History and emotions

A few weeks ago I’ve attended a fascinating conference on emotions and architecture at the The Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Almost all the presentations were really, really good, very informative, well conveyed, nothing really to complain about. I particularly enjoyed Uno Grashoff‘s talk on squatting in the DDR, as he pointed out not only to the uncanny parallels (and contrasts) to the situation in the West, but also, possibly even more importantly, to the margins of freedom in the authoritarian state. It also reminded me of an observation I had some time ago (not being a scholar of the communist regimes) that the late socialist states, in fact, competed against the capitalist ones for their legitimacy in terms of who can provide more/better consumer goods, which seems a bit of a paradox if one thinks about the ideology. Carla Hoetink and Harm Kaal and equally inspiring talk on the architecture of the Dutch parliament and the values behind its design.

Having said that, I could not resist a question, why the organizers decided to label the conference as dealing with emotions and architecture. Admittedly, I did not attend all of the presentations, but these papers which I did listen to, would work just as well if we dropped the “emotion” part. As I said, I think the presentations were well prepared, there was a lot of insight in them, and I genuinely think architecture deserve much more attention from historians and humanities in general. My point is not to bash The Max Plank Institute, the organizers nor scholars presenting, but rather point of to the uncomfortable question: what do those fancy labels actually give us? Apart from funding, of course.

Neither would I discard the importance and relevance of emotions as a historical subject. Not at all, Lucien Febvre‘s works shows very clearly that there is a lot to gain from inquiring into the matter. My concern is rather, that there seem to be a temptation to insert whatever is “hip” at the given moment to all the possible subjects, also those which would do very well without such a package. This critique is not that different from that I wrote about the Digital Humanities. And indeed, to my mind it is the very same phenomenon, namely the urge to “reinvent” history as a discipline, the constant urge to keep it up-to-date. The problem is not new, in the past historians raised questions if, for instance, terms such as the “enlighten absolutism” were not just old wine in new bottles. And some of those discussions have been very fruitful, they have helped scholars to reflect on the validity of the concepts used. After all, history rests on the foundations of words. But there is, am afraid, a very unhelpful and indeed misleading pursuit of modernizing history at any price, with or without making any sense. It seems, that to a large degree it is due to the structural construction of the discipline and the way in which it is funded. However, it is more than just that. Arguably, it has also a lot to do with the contemporary fascination with a constant input, ever-changing content. The criticism of sensationalism in the mass media, the urge to report all the time has been too many to list, but I would assume that the mechanism is not that different (for the philosophical underpinning check Bauman). The very concept that history as a disciple does not change, only the interpretations do, seems to be so much at odds with the current society and its values, that there is a need to rebrand the scholarly enquiries every now and then, even if that has only limited sense. To rephrase Voltaire: if there was no emotional turn, one would have to invent it.

Freud and Historians

All in all, despite the rhetoric in the last years, most historians, just like most scholars in the humanities, are rather wary of genuinely interdisciplinary work. And there are some very good reasons for that, after all Leibniz was the last person to know everything. Franco Moretti put it brutally honest: such a project is often “chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly.”  Having said that, there seem to be a remarkable exception to aversion to use works from outside of the humanities, namely works of Sigmund Freud. When one takes works on collective memory(ies), social identity and such topics, 8 out of 10 works will have reference to concepts of the Austrian psychoanalyst within the first few pages. This applies to many other scholars from the humanities, not just historians.

Of course there is nothing wrong with using Freud’s work, on the contrary, I totally suppor drawing from various fields and enriching our understanding by including multiple points of view. Where I do have a problem with use of Freud is the selectivity of how it is done. I am confident that, if one would write about nationalism without using literature written after Deutsch, then it would not be deemed as academically sound work. Or if you want to write history of the Wilhelmian period, you can’t just ignore the debate on the Sonderweg. If that is the case, why on Earth do we accept that one can simply ignore everything written in psychology on memory after 1939?!

Yes, getting into psychological research on memory is not easy. One needs guidance, not least to know how psychological article are constructed or what the terminology mean. In practice it means that you need help from a psychologist or a PhD student in psychology. And yes it takes time, a lot of time, but if we expect others to acknowledge research in our field, why should we not be doing the same thing?

