Brainstorming DH: Reproducing Material Agency for Human Experience

Andrew Pickering’s discussion of the differences and connections between human agency and non-human material agency has me thinking less about machines and more about the Brontës. (This is what happens when a Victorianist takes a DH class). Bear with me.

Anyone who’s read a Brontë novel is probably familiar with the importance of landscape and ecological environment in their writing. For instance, Catherine and Heathcliff spend all their time on the windy moors, and Jane first meets Rochester out on the road when his horse slips on some ice. What if machines could reproduce the material agency described in these novels—which is undoubtedly associated with scenes of high emotion for the characters and arguably impacts their human agency—in some sort of exhibit? I’m imagining a museum space set up with various interactive installations. In one corner, you climb a makeshift hill. At the top, a wall of screens depicts a moving image of the moors in north England while hidden fans recreate the windiness of that environment. On a pedestal, there is a book or a screen from which you can read relevant passages from Emily’s novel, poems, and letters.

I think it’s fair to say that this doesn’t seem like a very digital project; but if DH includes machine-produced work in a lab, could it also include a machine-produced experience in a museum? Doesn’t this project depend on machine-technology to recreate a human experience that would offer perspective on famous literary figures? I’m thinking of this imagined exhibit as something similar to the incredible DH project What Jane Saw produced by Prof. Janine Barchas at the University of Texas at Austin, which digitally recreates the Sir Joshua Reynolds Retrospective Exhibit at the British Institution that Jane Austen visited on May 24, 1813. The main difference is that my Bronte exhibit takes up physical space, but it still utilizes machine-technology to reproduce an experience.

I’ve gotten way off topic from the reading. Essentially, I’m providing all of this fodder to ask whether Pickering’s discussion of science and how humans and machines make science gives us a broader realm for what constitutes as digital humanities.

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