Thursday, April 17, 2014

A digital humanist was walking to Damascus...

I’m wondering how many digital humanists set out to do one thing and ended up realizing they were doing something else, something they don’t quite understand. Some texts...

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We who have been working in the field know that the digital humanities can provide better resources for scholarship and better access to them. We know that in the process of designing and constructing these resources our collaborators often undergo significant growth in understanding of digital tools and methods, and that this sometimes, perhaps even in a significant majority of cases, fosters insight into the originating scholarly questions. Sometimes secular metanoia is not too strong a term to describe the experience.

Willard McCarty, A Telescope for the Mind?

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Once I started working in earnest, though, I soon realized that the machine-gathering of the data, essential to large-scale quantification, was not yet a realistic possibility...So, from its very first section, the essay drifted from quantification to the qualitative analysis of plot...Looking back at the work done, I wouldn’t call this change of direction a mistake: after all, network theory does help us redefine some key aspects of the theory of plot, which is an important aspect of literary study. This is not the theory’s original aim, of course, but then again, a change of purpose – a “refunctionalization”, as the Russian Formalists called it – is often what happens to a system of thought traveling from one discipline to another. Within this first change of direction, however, a second, more radical one occurred...What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization: the possibility of extracting characters and interactions from a dramatic structure, and turning them into a set of signs that I could see at a glance, in a two-dimensional space.

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But McGann’s comment keeps raising its head. He tells us that that with which we conclude is only a shadow of the desired object. What we think we will build and what we build are not the same thing in digital humanities. We have only a “glancing bird’s eye view.”

This is as true of a book, a film, a painting, or a symphony as it is of a digital work. But right now, at this moment in the development of the digital medium, I think we can see how far we are from understanding the genre–of how far we are from being able to say send me “a prospectus” or its equivalent. The distance between our wish and our object is often so great because the forms and practices and procedures of creation in the digital medium remain profoundly unstable and speculative.

McGann’s premise might be restated: if you have produced what you thought you would, perhaps you’ve not created anything really; if a digital project becomes what was specified it might not be a digital humanities work.

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