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Digital Masonry

Digital Masonry

May 2, 2007

Jacques-Alain Miller has delivered unto us his thoughts on Google. In case the name does not signify, Jacques-Alain Miller is the son-in-law of the late Jacques Lacan and editor of his posthumously published works. He is not a Google enthusiast. The search engines follows “a totalitarian maxim,” he says. It is the new Big Brother. “It puts everything in its place,” Miller declares, “turning you into the sum of your clicks until the end of time.”

Powerful, then. And yet – hélas! – Google is also “stupid.” It can “scan all the books, plunder all the archives [of] cinema, television, the press, and beyond,” thereby subjecting the universe to “an omniscient gaze, traversing the world, lusting after every little last piece of information about everyone.” But it “is able to codify, but not to decode. It is the word in its brute materiality that it records.” (Read the whole thing here. And for another French complaint about Google, see this earlier column.)

When Miller pontificates, it is, verily, as a pontiff. Besides control of the enigmatic theorists’s literary estate, Miller has inherited Lacan’s mantle as leader of one international current in psychoanalysis. His influence spans several continents. Within the Lacanian movement, he is, so to speak, the analyst of the analysts’ analysts.

He was once also a student of Louis Althusser, whose seminar in Paris during the early 1960s taught apprentice Marxist philosophers not so much to analyze concepts as to “produce” them. Miller was the central figure in a moment of high drama during the era of high structuralism. During Althusser’s seminar, Miller complained that he had been busy producing something he called “metonymic causality” when another student stole it. He wanted his concept returned. (However this conflict was resolved, the real winner had to be any bemused bystander.)

Miller is, then, the past master of a certain mode of intellectual authority – one that has been deeply shaped by (and is ultimately inseparable from) tightly restricted fields of communication and exchange.

Someone once compared the Lacanian movement to a Masonic lodge. There were unpublished texts by the founder that remained more than usually esoteric: they were available in typescript editions of just a few copies, and then only to high-grade initiates.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to that digital flatland of relatively porous discursive borders about which Miller complains now. As well he might. (Resorting to Orwellian overkill is, in this context, probably a symptom of anxiety. There are plenty of reasons to worry and complain about Google, of course. But when you picture a cursor clicking a human face forever, it lacks something in the totalitarian-terror department.)

Yet closer examination of Miller’s pronouncement suggests another possibility. It isn’t just a document in which hierarchical intellectual authority comes to terms with the Web's numbskulled leveling. For the way Miller writes about the experience of using Google is quite revealing -- though not about the search engine itself.

“Our query is without syntax,” declares Miller, “minimal to the extreme; one click ... and bingo! It is a cascade -- the stark white of the query page is suddenly covered in words. The void flips into plenitude, concision to verbosity.... Finding the result that makes sense for you is therefore like looking for a needle in a haystack. Google would be intelligent if it could compute significations. But it can’t.”

In other words, Jacques-Alain Miller has no clue that algorithms determine the sequence of hits you get back from a search. (However intelligent Google might or might not be, the people behind it are quite clearly trying to “compute significations.”) He doesn’t grasp that you can shape a query – give it a syntax – to narrow its focus and heighten its precision. Miller’s complaints are a slightly more sophisticated version of someone typing “Whatever happened to Uncle Fred?” into Google and then feeling bewildered that the printout does not provide an answer.

For an informed contrast to Jacques-Alain Miller’s befuddled indignation, you might turn to Digital History Hacks, a very smart and rewarding blog maintained by William J. Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. (As it happens, I first read about Miller in Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution by one Sherry Turkle. The coincidence is marred by a slip of the signfier: they spell their names differently.)

The mandarin complaint about the new digital order is that it lacks history and substance, existing in a chaotic eternal present – one with no memory and precious little attention span. But a bibliographical guide that Turkel posted in January demonstrates that there is now extensive enough literature to speak of a field of digital history.

