Review: Nach Feierabend, Vol. 9, Digital Humanities, 2013

Guest post by Henrike Hoffmann, Binningen, September 2014

In the fall of 2013, the ninth volume of Nach Feierabend. Züricher Jahrbuch für Wissensgeschichte was published as a special issue with a focus on Digital Humanities (DH). Of the ten articles, the first five are regrouped under the heading Digital Humanities; the other five are published in the sections Essays and Lektüren (Reviews).

The first article Verteidigung der Paraphrase by Philipp Theisohn demands a new ‘culture of paraphrasing’, a return to the essay format in humanities publishing. Theisohn argues for a turn away from the ‘culture of footnotes’ as a possible way out of today’s ‘crisis of the humanities’. He pleads for the well-established production of texts and the return of the realisation that the process of thinking is linked to time and place and the reflexion on the questions: What do we know? How do we know? Who knows? Those are, as Theisohn emphasises, the questions that separate the humanities from the natural sciences. Despite all algorithmic calculation and hyperlinks, rhetoric and literary skills will still make the difference between a merely well-informed text and a ‘humanist text’ that fosters real knowledge.

In the next paper Text, Denken und E-Science, Niels-Oliver Walkowski examines the scientific text – especially traditional forms of academic publishing like journal articles or monographs – and asks whether this part of (scientific) communication is still needed in the digital world. He strives for an ‘Organology of Knowledge’ (Bernard Stiegler), which looks at both the technical and the discursive elements of digital knowledge. Moreover he demands ‘self-conscious thinking’. As he sees it, e-sciences are based on a positivistic ideology, which hampers ‘self-conscious thinking’. To be able to think independently, we will have to bring the digital technology to its limits to be able to conquer the new epistemic space – only accessible to thinking – behind it. Therefore the scientific text is not yet superfluous, as long as we do not have new framing organisations of publications comparable to today’s monographs or journals.

Under the title »online first«, Philippe Wampfler draws parallels between the humanities and journalism, because both fields work with texts produced by others to write their own texts. He enumerates the challenges journalists are confronted with in the world of the internet and social media and ascertains an almost complete dissolution of the distance between research, text and the reception of texts. Wampfler puts forward the hypothesis that the humanities have always been a form of social media since they got in touch and interacted with the social environment. Nevertheless, the humanities tend to neglect the potential of social media, and Wampfler asks whether this indicates a general refusal of the humanities to find a new identity. The shift to digital could mean the end of the institutionalised, academic humanities and its reputation system. Hence, Wampfler sees a shifting of the responsibility for content from the established gatekeepers to the users and their personal networks a change the established ‚elites‘ are not very satisfied with.

In Das kleine Digitale, Tobias Hodel addresses the problems arising when using computerised technology. These problems can only be recognised and labelled if researchers critically engage with the new technology, its advantages. By example of Google’s Ngram Viewer Hodel indicates technical, methodological and content-related weaknesses when dealing with large projects in order to introduce his plea for small(er) corpora. Those permit a manageable basis of figures, which can be investigated more deeply and closely related to specific research methods and questions. Moreover, broader semantic fields and historical events can be included in the analyses, resulting in more detailed output. The future of humanistic research will still be about texts, which can be interpreted and worked with in different ways – for example in the form of corpora – which are and have to be reconfigured accordingly.

Finally the text Der Geist des Users by Max Stadler describes how in the 1980s the ‘user’ came into being. Stadler sees the user’s origin in relation with contemporary currents of thinking as a distributed, linked, embodied, visually supported and non-serial process. The invention of the parallel computer replaced older paradigms like the serial von-Neumann-Model. New discoveries in cognitive psychology and a ‘new natural philosophy’ were also important precursors. Very specific instruments were developed for the user – mouse, trackball, GUI, software, etc. – to offer an effective and productive application of thoughts. This ‘situated’, ‘material’ thinking had far-reaching consequences for the meaning of research, of the humanities – and the common imagination of knowledge production.

The first article in the section Essays is written by Omar W. Nasim Was ist historische Epistemologie?. Nasim looks at the relationship between philosophy, science and history. He starts with developments of the 19th century and locates the emergence of historical epistemology in two different places/traditions: in the Austrian-polish context (Ludwig Fleck) and in the French tradition (Comte, Cournot, Rey, Bachelard, Canguilhem, and Foucault), while focusing on the latter for the following explanation. Historical epistemology should not, according to Nasim, judge theories, statements, convictions, practices or ideas, but should show how normative rules permitted their existence. It is therefore a ‘discipline of a second order’ and not a normative undertaking.

