The Digital Turn of Knowledge:
on the future of Humanities
Hidetaka Ishida ( Professor The University of Tokyo)
I entitled my talk “The Digital Turn of the Knowledge: on the future of Humanities”.
My topic today will follow 5 moments:
1 First I will situate the Transformation of the Humanities in media age
2 In second moment, I will develop a little about Media Revolution and Media studies since 20th century
3 In third moment, I will present my point of view on Technological grammatization and problems of semiotics
4 In fourth moment, I will present my researches on Information Semiotics and Digital studies
5 Finally I will discuss about Digital Turn as Perspective on the future of Humanities
1 Transformation of the Humanities
Today the transformation of Humanities is evident, necessary and inevitable.
This evening, I have no time to develop about the history of Humanities. I’m obliged to proceed to an oversimplification: I try to define the Humanities from three points of view :
1) Historically, that is a tradition from the Western Renaissance
Humanitas and Humanism, opposed to the theological vision of the knowledge. That means a human knowledge of the universe - universal knowledge - by the man, including scientific knowledge in modern sense.
Is there another model of Humanities in Asian cultural tradition? This question is very interesting, exciting issue especially here in China or more generally in east-asian cultural tradition like Japan and Korea. I’m much interested by this question but today we have no time to bifurcate toward this issue.
2) Institutionally, the Humanities constitute the base of knowledge of the modern citizens, so the aim of the modern university is to provide these basic knowledge for future citizens. The Ideal of Bildung in Humboltien universities comes from this Humanities tradition. So we are all concerned by this issue of the Humanities. I belong to the faculty of the humanities, you too. Etc.
3) Epistemologically and technologically, and this is the point that I would accentuate in my talk, the Humanities are knowledge by/of the “typographic man”, so outlined by the thinker of the media studies Marshall McLuhan.
The Renaissance coincides with the Gutenberg Revolution, with its secularization-rationalization process （M. Weber） with the cognitive revolution by the printed books, etc. Modern sciences are founded by this technologico-cognitive revolution of the printing. The Humanities were so naming of the studious ethos of this epistemic transformation. The man comes au center of this change so that the name of Humanism. The subject of the knowledge is the man: his intellect founds the knowledge of culture, society, law, economy, all things of the universe and also the knowledge of the man himself. So the philosophy occupies the central place of this system of knowledge, as Kant synthesize it by his three critiques. The man occupies the central position of the knowledge defining both the empirical and transcendental.
Please forgive me this extreme simplification and schematization of the Humanities problematic. This is to make a preamble for my argumentation. This humanistic tradition continues until now in our academic world, and of course still valid now. Almost part of our knowledge is written in books, the man is the center of the activity of knowing, and even for natural sciences, the fundamental knowledge is written in and transmitted by books.
But this historical configuration of the civilization is challenged since the last decades of 19th century. At the turning of the 19th to 20th century, there had been already a general crisis of the Humanities and Humanism. This has been the problematique of the End of the Book and the Crisis of Humanities.
Let me talk a little about my own research career, I directed the translation in Japanese of the works of the French philosophe Michel Foucault, I published also books on the Contemporary thoughts of 20th century.
There is a famous book of Foucault The Oder of Things Les Mots et les Choses (1966) . This monumental book is subtitled “archeology of human sciences” and it became famous because of its conclusion about the End of Man.
“….as the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared… as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Order of Things, p. 387)
The periodization by Foucault of the central figure of the man is certainly more recent, but all the study of the Order of Things situates the question of Humanism as question of archeology of the problematique of letters, signs, books and language since the Renaissance.
The epistemological problem of “human sciences”, -- ie. psychology, sociology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, etc. -- is located by Foucault at the limits of the Humanism.
Nowadays can one assert that contemporary linguistic is human science ?, and psychology, cognitive psychology, human science ? And anthropology , evolutionary anthropology, human science ?
The epistemological work of Foucault questioned the structuralist moment of the Episteme, as symptom of the End of Humanism.
Jacques Derrida, another important thinker of the second half of the 20the century started his Grammatology (1967) by declaring the “End of the Book” and “beginning of the writing”.
“The idea of the book, which always refers to a natural totality, is profoundly alien to the sense of writing. It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy, and [...] against difference in general.”
Derrida is discovering the “writing before letter (écriture avant la lettre in french)”, traces which constitute originary level of signs, “program” before gram. Architecture of the Book as recipient of the Metaphysical Truth is a occidental cloture which must be deconstructed by the traces of what he calls ecriture and archi-ecriture. This is the situation of the letters in the derridien deconstruction. If Humanities are knowledge of/by letters, we understand the stake of derridien deconstruction. Humanities are object to deconstruction in their economy of letters of the metaphysics of presence.
