HTNM Lecture — Alan Liu, “Against the Cultural Singularity”



History and Theory of New Media dispatch from BCNM DEs Kate Mattingly (TDPS) and Nicholaus Gutierrez (Rhetoric).

Last Thursday, March 5, Professor Alan Liu of the University of California, Santa Barbara delivered a talk as part of the History and Theory of New Media lecture series. His talk, entitled “Against the Cultural Singularity: Toward a Critical Digital Humanities,” posited a rough framework for how Digital Humanities can maintain its traditional methods of digital making, while at the same time offering a form of cultural critique that borrows from important lineages in the humanities (Frankfurt School, Poststructuralism) in order to engage with the “black box” of contemporary culture. Liu shared early work on his newest project, which seeks to provide a blueprint for moving the humanities toward a larger social vision that can advance, channel, and resist neoliberal society. Seeing these modes of praxis as not necessarily mutually exclusive, Liu is interested in understanding the various institutions that make up contemporary neoliberal life—corporations, hospitals, and, of course, universities—in a way that might harness technology for the purposes of humanities advocacy and civic engagement. Liu began with a quote from Eliel Saarinen, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context––a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan,” that situated his ideas in an architectural metaphor. In other words, institutions can be compared to boxes that overlap and intersect, and Liu’s theory is that the academy stands to learn as much from dominating institutions as vice versa. He cites New Media scholars such as Jussi Parikka and Rita Raley as people who are asking important questions about social change and Liu hopes that digital humanities scholars can attune their work to developing analytical pedagogical tools rather than focusing on changing research or teaching patterns in isolated, “stand alone” approaches. “I aspire to a society that does not subscribe to a cultural singularity,” he said toward the end of his talk, adding: “I don’t build products; I build the people who are building the projects.”

Check out the slideshow below for photos from the event, and stay tuned for video and audio podcasts!


Following up on the question he asked in the title of his 2012 essay “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”, Alan Liu will present early drafts from a book he is writing that imagines a mode of cultural criticism appropriate and native to the digital humanities. His talk focuses on the role of technology in, and between, neoliberalism’s major “knowledge work” institutions (including higher education) as the context in which digital-humanities research and development can be redirected from being primarily instruments of institution work to becoming also ways to act on institutions and their wider social impact. What methodological framework can assist the digital humanities in exploring that context? What kinds of scholarship, projects, and tool-building might constitute a critical digital humanities?

Alan Liu is Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has published books titled Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989); The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (2004); and Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database (2008). Recent essays include “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” (2013), “From Reading to Social Computing” (2013), “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” (2012), “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique” (2012), and “Friending the Past: The Sense of History and Social Computing” (2011). Liu started the Voice of the Shuttle web site for humanities research in 1994. Projects he has directed include the University of California Transliteracies Project on online reading and the RoSE (Research-oriented Social Environment) software project. Liu is founder and co-leader of the advocacy initiative.

The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, this event is free and open to the public.