The second article Ein digitales Kulturobjekt presents preliminary results of a research project about the influences of digital technologies on knowledge conducted at the University of Lausanne. Nathalie Dietschy, Claire Clivaz und Dominique Vinck look at the “restoration” of a tapestry in the Iglesia del Santuario de la Misericordia by the Spanish painter Elías García Martínez (1858-1934). The ‘failed’ restoration led to the loss of the original work, but created a new object, which was heavily talked about in cyberspace. This case shows among other things how digital visibility changes our knowledge. The high media reception of the work influenced the Google results when searching for the religious motif of the ‘Schmerzenmann’. The authors argue that the massive acquisition of works but also the functional shift of cultural objects became possible due to the democratisation of access to information. The layman is now both observer and simultaneously a creative actor. He or she can intervene in the work’s production as well as in its reception and thus exert influence on established hierarchies and orders of knowledge.

The section Lektüren starts with an article by Alfed Messerli (Neue und neueste Versuche einer allgemeinen Erzähltheorie) in which he reviews two publications: Kultur der Ausrede by Fritz Breithaupt (Suhrkamp 2012) and Albrecht Koschorke’s Wahrheit und Erfindung. Grundzüge einer Allgemeinen Erzähltheorie (Fischer 2012).

The article »Google-Syndrom« is a reprint by the late Peter Haber that was originally published in 2004 (Geschichte und Informatik – Histoire et informatique, vol. 15, pp. 73-90). Haber was one of the leading figures in Swiss digital historiography and died in spring 2013; this text is an early reflection of the coming changes of the information age. Haber opposes the two ordering systems Yahoo (a register made by man) and Google (a full-text search engine). For Haber Google negates any genealogy, discursive order or representation of knowledge. But, according to Haber, knowledge is never neutral, never free of economic, political or cultural influences. Google circumvents the communication systems of the Gutenberg Galaxy, which formed a differentiated network of conventions and control mechanisms in respect of generating, authenticating and distributing knowledge. Of course, Google will always find an answer but there will always be the doubt if the results are really ‘everything’ or if some important information is missing. For Haber Google Search is the experience of a permanent and not escapable absence of knowledge.

In the last article Schlaue Maschinen, Philipp Sarasin uses Haber’s article as a starting point to look back at the critical media science developed by Peter Haber and applies it to recent developments of the internet. According to Sarasin, the core argument of Haber’s critical media science is that the fundamental rules of ‘authentication and contextualisation’ – classical ‘source criticism’ – which developed in the so-called Gutenberg-Galaxy have not lost their relevance when dealing with the internet. But this critical attitude is increasingly difficult to maintain because of (individualised) algorithms like Google’s ‘filter bubble’ and other selection mechanisms and the use of data-mining-techniques (in research as well as in personalised advertising or the surveillance of intelligence services). Sarasin states that Haber’s call for ‘digital source criticism’ has undergone an evil change since the human-being has become the source of an omnipresent digital investigation..

Theisohn, Walkowski and Hodel show with their articles, that the (scholarly) text is not dead but continues to play an important role in the humanities. They do see the advantages of the digital tools at hand, but reflect on the changes these tools bring to the ‘humanities’ and its methodologies, contents and its main medium of communication – the text. Similarly, Wampfler ascertains the importance of the text but demands an active adjustment to the new forms of digital publication. One could ask why the text by Dietschy, Clivaz and Vinck was not included in the part about the Digital Humanities, since it deals also with current problems of the internet and its influences on knowledge production and circulation. In contrast, Stadler’s text focuses on the 1980s without transposing his hypotheses to the present and enlarging it with current questions. It presents, however, an interesting historical reflection which would have fitted well into the Essay section – next to Nasim’s text about historical epistemology. Over all, this volume of Nach Feierabend offers a survey of the different attitudes, doubts and fears, but also hopes and expectations of todays’ humanists when confronted with the digital world, its tools and the changes it brings to their own fields of (humanist) research – although from a slightly conservative angle.

Published on September 24, 2014


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