- Big Data, Time and the Archive
If I thought I was not thinking about the past, the past was thinking about me.—Deborah Levy (2014, 110)
Big Data and the Time of Theory
The rise of big data as a socio-technical phenomenon has been met with a wide spectrum of reactions across the Humanities, ranging from euphoria to criticism or even denial. One of the debates animating this spectrum has been that of the obsolescence of theory supposedly inflicted by a new model of knowledge production brought about by big data. This debate is haunted by variable notions of theory and data as well as ideas about temporality that deserve critical examination. What kind of notions of theory inform such a theory-free conception of big data? Caught up in debates around acceleration, synchronicity and speculative temporalities that drive technocapitalism, theory’s currency and timeliness are put in check. After all, if new media, as Wendy Chun has put it, exist at the bleeding edge of obsolescence, theory is expected to catch up or otherwise loose ground. But what do we miss in these cycles of newness, disposability and “enduring ephemerality” (Chun 2008)? Is theory supposed to keep pace, and adjust in response to every “disruptive” technological development? Does theory have to disrupt as well? And what kinds of temporality does theory run on and contribute to?
As Vincent B. Leitch has suggested a while ago, there have been many ends to theory. Big data seems to have emerged as a further blow to “theory’s contested life” (Rodowick 2015, xii). As Rodowick explains, our relation to theory has always been contingent and historical. The still ongoing disputes over the notion of “Digital Humanities” constitute one of the most noticeable [End Page 435] symptoms thereof. As Rita Raley has pointed out, the “semantic instability” of a “free floating signifier” such as the Digital Humanities invites attempts to secure its meaning (2014, 26), offering a surface where anxieties and fantasies regarding the fate of the theoretical humanities are projected and acted out. The temporal coincidence of two provocative texts has helped stir the debate. Chris Anderson’s Wired piece “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete” (2008) and William Pannapacker’s Chronicle of Higher Education blog post about MLA2009, where he declared the digital humanities to be the next big thing1, and the year after to be “The Thing,” have triggered a lengthy conversation where big data surface both as source of epistemological crisis (“the end of theory”) and possible way out of it (“digital humanities as the Thing”).
Several voices have since then contributed to problematize the alleged expiry of theory as well as the “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011)2 invested in the field of digital humanities. In fact, advertently or not, ensuing attempts to rescue critical theory from data-induced obsolescence began to foreground a critical approach to the relation between the digital and the humanities that many had been pleading for. Gary Hall has consistently countered arguments that equate the digital humanities with the computational turn, insisting instead on the importance of maintaining a difference between the two. While the “computational humanities,” as a specific strand of the digital humanities, are mostly concerned with practical uses of computer science that can be adopted by humanistic scholarship, Hall questions whether it is possible to envisage digital humanities beyond the uses of computation, a “post-computational” view of the digital humanities (Hall 2013). Along with a computational turn, he claims, “might we not also benefit from more of a humanities turn in our understanding of the computational and the digital?” (Hall 2011a, 2). At the same time, Hall is cautious not to suggest a direct, carbon copy application of “traditional humanities” to computational and digital questions, not only because the new questions raised by computation and the digital may require the formulation of new critical approaches, but also because “the humanities are not without blind spots and elements of misrecognition of their own” (2011a, 3).3
More than voicing nostalgia for grand theory, then, the call for a “critical theory of technology” (Berry 2014) is rather motivated by the question...