Digital Humanities: The Ecto-Parasite

Posted by Anirudh Sridhar at Mar 12, 2014 12:00 AM |
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This blog entry, exploring Jacques Derrida's Mochlos can be read in three ways. The numbers below refer to the cells which should be read in the specified order. A.) 1-3-4: This essay views knowledge and the University as a technology and asks whether the Digital Humanities under this framework is unnecessary and elitist. We analyze the elitism through Kants attempts to distinguish the University's duties of truth and action and then find out why Derrida thinks this distinction is impossible to make because of the nature language. B.) 1-2-4: This essay starts off the same way but goes into the devouring margins of the University, whether its possible to safeguard against intrusion if the University is viewed as a language act and flips the question to see if the University is a parasite on the outside world and uses the Digital Humanities in this negotiation of power. It goes further to see if this parasitism is inevitable where there is language. C.) 2-4: This is a subset of the previous essay but stands alone as a commentary on a different kind of effect of capitalism on the University from the one explored in the previous blog.

Scene from The Empire Strikes Back

1.) As the breathing pod opens to show us a scarred skull being covered by a black helmet, we are for the first time in Star Wars reminded that Darth Vader is both human and machine, sick flesh and well metal, temporal visage and permanent facade. Now assume this melancholic disposition as a condition of the University and you immediately have many entry points into Jacques Derrida’s Mochlos which is his meditation on the remains of the University since Kant wrote his Conflict of the Faculties.

If we were to begin at the beginning, then Kant’s pre-inaugural vantage point suggests a natural birth of the University. In the very opening of the Conflict of the Faculties, Kant says of the University,”this is not a bad idea”. Commenting on this seemingly flippant remark, Derrida says “And, with his well-known humor, abridging a more laborious and tortuous story, he pretends to treat this idea as a find, as a happy solution that would have passed through the head of a very imaginative person, as the invention, in sum, of a fairly rational device that some ingenious operator would have sent to the state for a patent”. Just as with Vader, though, there is nothing natural about the nature or origin of the university or its internal structures, which seem to be based on principles, but are actually the effect of non-university agencies, be it the Prussian bureaucracies in the time of Kant or the hyper capitalized society today. The nature of the synthetic origin story, however, goes to a more fundamental level than any social influences, to the technological birth of knowledge and the technology that runs on and runs for knowledge; the University. It is a permanent façade like a screen that has always been invisible to the movie-goer even when it was silver.

On the essence and destination of the Western University, Derrida says it “tries to ponder its essence and its destination in terms of responsibility, with a stable reference to the one idea of knowledge, technology, the state and the nation, up to the very limit at which a memorial gathering of thought makes a sudden sign toward the entirely-other of a terrifying future.” This synthetic vision of the University is essential to achieve a resistant reading of Kant who viewed the University as a largely analytic and non-synthetic (in the chemical and the Kantian sense) entity in its essence and destination. The creation stories of knowledge, from the cave paintings to the printing press to the University are not just incomplete without technology but self-effacing. What do I mean by this? We look to one of Derrida’s modern University responsibilities for the answer. “In the ties of the university to society, in the production, structure, archivization and transmission of knowledges and technology (of knowledge as technologies), in the political stakes of knowledge, in the very idea of knowledge and truth, lies the advent of something entirely other.” (bold mine) We have to now begin to think of knowledge itself as a technology, as a tool to transmit thought efficiently by bundling it, chronologising it and indeed as a technology that re-organizes itself through other technology, sometimes in the form of a University, in order to make its transmission more efficient. Derrida, however, mistakenly proceeds to characterize the techno-political structure of knowledge as a modern condition as having evolved out of the industrial age and evolved past political and juridical ethics. “Given a certain techno-political structure of knowledge, the status, function and destination of the university would no longer stem from the juridical or ethico-political language of responsibility.” Here he makes the case for an observed change in the state-of-affairs so fundamental that the ‘what’ and the ‘to who’ of the University’s responsibility changes.

When the archivization and the transmission of knowledge uniquely and radically changes as a result of a techno-politico-capital agency then the exigent pre-matter in the University attempts to form a discipline to countenance this, not unlike Digital Humanities. If our previous understanding of technology and knowledge remains true, then a discipline called Digital Humanities (which can only be formed by pre-supposing the latter proposition) remains pre-mature, if not misguided. This is a second entry point for the Digital Humanities after the one hypothesized in the last blog entry which involved a propitiation of the humanities to capitalism.

2.) The Conflict of Konigsberg explored the extent to which the modern university is plagued by the influence of capitalism. Although Kant’s writing is animated by external threats he perceives to the University, he refrains from referring to the industrial influences on the University as slurs or view them as a complete disaster. He did not, for instance, fear the influence of competing institutions, social structures, ideas of knowledge and education within the University. Today, however, “there can be very serious competition and border-conflicts between non-university centers of research and university faculties claiming at once to be doing research and transmitting knowledge, to be producing and reproducing knowledge.” These non-academic entities are often placed in the university because certain research styles and practices or even types of research are deemed by the politico-capitalist regime to escape the academic elements of the university. The regime calculates that data banks maybe the best forms of storage and non-scholars, albeit trained in the universities, that become government agents, diplomatic aides and other instruments of power are better users of the data. Suddenly, the scholar is no longer the ideal university researcher, the library is no longer the ideal type of archive and the university loses its centrality. “It feels menaced in certain places around its own body; menaced by the development of the sciences, or, a fortiori, by questions from science and on science; menaced by what it sees as a devouring margin. A singular and unjust menace, it being the constitutive faith of the university that the idea of science is at the basis itself of the university.”

