From pg 68 of Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain:
Thus if the arrangement is such that the sound becomes positively associated both with the attracting light and with the withdrawal from an obstacle, it is possible for both a light and a sound to set up a paradoxical withdrawal. The ‘instinctive’ attraction to a light is abolished and the model can no longer approach its source of nourishment. This state seems remarkably similar to the neurotic behavior produced in human beings by exposure to conflicting influences or inconsistent education.” Or, as he put it more poetically in The Living Brain (1953, 183), “in trying, as it were, to sort out the implications of its dilemma, the model ends up, ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,’ by losing all power of action.
I just came across the following passage in this paper by Anna Mary Cooper and Jenna Condie:
Bakhtin’s (1984a) literary analysis of Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Poor Folk’ shows how the character Devushkin, who in recognising himself in another story, did not wish to be represented as ‘something totally quantified, measured, and defined to the last detail: all of you is here, there is nothing more in you, and nothing more to be said about you’ (p. 58).
This is exactly what I’m trying to get at with the notion of eviscerating the human: analysing human beings in ways which empty out their thoughts, feelings, dreams and aspirations in order to leave only the transparently measurable aspects that lie beneath their recalcitrant minds. What Mark Andrejevic describes in InfoGlut as corporeal literacy: “the attempt to bypass the vagaries of speech in order to get directly at the true underlying emotions that speakers all too often attempt to mask” (pg. 81). This involves constructing what I’ve come to think of as evisceration devices: tools and techniques, in reality dependent upon conceptual proxies, enabling what is ‘inner’ to either be dispensed with or reduced to a corporeal manifestation of it.
If we can identify this as an intellectual project which wins the commitment of many powerful individuals and groups, we can begin to ask sociological questions about their interests and investments in it. The slightly grandiose and perhaps vague terminology of ‘eviscerating the human’ serves a methodological purpose because this is a project that cuts across multiple social domains and does not involve an overlapping awareness of being involved in a shared project. It is attempt to conceptualise the shared characteristics of something that can be seen across a multiplicity of activities, rather than a single endeavour undertaken by a collective with a shared commitment.
In a paper I’m writing for the first volume of the next Centre for Social Ontology project, I’m offering an analysis of what I call the evisceration of the human. I understand this as an intellectual project which seeks to get beyond self-understanding, hollowing out the phenomenological froth which characterises the interpretative human and getting to the underlying behavioural reality beneath it. It’s a project which, as Mark Andrejevic puts it in Infoglut, seeks to “sidestep self-understanding and self-representation to get at these recalcitrant minds directly” (p. 86). Interiority is reduced to empirical proxies, proliferating ad hoc hypothesis which explain away the apparent reality of the first-person perspective and reduce it to measurable and testable behavioural factors.
This operational abstraction constitutes a kind of ‘hollowing out’ of the human, seeking to reduce the category to its underlying behavioural reality rather than trying to cope with it in its bewildering wholeness. The instruments change, the precise formulation of the ad hocery changes but the underlying direction of explanatory travel remains the same. That at least is my hunch, though there’s a huge amount of work in the history of ideas which I’d have to undertake to justify it properly.
My focus however is on the present enthusiasm for eviscerating the human we see associated with digital technology and digital data. I really like this formulation from Audrey Watters, on loc 1245 of her The Monsters of Educational Technology:
We are now creating data at an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented velocity and increasing complexity. The temptation is to believe that if we can just collect all the data from our students – all their clicks –run it through an algorithm, do a little pattern-matching, and we’ll solve everything, we’ll unlock the secrets of the human brain, we’ll unlock the potential of each child.
The allure of our new instruments plays a crucial role in this iteration of the evisceration project. We believe that if only we were to collect enough data, the inner truth would be revealed. The secrets are there, waiting to be revealed, if only we can mine down into the human with enough precision and accuracy.
At the end of last week, I attended a really thought provoking workshop at Bath university on Digital Qualitative Research. It was organised by Phil Brooker and Dina Vasileiou, both based at Bath, inviting a really interestingly diverse range of people (theorists, qualitative researchers, commercial social researchers, computer scientists, HCI researchers and software developers) to discuss the challenges entailed by qualitative digital research and to discuss how existing software could be changed or new software developed to meet these needs.
These are the ideas and problems we compiled as a group which structured the subsequent workshop:
These are my scrawled notes on the discussion I had with smaller groups:
We had some fascinating discussions about the necessity of ‘up-skilling social scientists’ for digital research but doing so in a way which avoids lionising and imitating computer science. This raises the obvious question for me though, as to what digital qualitative research is for: what are we seeking to preserve and why? What’s lost if we lose a qualitative perspective in digital social research? My instinct here is to go back to interpretation, to argue for the irreducibility of the interpretive dimension of social life. To go back to a critique of behaviourism and a critique of positivism, both of which are currently being rearticulated in complex and interconnected ways, but to develop these as part of a methodological engagement with the dazzling array of social scientific opportunities that digital research is opening up. Theory should be at the heart of Digital Social Science, but not theory for theory’s sake.