Excerpts of Alan Liu’s Five Theses

Alan Liu, Five Theses

What is digital knowledge?

For many, therefore, the digital is not primarily a mutation in knowledge. It is a social change. Social-science and other disciplines operating on this premise treat the digital as a phenomenon of “communication” (“ICT”: “information and communication technology”) impacting social practices, institutions, and organizations [example]. Or the digital facilitates political change. Political scientists or sociologists who study the Internet see it as a testing ground for new kinds of organizing, protest, voting, and other virtual realpolitik [example]. Or, again, the digital marks a cultural change. Disciplines such as “new media studies” and “network critique”–extending British, European, and American traditions of cultural criticism–treat the digital as a domain of contested identity, gender, ethnicity, ideology, affect, privacy, and so on [example]. And, yet again, the digital is an economic change. Economists and organization theorists (chorused by business journalists and business consultants) see the digital as a proxy for the postindustrial reorganization of capital [example].

It thus seems clear that a Centre for Digital Knowledge that relies solely on traditional institutional forms–even the now normative “interdisciplinary” form (e.g., a centre that creates weak-tie intersections among faculty in different fields) will be cut off from some of the most robust conceptual and practical adventures of digital knowledge. A key test for the proposed Centre for Digital Knowledge, therefore, will be whether it is willing at least on occasion to accommodate non-standard forms of knowledge organization, production, presentation, exploration, and dissemination acclimated to the digital age or open to its networked ethos. Examples of such forms include “THATcamps” or “unconferences,” writing or coding “sprints,” design “charrettes,” online forums, events planned by non-academic invitees, cross-institutional collaboration (university to high school, university to newspaper, university to corporation, university to NGO, etc.), direct engagement with the public in online or face-to-face venues, and intellectual events planned not just by research faculty but also by teaching-first instructors, clerical staff, and students (to break down the divide between those tiers).

The sciences and social sciences (especially branches of the latter focused on quantitative or empirical research) cleave the orders of data and of argument so that they can be managed separately. Data is channeled through closed or open datasets, databases, repositories, etc.; while argument appears in pre-prints, conference proceedings, and journal publications. This separation allows for the creation, processing, maintenance, and presentation of data as a distinct workflow–one that can acquire independent value and even generate its own research problems (as in recent work on computationally assisted “data provenance” [example, PDF]). Scientific and social-scientific data can thus be presented or otherwise made available autonomously for critical inspection… Humanities discourse has rarely needed to aspire to the same standards for making all its data explicit, shareable, and open to critical examination. “So long as the nature of libraries, books, or reading do not change,” as I put it above, there was no need. But today digital media are rapidly destabilizing the traditional evidentiary structure of the humanities and bringing it closer to that of the sciences.

One of the distinctive features of such projects in the digital age is that the breadth of disciplines involved is homologous with a condition of the digital itself: the fact that the object of study can be mutated into a common digital dataset and transformed into countless permutational views for treatment from different disciplinary angles. Thus there is no one primary discourse of knowledge agents, acts, and styles. Monographic publications written in high style by humanities scholars are on a par with such discourses dominating other disciplines as collaborative conference papers, datasets, prototype demonstrations, etc. Or, more accurately, the dominant discourses of different disciplines each take command at different phases of the overall cycle of knowledge production before receding to let other kinds of discourse dominate–the whole alternating sequence driving the process forward iteratively.

The humanities, in other words, need not think that the discursive flow of “Reading & Research Syllabi & Teaching notes Talks Articles Monographs” is a linear path. Different segments of that traditional agenda can be broken out separately and inserted tactically into other phases of the overall collaborative act of knowledge production where they will have the most value. From the point of view of the humanities themselves, this thesis assumes its most radical form in two propositions. One is that in the digital age humanities scholars should be encouraged to complement their dominant discourse with other kinds of discourse–including challenging collaborative work, difficult and innovative acts of data collection and analysis, and research outputs such as published conference proceedings or online projects that do not sum up in a critical/interpretive monograph. The other proposition is that in the digital age humanities scholars should not be engaging solely in discursive acts at all. Instead, it is already clear in the field of the digital humanities–a leading edge of the humanities’ encounter with digital knowledge–that a gestalt-shift is underway that recasts acts of discourse as acts of “making” and “building.” In the digital humanities, the “epistemology of building”–realized through the building of digital projects, hardware DIY projects, media archaeology labs, etc., and theorized with the aid of such broader intellectual movements as the “new materialism”–is, as they say, a thing.