Revisioning Argument?: Notes on “Theory in the Machine”

In her recent talk at Georgia Institute of Technology (February 13, 2013), entitled “Theory in the Machine: Or a Feminist in the Software Lab,” Tara McPherson described how she came to the digital humanities, her work as a founding editor of Vectors, and her current involvement in the development of Scalar, “a semantic web authoring tool that brings a considered balance between standardization and structural flexibility to all kinds of material.” McPherson prefaced her presentation with the disclaimer that it would not be deeply theoretical. Nonetheless, the talk was informative, introducing a variety of exciting new digital approaches to scholarship, and providing a wide variety of jumping off points for further inquiry.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user FilPho
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user FilPhoto]
One aspect of McPherson’s talk that was particularly irksome, however, were common variations on the theme of “revisiting scholarly argument.”  From the perspective of screen theory, McPherson spoke about the possibility of “playing an argument like a video game,” or “watching an argument like a film.”  She talked about “refracting arguments through multi-modal lenses,” and adopting a non-linear approach. What I would like to claim here is that McPherson’s use of the term ‘argument,’ betrays a lack of clarity about what an argument is and, consequently, a failure to recognize that what is being proposed by many projects in the digital humanities is not a new approach to argument, but rather something else, a return to an old form of expression, namely the mythic.

Myth is primordial and originary. In the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him” (Levi-Strauss 1978, 3).  In contrast to philosophical thinking, which begins by assuming a difference between the knower and a thing to be known, Ernst Cassirer argues that myth is a function that makes abstract objective thought possible, but in a way that is in itself unmotivated either metaphysically – as if thought served to mirror some pre-existing reality – or psychologically – as a mirror of subjective psychic states or as a response to some set of pre-existing drives. In myth it is “Language itself [that] initiates such articulations and develops them in its own sphere” (Cassirer 1946, 12). The basis of mythological thought is metaphor, or the transmutation of one cognitive or emotional experience into a medium that is foreign to that experience (87). Mythical thought is not representational. It is a function by which relationships between experiences are spontaneously generated in such a way that allows those experiences to come into view. Mythological thought does not bear any relation to reality. It opens up reality, makes reality possible. It totalizes the world because it is the world.

Myth is not argument. Instead, as a mode of cognition and the distinguishing feature of Western philosophy, argumentation emerged and has persisted under a very particular (albeit long-lasting) set of conditions. First, as Marshall McLuhan observed, the written phonetic word is a crucial precondition for the emergence of philosophy. On the one hand, the phonetic alphabet served to sever the mythological identity of word and thing, thereby making it possible to map real relationships through conventional representation. On the other hand, the written word favors linear modes of deductive reasoning in a way that pictographs and strict orality do not, and that is actually alien to our lived experience of consciousness. Prior to widespread phonetic literacy, mythological thought, or what McLuhan also calls “tribal consciousness,” takes place as “an instant vision of a complex process (McLuhan 1964, 38), the communication of a tangled web of emotions and feelings (59) using metaphors meant to produce an effect rather than convey a meaning (85). With the advent of linear-sequential thinking, however, it becomes possible to map the world and determine causal relationships that allow for the prediction and control of the natural world and the progressive rationalization of the social world through the establishment of stable social institutions. With the development of electronic and digital communications technologies in the twentieth century, however, McLuhan insists that our experience is being fundamentally reshaped once again, that the increasing instantaneity made possible by electronic communication marks a return to mythical experience, but in a way that is at odds with institutions that emerged as a result of, and are therefore strongly committed to, discursive thought: “In the mechanical age now receding, many actions could be taken without too much concern. Slow movement insured that the reactions were delayed for considerable periods of time. Today the action and the reaction occur almost at the same time. We actually live mythically and integrally, as it were, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age” (20).

Work in the digital humanities, like that of McPherson, is exciting in so far as it is perhaps helping us to reconcile our mythic lives to scholarly modes of thought.  Put differently, revisioning standard forms of scholarly presentation might more accurately reflect the way we live the world. On the other hand, however, my fear is that the claim to ‘rethink argumentation’ may reveal a lack of reflection upon the modes of cognition and consciousness that the digital humanities claim to call into question.  More importantly, misunderstanding the history and character of argumentation is perhaps a symptom of a lack of reflection about the modes of consciousness that some work in the digital humanities are promoting.  Under the auspices of criticism, it is possible that these alternative modes of presentation may actually represent an uncritical embrace of our contemporary digital tribalism and, to that extent, function to promote and legitimate the status quo rather than call it into question.

From the perspective of teaching with technology, this can serve as a reminder of the fact that we, as teachers, are not merely shaping our students’ knowledge, but also the modes of cognition through which that knowledge is processed. If, as a consequence of their ubiquitous exposure to electronic and digital media, our students are increasingly coming to us with McLuhan’s ‘tribal consciousness,’ is it our task to embrace and cultivate a more mythological approach to sense-making? Or, is it in fact the case that the formation of a critical consciousness is important now more than ever, and that we should be more conservative in our use of digital technology in the classroom?  For all the criticisms of strictly empirico-deductive forms of reason (and there are many), what the philosophical / argumentative lens offers is the ability to put a distance between us and the technologies we use in order for use to ask exactly these kinds of critical questions.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning: Five Talks for Radio by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Translated by Susanne Langer, K. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.