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.