Schultheis Post 2: Does the Physical Belong in the Humanities?

If discomfort is a precursor to intellectual growth, my understanding of DH certainly grew from reading excerpts of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms (2007). Borrowing Kenneth Thibodeau’s three descriptions of digital artifacts—physical (“signs inscribed on a medium”), logical (“data as it is recognized and interpreted by particular processes and applications software”), and conceptual (“the object we deal with in the real world”)—Kirschenbaum first highlights the most common objects studied today—the conceptual and more rarely the logical. This should not be surprising, as the reading and research required to study the conceptual will mimic the reading and research done by those studying materiality, thing theory, or object-oriented ontology (for fear of exposing my ignorance, I’ll refrain from indulging in a diatribe- about the (in)distinguishable traits of these three). As a result, DH projects entrenched in the conceptual are abundant: for example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center Digital Research in the Humanities does extensive digital work on numerous archives (Willa Cather, Railroads, Walt Whitman—to name a few), and nearly all of their projects adopt a strong emphasis on conceptual and, at times, logical objects.

Moving to a discussion of the physical, Kirschenbaum provides a detailed explanation of the nanoscale mechanisms guiding digital devices. While the physical digital artifact is fascinatingly obscure and I appreciate Kirschenbaum’s examples, which demystify and make material the seemingly invisible structures and language working to run the digital world, I am both uncomfortable and confused by what research of the physical looks like in the humanities; because at this moment, I cannot see where it belongs.

I’m more than willing to be persuaded. In fact, I welcome it, since part of my motivation for taking this course was to learn what DH was beyond libraries and archives, but I have yet to see a humanities project or piece of critical writing that to analyzes the physical’s relationship to humans. Nascent in this endeavor, I will admit that I have not been able to look at more than the first five pages of labs, centers, and hackerspaces complied here. But even the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s project “Documenting Digital History,” while well worth the time of anyone interested in DH, gives little or no attention to the physical even though it is intended to “educate scholars and the public about the state of the discipline.” Does this mean that the physical has yet to find a place in the humanities? Or that it’s here but humanists have yet to acknowledge it? Or that it’s here but humanists don’t believe they have a use for it?

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. Print.


3 thoughts on “Schultheis Post 2: Does the Physical Belong in the Humanities?

  1. j.kirtz says:

    Part of what Kirschenbaum is pointing is that all research has tangible elements to it, making it physical. When we are typing our dissertations on Microsoft word, it isn’t merely symbolic or representative of lanugage, but occupies a physical space on the disk image. I think part of understanding this is that the physical and the intangible aren’t as separate as we like to think. We often forget that using the Internet is very much a physical thing from the materials needed to make the computer to the servers hosting the websites.
    Further I think the physical is much studied in humanities through object oriented ontology, particularly through media archaeology. Take the Media Archaeology Lab on campus which physically houses computers and various technology for study.


  2. Well said! And thank you!

    My confusion toward Kirschenbaum’s physical object radiates more from his language metaphor, which I neither explained well in my second paragraph nor reflected accurately in my title. He’s both clear and convincing when explaining how the digital manifests itself physically and nearly permanently, but I’m less clear on how the humanities can use formal materiality–outside of retrieving data. As some of the physical aspects of the digital are designed to give the illusion of immateriality, the language of the digital becomes opaque. This seems to be something Kirschenbaum wants to recover, but I’m unsure what this would look like in the humanities.

    But it’s very possible that the premises I’ve been working from are utterly incorrect, and I’d very much like to readjust them if that’s the case:

    For example, I’ve been thinking about the digital in the following way (please excuse this rough analogy and feel free to offer amendments): I can drive a car, but I don’t know how to fix it. I can still understand my relationship to the car without understanding the intricacies of how various parts of the car communicate with other parts. I could also study the labor and industry involved in making cars to examine the relationship between car and human, industry and human, environment and human, etc.–all without knowing how the car works. Understanding the car’s mechanisms could augment any of these discussions, but to me, at this moment, it doesn’t underpin the conversation.

    Additionally, many labs–ours included–emphasize the physicality of the digital; however, what does studying specifically formal materiality look like in the humanities? What does that project look like? (I’d also like to know what that project does, a question that clearly exposes my own privilege, as I rarely have to answer it.)


  3. […] week I started my post with an allusion to a phrase I often include on my syllabi: “Discomfort is a precursor to […]


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