The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Alexander Galloway




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FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on the one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and, on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”       

I think this is a point with which my second interviewee, Alexander Galloway, and Moretti would find common ground. The two scholars, working on opposite coasts and in different fields, approach their digital work in the humanities in disparate ways. For Galloway, understanding digitality and media objects as critical forms that shape our understanding of, and engagement with, the world is essential for his work in the digital. In this way he is very much a media theorist. Moretti, on the other hand, is more concerned with how the digital can open up new interpretations of older media objects, specifically literature. Taken together, these two scholars epitomize what this series on the digital in the humanities as it currently exists in the US academy is fundamentally about. Through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics of the field’s impact on humanistic inquiry, these interviews will uncover some surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement. But at its heart, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and this intersection’s impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

Galloway has strong opinions on each of these topics that stem from his experience as both media critic and programmer. As a professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and the author of numerous academic texts including Protocol (2004), Gaming (2006), and The Interface Effect (2012), Galloway is very much within institutionalized academia. But as a self-proclaimed hacker and the creator of Carnivore, a data surveillance Processing library, Galloway is also outside of the academy’s ivory tower. He is both knowledgeable insider and rebellious outcast. It is this tension that drew me to his work in the first place, specifically his jointly authored The Exploit (2007) with Eugene Thacker, a text that explores the inherent and uneven political implications of networks, from war and viruses to multiplayer online gaming. This contrast of critic vs. creator is also present in each of his answers for this interview, thereby opening up what can be considered digital work within the humanities.

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MELISSA DINSMAN: How did you first come to enter what, at this point, I am broadly going to call the “digital” field?

ALEXANDER GALLOWAY: I was first exposed to computers as a young person, but I really started working in the field in the fall of 1996, when I started as an intern at Rhizome.org, a nonprofit devoted to arts and technology. I stayed at Rhizome for six years, working as an editor and technical director. I also worked in the dot-com world in various capacities. But it was my work at Rhizome that was the most formative for me in terms of learning how to code, and also in terms of thinking about digitality specifically in an art and culture context.

So then how did this work at Rhizome impact your progression through graduate school? Were you in graduate school and at Rhizome at the same time?

Yes, working part time at Rhizome was a part of what I did while in graduate school. I have always followed a kind of parallel track approach where I pursue hands-on, applied work while also doing traditional, critical work. I’m not saying this is a formula everyone should follow, but it is a formula that I found to be useful — although it’s admittedly a huge challenge. We have a two-culture problem: the humanities and the sciences have been connected and disconnected in various ways for a long time, and it is a lot to demand of a student (or anyone) to say “be good in both of these areas.” I think the digital humanities, when done well, does require such competency. My approach has been not to reduce one to the other, or to create some kind of hybrid; my approach has been parallel, where I attempt to do both well but not necessarily together.

You have already started to answer my next question, which pertains to the role of the digital in your humanities work. Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities” work? And do you care?

I definitely don’t care. I felt very much involved in the digital world before digital humanities came on the scene. When it happened, digital humanities for me seemed like a reboot of some of the things that had been happening in information science and library schools years earlier. I feel as if I am doing digital work but not really digital humanities. But I have the luxury of not needing to care. In my reading of it, DH started in English, comparative literature, and language departments. My degree is technically in literature, but I work in a media studies program. I basically studied theory in graduate school, not literature, so I was never in the pressure-cooker environment that English and language departments have vis-à-vis jobs and what counts as research. I mean what more can you really say about Shakespeare today? There isn’t a whole lot. But if you start counting words, then maybe there is something new you can say. You see this frequently in very old, extremely erudite, well-established disciplines where there is very little territory left in which to do research. I think DH has opened up a new territory. It has allowed people to find a new space. But the work is often misguided. I have always loved the old joke about DH that it is for old professors who don’t understand computers and young professors who don’t understand hermeneutics. In reality this seems to be the root of the miscommunication and all the arguments and squabbling that happens. Some people are committed to traditional hermeneutic models and feel threatened by computers, while others are real gearheads and want to crank things through their machines and produce data. I may be stacking the deck in describing the relationship in these terms, but ultimately neither extreme will work. Perhaps we need both approaches. We need people who understand hermeneutics, theories of representation, and theories of ideology, but who also understand symbolic systems and what it means to say that there is a form of writing that is executable. It’s a different way of thinking about writing and language.

