Who Is Liu Speaking To?

In “From Reading to Social Computing,” Alan Liu sets forth a vision of social computing as a new locus of academic literary study. To make his case, Liu passes over a wide geography of different academic disciplines, pointing to ideas and methodologies from computing, social sciences and finally literary studies. Liu wants literary scholarship to “take an interest in contemporary social computing” because he believes that it is a place of ongoing “demotically raw, even feral” literary creation and criticism.

Liu argues that social computing is a kind of extension to a “larger circuit of literary activity” unearthed by a post-1960s critical focus on literary roles acting in the periphery of the relationship between documents and their publishers, authors, interpreters, and readers. He leans on the idea of “marginal zones of literary activity” to suggest that a blog’s “blog rolls, track-backs, and other signs of […] communal communications” represent a digital form of literary sociality that warrants further exploration.

Liu seems to essentially propose “a unified field of literary and social communicational study” with the object of blurring the lines between social computing and literary activity insofar as they are “both aspects of a single communicational phenomenon: the contemporary form of the human need to say something well […] to someone else.”

Although Liu is able to clearly articulate the complications of fusing together literary theory and social science methodology for the objective of exploring literary social computing, he dedicates surprisingly little time to explaining how the whole enterprise would benefit literary critics. Liu appears to be mired in the how without adequately explaining the why. He hints at the idea of pedagogical benefits by suggesting that analysis done with a tool called PieSpy of The Merchant of Venice substantially improved the essays that students wrote for his class. He correlates this desirable end with the technological means by mere syntactical juxtaposition, failing to pinpoint precisely how the act of developing  “diagrams of the play’s social networks” lead to a deeper understanding of the play itself.

In fact, his next two anecdotes about a creative reconstruction of The Canterbury Tales using LiveJournal and a reconstruction of Romeo and Juliet using Facebook would suggest that the primary benefit of the technology was not in its inherent technological qualities, but instead in its ability to facilitate a kind of creative criticism. Rather than pay any attention to the playfulness of all three classroom activities, Liu draws attention to the tools that supported them in a way that makes me question the intended audience of the article. He opens with technological terms and metaphors, using the words “circuit” and “transistor” in a way that seems alienating rather than instructive. If the purpose of this article is to persuade literary theorists to get to work on the intersection between literature and social computing, I fear that Liu has instead constructed an opaque wall of jargon that is more focused on what the tools can do than who the tools can serve.

It Is Not The “Digital” But The “Humanities” That Vexes

In “Death of a Discipline,” Golumbia takes up a number of questions concerning the Digital Humanities, each of which stems from a fundamental criticism of the influence that DH has had upon literary studies and critical theory. In particular, Golumbia argues that DH is a political intervention within literary studies with a right-wing bent. Golumbia seems anxious of the potential influence of “cyberlibertarianism” as a perhaps undesirable ideology within literary studies (Golumbia 169). Golumbia also questions the precise utility of DH, asking “why, more than ten years after its advent, we continue to look for transformative possibilities” from it (172). Finally, Golumbia demands that DH “demonstrates its capacity to contribute to literary studies as a project in the humanities” and if it cannot, to “openly proclaim its rejection of [existing literary studies] practices and thus its distance from the discipline itself” (173).

First, although I understand how DH might be perceived as a political intervention in the humanities, I hesitate to call it inherently right-wing. I also am not entirely sure that calling it “right-wing” disqualifies it from participating in the discourse. In short, I am not clear on why Golumbia considers it necessary to identify DH as an”insidiously” right-wing intervention on literary studies. In attempting to defend the “humanities” from the “digital” I find myself more perplexed by the project of the former than the definition of the latter. What exactly are we intending to do here in the Humanities? What is our project? Golumbia insists that the whole project is being compromised by the “digital” without ever identifying what it actually is.

I am similarly unmoved by the suggestion that we should feel concerned over DH’s failure to meet its “transformative” promise after a decade. First, how would one measure whether or not it has been transformative?  Is it fair to assess its success based on what it promised ten years ago when at the time of the article’s publication, the iPhone had only been out for seven years and technology has advanced considerably since then? Further, what should we even consider to be DH?

Finally, I find myself disturbed by the implications of Golumbia’s insistence that DH either declare its purpose or declare its difference. This suggests to me a kind of inflexibility toward the objective of the Humanities, and reflects a kind of anxiety rather than a demand for greater clarity over DH’s purpose.

Works Cited

Golumbia, David. “Death of a Discipline.” D I F F E R E N c E S : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 1.