In-Between… Whatever That Means

Over my last couple of years as a graduate student (consumed by the ambiguity and paradox championed by the postructuralists and what these meant for Canadian postmodernism), and even more recently in my classes here, I’ve been caught “in-between” ideas. My “Affect Theory” class in particular presented me with The Affect Theory Reader (2010), which defines its subject as “aris[ing] in the midst of in-between-ness (1; not my emphasis). The question of in between what is constantly changing, depending on who’s arguing and what they’re arguing, but while the concept of in-between-ness promotes vagueness, I can’t help but find that the most productive work is often found within the parameters of this loosely-defined limbo.

I’m thinking back to our discussion this past week, specifically with respect to Stephen Ramsay and his apparent difficulty in choosing a stance on structuralism/poststructuralism in Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (2011). Professor Quamen voiced his frustrations on the matter while providing a comprehensive visual aid, which went something like (or exactly like, since I copied it) this:

Structuralism               |             Poststructuralism

Text                             |             Reading

“Deep” structure         |

Formalism                   |

Algorithm (my addition)

While I completely agree with Professor Quamen that Ramsay could have done a better job to establish his position in dealing with these two critical perspectives, I do side with the creation of a “space” between the two which allows for scholarly productivity.

Binary oppositions such as this one, if we take into account our own class discussions, clearly foster positive conversations. Considering our general agreement that we need both close and distant reading in our varied analyses and that both the “Big Tent” and narrow definitions of Digital Humanities have their merits, “in-between-ness” seems to sound less silly than its initial vagueness suggests. Of course, this vagueness represents the danger for us scholars: you can be judged as wrong or right if you take a specific stance on one end of the opposition or the other, but the act of playing in the middle warrants attacks on the grounds that you have no idea what you’re doing altogether and are simply strategically playing both sides. Maybe that’s okay, though? Maybe “algorithmic criticism” is a way to shift these possible “attacks” unto the “computing” element of humanistic computing, or Digital Humanities? Hmm…

Regardless, what I would like to read, and maybe I will with people like Jockers coming up soon in our readings, is an assertive stance “in-between” the opposed arguments, in the realm of possibilities. To use the maritime metaphor that my Acadian soul won’t let me deny: I would like to see a digital humanist purposefully place himself in the eye of the storm and say “these are the conflicts of today, but what both sides are missing out on is the view that I have here, in the middle of the battlefield, flashing sword to my left and battered shield to my right.”

Moretti’s nonchalant position there, in-between, and Ramsay’s confused one represent a start, but let’s have a brave soul deliberately put his or herself in no man’s land and come back with a token of veracity that we can all respect.

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7 thoughts on “In-Between… Whatever That Means

  1. I like your maritime metaphor, and I agree with you that it seems so far in our readings to be that the digital humanists (that we have discussed) who do not “pick a side” are either deliberately nonchalant/noncommittal about it, or cautiously validating both sides and their ability to work in harmony. I concur, there’s a strong case to be made for “both and neither”, which I think crops up in some of the more theory-heavy articles we have read such as Jamie “Skye” Bianco and Lisa Spiro’s critiques of current digital humanities praxis. I’m still working this out in my head (and a blog post) … but I feel there are definite links between the binary oppositions as they crop up in DH attitudes and the constructed opposites of paranoid reading vs reparative reading in affect theory.

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  2. Ariel: I’m also trying to work this out in my head (this blog post itself is trying to work out something, wrestling with itself). I’m glad you bring up paranoid reading versus reparative reading–it had slipped my mind and is an important point to make/example to show when considering these binaries. Looking forward to reading your post!

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  3. Viewed as part of a network, a binary relationship is just one pair of nodes within a sprawling polygon that allows for many angles of debate beyond 180-degree poles. Perhaps the DH discourse, in its angles on itself, is reflecting the shape of its own theories and objects of study.

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      • And the answers themselves, when they are finally “needed,” will create divisions, binary camps within the network, as Kevin suggests, and thus more space and more questions and more more, which is great. I’m with you: in-betweenness is a strength, not a weakness. How can we expect answers from a field that’s still defining itself?

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  4. Nice Maritime metaphor there, Matt! I’d like to think that even though our DH class isn’t in the middle of the storm, we are still causing some waves on the side.
    I think the struggle that we see in these authors to take a definite position is also part of the Digital Humanities’s anxiety about defining itself. To define something is by necessity to put it in one category or another, but what if all the existing categories fall short? That might be the reason why academics in this field are so hesitant to commit to one or the other and oscillate between binaries. In my view, there is really no need to define DH in stone right now, and I don’t think we CAN actually define it. To borrow a phrase coined by Nike, “Just do it!”In this case, doing means building things, and theorizing as well.

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