In that way, your work with the digital seems more unified to your critical work than for others. For example, Moretti describes his DH work as largely separate from his more traditional literary studies on the novel.

To the extent that we can define DH very narrowly as using computers to reveal new knowledge, I have indeed worked in DH. For example, I have worked a lot on a game that Guy Debord created in the 1970s. Part of the evidence I use in my critique of the game was only revealed to me after I translated Debord’s off-line game into software. Here, the software gave me new knowledge. The code provided little pieces of information, allowing me to unravel the mystery of the game. And these were all things that I wouldn’t have found as a mere reader or player. I have also worked on the 1953 experiments of the Italian-Norwegian mathematician Nils Aall Barricelli, which I recreated today using computer code. Doing so allowed me to discover things about his work that would have never been available to me otherwise. I feel like I am not really a DH flag-waver, but I can see the value in using code to reveal new knowledge.

Even though you are not a “DH flag-waver,” I am wondering if you think there are any digital or media subfields that yield, or will yield, the most benefit to the humanities and why?

As I said, I do think we are faced with a two-cultures problem, and part of why I get frustrated with main-line digital humanities is that this problem is seldom addressed directly. There is one approach, which investigates the nature of letters and numbers, and there is another approach, which focuses on the use of letters and numbers for other ends. I think most of DH has been the latter. And, while this may be slightly unfair to DH, I do think there is a fundamental difference in method and really maybe even in culture or epistemological framing (which of course doesn’t preclude interesting mixtures and hybrids). And, of course, there are a lot of interesting people working in the field who don’t fall into this trap. I fully acknowledge this. To flesh this out a little more, I think the first approach comes out of a fundamentally modern stance that seeks to reveal “the conditions of possibility” for digitality if not symbolic systems as a whole. And, incidentally, this first approach tends to be much more historical, which is also a characteristically modern impulse, whereas the second approach tends to be more pragmatic and, one might also say, scientific. The former aims to determine the specific nature of digitality, whereas the latter aims to use digitality as a vehicle. The second approach doesn’t really care about modernity’s fundamental question as to the condition of knowledge; what it cares about is the relative obscurity or transparency of letters and numbers. So if the first approach is essentially modern, then the second is, shall we say, medieval! The second approach asks if there is a hidden or obscure detail of a text that only an algorithm can uncover. It is a kind of hermeneutics, I guess, only in reverse. Ultimately it comes down to this: if you count words in Moby-Dick, are you going to learn more about the white whale? I think you probably can — and we have to acknowledge that. But you won’t learn anything new about counting. That’s the difference between the two approaches, and I think a lot of the misunderstanding between the two methods (or cultures) of working with digitality is due to this difference.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

Well the old cliché from the first internet boom was that if you wanted a mediocre job at a dot-com, study computer science, but if you wanted to run the company, study semiotics. At the time an astounding number of people in the dot-com scene had studied under Donna Haraway, or written their thesis on Roland Barthes. And this is still true today. Remember the old chestnut about the humanities contributing to the formation of critical thinking skills and to the understanding of history and culture, or remember even the now passé idea of cultivating a kind of moral sensibility, that literature is a way to experience empathy and to view the world from a perspective that is not one’s own — all of these things are still true. And the whole idea that the humanities are in decline is simply false. Contrary to popular wisdom, humanities departments routinely cross-subsidize other parts of the university. Enrollment is huge in the humanities. For example my department at NYU is one of the largest in the school in terms of student enrollment (which translates to tuition dollars). When people question the relevance of the humanities they are often masking other goals and intentions. Still, the humanities needs to do a better job acknowledging digital literacy as part of their core competency. Even today, in language and literature departments, computer languages are not considered viable to the same degree as natural languages. Of course there are complex social and cultural reasons for privileging natural languages over machine languages, but in general the humanities needs to stop thinking of computation as an entirely foreign domain, and instead consider computers to be at the heart of what they have always done, that is, to understand society and culture as a technical and symbolic system.