2 Media Revolution and Media studies since 20th century
I worked longtime on this epistemological question of human sciences, and examined how became possible the inauguration of modern linguistics by Saussure, the invention of the Psychoanalysis by Freud, the foundation of Phenomenology by Husserl, etc.
Pursuing the work of Foucault and other philosopher, like Derrida, Deleuze, etc. but also inspired by more contemporary theorists as Friedrich Kittler, and Bernard Stiegler, now I think that this epistemic change at the turn of the 20th century, presuppose the technological shift of media condition.
These great thinkers of the beginning of the 20th century, Saussure, Husserl, James, Peirce, Bergson, Freud, all these people belong to the period when the properly human activities, like language, consciousness, psyche, memory, perception, etc, began not to be studied and registered with only human handling apparatus; I mean with letters and books.
For example, Saussure’s phonology studies human language with phonograph and telephone: Husserl studies the stream of consciousness by means of phonograph and he dictates him self by stenography instead of writing letters ; Freud models his psychic apparatus with phonograph, photography and certainly cinematography.
The revolution of knowledge which gave birth to the human sciences in the beginning of the 20th century was technological revolution. The knowledge is not written no more only by human letters and books, but by technological writing apparatus that we call media devices.
To explain the epistemological and cognitive shift – change of episteme in Foucault’ s sense -- , we must take in account the change of medium for the knowledge. I call this change at the second half of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the Analog Revolution of grammatization (cf. the Technological revolution of grammatization by Silvain Auroux).
I insist that these all media technologies are graph technology, so a new species of writing, it is no more the man who writes, but the machine. Their naming photo-graphy, tele-graphy, phono-graphy, cinemato-graph, attest that they are well writings or traces which are wrote or traced by machines. （Cf. Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, film, typewriter ）.
Replacing human hands, machine begins so to write. Phonograph writes the speech, and so linguists discover phnemes: the modern linguistics will no more be philology which was historical studies of human language by means of books and written documents. Phonograph writes the melody and Husserlien phenomenology discovers the phenomenon of “internal time consciousness”. Cinematograph writes movement and perception of movement, then Bergson discover durée, devenir and image-movement. For Freud, the human “psychic apparatus” is like a assemblage of photographic camera lens: the unconscious is structured like a cinematographic projection.
We understand why these thinkers are unclassifiable in Humanities. Freud is not psychologist nor philosopher. Husserl nor Bergson are not mere philosophers . Because they are in fact thinking on the base of another medium; they doesn't think on the base of letters and papers: in that sense, they are post-humanists.
We must consider thus problem of the technological unconscious that determines the cognitive and epistemological change occurred around the 1900. Friedrich Kittler will call this epistemological break Aufschreibensystem 1900.
These media technologies invented since 19th century, I call them technological grammatization. The proper of these analogic grammatization consists in that they operate - inscribe or write -- under the conscious level of human being. For example, when you are photographed, you can not see the very instant of shutter’s release. But you make afterwards a consciousness-memory of the past moment from this photographic instant that you never assisted. The camera operates at the unconscious level while you make afterwards your remembrance at the conscious level: this unconscious act of the machine produce human consciousness. This mechanism is general for the cinematograph, television, etc. The cinema consists of a flow of 24 still photograms per second, TV, a flow of 20-30 frames per second: humans cannot see each photogram nor frame so that they can see flows as movements. You can see because you cannot see. The cognitive gap between the machine and the human make it possible that the human undergoes a passive synthesis of his consciousness.
The technological unconscious begins to produce consciousness of modern mass. This cognitive gap between human and machine comes at the center of the dynamics of culture industries of the 20th centuries.
You may understand thus the crucial stake of media revolution.
This means that media problem is prior to the synthesis of human conscious. The technological unconscious escape the conscious level of human knowing.
This wasn't the case for the letters, literal grammatization, because that was human being who writes letters and pictures: the man – the typographic man – was at the heart of the knowing activities. The letters and books were thus apparatus of the conscious truth.
But if media constitute human psychic phenomena, as to consciousness, remembrance, movement-image, vision, time consciousness, etc. , human reality begins to escape the very human knowing activities; then the human world began to escape the control by typographic man. This is, I think, the very fundamental cause of the crisis for the humanities.
