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New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Eternal Present

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” — the master computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

There’s an interesting piece in Forbes this morning by Anthony Wing Kosner on the Harlem Shake meme, a massively duplicated performance piece which is spreading virally over the web, and which, by now, has probably peaked. Kosner offers a succinct summary of the meme, noting that “ the Harlem Shake meme has a simple form: with the first 30-seconds of the song Harlem Shake by the DJ and producer Baauer in the background, a single person does something in the presence of others (who act as if nothing is happening), and then all of a sudden everyone is doing something together. The sound snippet is divided equally between the electronic tropes of the ‘build up,’ and the ‘bass drop,’ and the juncture between the two is punctuated by a deep, pitch-shifted voice commanding, ‘do the Harlem Shake.’ Unlike the video response parodies for Gangnam Style, Call Me Maybe or Somebody That I Used To Know, making a Harlem Shake requires very little preparation. This is not only because of the short duration, but also because the ‘’something’ that ‘happens’ doesn’t matter. It could be anything.”

Kosner intriguingly links this phenomenon to Douglas Rushkoff’s soon-to-be-released book Present Shock, adding that “before you accuse me of taking this class of 30-second trifles too seriously, consider them in relation to Present Shock, the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Rushkoff [see Kosner's review here.] The book, subtitled When Everything Happens Now, is a follow-up to Alvin Toffler’s 70s touchstone, Future Shock. Where Toffler argued that the pace of change was radically accelerating, Rushkoff finds that time itself has now metastasized to the point that all we can see is the present moment.

This ‘presentism’ effects every corner of our lives from finance to politics to entertainment. And the meme, whether it be an image plastered with ironic type, an animated gif or, as in Harlem Shake, a short video, is the perfect cultural expression of Present Shock. We don’t have time for the five-act play—give me the 30-second video! [. . .] Rushkoff explains, ‘Essentially, this is a presentist society’s equivalent of mass spectacle [ . . .] We don’t have overarching stories that we’re a part of, no national narrative really—just lots of opinions.”

To [an] audience of publishers he made the point that as much as we want to give our audience what they want, the impatience of the readership and the desire for everything to be à la carte, changes the way we now write non-fiction books. Instead of the grand five-act play structure of previous tomes, we have a series of chapters that essentially say the same thing about different topics.

Like a fractal, you can ‘get the picture,’ at any point. And Baauer’s song is just that way. Undoubtably Harlem Shake has sold a bunch of downloads since the meme took off, but most people have only heard the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the tune adds no significant development. Once you get it, that’s all there is.

Rushkoff continues, ‘So something like this stands in for the centralized broadcast spectacle. It’s interactive, in that people actually ‘make’ one of these things. And being in one, or knowing people who are in one, or even just knowing this phenomenon exists ‘when it’s happening’ is a form of connection. In some ways, the brevity of the fad makes it all the more tempting to participate in. It’s going to be over so soon that you want to get in on it before it’s not cool anymore.’”

But this “eternal presentism,” which I agree certainly exists, is certainly not a new concept, and both Rushkoff and Kosner instantly put me in mind of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant vision of the future Alphaville, made way back in 1965. In the 21st century (actually then-contemporary Paris), a master computer, Alpha 60, rules society with an iron hand, and issues dictates which must be followed upon pain of death. Everything is informed by consumerism; genuine emotion is outlawed. A man is executed in a swimming pool spectacle for  the “crime” of weeping when his wife dies; vending machines instruct consumers to insert a coin for some unspecified product, only to receive a token marked simply “thanks” — nothing for something, the hallmark of 21st century imagistic commerce.

In short, everything that both Rushkoff and Posher notes is absolutely true — as Alpha 60 says to private Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is sent from the “outerlands” to destroy the massive computer, ”No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” Lemmy responds, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” Alphaville ends on an optimistic note, with Alpha 60’s destruction, but the present offers us no such panacea; the computers have won. Everything is available online, but no one really wants anything of substance; they just want the latest fads and trends, tailored to their own tastes.

When this happens, we forget what the past has taught us, and thus the future becomes dependent solely upon the fad and whim of the moment, instantly disposable and utterly without consequence. It’s interesting that as Godard has cut down on his output as a filmmaker in recent years, his most recent films have developed a strong link to the past — to the culture of another era, in books, music, art, films — which Godard obviously mourns and celebrates simultaneously. But Godard knows that the past is gone, and irrecoverable, and the future is unknowable; we are all forced to live, whether we like it or not, in the eternal present.

No one remembers the past any more. And that’s precisely the tragedy of the present.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him wdixon1@unl.edu or his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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