The term has a nice ambiguity to it – one that is worth thinking about. One the one hand, it can refer to the ways historians may use new media to do things they’ve always done – prepare archives, publish historiography, and so on. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) is the one handbook that ought to be known to scholars even outside the field of history itself. The full text of it is available for free online from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which also hosts a useful selection of essays on digital history.

But as some of the material gathered there shows, digitalization itself creates opportunities for new kinds of history – and new problems, especially when documents exist in formats that have fallen out of use.

Furthermore, as various forms of information technology become more or more pervasive, it makes sense to begin thinking of another kind of digital history: the history of digitality.
Impressed by the bibliography that Turkel had prepared – and by the point that it now represented a body of work one would need to master in order to do graduate-level work in digital history – I contacted him by e-mail to get more of his thoughts on the field.

“Digital history begins,” he says, “with traditional historical sources represented in digital form on a computer, and with 'born-digital' sources like e-mail, text messages, computer code, video games and digital video. Once you have the proper equipment, these digital sources can be duplicated, stored, accessed, manipulated and transmitted at almost no cost. A box of archival documents can be stored in only one location, has to be consulted in person, can be used by only a few people at a time, and suffers wear as it is used. It is relatively vulnerable to various kinds of disaster. Digital copies of those documents, once created, aren't subject to any of those limitations. For some purposes you really need the originals (e.g., a chemical analysis of ink or paper). For many or most other purposes, you can use digital representations instead. And note that once the chemical analysis is completed, it too becomes a digital representation.”

But that’s just the initial phase, or foundation level, of digital history – the scanning substratum, in effect, in which documents become more readily available. A much more complex set of questions come up as historians face the deeper changes in their work made possible by a wholly different sort of archival space – what Roy Rosenzweig calls the "culture ofabundance" created by digitality.

“He asks us to consider what it would mean to try and write history with an essentially complete archival record,” Turkel told me. “I think that his question is quite deep because up until now we haven't really emphasized the degree to which our discipline has been shaped by information costs. It costs something (in terms of time, money, resources) to learn a language, read a book, visit an archive, take some notes, track down confirming evidence, etc. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to frame projects so that they could actually be completed in a reasonable amount of time, using the availability and accessibility of sources to set limits.”

Reducing information costs in turn changes the whole economy of research – especially during the first phase, when one is framing questions and trying to figure out if they are worth pursuing.

“If you're writing about a relatively famous person,” as Turkel put it, “other historians will expect you to be familiar with what that person wrote, and probably with their correspondence. Obviously, you should also know some of the secondary literature. But if you have access to a complete archival record, you can learn things that might have been almost impossible to discover before. How did your famous person figure in people's dreams, for example? People sometimes write about their dreams in diaries and letters, or even keep dream journals. But say you wanted to know how Darwin figured in the dreams of African people in the late 19th century. You couldn't read one diary at a time, hoping someone had had a dream about him and written it down. With a complete digital archive, you could easily do a keyword search for something like "Darwin NEAR dream" and then filter your results.”
As it happens, I conducted this interview a few weeks before coming across Jacques-Alain Miller’s comments on Google. It seems like synchronicity that Turkel would mention the possibility of digital historians getting involved in the interpretation of dreams (normally a psychoanalyst’s preserve). But for now, it sounds as if most historians are only slightly more savvy about digitality than the Lacanian Freemasons.

“All professional historians have a very clear idea about how to make use of archival and library sources,” Turkel says, “and many work with material culture, too. But I think far fewer have much sense of how search engines work or how to construct queries. Few are familiar with the range of online sources and tools. Very few are able to do things like write scrapers, parsers or spiders.”

(It pays to increase your word power. For a quick look at scraping and parsing, start here. For the role of spiders on the Web, have a look at this.)

“I believe that these kind of techniques will be increasingly important,” says Turkel, “and someday will be taken for granted. I guess I would consider digital history to have arrived as a field when most departments have at least one person who can (and does) offer a course in the subject. Right now, many departments are lucky to have someone who knows how to digitize paper sources or put up web pages.”

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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