“Technology, Colonization and the Humanities: Some Thoughts”
Amit Ray @amitorit
Associate Professor of English
Rochester Institute of Technology
Since becoming institutionalized in the American academy two decades ago, postcolonial studies have helped to undermine the idea of a single, universalized modernity. This has led to revisionist accounts of ostensibly ‘Western’ phenomena. In this way, postcolonialism has provided a better understanding of how these modernist categories, such as the nation-state, or literature, were produced across a network of colonial relations.
And yet, for a variety of reasons, the universalist vessel of the liberal ‘human,’ despite extensive critique from a variety of positions, remains intact. A number of theorists have tried to negotiate this impasse. Postcolonial critics have examined the illiberalism attendant in the work of 1eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers who defined modernity. For Dipesh Chakrabarty the (post)colonial subject of liberalism faces the ‘not yet,’ of historicism, such as when JS Mill dismisses the peoples of Africa and India as ‘not yet’ civilized enough to partake in modernity.
This idea of the ‘not yet’ continues to animate discussions regarding North-South inequities. And one of the key components that facilitates the universality of such categories is communications technology. As in the past, the concept of the citizen-subject continues to be predicated on questions of ‘reading/writing-based’ literacy. However, as we have learned from a number of different fields, technologies are never neutral, their transfer never without powerful political, economic and epistemological ramifications.
In previous work, I have examined the neo-colonial assumptions that have influenced projects such as Access to Knowledge, One Laptop per Child and Wikipedia. All rely upon the kind of historicism that Chakrabarty outlined in Provincializing Europe. Indeed, such technological quick fixes to structural and systemic inequalities are no less frequent inside nation-states as between them.
As we experience the powerful and broad ranging effects of the computational turn in the humanities, we must keep in mind the particularly American qualities of the digital, facilitated by the Internet and computational technologies in which US corporations and the State have vested interests. Considering the recently revealed arrangements between internet hardware and software companies and the State, we need to ask some very difficult questions about DH methods and tools.
Given how computational technologies, like previous media technologies, are deeply shaped by such consumerist and statist impulses, I wonder as to the limits of employing such technologies for projects that challenge neoliberal and imperial hegemonies. I am particularly wary of the neo-colonial implications of a now very heavily commodified maker-ethos of hacking, paired with a kind of code essentialism that (it is argued) is an essential form of literacy: program or be programmed.
And perhaps this is where the alphanumericity of code becomes essentialized just as writing was (and is) essentialized in the universalist modernity of liberalism and liberal democracy. I continue to worry about the legacy of oralities being lost even as I am thrilled at the prospects of intermediation that may bypass the need for writing as we know it.
I think we need to be careful in how we proceed with the maker ethos that animates DH. The maker industry, as we have all become aware, is commercially exploding, with the promise of new materialities brought about by things such as personalized, 3-D printers. We need to be attuned to the subsequent wave of ‘crapjects’ that will accompany this rush of activity. As humanists, how will we historicize and respond to the creative destruction unleashed through our experimentations using ‘disruptive’ technologies.
The rush to build, to fill in ‘new’ territory, to colonize such spaces, has the potential to do tremendous epistemological violence both within and outside of ‘human’ life worlds. The relative affluence of certain members of this species allows them to rapidly constitute their personal experiences. And consumerism encourages them to do so. Feverishly. This (pathological) individualism lies at the core of my critique of what I like to think of as late humanism. And where I find myself moving into questions of the non-human. Or as I have tried to argue elsewhere, ahumanisms.
As suggested by Benjamin Robertson, the problem is not so much with the digital, but with the human. I think postcolonial theory did for the concept of modernity (by making it heterogenous) as digital postcolonialism might do to the human at a moment when, due to our various social and material technologies, those living consumerist, postindustrial lives are, in fact, constituted elsewhere. To paraphrase a whiskey drinking stutterer, “The problem with our history, here in the US, is that it is occurring elsewhere.”
Duplicate, with added emphasis. Think out your questions in advance. Discuss them on the temporary GoogleDoc below. Get to class before 11 if you can. Ian is coming online with us at 11. So come early to begin the discussion.
On Sep 22, 2014, at 1:07 AM, Amit Ray wrote:
Well… we had a weekend of glitches. How’s that for Software Freedom Day! (Cheap shot, ducks!)
