Thinking About “Technologies of Thinking, of Processing, and of Making Distinctions”

My next post on the Open Thread on The Digital Humanities as a Historical “Refuge” From Race/Clas/Gender/Sexuality/Disability. Full context here:

I am interested in connecting Anne Balsamo’s articulation of post-identity social analysis (“queer, feminism, post-colonial thinking, race….aren’t really about identities…but rather about technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions such that the plentitude of what reality is gets ‘processed’ to ‘be’ one thing and NOT another”) to the current debate between David Golumbia and Rafael Alvarado about digital humanities and cultural studies.

I’m approaching this as a cultural historian who spends a lot of time learning from cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, literary studies, and cultural anthropology but is not deeply embedded in any of those worlds.

It strikes me that Anne’s articulation of one way we might think about identity in non-essentialist ways—in place of static identity we shift to understanding it as generated by “technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions”—points toward a fascinating, strange, and intriguing alignment of cultural studies (Anne, is it fair to call your work cultural studies?) and digital humanities around conceptualizations of “technologies” as the means by which power operates. And I mean power here in all its senses: electronic, material, technical, political, epistemological, ontological, historical, economic, ecological, psychological, “biological,” racialized, gendered, classed, normalized, resisted.

“Technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions.” Can we go a bit more into what we mean by “technologies” here? Is “technology” simply a metaphor for talking about cultural logics? Is it a way of referring to “machines” whether abstract or material, Jamesonian or Turingian? Are words such as “tools,” “technologies,” “machines” precise enough for the work we need to do to better understand DH as a refuge, whether that’s a good or bad thing, and for whom and on what terms?

Most of all, what does it mean in the contested spaces of digital humanities to, in some sense, restrict “technologies” to digital operations alone, to the workings of ones and zeroes, bits and bytes, on-off electrical pulsations (this puts me in mind of Tara McPherson’s work on “lenticular logics”)? In other words, I want to know more about what happens when we start to use the concept of “technologies” as a way of thinking about both power in the social sense and power in the epistemological sense. When we come to know things through computers, what different kinds of “technology” are at work?

Another observation and a few musings on it. I fear this is rather abstract (“abstract machine”?) and half-formed but perhaps it is useful:

It seems to me there are really two conversations going on sparked by Roopika and Adeline’s open thread. One is about inclusion and exclusion in the digital humanities (what projects get to count? who does the speaking and what voices must they use or ventriloquize to speak? Who remains silent or silenced, too scared to participate?). The other is about trying to crack open the discourse itself of digital humanities to see what’s going on inside this new, vexing “technology” that has raised so many hopes and hackles in equal measure.

These two matters (inclusion/exclusion and discourse) are, of course, utterly connected. The challenge we face is how to move between the two. On the first count, we must confront the static identities that are present, named or unnamed; how do we confront these and redress the injustices they create? On the second count, we need to grapple with the underlying (overlording?) forces into and out of which those static identities arrive as if fully formed.

The deeper question being debated here, however, is how the surface appearances of identity and the deeper logics producing them/being produced by them interact. And this relationship can perhaps be better understood by grappling more with what we mean when we use the term “technologies.”

For instance, there is a way in which the debates about digital humanities tend to break down into binaries: who’s in? who’s out?; Type I vs. Type II; etc. What I wonder about is whether the digital has intensified thinking in binaries? It’s either binaries or fluidity? Two sides or rhizomes? As a technology at the material level, why is it that digital code asks us, indeed seems to require us, to toggle between either putting things (and people) into binaries or imagining them in endless networks of decentered, fluid entanglements. Is this all we have at our disposal as our “technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions”? What else might we discover, invent, render, produce, foster, join, imagine?

This goes to a deeper issue (“technology”?) haunting the debate here. What are the precise links between the material qualities of the digital and the intellectual/ideological logics of social relations? Is the link direct? Homological? Oppositional? A correlation? A horizon? An organization? Is there no link at all? Is there a hyperlink here?

When we think through binary code, does it render everything around it into binaries of a static nature or can it crack open the world into more fluid possibilities? Do we want that fluidity or not? What would it mean? Is there something else to imagine and enact here in place of either static binaries or endless fluidities?

These are but some queries, some terms for searching more deeply into what the “technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions” are, exactly, when it comes to debating the stakes of digital humanities.


One thought on “Thinking About “Technologies of Thinking, of Processing, and of Making Distinctions”

  1. Very thought-provoking, Michael. I also managed to review some of the dhpoco conversations yesterday, & your thoughts here on Balsamo’s “technologies of thinking, of processing, and of making distinctions” suggest to me a series of ways to address different varieties of technologies and their different kinds of materiality.

    In particular, I’m reminded of the notion of a “technology of the self,” which Foucault articulated and pressed upon toward the end of his life (so, early 80s). It isn’t difficult to find obvious and materialized definitions of “technology” around – you name some of them here, and I was also thinking about earlier technologies including the printed book and the manuscript codex. But Foucault’s “technology of the self,” which harkens back to a idealized technique of classical-era meditation and self-reflection, seems related to the ideological and contemplative possibility that you and Balsamo are gesturing toward here. Foucault saw this notion – and its parallel concept of “askesis” – as a kind of intellectual commitment that sought not to discover, but rather to invent ways of being (this includes the “improbable,” of course, that he mentions specifically in the “Friendship” interview). This would emphasize not a community, but rather the self as the presumably ethical center of humanity.

    This is a haphazard suggestion on my part, but I think Foucault’s fluid use of the word “technology” (uttered in an era when the history of the book was just finding its legs!) may occupy a useful position in this conversation. It’s been remarked that Foucault’s perspective is shortsightedly Eurocentric, so there’s that problem. But one might still usefully engage his notion of invention and “a manner of being that is still improbable” in conjunction with the traditionally-material notion of “technology” in reference to DH practice.

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