February 9, 2015

The Reader in Digital Humanities

Category: Equity
man reading book in subway terminal

The Reader in Paradise Lost DIgital Humanities 

When Stanley Fish wrote his magnificent treatise on the role of the reader in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, he was making an argument that the real fallen angel, lost in sin, in Milton’s retelling of the Christian myth, was the reader. Fish argued that the epic was not about Satan or Adam or Eve, but about the reader, who was taught the lesson, every time s/he was attracted to the poetic splendour or to Satan or dismayed by the cruel acts of God. Fish successfully argued, that the reader was not the judge but the person who was on trial, and that it was the journey of the reader, lapsing, getting lost, and eventually being redeemed, where the meaning was located, not in the text.

For Fish, then, the reader was a supremely contested category. The reader was not only an imagined audience, but the very tool of making meaning, giving shape, form, structure and life to the text. The reader was a political person whose location, contexts, affiliations and affinity marked the reception and critique of the text. In his subsequent texts, Fish goes on to argue that this understanding of the reader is important because it gives us a clear idea about how the reader is not just somebody to sell the books to, but a unit of governance and power, and that, indeed, not everybody was granted the exalted position of being the reader.

This critical idea of the reader as a severely contested, politically formulated figure has unfortunately been lost in the contemporary discourse around digital humanities. The reader, as s/he gets replaced by the user, seems to have been forgotten, and with that, the political contestation of who gets to become a reader, and whose meanings shall count, has also receded. Increasingly, within the debates in digital humanities, no matter which side of the anti-pro brigade the discussion arises, the notion of the reader remains unquestioned. Because the task of making meaning, curating information, and presenting it in parsed formats has been relegated to the predictive algorithm and the self-learning scripts, the notion of readership has been reduced to system design and user interface.

I want to invoke the reader, forced into readership, surprised by sin, and sometimes excluded from the libraries that were created more to guard and save information rather than make it democratic, to think about the critical need to unpack the reader in digital humanities. And, I do it through three figures of “the heathen without history,” of “the perverted clerk in an archive” and of “stalker dolphins.”

The Heathen Without History

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in a document titled the “Minutes on Education” argued “that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” For Macaulay, the native heathen was marked as a subject who has a past, but no history, and hence needs to be educated in English to become the middleware for smooth administration. Macaulay’s children became the first instance of what I am calling wetware — a subjectivity that was produced by the bastardised technocracy of colonised governance uniting with the construction of codes and codexes of knowledge making.

Instead of importing the books of the great literates from England to India, and teaching them to read and write and appreciate literature, he taught the heathen to discover her history through the ledger, and the Indian penal code. The independent critical art collective — Raqs media collective in New Delhi, have a wonderful time-looped video installation called “An Unfrozen Archival Afternoon, Unregistered on the Richter Scale.” The installation shows us surveyors — the ledger keepers, the accountants, who were keeping count of the wealth and the resources of the British East India Company. The accounting system was not only meant to codify the domination of the British Empire but also to get the heathen counted. The picture of surveyors in Bengal reminds us that the most dominant genre of knowledge has always been the ledger — the infrastructural trace of information that balances on both sides to maintain a state of equilibrium. The ledger serves, even today, as a metaphor to understand database governance and quota-based affirmative action. The ledger made us intelligible and produced as legible, as those who could count and be counted.

What is also present in this visual is Macaulay’s commitment to train the Indian native to become a pucca sahib, a true honourable British man. And, in the interest of this transformation, Macaulay produced the Indian Penal Code that obsessively sought to regulate the orgiastic practices of the native. He formulated the Unnatural Sexual Acts Law, which criminalised all sexual acts except for those penal-vaginal intercourses that were intended for procreation. It also introduced a series of guidelines on how to curb the homoerotic excesses of the Indian native. One of which was to create boundaries in closed spaces, not allowing for the unclean male bodies to touch each other, thus succumbing to the temptation of the flesh. These boundaries became the blueprint of how much space must be maintained between two men in a close working environment, so that they can concentrate on their work, restrain their libidinal desires, and resist the urge to break into song, dance, and sodomy.

The image loop, as it moves from light to dark, also illustrates the possibility of a homoerotic comraderie that Macaulay imagined in the unsupervised offices of work. It was only once the native was taught to count and be counted, to compute and be computed, and once the native was trained to understand the penal implications of his penile desires, that the native could understand the value of literature and the power of poetry, that invited him to wander lonely as a cloud and chance upon a host of daffodils. In order for genres of scholarly production to come into being, and to imagine the reader as capable of the acts of reading and interpretation, a massive infrastructure of accounting and policing had to come into being. The results of Macaulay’s interventions show to us that the genre of scholarly production is shaped and informed by the intended user in order to control and regulate her and how she makes meanings.