No seriously, the culture of Free and Open Source software is mind-blowing. And I want to inhabit most of what it stands for. Simultaneously, I ask questions that are anathema to the very important evangelical zeal tied to many of free software’s signature achievements.
I ask this: Is it too little, too late, in the face of massive appropriations of the public sphere. Is it too little, too late, when we consider that the most powerful nation-state on the planet is nearly two decades into the neoliberal zeal of assuming corporations, the traders, have the expertise to designate what is and isn’t a secret. Having read Galison, you now know this. You have read Kelty, too. And don’t forget, George Saunders. And other things as well, if you have kept track, and can still remember them. We are all tactical amnesia-tics. So use this stub to build, too, memory. Individual. Collective. Re-member, remember?
On Sep 18, 2014, at 9:20 AM, Amit Ray wrote:
Think recursive publics. Hop on the wiki. Play around. 8 years of stuff you might stumble upon. As much of it —save where otherwise stated, is CC, licensed— you can repurpose as you see fit. Muchos gracias to Ross Delinger. If we might form a ‘recursive platforms group’ to meet and discuss and implement better publics, I’ll be part of that group. Today we will begin to build our platform and syllabus. As this is a recursive agenda, we will continue to loop back around, modifying, changing, adding, deleting. But we’ll all be on the same page. But I’ll be part of any of your groups if you ask me nicely and display and willingness to dive into the topic.
As I mentioned in class, Ian Bogost wrote a very provocative piece about Net Neutrality last May. We won’t be discussing it today, but I will ask you to think about certain matters and to prepare for Ian’s tele-transportation into our class next Tuesday. It’s an opportunity to interact with a very important figure who works at the intersection of games, society and technology. Like myself, Ian’s background in philosophy comes from him work in Comparative Literature (where continental philosophy largely resides in the US. The Anglo-American analytic tradition —to which Computer Science owes a tremendous amount— and Continental thought are largely hostile to one another and so Philosophy departments around the country default to their Analytic setting, by and large.
And he has a lovely piece on the Apple Watch and, riffing off of Alvin Toffler’s famous book (“Future Shock”), he describes our “Future Ennui.” You can find it easily, if you look for it.
See you soon. Group exercises today. Let’s flex our publics and publicities.
On Sep 5, 2014, at 8:31 PM, Amit Ray wrote:
The reading for next week is embedded in this post. I think you will be able to find it. Read it carefully. Think about it. Read it again. We’ll discuss Kelty on Tuesday and will begin our discussion of Peter Galison’s “Removing Knowledge” on that day as well.
See you Tuesday,
On Aug 31, 2014, at 9:38 AM, AMIT RAY wrote:
Good morning on this wet Sunday. I trust your weekend is going well.
So I wanted to pass along a few readings and a few instructions.
We’ll start this week by returning to the Matthew Kirschenbaum essay (Software, its a thing) and discussing more specifics of that piece. We’ll then turn to thinking about the concept of ‘publics.’ We’ll read this Chris Kelty piece (attached), an academic paper from the field of cultural anthropology. As this is a scholarly article, it will require your time and careful attention. But the concepts therein will be vital to how we conceive of (and perhaps build) publics of the future.
Finally, perhaps to orient yourself a bit better towards Kelty’s paper, you will want to read the piece I pulled up in class (and which I had not seen before). It’s a short, succinct and thoughtful piece on the concept of ‘public. ’ Thus, it fact, it may help to start with Anil Dash’s essay and then read Kelty’s academic journal article. Here is the link to Dash’s short essay: https://medium.com/message/what-is-public-f33b16d780f9
Looking forward to seeing you all on Tuesday.
Great overview for those who are interested in Thrift’s work. He is a curious figure in academe.
There is increasing interest in practice and performance in cultural geography. Attempts to move beyond issues of representation and re-focus cultural geographic concerns on performativity and bodily practices are linked to the inception of what Nigel Thrift describes as ‘non-representational theory or the theory of practices’ (Thrift 1996, 1997, 2000a, 200b). According to Thrift, the non-representational project is concerned with describing ‘practices, mundane everyday practices that shape the conduct of human beings towards others and themselves in particular sites’ (1997: 142). Rather than obsess over representation and meaning, Thrift contends that non-representational work is concerned with the performative ‘presentations’, ‘showings’ and ‘manifestations’ of everyday life (1997: 142).
