Latour, the Digital Humanities, and the Divided Kingdom of Knowledge


Participants in “Recomposing the Humanities,” September 2015. Pictured from left to right: Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Rita Felski, Bruno Latour, Nigel Thrift, Michael Witmore, Dipesh Chakrabarti, and Stephen Muecke.


Published last week, “Latour, the Digital Humanities, and the Divided Kingdom of Knowledge” is an article developed from the Recomposing the Humanities Conference sponsored by New Literary History at the University of Virginia in September of 2015. Supplemental digital media for the article can be found here.

Abstract: Talk about the humanities today tends to focus on their perceived decline at the expense of other, more technical modes of inquiry. The big S “sciences” of nature, we are told, are winning out against the more reflexive modes of humanistic inquiry that encompass the study of literature, history, philosophy, and the arts. This decline narrative suggests we live in a divided kingdom of disciplines, one composed of two provinces, each governed by its own set of laws. Enter Bruno Latour, who, like an impertinent Kent confronting an aging King Lear, looks at the division of the kingdom and declares it misguided, even disastrous. Latour’s narrative of the modern bifurcation of knowledge sits in provocative parallel with the narrative of humanities-in-decline: what humanists are trying to save (that is, reflexive inquiry directed at artifacts) was never a distinct form of knowledge. It is a province without borders, one that may be impossible to defend. We are now in the midst of a further plot turn with the arrival of digital methods in the humanities, methods that seem to have strayed into our province from the sciences. As this new player weaves in and out of the plots I have just described, some interesting questions start to emerge. Does the use of digital methods in the humanities represent an incursion across battle lines that demands countermeasures, a defense of humanistic inquiry from the reductive methods of the natural or social sciences? Will humanists lose something precious by hybridizing with a strain of knowledge that sits on the far side of the modern divide? What is this precious thing that might be lost, and whose is it to lose?

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