Digital humanities and the allure of the absurd

Over at MediaCommons, I contributed an answer to a survey on the intersections of digital humanities and media studies. I’m reposting it here:

Multiple stones suspended in a gallery by wire
CC BY NC ND-licensed photo “stones 2” by Flickr user speedoflight_speedoflight. Source

It is, of course, absurd to claim you can capture the richness of human experience in machine-readable data. Human lives are quicksilver, protean, bent and pulled in a thousand different directions. We think and feel, interpret and surmise, hold contradictory notions, revel in paradox. It’s ridiculous to think that a machine, which thinks in binary, can replicate these shades of gray.

And yet. Media scholars know better than anyone that it is equally absurd to attempt to capture human experience in a photographic narrative. Because we understand the photographic image — its trickery, its inherent limitations, the world beyond its frame — we understand how essentially false is any work’s claim to represent “reality” in all its plenitude and contingency. To argue that a work of media is fully representative is to be unforgivably naïve; we know that every work is constructed, no matter how transparent it appears.

But somehow we feel there’s something valiant in the attempt to capture human experience, even in these inadequate media. Writing on Rossellini’s Paisà, Andre Bazin observed that the film’s essential unit is not the shot but the “fact,” one slice of time and space, itself worthy of interpretation and filled with meaning. Paisà is rife with gaps and omissions, but so much the better: “The mind has to leap from one event to the other as one leaps from stone to stone in crossing the river.” The best films are beautiful not because they claim earnestly to represent reality, but because they acknowledge this feat’s impossibility butkeep trying anyway, honoring their viewers by trusting them to make their way from stone to stone.1

There’s a potential for a digital humanities that holds toward data the same vexed, impossible loyalty with which media scholars honor the photographic image. In this version of digital humanities, scholars would view data neither as fully adequate to reality nor as necessarily mendacious, but as one moment, a slice of time and space. The best work would not be the most comprehensive — just as the best films are not the most verismilitudinous — but that which exhibits the most sophistication, the most humanity, in making the leap from fact to narrative.

I don’t think digital humanities is there yet, but I think this is an opportunity for media scholars. This is why I think the best possibilities for the intersection of digital humanities and media studies lie not so much in counting frames or automating facial recognition (though this is interesting in its way) as by bringing to digital humanities the peculiar agony of the media scholar: the belief, simultaneously, that all stories are lies and that there’s truth in their telling.

1 André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of Liberation,” in What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 16-40), 35 and 37.

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