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Franchi, Stefano, Texas A&M University, USA,


The two best-known interactions between computational technologies and traditional Humanist pursuits are represented by the Artificial Intelligence/Cognitive science movement and the roughly contemporary Digital Humanities approach (although the label became popular only recently). Classic Artificial Intelligence saw itself as ‘anti-philosophy’ (Dupuy 2000; Agre 2005; Franchi 2006): it was the discipline that could take over philosophy’s traditional questions about rationality, the mind/body problem, creative thinking, perception, and so on, and solve them with the help of a set of radically new synthetic, experimentally based techniques. The true meaning of the ‘computational turn in philosophy’ lies in its methodology, which allowed it to associate engineering techniques with age-old philosophical questions. This ‘imperialist’ tendency of cognitive science (Dupuy 2000) was present from the very beginning, even before the formalization of the field into well – defined theoretical approaches (McCulloch 1989 [1948]; Simon 1994).

The Digital Humanities represent the reverse modality of the encounter just described. The most common approach (Kirschenbau 2010) uses tools, techniques, and algorithms developed by computer scientists to address traditional questions about the meaning of texts, their accessibility and interpretation, and so on. Other approaches turn technology into the scholar’s preferred object of study (Svensson 2010). The recent approach pioneered by the ‘Philosophy of Information’ (Floridi 1999, 2011) follows this pattern. Its focus on the much broader category of ‘information’ substantially increases the scope of its inquiries, while firmly keeping it within philosophy’s standard reflective mode.

The common feature of these two classic encounters between the Humanities and computational theory and technology is their one-sidedness. In either case, one of the two partners took over some relevant aspects from the other participant and fit it within its own field of inquiry (mostly questions, in AI’s case; mostly tools, for the Digital Humanities). The appropriation, however, did not alter the theoretical features of either camp. For instance, AI and Cognitive Science researchers maintained that philosophy pre-scientific methodology had only produced mere speculation that made those problems unsolvable. Therefore, philosophy’s accumulated wealth of reflection about the mind, rationality, perception, memory, emotions, and so forth could not be used by the computational approach. In McCulloch’s famous phrase, the ‘den of the metaphysician is strewn with the bones of researchers past.’ In the Digital Humanities’ case, the takeover happens at the level of tools. In most cases, however, this appropriation does not become an opportunity for a critical reflection on the role of the canon on liberal education, or for a reappraisal of the role of the text and the social, political, and moral roles it plays in society at large.

Artistic Digital Practices

Meetings between artists and computational technology show the possibility of a different paradigm. In many cases, making music, painting, producing installations, and writing with a computer changes the concepts artists work with, and, at the same time, forces computer sciences to change theirs as well. There are many examples in the rich history of ‘digital art,’ broadly understood (OuLiPo 1973; ALAMO (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs); Schaeffer 1952). I will illustrate their general features with reference to two more recent projects: the ‘microsound’ approach to musical composition (Roads 2004) and the T-Garden approach to agency (Sha 2002).

‘Microsounds’ are sonic objects whose timescale lies between that of notes the smallest traditional music objects, whose duration is measured in seconds or fractions thereof – and samples the smallest bit, measured in microseconds (10-6). The manipulation of microsounds broadens substantially the composer’s palette, but it is impossible without the help of technological devices of various kinds, from granular synthesis software to high-level mixing interfaces. Composers wishing to ‘sculpt’ sounds at the microlevel face a double challenge that translates into a mutual collaboration between compositional and algorithmic techniques. On the one hand, they need to broaden the syntax an grammar of music’s language to allow the manipulation and aesthetic assessment of previously unheard of objects (Vaggione 2001). On the other hand, they need computer scientists and mathematicians to develop alternative analytic and synthetic models of sound (in addition to Fourier-transforms and similar methods) capable of capturing the features of sonic events lasting only a few milliseconds (Vaggione 1996).

The T-Garden environment produced at the Topological Media Lab follows a structurally similar paradigm. It is a closed room within which people wearing wireless sensors on their chest and limbs can project images and sounds on the room’s walls and ceiling. As the participants move around, their gestures across the floor perturb the preexisting sonic and visual fields, thereby modifying it and introducing new aural and visual patterns. As Sha describes it:

[The environment] was built to explore how people can improvise gestures out of dense, evolving fields of media. In ordinary informal conversation, you can spontaneously drag or pitch your speech to express irony, sympathy, and so forth. Similarly, in a T-Garden, by waving your arm you write video or leave a trace in sound, and by moving about the space, solo or in concert with other people, you construct a voice for yourself out of a sound field that is summed from all the instrumental voices in the room. […] as you play, your continuous motions create an aural and visual ‘voice’ for yourself out of the ambient perceptual field (Sha 2002: 441-442). 

Whereas Roads explored a new sonic object lying between samples and notes, Sha investigated a segment of human agency that is neither fully free nor fully constrained. He took human gestures as a proxy for agency in general and conceived a project that demanded theoretical and technical work on two fronts. On the artistic side, it mandated the translation of a theoretical reflection upon the status of semiotic structures into a concrete installation. It required the construction of an event that forced the participants to reassess their conception of communication and ‘freedom of speech.’ On the technical sides, it forced the computer scientists to develop real-time systems capable of interpreting human gestures and translating them into sonic and visual equivalents the participants could reintegrate into their communicative actions.

These two examples points to a pattern of cooperation between work in computational and non-computational disciplines that is deeply at odds with the AI/CogSci and DigHum patterns discussed above. Instead of a takeover, the artistic model produces a true encounter that changes both partners’ technical and theoretical apparatus.

Digital Theoretical Poiesis

Could the interaction pattern most favored by artists be generalized to the Humanities? With the help of Aristotle’s classification of human activity as poiesis, praxis, and theoria (Aristotle 1984, 1025b19-30, p. 1619), it could be objected that artistic practices are examples of poiesis. They produce objects on the basis of materials and manipulating tools. Anything (including digital tools) that provides new materials (material substrate) or new ways of organizing them will necessarily change artistic practices. And artists have always been extremely keen on expanding their material and formal palettes, long before the advent of digital techniques. The daily work of Humanists, it could be claimed, is essentially theoretical, since their task is to critically reflect upon a previously produced reality.

Paradoxically, however, a serious critical engagement with contemporary reality shows that the Aristotelian tripartite distinction is untenable in the current landscape. How can Humanities’ traditional inquiries about human nature and human cultural production still be relevant in a landscape in which some of the communicating agents may not be human, partially or entirely? Can they go on in the same way? And vice versa: are science and technology fully aware that the new digital artifacts they are shepherding into the world may change its landscape and transform worldly action at the pragmatic as well as at the theoretical level? Or are they still relying upon a pre-digital universe in which technological artifacts were always to be used as mere tools deployed by humans, an assumption that seems increasingly questionable? The genuine challenge Humanists face when confronting the ‘computational turn’ demands a truly poietic effort. Humanists will have to engage in the constructions of new concepts in a close peer-to-peer interaction with the ‘sciences of the artificial’ (Cordeschi 2002) that may result in a form of ‘digital theoretical poiesis’ much closer to artistic practice than to their traditional forms of inquiry.

This suggestion does not pretend to exhaust the theoretical options we have at our disposal when reflecting upon the computational turn. There are certainly other views that may legitimately claim to be seeking the same goal. My contention, however, is that artistic practices in all forms of ‘digital art’ can serve as an inspiration to all of the Humanities disciplines. We can follow their path toward a new mode of digital encounter that does not fall into the well-worn path of hostile takeovers by either partner.


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