The scene in the breathing pod above is the first time we see Darth Vader in a position of vulnerability as the framing of the shot suggests a murky margin between a normal human and what he has become. He is a host to parasites on his body that perform functions of survival better than he, allowing the world to believe that he is the parasite and the machine is the soul.

Kant, on the other hand, did not accept this and wanted the legitimate and legal power to exclude parasiting. To this, Derrida responds, “Now the possibility of such parasiting appears wherever there is language, which is also to say a public domain, publication, and publicity. Wishing to control parasiting, if not to exclude it, is to misunderstand, at a certain point, the structure of language acts. (If, therefore, as I note in passing, analyses of a deconstructive type have so often had the style of theories of ‘parasitism,’ it is that they too, directly or indirectly, involve university legitimation.)” Here, the University is a language act when he runs it through a hermeneutic treatment and renders it as a system of infinite negotiation and interpretation where the language exists in service of itself. When translated to the University, he explains the inevitability of parasitism by viewing the University itself as a self-serving system that is parasitical on the exteriority which it sanctimoniously claims to resolve. It is interested in self-organization and the curation of power similar to the behavior of language and knowledge itself, meaning that the University, at a philosophical level, occupies the same space as elements it saw as parasitic to it.

This is applicable to the faculties and disciplines as well since they are also language acts. If faculties also acquire the same properties as language, then the Digital Humanities can be seen as merely a form of survivalist self-organization of faculties like the humanities whose margins are threatened in the techno-capitalist regime. It is also the digital curation of power that seeks to re-emerge as the ideal type of archive and, indeed, the ideal technology of knowledge.

3.) Prematurity and being misguided, even if excusable in a tradition that has phrenology and eugenics in its history, are followed by the elitism.

Elitism is observable at an empirical a posteriori level in Kant’s lower faculties[1], especially of the humanities and philosophy, because of the commercial untranslatability and resulting class difference in enrollment. The digital humanities under this lens is therefore a discipline that sustains an even smaller cross-section of society not based on privilege of intellect which celebrates the ability to employ both hemispheres of the brain but the privilege of means. However, it travels deeper than that to a deontological level. The elitism is a necessary and even intentional part of the lower faculties based on Kant’s logic of the University’s duty.

To understand this, you will have to recollect from the previous blog post that Kant thought that the lower faculties should act as opposition parties from the left side of the parliament of learning. In other words, “One would have to imagine today a control exercised by university competence (and, in the last instance, by philosophical competence) over every declaration coming from bureaucrats or subjects representing power directly or indirectly, the dominating forces of the country as well as the forces dominated, insofar as they aspire to power and contribute to political or ideological debate. Nothing would escape it — not a single position adopted in a newspaper or book, on radio or television, in the public pursuit of a career, in the technical administration of knowledge…” You will have to imagine a hypothetical world in which every usage of public knowledge will be subject to the ‘censorship of the faculties’ as Kant puts it. Though this conjures up the image of an almost celestial tyranny, the University in this world remains a force for good because the power of judging is in the ultimate service of truth and the University is stripped of all executive power and means of coercion. “In effect,” Derrida says, “its power is confined to a power-to-think-and-judge, a power-to-say, though not necessarily to say in public, since this would involve an action, an executive power denied the university.” Therefore, the contradiction in existing as the left side of the parliament of learning and not acting is resolved through elitism, through passing judgment in “a reserved, intra-university and quasi-private language, the discourse, precisely, of universal value which is that of philosophy.” When the lower faculties exist, in both a theoretical and consequential silo, in an exclusive and separated condition from the rest, I for one would be very cautious before further inductions.

4.) This brings us to a discussion of the second diagram in this blog, which is the written language itself. It is demonstrative of Derrida’s statement that Kant, in the Conflict of the Faculties, speaks only of language. Kant thinks of a language of “truth and one of action, between one of theoretical statements and one of performatives”. According to speech-act theory, there is an opposition of “performative” and “constative” language. While constatives describe the world, performatives do something in the world.

The first aspect of the diagram is in the final sentence of the third cell which ends in a veiled warning about the Digital Humanities through the example of a performative utterance. The second aspect of the diagram is the last sentence of the second cell, which describes the Digital Humanities in a constative utterance.  Although Kant needs these statements to be separate for the boundary between truth and action, power and reason to be clearly demarcated , Derrida is thoroughly unconvinced that this is the case. This takes us back to Saussure’s linguistic signifiers and the signified. Saussure was very influential on Derrida and expounded the theory that every word and sentence has a shape and an ideational element regardless of the structure. If we go back to examine the last sentence of the second stream, then even though it is merely explaining a state-of-affairs, it sends across a clear message that makes us think of the Digital Humanities in a certain way, making it as much a performative statement as the first.

While Kant strenuously explains the distinction between truth and action by arguing for knowledge against the publication of knowledge, Derrida sweeps it aside and asks where the publication really begins. He says, “Language is an element common to both spheres of responsibility, and one that deprives us of any rigorous distinction between the two spaces that Kant at all costs wanted to dissociate. It is an element that opens a passage to all parasiting and simulacra.” Indeed, the Digital Humanities continue to be parasitic and unnecessary since the University is a language act and a technology.


[1] According to Kant, the lower faculties were split among historical knowledge (history, geography, philology, the humanities and the empirical knowledge of the natural sciences) and pure rational knowledge (pure mathematics, pure philosophy and the sciences)

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