It is however more than “just” a matter of professional standards or an ethical question, scholars in humanities would genuinely benefit a lot if they dared to venture into the realm of psychology. Reading Wang, Pennebaker and PáezBarber et al. and others one would for instance know that memory don’t exist “out there”, things don’t remember or do stuff, nor is memory a thing. Being aware of those issues would help so much memory studies, which unfortunately too often are way too fuzzy and lack solid foundations (Hirst and Mannier). That does not mean that one have to or even should discard Freud’s conclusions, rather that one should know at least what is the state of the arts and where the possible weaknesses of one’s approach are. And last but not least, how can one be a social scholar if one discards the knowledge about an individual who makes the said collective?

Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities By Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia

Another very interesting article with focuses on a more problematic side of Digital Humanities. In a way it builds up on Richard Grusin‘s argument which I have mentioned before.

For me, the two most important things in the article are: the role how DH plays into current trends in the higher education in USA and Canada, and secondly that it focuses on the literary studies. My impression is that DH is especially suitable for this particular field and is most present in it and thus most papers on DH talk about the literary studies. Which leads to my previous reservation: why do we talk about DH if it is so intimately tied to specific academic fields?

Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Columbia, Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities, Los Angeles Review of Books (MAY 1, 2016)

Finding a way to Digital Humanities

Job searching, writing and sending applications is a very time consuming process, but one still has some time to do things on the side. Apart from reading on some topics, which I haven’t had time to look into while doing my PhD, I have decided to finally get into Digital Humanities (DH). To would be hard to deny that a strong incentive came from the fact, that a lots of job applications now are aimed at this particular field.

Getting into the subject is not an easy task. On one hand, one has seemingly endless amount of articles, lectures on YouTube and books available, on the other it is difficult to find something that would be actually a good starting point for a person not familiar with internal discussions. Ironically, as I later discovered, the problem of abundance is actually one of the core issue in the field.

So now after scratching the surface, I slowly start to grasp what is it all about and why there is such a hype. And unfortunately, at least some of my doubts have been confirmed. But before I get into the critic, let me first say that I do actually think that there is a lot of good things going on in DH and it can truly makes the difference. Secondly, for obvious reasons, I am mostly concerned with the relevance of DH for history and it seems to me that the disciple background actually makes a huge difference. And thirdly, history departments (in general) definitely need more fresh air, including more openness to DH.

The problem I have with DH is the hype that surrounds it (and is at least partly created by some people in the field), at time one can almost think of it as the Promised Land. The thing is there is no new world out there. The more I read, the more I observe, the more I am sure that the hype to a large degree is there to cover the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Digital Humanities is not a new type of science, it is simply familiar one, but equipped with new tools. And no doubt, they do make a huge difference, but they don’t offer completely new field. Looking into some of be best projects in the field helped me to understand it quite clearly. What I’ve realized is that some of the projects are really awesome, but with less hype they would be even more impressive. Secondly, tools used in DH are not suited for every project, that might seem like a truism (and it is), but the unfortunately is not stated clear enough. Especially not while being extremely excited about the endless possibilities of DH. It works very well in some projects, it can be useful in others and it’s not really relevant to other enquiries. As always, start with the research question and then decide on the method, not the other way round.

Why than there is such a hype around DH? I think to a large degree, the answer is rather unsurprising: money. As Richard Jean So pointed out DH can draw a lot of money, moreover it’s a way to boost your career as Andrew Stauffer pointed out. And there is nothing principally wrong with either, the problem is that it creates completely weird sense that somehow humanities are dying out. What struck me the most while reading the first articles and books was the underlying sense of great collapse of the humanities. No one however ever proves that this is the case or actually even defines what he/she means by it. Instead, it is presented as commonly known fact, sometime too obvious even to discuss, but that is simply not the case (Richard Jean So). On the contrary, many evidence point in exactly opposite direction. Arguably, there is need to rethink the way how education system is structured (Sir Ken Robinson and School of Life on that), but the argument popular in DH debate doesn’t really address it, but rather tries to legitimize DH by discrediting humanities general, without actually acknowledging that they are part of this field, even if for now the relationship is tense. Moreover, DH can also be read also in a much darker light, not as a liberalizing movement, but part of a destructive force (Richard Grusin).

Having said that, I still think it is worth exploring DH. One doesn’t have to covert to the new “religion” (sect?), to recognize the benefits it can bring, including the possibility to reach too much broader public and Internet archives just to name the two. So my advice to people who want to get into DH is first of all not to be scared of the vagueness of the field, secondly not to get drawn into the internal wars (“who is in and who is not?”) and thirdly don’t expect to discover the new world. Instead, start small: read some articles, listen to lectures on YouTube, check the leading projects, learn software and think how it can be useful in your field. As I’ve discovered, I’ve been engaging with DH even before I heard the name. As always, labels are of secondary importance.