The Era of Estrangment

by Matthew F. Wickman, Founding Director Of The Humanities Center

These are exciting times intellectually in the humanities. They’re also strange times. More specifically, they’re times when estrangement has become both a means and an end of much humanistic inquiry.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Almost a century ago, in 1917, the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie—“defa­miliarization”—to describe how poetry sets itself against ordinary prose and prompts us to reflect on the meaning and mysteries of language. And this notion was neither original with Shklovsky nor would it find its ultimate expression in him: Plato famously addressed the (for him, regrettable) peculiarities of poetry, and defamiliarization would become the unofficial motto of multiple movements in 20th-century art.

But recent decades have defamiliarized former versions of defamiliarization by push­ing into non- or post-human territory. Take the emergence of digital technologies in the humanities, which have changed what we can do with texts and even what we think texts are. Computers “read” linguistic and syntactical units as bytes of information, con­verting language into mathematics. As such, texts become strings of ones and zeroes as much as letters. And because digital technol­ogies can synthesize patterns of these bytes across vast corpora of texts, and even entire canons, they reveal mysteries about what and how texts signify. Computers “know” us bet­ter than we do.

The increasing number of digital human­ities projects, naturally, generates some anxi­ety. At our recent Humanities Center Annual Symposium, Eric Hayot of Penn State’s Department of Comparative Literature spoke of how “distant reading,” the name for this computational disclosure of patterns, bothers many liter­ary scholars because it treats texts as means rather than ends—that is, as mere reposito­ries of data instead of sources of pleasure and wisdom. But what is odd about this reaction, he continued, is that it reveals how we tend to equate texts with people. And this in turn sug­gests that many people in our lives—strang­ers, mostly, or people with whom we have only incidental contact—become as disposable to us as, say, cheap novels. We revere texts and dehumanize our fellow beings as part of the same ostensibly humanizing reflex.

One may agree or disagree with this con­tention—Hayot’s argument was meant to stir discussion—but it also feeds the growing con­viction in the humanities that estrangement is part of everyday life. And one finds myriad examples alongside the digital humanities. Take “object-oriented ontologies,” which conceptualize the hidden life of objects inde­pendent of all human perception. Or consider “actor network theory,” which depicts agents not as humans but as composites of human and nonhuman “actors” (so that natural disasters—which scientists increasingly link to human activity, though in a collective, net­worked, distributed way—become defamiliar­ized extensions of ourselves). And then there are theories of “deep time,” which reach back to the earliest eras of human history—and, in some geological cases, to what predates all forms of life.

It’s a strange but fascinating time in the humanities—or is it the “inhumanities”?