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Research Report by Thomas Doran

Page history last edited by Thomas Doran 10 years, 6 months ago

Research Report: "Speculative Computing" by Johanna Drucker


By Thomas Doran, Animation and Audiopoetics as Deformative Process Team



“Speculative Computing,” the introductory essay in Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, draws a methodological and ideological distinction between the objective research being done in the digital humanities and the subjective practices of deformance and speculative computing. Drucker systematically dismantles some of the inaccurate assumptions about digital textuality and scientific objectivity that undergird quantitative research in the digital humanities. She then offers speculative computing as an alternative method for “aesthetic provocation” (xi) and explains the six fundamental distinctions that situate it more congenially in the rich tradition of humanistic inquiry.




Johanna Drucker continues her work of dismantling common assumptions about the nature and form of textuality. In its entirety, Drucker’s Speclab (2009) serves as a companion to McGann’s Radiant Textuality not only because of the clear content overlap, but also because it completes the work of situating deformance as a unique critical practice with its own methods or interventions. The introductory essay provides the necessary grounding for understanding the fundamentals of speculative computing. In the first section, “From Digital Humanities to Speculative Computing,” Drucker critiques the objective strain of the digital humanities as its goals and methods contrast with the projects at the University of Virginia’s Speclab. Drucker explains how the early “period of infatuation with the power of digital technology and the mythic ideal of mathesis it seemed to embody” (4) has resulted in the strange assumption among digital humanists that the mysteries of imaginative texts might release their secrets when subjected to the tremendous powers of computation. Drucker recognizes the value of quantitative methods, but she is suspicious of the adoption of these methods (predominantly from the social sciences) in order to explore (or solve) humanistic problems. Specifically, she questions how “the terms of such operations are used to justify decisions about administration and management of cultural and imaginative life based on the presumption of objectivity” (5). One of the fundamental stakes in this game concerns the disambiguation of knowledge in a field where ambiguity has traditionally served as a route to knowledge and a form of knowledge in and of itself. The question is whether digital humanities computational methods “concede many aspects of ambiguity for the sake of workable solutions” (5).


Thus Drucker proceeds to dismantle these methods. By focusing on the instability and inconsistency of metadata, Drucker dismantles some of the assumptions of objectivity in distant reading. Her key critiques are that “the formal constraints of XML simply do not match the linguistic complexity of aesthetic artifacts” and that “any … system of classifying and categorizing information … exercise[s] rhetorical and ideological force” (13-14). In contrast, Drucker describes speculative computing as “a set of principles through which to push back on the cultural authority by which computational methods instrumentalize their effects across many disciplines” (5). The alternative she offers to the objective-mechanistic is the subjective-probabilistic. In this sense, Speclab functions as a response to the threat posed by those in the digital humanities who seek to conveniently forget poststructural critiques of the grand narrative of objectivity. Drucker reiterates the connection between totalizing systems and “[c]ollective errors of judgment [that] constitute the history of human cultures” (17). Alternatively, speculative computing seeks to show, through critical practice and actual production, the ways in which the text is not a static object and interpretation is performance. As she suggests, “[t]he ethics and teleology of subjective inflection, and its premise of partial, fragmentary, nontotalizing approaches to knowledge, cannot, by contrast, be absorbed into totalizing systems” (18).


In the second section, “Speculative Computing: Basic Principles and Essential Distinctions,” Drucker explains Speclab’s goal of creating “aesthetic provocations … that were surprising and unpredictable” (19). She briefly explains the concept of probabilistic-subjectivity as a sort of analogous extension of quantum mechanics. Here she aligns herself with the hard sciences’ understanding of the statistical as governing uncertainty and pointing merely toward the probable (though often so probable that the alternative is statistically impossible). However, in this system, human intervention is seen as a form of interference where all bets are off. And isn’t the artistic object all about human intervention? Where is the human in the digital humanities? Drucker notes the lack of necessary human interference (and therefore the limits) in certain key terms in the trade manual of the digital humanities: 1) Calculation is limited to numerical data, 2) computation is limited by the constraints of formal logic, 3) digital processing simply enacts that logic, 4) classification “reinforces the disposition to imagine that all code-based objects are self-evident, explicit, and unambiguous” (23), and 4) electronic communication is based on a mechanistic conception of communication where information is “encoded, stored, and then output” (24). After noting a key distinction between the two fields, essentially that the digital humanities makes “digital tools in humanities contexts” while speculative computing makes humanities tools in digital contexts,” Drucker offers a succinct table of the fundamental distinctions, reproduced below and hopefully self-explanatory (25).



1. Information technology/formal logic      1. ‘Pataphysics/the science of exceptions

2. Quantitative methods                          2. Quantum interventions

(Problem-solving approaches)                     (Imagining what you do not know)

(Practical solutions)                                    (Imaginary/imaginative solutions)

3. Self-identical objects/entities               3. Autopoeisis/constitutive or configured identity

(Subject/object dichotomy)                          (Co-dependent emergence)

4. Induction/deduction                             4. Abduction

5. Discrete representations                      5. Heteroglossic processes

(Static artifacts)                                         (Intersubjective exchange/discourse fields)

6. Analysis/observation                           6. Subjective deformance/intervention

(Mechanistic)                                             (Probabilistic)



Far from prescribing the methods and rules for our project, Drucker seems to open it up to new possibilities and justify its existence as a largely speculative, open-ended, and imaginative endeavor. Drucker’s interest in the instability of the text makes her piece an obvious choice when working with a text that lacks a definitive version, but how can we deepen the connection by unsettling the idea of a definitive sound for any particular version (moving beyond the IPA)? How will different voices speak the text, reproduce the text, and how will this lead to different sonic interpretations, adaptations, and translations of the text into music? Our project takes seriously Drucker’s notion of quantum interventions as an alternative to quantitative methods. The project is highly speculative and attempts to imagine a certain rigor that will lead to possible but as of yet indeterminable conclusions. But we are not simply concerned with results. We ask, should we value the methods employed toward deformance as ways of knowing and becoming familiar with the text in and of themselves? Can these replace traditional close reading methods, these mechanized and formalistic ways of reading that were always already compromised humanistic procedures through their problematic mimicry of scientific objectivity? Although here is where I see the main obstacle in structuring our work around Drucker’s thesis. In many ways, the rules and methods I have developed seem to echo the same sort of formalistic striving toward an objective, reproducible method. Drucker is going to force us to examine this sort of rigor (with our own rigorous analysis of rigor) and ask why do rules matter, how plastic are they, and what do they permit? I predict that one conclusion will be that rules only remain productive in speculative computing if they vary from project to project, from text to to text, that speculative computing demands constant reformulation of the rules and can only ever be consistently governed by a sort of meta-methodology.


Resources for Further Study

Bök, Christian. Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2002. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. New York: Granary, 1998. Print.

---. Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

Flanders, Julia. “Detailism, Digital Texts, and the Problem of Pedantry” Text Technology: 14.2 (2005): 41-70. Web.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Samuels, Lisa. “If Meaning, Shaped Reading, and Leslie Scalapino’s Way.” Qui Parle 12.2 (2001): 179-200. Web.

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