On information and the humanities

On information and the humanities

And on amnesic contexts in which certain statements might pass

I’ve been discussing with faculty colleagues a planning document whose first draft stated that information was not a widely recognized topic, or a topic of great interest, in research in the humanities.

It struck me as simply untrue — though of course there are certainly amnesic (to put it politely) contexts in which such a statement might pass.

My own very first scholarly article, published fourteen years ago in Configurations, the journal of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, when I was a first-year M.A. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, was about — modestly, I quote myself — “the discourse of information theory” as “the most potent new appropriation for a digital poetics.” The article is extensively referenced, mostly with work in my own field — so I was hardly way out on a limb, in my field or my discipline, even fourteen years ago. In fact, since it was my writing sample for applications to graduate school in literary studies, and since that process turned out very well for me, we really can’t say that such interests weren’t widely recognized, or beyond the pale in any other way. The fact that today, I agree with almost nothing I argued in that essay doesn’t change this.

Later in the discussion, I suggested this essay by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, who writes, apropos of the valorization of information and information theory in the structuralist moment:

The appeal of poststructural theories within the United States during the 1980s and 1990s owes much to this neglected history. Considering recent university-level efforts to reconceive the humanities in light of digital media, this revisionist history may prove timely.

And so we might ask ourselves, first, what was being taken up in the uptake in the U.S. humanities of French “theory,” if not French theory’s explicit and programmatic interest in the concept of information?

Of course, to remember this history is to also to recall its segmentation by the turn that it took with what we call post-structuralism, which in many ways was a critical turn — critical, that is, of the structuralist valorization of information.

Today’s “digital humanities” appears to be disproportionately attractive to those who were or are uncomfortable with the critical disposition of that turn against structuralism. And to the extent that that discomfort is inarticulate (in younger members of the academic profession), rather than programmatic (as in its older members), then a humanistic interest in information either genuinely appears, or is construed as novel or even unprecedented, when it would more accurately be described not only as routine or mundane, but as a point of intellectual conflict with a very long history in the humanities.

(This description of a Summer 2014 course at Columbia University is at least aware of this history, acknowledging that the digital humanities needs to be situated “in relationship to earlier critical movements — particularly Structuralism and Russian Formalism.”)

Is there reason to hope that a structuralist revival won’t also trigger a revival of the critique of structuralism that subsequently displaced it?

Would you wager anything of real value on that?