3 Technological grammatization and problems of semiotics
Since the 20th century, thus, the man is not anymore a transcendental subject of the human condition, this is the very meaning of the “End of the man” by Foucault. The man is not at the center of the modern episteme. Another writing – écriture – before the letter is always already writing human conscious phenomena, this is the very meaning of the proposition of grammatology by Derrida.
The knowledges of the man or human phenomena are conditioned by the unconscious technological process. So to know the human phenomena, we must understand how they are made by the media condition. They are made by language, more generally different signs, images, or information. So at the heart of the human condition, you discover the effect of new “writing technologies” that are modern media technologies.
Here I introduce my specialist issue, my research on a new science of sign,that I call information semiotics.
Because I think we must reinvent a general science of signs, not the semiology and semiotics that were effective in the structuralist moment of the modern human sciences in the middle of 20th century.
Semiotics or precisely semiology, as you know, was a general science of signs proposed by Saussure for one part at the foundation of modern linguistics. When phonographic media technology began to write the human language, the language turned out to be a system of signs. That means that the phonography functioned as a semiotic technology to note or mechanically write and analyze the human speech. Because the language is a principle mental activity for human being to control his mental and social life, this semiotic knowledge of language made possible to revolution the understanding of human culture and society. This revolution of human sciences, was named structuralism and gave after that post-structuralism, that took part for the linguistic turn of the knowledge of the 20th century.
The modern semiotic inaugurated by the genevien linguist Saussure and the American logicist Peirce was the basic general science for this cognitive revolution of human sciences in the first half of the 20th century. But it has expired.
Why? Because the media revolution since the 20th century has two phases. In the age of the structuralist human sciences, that was the analog media revolution which introduced the epistemological break making possible structuralism and so on.
But after the second half of the 20th century, another huge media revolution took place that is the digital revolution.
All media technology became based on digital technology, all media apparatus became computers in reality. Almost totality of analogic signs based on analog media technology are now translated or transcoded in digital signs.
The computer has come at the heart of the epistemological account of human culture with the digital revolution.
For the structuralism and the post-structuralism, the semiotics and /or semiology in Saussurien and/or Peircien sense was the core project of basic general science never accomplished and now almost abounded .
Scholars have forgotten the semiotic project. But there is a paradoxical situation.
The semiotics is dead but the world has become semiotic.
I means by this that almost all media devices are now semiotic machines in certain sense: they all are, not analog but digital semiotic machines
We must remember the history of the knowledge. The semiotics has a long history. The modern semiotics with Saussure and Peirce is from epistemological and technological point of view, semiotics of analog media revolution. But the semiotics has a more long history and if you go back further in history you rediscover the general science of logic and signs Semeiotike by John Locke and especially the Characteristica universalis of G.W. Leibniz, that was the very project of the universal semiotics, which constitutes the philosophical invention of the idea of computer.
4 Information Semiotics and Digital studies
To reinvent a new basic science of signs, I think we must return to the Leibniz moment of semiotics.
In our world, the human semiosis -- that is the term of Peircien semiotic to designate semiotic meaning activity -- is mediated and treated by computing process. This situation made needs to change paradigm to interpret human semiosis.
I proposed this new field of research naming it Information Semiotics. If the 20th century semiotics was inaugurated by Saussure and Peirce, we must remember that the conception of computer was invented far earlier than the modern age, in the baroque age by the great thinker G.W. Leibniz. He called this art of universal notation and calculation Characteristica universalis, that was the name for a semiotic science of the baroque age. That was the other baroque thinker John Locke the very rival of Leibniz who called for a Semeiotike, general science of signs and logic.
To respond to the challenge of computer mediated world, we must go back to the baroque moment of semiotics to reinvent a new science of signs apt to explain the semiosis of digitized world. （This is like a “Long jump” sport, to jump longer, we must recede longer to meke possible a longer approach run. ）
This Information semiotics is a study of the interface between human world and computer system, because we are now constantly in interface with computer network : while the man follows the semiosis, the machine is operating the information processing. The information semiotics is first of all a study of this semiosis in interface with information processing. But it is also a methodology with this interface: it is a study of the semiosis in interface with information processing but it is also an exploitation of the heuristic potential of this interface semiosis/information processing. In this sense, my formulation of the Information semiotics is a semiotics of and by IT.
In this epistemological interface, I think, we could make junction of Information technological process with cognitive resources of human sciences, and furthermore with more classical knowledge of Humanities. This is from this optics that I consider concretely inscription of my personal research in Digital Studies fields.
