Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

Diminishing Returns on Tactical Terms? Plus a Very Derivative and Reductive Quiz.

In “What is ‘Digital Humanities’ And Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” Matthew Kirschenbaum quotes Rita Raley’s articulation of “digital humanities” as a “discursive construction” (3). Later, he describes it as a “term of tactical convenience” (4) that is “unabashedly employed to get things done” (4). For Kirschenbaum, it seems, the construct is a limiting one: “To indulge digital humanities only ever as a construct and a site of contest is also thus to give in to a world view that seems to me precisely neoliberal, precisely zero sum and agonistic—disembodied, desocialized, and evacuated of materiality or material history” (7). This limitation is partly a symptom of the constructs discursive nature; its aim is to define and then include (or rather, exclude), set the boundaries (10), but because it is purely discursive, it also distracts from the fact that digital humanities is, above all else, “work, somebody’s work, somewhere, some thing, always” (16). He pushes us to “talk about this work, in action, this actually existing work” (16), to return a sense of materiality to the conversation and move beyond the purely discursive construct. Ramsay echoes this sentiment, a sort of elevated “Less talk, more action” in “Why I’m In It,” ending the piece with a self-admonition that he should perhaps “go make something new” rather than write a book, manifesto, or blog post (1).


I can certainly understand the frustration and the desire to root the conversation in tangibility—this is something I was thinking about in a previous post, since I had trouble during earlier readings in visualizing DH or concretizing what its practices could be without tangible examples—without seeking my definitions through real work. At the same time, though—are there moments in which constructs, even purely discursive ones, are useful for disciplines that are still in moments of self-definition? Even if they are useful only in the fact that they can serve as a gateway to or a means of obtaining material support for projects that might not yet have tailor made spaces and infrastructures?

I’m thinking specifically of Svensson’s article on humanistiscope. Svensson uses the “humanistiscope” as a “thought piece” (339), a “rhetorical device that can help us conceptualize” (348) and a “tool to help us think about and enact a humanities infrastructure” (348, emphasis mine). As a rhetorical device, Svensson sees the “humanististicope” as a means of articulating something that has not yet been articulated, that can’t adopt previous models because of its specific and unique goals: “For one thing, there is not necessarily a name for the kind of things under discussion here (existing or possible humanistic infrastructures), and the notion of the humanistiscope gives us a way of packaging and imagining humanities infrastructure without being locked into a current vocabulary and infrastructures” (339). That “way of imagining” is also a way to enact, a means of achieving necessary material structures tailored to DH needs.

This strikes me as the possible value (or at least past value) of a construct like the term “digital humanities”: even as a purely discursive stand-in, it is a means of achieving non-discursive results, be they financial, infrastructural, concerned with evaluation practices, etc.
In Svensson’s case, the use of a new term, a tactical term, is partially driven by the inability of previous infrastructural models to meet the specific needs of the digital humanities; the danger of imitating already existing models that are geared toward established disciplines (often scientific) is also articulated by Earhart. There is a danger, for both of them, in adopting rather than tailoring these models, largely because the humanities are much more multimodal, even commons-like, in their projects. As Svensson says, “a particularity of humanities infrastructure is that it is likely to be multiplex to accommodate different scholarly and educational needs. Major science infrastructure, in contrast, tends to be seen as more specific in terms of relating to certain projects, questions, or even certain problems” (351). A construct like humanistiscope is useful in that it allows for an imagining of an infrastructure not yet in place, tailored to humanities goals and free from the “clear risk…of adopting a science and engineering based model for humanities infrastructure in such a way that the model significantly constrains and shapes possible research enterprises and directions” (346). For Earhart, too, “It is crucial that we tailor the existing science laboratory model to meet best practices in the digital humanities.” (396).