While Thrift has profitably drawn on theorists such as Benjamin, Deleuze and de Certeau in an attempt to shed light on the more embodied, intangible aspects of everyday life, broader moves in cultural geography to engage ‘more actively with the heterogeneous entanglements of…
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I wrote this in 2003, after watching the global public sphere fail miserably in putting a stop to (or at very least, delaying) the Iraq War. It’s about The Simpsons. And South Park. And teaching. Amit Ray-Cultural Studies at RIT:USA (2005)
Ten years ago, I read an essay in Critical Inquiry entitled “Removing Knowledge.” In it, Peter Galison, an eminent historian of science and nuclear physicist (since for old guard historians of science, you had to be the latter to be the former) tries to make an educated guess about the scope of secrecy in our present day society–USA circa 2003, 2004. What he manages to convey, with a wink and a nod, is this: what the state makes private through secrecy is what corporations make private through intellectual property. And that for the last few decades, the state has LOOKED TO THE CORPORATIONS to establish legal precedent for this power.
I still don’t know which of these entities is more powerful-corporations or nation-states. Or perhaps we’ve invented a whole new category, the corpor-nation (pun away you clowns.) Corporate inversions are happening everywhere, but they are particularly powerful in this American center of power. And a corporeal inversion occurred a few years ago, as we united citizens may or may not have registered. I mark that moment as a poignant reminder of the self-destruction of these economic and political liberalisms and, more than likely, of the ‘democracies’ such liberalisms have conceived.
I will be using this article in the Fall to begin a discussion about openness. And more importantly, I think, I am using this piece to address closed-ness. Because the ways in which things are closed off are increasingly unlikely to be accessible in and by any kind of public until long after significant decisions–whether they be statecraft, or marketcraft–have already been made. Some will say this is the way it has always been. I don’t know, and can’t know, one way or the other. And this I lament. Sigh.
Remember when the popular parlance for what is happening to our climate was global warming? Remember when Frank Luntz, the GOP strategist, actively worked –successfully– to shift that language towards the more anodyne ‘climate change?’ Remember, remember? Remember how we spent the next 12 years doing hardly anything about it? I think Radiohead (with no little irony) captured it well in 2000, two years before Luntz’s infamous memo to George W. Bush. Journalists perpetuate the work of the agnotologists (look it up) by insisting on the bi-polar character of all conflict and controversy.
(All these things I taught, in real time, are seemingly lost, like tears in the rain.)
Ice age coming
Ice age coming
Let me hear both sides
Let me hear both sides
Let me hear both
Ice age coming
Ice age coming
Throw it on the fire
Throw it on the fire
Throw it on the
…in a talk loaded with one after another. The astonishingly brilliant Lauren Berlant at AAA in 2011: http://supervalentthought.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/berlant-aaa-2011final.pdf
“Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness”
“But fantasy can’t be garbaged in the same way that governmental infrastructures have been: for the state’s legitimacy to continue appearing sovereign and performative, the state finds it still imperative for citizens and denizens not only to appear to consent to the law, the police, and the tax code, but also to harbor the sentimental collective memories of suffering and optimism that maintain the fantasy of the common that still floats the nation form’s promise, even as its material presence, sold off to the highest private bidders, disappoints, defunds, and deserts the mass of the people who rely on it.”
Charging this kid with using a Weapon of Mass Destruction invites blowback. (And we should take note of the tortuous legal definitions and history of the deliberately ill-defined concept of WMD’s.) In what ways are such acts of classification and naming NOT an invitation to escalate? Does this not give incentive to malcontents, whatever their background or intent? Now you too can be on the same footing as a Saddam Hussein or, more recently, a Bashar al-Assad.
This charge of using a WMD strikes me not as threat prevention but, rather, as threat propagation. And, in this sense, charging a 19 year old boy for making a WMD with ingredients that could be bought at any Walmart is a fitting and consistent continuation of this pattern, where militaristic escalation drives both a ‘war on terror,’ as well as defending the security of a ‘homeland.’