I go back to this history of the intermediary to remember that the reader was never the end point of our learning. The reader is an intermediary moving away from the romantic idealism that seems to have forgotten the history of domination and control, and regulation and gentrification, that have informed the genres and forms of knowledge. 

The Perverted Clerk in an Archive

In his extraordinary 12-minute flashback film titled “Film of Her,” Bill Morrison tells us the story of a clerk at the Library of Congress, whose erotic desires lead to the discovery and preservation of an archive that was almost lost to us. Howard Walls, when he was a teenager in his grandfather’s house, used to sneak down in his pajamas and watch films. Early on in his youth, he saw a woman in a pornographic film and that face became the center of his obsessions and fantasies. When he was employed at the Library of Congress, on one of his stocktaking exercises, he stumbled across an incredible archive. This was an archive of the beginning of cinema. Before 1912, in the USA, moving images on celluloid were not subject to copyright. So, the film distributors and producers would create paper prints of their movies, creating vaults of paper snapshots which would protect their rights.

Howard Walls stumbled across this collection – vault after vault, shelf upon shelf of nearly 2.5 million feet of film preserved on dying, decaying, abandoned paper. And, as Walls looked at this archive, lost and forgotten, he realised that somewhere in there might have been the porn star who had made such an impression on him as a young man. He took it upon himself to recover her from this archive frozen in time and from memories that were forgotten. And, what we have with Morisson is this extraordinary tale, of the copyright clerk. It is a film that is not just about the death and decay of an archive and a man’s libidinal excess bringing it back to life, and winning him an academy award in 1954. It is also a film that is made of rotting celluloid, images that are scratchy, and rendered unintelligible by time and stylistic incoherence. It is a story about archives as external memories, archives as shrouds where information goes to be forgotten, memories as constantly in a state of degeneration, and how it all gets re-animated, resurrected, and remembered, by this one man and his obsession with a porn star. You can be sure that Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay would not have approved.

The archive, now digitized and hence, preserved, needs to be read differently. The archive is not the space that awaits an historian. It awaits a pervert and is animated more by these impulses of the irrational rather than the imperatives of the researcher. Howard Walls, as the perverted clerk, is the typical middleware that challenges the form of the archive, gives it different functions, and defies the intentions and designs of code and codex.

Stalker Dolphins

The third figure I have is of a dolphin called Peter that stalked a woman scientist called Margaret. In the 1950s, John C. Lilly was already spending precious research budgets on having a woman live with a bottlenose dolphin called Peter, in an attempt to break the inter-species communication barrier. It eventually ended with Margaret, the woman who lived over land and water, with Peter, becoming the object of his affection, reaching a point where she was encouraged to physically pleasure peter, producing masturbation as a form of scholarly communication in this prototype cybernetic wetware unit. The story of the woman who lived with dolphins is about an experiment that started as a hoax but eventually came to produce the first order of cybernetics.

However, it is also a story of imagining all our current textual and communication practices as flawed and futile when faced with the idea of a person who does not bear the markings of a reader. The imagination of the dolphin as the intended recipient of our communication might offer a completely different imagination of our writing. The dolphin, for Lilly, was just a figurehead to push the boundaries of cybernetics. If we don’t take Lilly literally, but understand the dolphin as that unimaginable reader who will not be able to make sense of things that we write right now, then we will have to rethink our idea of scholarly publication. Maybe, like Margaret, we will have to go and pleasure our readers in order to communicate. And, our scholarship will have to be informed by and travel through these circuits of perversion and paranoia.

What do I want to propose, through these three examples from Macaulay to Walls to Lilly? Basically this: That the diversity we attribute to our multi-mediated forms, multi-modal interactivity, and multipurpose reader, is false diversity. It pretends to have difference when it actually only identifies the same kind of people across different sections of our society. Our efforts are all devoted toward the middleware as infrastructure. The homogeneity of the intended reader is made invisible by our construction of diversity in middleware. Thinking of the intended reader as middleware suddenly makes us aware that we will have to let go of the ethical idealised imaginary and non-existent subject for whom we write. And, we will have to think afresh — of heathens, perverts and dolphins as representing the true challenges to forms, formats, functions of Humanities in the age of the Digital.

I owe a lot of gratitude to Kavita Phillip, Patrick Svenson, David Theo Goldberg, and the research teams at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, the Hybrid Publishing Lab at the Leuphana University, Lüneburg, and the HumLab at Umea University for opportunities to form, share and critically reiterate the ideas and finding the stories in this blog.

Banner image credit: Jens Schott Knudsen