This next question is geared more toward reflecting on the digital humanities, but I think we can also think about the broader implications this might have in advocating for digital and media literacies. The question stems from a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” in which media scholar Richard Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education.” I like Grusin’s work, but do you think the comparison he is making here has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

I like Grusin’s work as well. I contributed to a special issue of a journal on this “dark side” of DH that you mention, so I am sympathetic to more strident criticisms of the digital humanities. However, I’m not sure that there is a conspiracy between neoliberalism and DH, given that they are such different undertakings. The overhaul of higher education under neoliberalism is a complex process and there are many allies (or allies of convenience) that have formed. What I suspect Grusin is saying is that, in some ways, the digital humanities is one of these allies of convenience. At the very least we can itemize superficial similarities. There is obviously an interest in data-driven knowledge. Maybe we can talk about mechanical methods versus critical methods. And maybe there is a superficial relationship around efficiency, expediency, and the privileging of a mechanical logic or rationality over subjective rationality. But no, I don’t think there is a conspiracy between the digital humanities and neoliberalism.

When speaking with Franco Moretti last month, he spoke of the collaboration required in DH as being antithetical to neoliberalism. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this. Is neoliberalism about the individual and not the group?

I see how that would work on paper: the neoliberal mantra that there is no society or group. But this is a tenuous connection at best. Collaboration and network-formation are bread-and-butter techniques within neoliberalism, whether in higher education or elsewhere. Just look at the way in which grant proposals and funding opportunities are built around interdisciplinary and network-forming scholarship. And DH often tends to push research methods borrowed from the sciences, which have always privileged teams. DH promotes collaboration, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it escapes dynamics of power or political economy. Let’s not forget that these are extremely hierarchical teams, teams where graduate students are often used as cheap labor, and where a primary investigator always gets his name at the top of the list even if he didn’t do most of the work. One shouldn’t glamorize the group research model in higher education. Still, such political economy questions notwithstanding, DH does indeed force us to broach the question of collaboration. Making a digital project is a lot less like writing a monograph and much more like making an independent film. For DH projects, like film, one typically requires a small team of people with various specialties. So, for practical reasons at least, the model of the sole researcher might not be entirely viable.

In thinking about DH grants, you seem to be suggesting that neoliberalism in universities in part has to do with funding structures, and of course to put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

I have an idiosyncratic position on this so I take it with a grain of salt. But I’m not sure funding is the key issue. There are some projects that need a lot of money, and there are others that don’t. I have made both types. There do seem to be a fair number of new grants that have been created for the digital humanities. But I want to reiterate that there is a real danger of industrializing the humanities and forcing a science-research lab model. These grants can sometimes have that effect.

So you seem to be thinking about space and funding together, and that leads to my question about physical location. Despite its reliance on online platforms, much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — namely does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship, and what does this say about its future role in the university?

The question of facilities, funding, and labs has always been a tricky problem. Early on, there seemed to be a sort of arms race where everybody thought they had to have a computer lab. And classrooms had to be computerized as well. This introduces new financial challenges, because technology goes obsolete so quickly. So even if you staff and stock the greatest computer lab ever built, in three years time it will need to be restocked. When I first got hired at NYU, I helped build a media lab; since then my colleagues have built newer, better, and more interesting labs. But, we have also started to switch to a different approach — a lab-less approach. The idea is that we’re at a critical mass in terms of consumer electronics, and most students already have laptops or have easy access to them. So we rely instead on the students’ laptops and not on a special lab or room. And we use free and open-source software tools to teach students to code. This has worked really well. It’s an ad hoc approach that has a lot of flexibility.

I want to stay on this question a little longer, because you are speaking about a lab-less environment for teaching, but in terms of doing more digitally intense work, and by this I mean digital research that requires expertise in multiple areas, do you think this work needs to stay physically in departments or be moved to a more central location, like libraries?

A legitimate question, yes. I have never worked in those environments, but there are certainly projects that need intense levels of computing power. And there are also massive projects (like digitization) that require a lot of hardware and thus require more physical space. I come out of the hacker ethos, which says if you can’t accomplish it in 15 minutes on your laptop, it is not worth doing!

You have already talked quite a bit about coding, but I’d like to return quickly to the question of DH students needing to learn computer languages. In the past there has been a line drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and, if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

Would you trust a book on the French Revolution written by a scholar who didn’t read French? It’s a legitimate question. I’m sure there are brilliant lunar geologists who have never been to the moon. But I maintain that one must learn one’s materials — including computation and coding — in order to be competent in DH. Computer languages might not have the deep history that natural languages have, and they might not have the same kind of cultural depth that natural languages have. But in terms of relevance in contemporary life, in terms of a rich analytical and critical context, machine languages are just as fascinating as natural languages. Of course there’s the question of which language one ought to learn. For language requirements in digital literacy, one might not simply master Ruby or Python but instead master three or even four languages. It’s less important to master the specific syntax of a single computer language than it is to understand certain fundamental concepts that many languages share, concepts like variables, iteration, and subroutines.