To illustrate more concretely my talk, I would present you very shortly two examples of achievement of my laboratory projects.
1) Critial PLATEAU project
Since the 20th century, all aspects of our everyday life are dominated by cultural industries, TV, cinema and animation film, radio program, and now by many kinds of social media.
These media have characteristics that I have described: they function with the logic of technological grammatization and the technological unconsciousness. The semiosis by media machine surpass our cognitive capacity.
If you are in the age of the Gutenberg galaxy, ie. in the civilization of the book, you are not exposed to these huge flows of images and informations. You can analyze your self with your memory, the books you have read, try to reason with your jugement faculty by reading journals, by dialoging with colleagues, etc. But after the 20th century, with development of media culture, that is not the case anymore. You are not in the Gutenberg galaxy in McLuhan’s terms.
So we are exposed to overflow of images and information. We, as with our own human capability, we can not seize exactly the process of meaning of the media communication.
For example, every day we look at TV programs. But as I have said, we cannot determine each photogram composing the flow of TV images. Nor we cannot see all TV programs, because if you have seven channels on TV like in Tokyo for national broadcasting, you cannot look at several channels at the same moment. So the total view of the TV communications escape our cognitive capacities: that is too speedy and too huge !
Once, I said myself that to become capable to say something exact about TV semiosis, how can I procede ? The critique in Kantian sense is it possible with TV communication ?
I wondered if we could exploit a cognitive potential of computer machine for analysis of TV program, we could realize a quite rigorous analysis of TV semiosis, since if human cannot seize each frame of TV image sequence, you will be able to do that if you delegate the task to a computer.
And that was the starting point of the Project for a platform for madia analysis.
2) The second example, is a proposal of hybrid reading environment for a New Library Project of the university. I was responsible of a New Library Project of the University.
Today, our semiosis pass by hypermedia environment via interface devices like i-Pad, i-Pad, etc. The books are more than more digitized and so become inseparable with computer devices. The activity of reading today happens in interface with hypermedia environments. And this project aimed to create an technological environment for what I called Augmented Reading: the reading assisted by computer environment but also a environment to read – the hypermedia semiosis – by aid of semiosis by book. Because I think fundamentally the cognitive potential of books can note be surpassed by any other computer devices. This connection for AR is I think important to conceive a possible future of Humanities. We could transpose the bookish reading ethos in another digitalized environment.
5 Digital Turn as Perspective on the future of Humanities
In fact, what these examples of the Critical PLATEAU and the Hybrid Reading Environment, show positive to understand the situation of the Humanites today?
The modest example of Critical Plateau illustrates the situation of the critique of media text today.
Let’s compare with the critique by literal grammatization. When you began to write human language, the language became a objet of grammatization. By virtue of this writing criticality, you discover a grammatical regularities ruling the language production. The grammar as knowledge forms. It also regulate the linguistic production. Language become literate language. You begin to form a literate knowledge like grammar, rhetoric, logic, and you begin to form a literate culture like literature, history, law, etc.
Analogic grammatization gave cultural industries and popular culture, new artistic genres, massive journalistic communication, etc. The major parts of these cultural production escape the literal critique and then the man’s conscious control. You are not able to analyze the media production yourself.
If you have not a text that you hear, you can not verify and analyze it. You cannot make critique of the text.
Nowadays in the new media technological configuration of digital revolution, we must make possible the critical usage of technologies which will make us possible to evaluate the new media semiosis of the digital technology.
Digital media is ubiquitous today, Social media, IoT, we are connected 24/7 to digital network, all cultural production is digitized, huge archives as Google, relational technology as Facebook, etc.
McLuhan said that the history of media is a stratification, one media doesn't replaced another older one but proceed by stratification
It is important to keep the cognitive and epistemological connection with older strata of culture and knowledge and make possible usage of both new technological environment and classical humanist knowledge. My example of the hybrid and augmented reading is to illustrate this necessity.
The Humanities are a huge accumulation of knowledge about the human, the society, the culture, the politics, etc.
Nowadays there are spread of the Digital Humanities around the world.
But it is not always sufficient to transpose the humanities categories on the digital media practice.
That must entail a more essential transformation of the knowledge. This transformation will be done in interface of the new environment and the classical knowledge. And to make possible a true evolution of knowledge, we must invent a new epistemological paradigm to think human and machinic interactions. And here intervene a huge necessity to work on the conceptual level for invention of new categories. I think that it is in this epistemological moment that the Digital Turn of Knowledge is necessary and inevitable for the future of Humanities.