbolic practices. Moreover, our 21
st century reality includes phenomena which we observe in the (conceptually and instrumentally mediated) form of quantified, discrete data. Yet is DH willing to ‘turn back to life’ and risk the return from digital data analysis, from the mathematical and statistical modelling of symbolic objects and practices, back into the domain of a self-reflexive practice of ‘Verstehen’? Individually: certainly; see e.g. Moretti (2013) who demonstrates how digital operationalization can feed back into a reappraisal even of Hegelian aesthetic theory. Programmatically though: on what grounds? How could a
humanistic, self-reflective legitimation of the digital humanities be argued?

I propose a philosophical appraisal which situates DH provocatively and in the most unlikely of traditions: Romantic theory of science and aesthetics. For the ‘point’–that is: the core epistemological and philosophical added value–of the digital for the humanities stems from three characteristics that seem to resonate with Romantic ideals:

The digital representational principle of analytical segmentation of an object into discrete points of observation can represent as
capta (Drucker, 2011) three types of semiotic phenomena (sensu Frege and Peirce respectively): (1) symbols, i.e. phenomena which we process as having a
meaning function, (2) signs, i.e. phenomena which we process as having a
referential function, and (3) phenomena interpreted either as random effects, or as
self-referential, intra-systemic data patterns. The only other semiotic system capable of this threefold function is: natural language.

Unlike natural language the digital is however a lingua franca that comes without ontological, existential, conceptual, cultural or historical bias. Rather, because of its radical abstraction from context it provides a medium and conceptual space for the exploration and bottom-up modelling of dynamic structures, relations and effects within and across the realms of sensory modes, as well as across the cultural, the natural and the mental domains under investigation. This I term the conceptual affordance of
digital synesthesia. (For the conceptual equivalent in a cognitive science perspective see Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001).

The digital is a particularly ‘un-natural’ language when it comes to representing symbolic meaning in the Fregian sense of: phenomenological-existential relevance. It enforces abstraction from context–but more importantly, eventual explication of context once we begin to realize the deficiency of a digital model. Taking the detour toward meaning via formalization is the quintessential ethical principle of DH hermeneutics. However, in order to progress from the calculated alienation from and suspension of synthetic interpretation via abstraction and formalization to a new level of content-oriented epistemology DH will eventually need to engage in methodological self-reflection: the new mode of modeling and understanding meaning requires us to turn it onto itself.

This scientific ideal and vision of a knowledge generation process based on a form as well as a content-oriented methodology, on a synesthetic epistemology and, at the same time, on an overarching self-reflective ethos was central to Friedrich Schlegel’s late 18
th / early 19
th Century philosophic and aesthetic theory. In this context the synesthetic epitomized the Romantic ideal of a universal, inter-modal and inter-operable poetic and scientific practice, an ideal taken to the extreme in Kleist’s (1810) self-
agrandissement as an individual ‘capable of formula and metaphor’. In Schlegel’s theory such risk of declaring a new intellectual absolutism had, however, already been anticipated and counter-balanced by the equally important postulate of
parekbasis, that is: the commitment to constant critical self-reflection, encapsulated in Schlegel’s dictum ‘Ironie ist Pflicht’ (‘irony is an obligation’; Schlegel, 1963: 85).

I argue that it is precisely these two commitments and necessities which (ought to) characterize the methodological ethos of the digital humanities; something similar to the tendency toward an aesthetics of synesthetic, yet cognitively paradoxical inter-modality which Scarlett (2015) attests contemporary digital media art (he terms this inter-modality a ‘catachrestic synesthesia’).
DH does not require a poetics though: it is not concerned with producing symbolic artefacts, but with modeling, exploring, analyzing and interpreting them–and it does so by using the digital as a representational (more precisely: meta-representational) system of unrivalled flexibility and applicability. But rather than mere breadth of scope its greatest affordance is that, unlike natural language, this is a system and ‘language’ not already invested with meaning and value per se–a characteristic which, rather than rendering the digital hermeneutically dysfunctional, turns it into a universally relevant heuristic tool which in the end aids, rather than delimits hermeneutic reflection.
And somewhere, over the rainbow, this prospect in combination with an appraisal of DH as an offspring of Romantic theory might catch our harshest critics unaware. For if the humanistic goal of DH is to arrive at ‘meaning’ in its fullest phenomenological sense, albeit via a different route, then where exactly is the problem? “There’s no place like home!”


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