Deutsches Haus at NYU and the NYU departments of German, Comparative Literature, and Media, Culture and Communication co-present the conference The Quality of Quantity: The German Critical Tradition in the Era of Datafication.
What counts as rational? This question has been the national trademark of German philosophy since the Enlightenment. But being rational has become increasingly a matter of counting, of calculating, of quantity. As historian of science Lorraine Daston has argued, Enlightenment Reason became a quantifying rationality in the Cold War, with philosophy never far behind. With the recent rise of the Big Data paradigm, this tendency is embodied in technologies with a broad spectrum of effects. Science, we are told, may become nothing more than data processing; brains and genomes will be scanned to unheard-of levels of precision. Even the wave of Far Right nationalist movements that swept into power across the globe in 2015-16 (including the unprecedented numbers for the far-Right AfD in Germany) hinged on the use of targeted prediction of personal political convictions enabled by Big Data. How shall we save ourselves from numbers? The uneasy but persistent association of quantity and reason in the German critical tradition is an important resource with which to meet the challenge of datafication.
This conference starts from the premise that German thought from Leibniz to Heidegger, from Kant to Kittler, has always harbored alternative conceptions of quantity, number, and operation. Heidegger's critique of technology gains its power by affirming the metaphysical vocation of modern science, a point that deeply influenced Hannah Arendt's brilliant critique of the Atomic age. Leibniz's theodicy paralleled his invention of logical calculus and binary notation. Kittler's media theory finds twin inspirations in Alan Turing's “universal discrete-state machines,” which we now call computers, and Claude Shannon's "mathematical theory of communication.” Quantity has always enjoyed a hidden life in the German critical tradition: the subject and inspiration of critical thinking meant to go beyond mere “data” that, all too often, has only been recognized on the margins of the hermeneutics of being, the Frankfurt School, poststructuralism, and even New German Media Theory. We will also consider and extend comparable work done by figures like Alain Badiou and Alexander Galloway.
The goal of “The Quality of Quantity” is to re-evaluate the resources in the German critical tradition for confronting paradigms of quantity – in the guise of Big Data, algorithmic thinking, and automatized rationality -- by looking to the intertwined histories of philosophy and mathematics, logic, and computing. How have such paradigms helped shape - directly, indirectly, dialectically - the landscape of what we call critical thought? What are the aesthetic and political counterparts of quantity and rationality, often upheld for their supposed neutrality? How can we work with the concepts of quantity and computation, without succumbing to the seductive categories of profit and control? How can we write an intellectual history of the present that takes account of the turn from reason to rationality, without fully relinquishing this side of reason to Silicon Valley and its digital utopianism? Is there a history of rationality that does not necessarily end in the RAND corporation’s game-theoretical “laboratories” or the dragnet servers of the NSA’s Prism Program? If so, the dream of universal datafication must be met with tools from a philosophical trajectory stretching from German idealism to New Media Theory, because the digital age is not only incomplete, but also unintelligible without them. For critique to retain (or regain) its bite in the future, it must begin to take quantity, operation, and computation seriously – not merely as facts, but as subjects of thought.
Conference organizers: Matthew Handelman (Michigan State University) and Leif Weatherby (NYU)
Events at Deutsches Haus are free and open to the public. If you would like to attend this event, please send an email to email@example.com. As space at Deutsches Haus is limited, please arrive ten minutes prior to the event to ensure you get a good seat. Thank you!
“The Quality of Quantity” is a DAAD-sponsored event.