My last few questions have to do with public understanding of the digital in the humanities. To start off, I’d like to know how you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)? For example, if you are sitting on a plane and someone asks you what you do for a living, and you then explain your work in the digital, how do they usually respond? Are they engaged or are you the recipient of a blank stare?

Well academics always get a blank stare when posed that question, and usually the questioner is a friend or relation! In seriousness, perhaps if we look at this issue from a slightly different point of view, the answer will be more revealing. Honestly, the general public understands the digital better than the average university professor. Consider the way in which hacking and tinkering have become today’s folk culture. We’ve just been talking about the distinction between programmers and non-programmers. But it’s not that simple. Show me a really good gamer, and I will show you a programmer — any good gamer already knows how to construct and manipulate complex symbolic systems, and this is essentially how programming works. That one thing has a more visual interface and the other thing has a more textual interface is a minor detail. Or consider contemporary art, specifically post-internet artists, who are constantly being scooped and upstaged by everyday people posting things to YouTube. I suspect digital humanists could learn a great deal from today’s vernacular digital culture.

In the past, we have thought of pubic knowledge being in part distributed via the public intellectual, but you seem to be presenting a very different bottom-up theory when it comes to the digital. Of course many have bemoaned the decline of public intellectualism, including Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times as recently as last year. How does public intellectualism relate to the digital humanities? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

Lamenting the decline of the public intellectual is a time-honored tradition, particularly among intellectuals themselves. If you mean the American context in particular, let’s be honest, we don’t have public intellectuals in the US. There just aren’t very many of them. Intellectuals have never really been valued in the US, so they’ve always had to rationalize their existence (by becoming pundits, or pop philosophers, or what have you). I don’t think digital humanities is going to change that. And I don’t think digital humanities is going to give us any kind of bridge between academia (the ivory tower) and the larger general public. Cultural conservatives in particular tend to bemoan the decline of the public intellectual, from Julien Benda to the present day.

So do you think then that Europe has a very different tradition?

I was in Paris unfortunately during the November 13 attacks, and afterward, as part of their coverage, Le Monde ran a two-page spread of interviews with philosophers. Can you imagine The New York Times running a two-page spread of interviews with Michael Hardt and Judith Butler? It would never happen. I don’t want to glamorize the European model, which has its own problems with class and privilege, but the American model has never been similar. It goes back to the founding of the country. We are a practical, pragmatic culture. For better or worse this has colored some of our more lofty aspirations.

During my interview with Moretti, he pointed out to me — and he was right — that all my questions focus on the future of the digital in the humanities. Perhaps it’s a sign of my own optimism or perhaps it reflects a certain anticipatory tone that is used in media and DH circles. My last question, however, is going to ask that you look backwards and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

My sense of digital research is a little different, but here are some accomplishments. First, we have a much better sense of the deep history of digitality, pushing back against the notion that digitality is a late 20th-century phenomenon. Scholars are examining the alphabet itself as digital. Others are considering the algorithmic quality of weaving, mosaics, and automata that go back to the 18th century if not earlier. Second, we have a much better sense of how letters and numbers work in culture and society. In the postwar period we have been able to cultivate a rich sense of the semiotic and textual component of letters and numbers. In recent years this has been supplemented by machinic textuality, or the way in which letters and numbers are machinic as well as semiotic (that is, action bound and not just meaning bound). Third, and this is perhaps the thing that mainline DH has done most poorly, but that others in media theory have taken up, is the ability to recognize and critique the specificities of the contemporary configuration of society and politics. I am thinking here of rhizomatics, horizontality, black boxes, capture, or procedurality. People have also written on the important role that difference plays within digitality. I have written a lot on networks and protocological organization and how that form of management is substantially different from bureaucracy and other forms of social organization. The last thing, and this is very idiosyncratic, is that there is also an increased understanding of the way digitality works within philosophy and particularly ontology, the subdomain of philosophy that examines being. By seeing how the digital operates within ontology, and by trying to outline what a non-digital ontology might look like, we can explore a way of thinking that is not reducible to the digital framework.

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Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).



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