“I want to understand how [literature] presents different modes of thought, different conceptions of reality, how it both sustains and undermines language as a unifying principle of communication…
I am interested in connections, not only in the intertextual links within one language or tradition but also the interrelationships and influences of languages, literatures, and cultures on each other…
I seek to understand what is indigenous and what is alien, what is other and what is not other, and how these relationships are mediated by languages and cultures.”
My computer tells me that I wrote the sentences above on or about December 9, 2003 as part of a statement of purpose I wrote for graduate school applications. The first thing that strikes me about these statements is their idealism and hope. Looking back, they seem naive: not as goals or orientations, mind you, but the sheer scope of issues I intended to study and explore feels staggering.
My second reaction to these statements is: what happened?
Well, not a lot but also quite a bit.
I have always been animated by questions of the human, by manifestations of the human. Following this drive to understand the human, my first scholarly incarnation was in social science. My undergraduate major was in (combined) history-sociology, which meant I had to gather “contents” from history and place them within the edifice of social theory. This major, now defunct, was perfect for me: it was heavy on learning about history, culture, and theory but quite light on sociological methods (I know there’s something called a Chi square; I also know that, whatever it is, I don’t care). Two important developments here: 1) study abroad at the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales in Buenos Aires, a great deal of social theory, and learning lots of history turned me into a historical materialist (true story); and 2) I did terribly in my sociology senior seminar but aced my Latin American civilization final paper–writing an almost metaphysical paper on Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction. This phase of my development should be called: “When Ontologies Attack Each Other.” Thus, a productive but irreconcilable tension between two distinct ways of understanding and approaching the world living inside my body, stalking each other in my brain.
Then, years later, yes, because it had to happen to most people in the late 90s/early aughts, came the short-lived but rather acute not-quite-Derridean-but-nevertheless-postructuralist moment. Like veganism, it was illuminating but insufferable. This was when I was doing a master’s in English literature, and it inspired me to bring Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble to a thesis on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales. It was very earnest. It had to be, seeing as how that field was heavily New Historicist at that point–and I wasn’t. One might wonder why, with its Marxist legacy, I did not approach Chaucer through New Historicism. It’s not that I didn’t think that literature and history couldn’t work cooperatively to illuminate Chaucer’s England. It’s that I didn’t want to–I ultimately was not that interested in England (how would one become interested in England, I wonder). What preoccupied me was poetry itself and interpretation. So, two key developments from this period: 1) the primacy of the cultural product or artifact, not because it wasn’t embedded in a world and history, but rather because it generates pleasure and wonder, both as received images and ideas as well as an opportunity for the (cognitive) pleasures of interpretation; and 2) learning to read otherwise or against the grain, noticing silences and oddities that for too long were ignored or in some cases edited out of texts.
My engagement with Chaucer led to what I thought at the time was a detour in time. My doctoral work would be about a cultural formation that was in the process of becoming, not a text written long ago. It would matter to current debates about what literature was, what it contributed to philosophy and society, and what it was for (I mean, here, its role in the fashioning of a democratic spirit). It would also not be about novels or prose but rather shorter works (at one point, dramatic literature seemed perfect). Very, very, very long story short: my doctoral dissertation was on the 19th century (but it was almost on the 16th and 17th centuries…); it was on antislavery texts, mostly (though, as it happens, perhaps antislavery/legacies of slavery is current?); and, it was on novels, great, big, voluminous 19th century Latin American novels replete with incest plots (I mean, very serious incest plots or instantiations of doubles). Some of the successes of that era will always be with me: I became an excellent reader, an excellent teacher, and sharpened my sixth sense for identifying the prodigious in culture, from “low” to “high” and back again. For my trouble, I revised two dissertation chapters into two separate articles that I published in major journals (one on the novel Sab, which you can find here, and another on the novel Cecilia Valdés, which you can find here).
But now the detour through history, at long last, finally is over. My intellectual pursuits have joined me in the present, which has brought me both renewal and restlessness. I am filled with scholarly trepidations, which, right now, I am articulating in these ways:
- How are contemporary digital cultural products shaped by and, in turn, reconfigure culture in terms of narrative, imagery, production, and cultural dialogue?
- As social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok evolve, merge, and are destroyed by technological innovation as well as by shifting values and competing social narratives, how does conversation take place in contemporary the U.S. and abroad?
- What does “conversation” even mean in the contemporary public square (digital or otherwise)?
- Amidst the proliferation of voices in print, television, film, and social media, is a conversation still possible? Or, will the growing hubbub of the demos congeal into pure cacophony?
- In the realm of the digital humanities, how does search and the configuration of datasets modify our interactions with technology and texts/images/video/etc.? If we are constantly having to find just the right keywords to get the search results we need or want, are not data and computer systems, following Lacan, speaking through us, delimiting our research in ways that we may not be aware? Are we not the tools (as opposed to search)?
- Finally, who or what is doing the interpretation in digital humanities? What would a computational hermeneutics entail? Where would the humans be? In the code? Code and data seem to be ill representations of the human.
The scope. The scope. That’s the one clear constant: the vertiginous scope. Too much, too complicated.
Let’s wade in.
Wonderful introduction, Javier!! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!