The “work”, the projects that scholars produce does not happen in a vacuum; it is often produced through and catalyzed by conversation; tools are often developed because conversation and construct (imaginings) dictate the need. Structures, be they infrastructural, methodological, even spatial, also have an effect on the work that comes out of them, not just in how that work develops, but extending to what kinds of projects are conceived of in the first place. Do some constructs allow us to develop structures (labs, infrastructure, departments, centers, funding opportunities, etc.) that are particular to DH and don’t fall into the trap of purely mimicking scientific models? Has the “digital humanities” construct been useful in the past in allowing for the development of a discipline that is not wholly contained by either the purely scientific or the purely humanistic (if such categories even exist)? And even if the term has been useful in the past, has the constant rearticulation and reification of it outlived its value? Perhaps the large construct was useful in the past, but, as Kirschenbaum says, it is time to focus on the work. Earhart’s focus on labs and Svensson’s focus on infrastructure don’t focus on specific projects, but are certainly more rooted in materiality than the “Who’s in, Who’s out” conversations and “What is DH” conversations that have dominated in the past.

Perhaps one answer is that constructs can be useful, can expand our conceptions of what is possible and therefore move toward enacting specific, tailored systems that foster DH work instead of work based on previous models—as long as we renew them as the conversation develops. There is no final answer to “What is the Digital Humanities?” and, as Kirschenbaum says, this may be because “we don’t want to know nor is it useful for us to know” (11). But the answer, the “what” doesn’t seem to me to be the “end” for which such a construct is a useful means. Like a utopian imaginary, the construct “digital humanities” expands our notions of what can be done beyond current models. It allows us to detach from limiting connotations in the same way that humanistiscope frees DH infrastructure from science models. If we keep trying to use it as a means to a single answer, though, instead of following the new paths that are opened up by the discursive construction, the construct becomes limiting. If it is a tool, let it be a tool, and then move on.

Because this is the end of Part One, which seemed to be largely about defining, delineating, articulating, and categorizing, I created an example of a completely limiting, useless form of discussing DH – the Buzzfeed archetypal Personality quiz.

Buzzfeed Quiz

So click the link below to find out the single answer to the singular question, “What Kind of DHer Are You?”


Please note: descriptions and quiz elements do not reflect my actual opinions but are meant to be exaggerated versions of possible opinions within the DH community. It’s just for fun :).


Armstrong, Blog Post Week 3: Earhart and the Problem of the Object


“For scholars interested in reinserting writers of color into critical discussions, the recovery efforts were a boon. We imagined that the free access to materials on the web would allow those previously cut off from intellectual capital to gain materials and knowledge that might be leveraged to change the social position of people of color. The new space of the Internet would allow those who had been silenced to have a voice.”

Amy E. Earhart touches on many crucial subjects in her article, “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon”, not the least of which is the importance of the inclusion of race, gender, class, etc. factors in DH. I agree that DH needs to factor in these issues, but I think that Earhart is leaving something out.

The object.

When I say the object, I of course mean the actual computer, the vessel of the technology.

The inclusion of racial, gender, class, etc. factors (particularly class and space in rural areas) needs to factor in availability of access. In the article Earhart mentions, “Advocates of the free web were interested in three ideas: “1) Access to computers should be unlimited and total; 2) All information should be free; 3) Mistrust authority and promote decentralization,” all designed to allow “bubbles” of information to rise from the bottom, sowing “seeds of revolutionary change” (“Battle for the Soul of the Internet”).”

This first part is great in theory, but unfortunately it is only that right now.

The amount of people in rural regions of Appalachia and the South–– focusing here on a study of rural Appalachian Ohio as of 2011–– without access to the internet on a regular basis is “Approximately 124,000 adult Ohioans living in rural Appalachia” whom “cannot get broadband service, or they cannot get service that is fast enough to meet their needs.”

How can we discuss the importance of the inclusion of excluded groups without also speaking about who it is with the access to the information to begin with? Shouldn’t we also look into the object itself and what it is representing? How can we give those who were silenced a voice if they do not have access to the space?

Works Cited

Earhart, Amy E. “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Web.

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You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebel DH

In the introduction to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold touches on a recurrent undertone in many discussions surrounding the digital humanities: DH’s inherent potential to transform, reform, or disrupt traditional humanities processes and values systems. As he points out, “the digital humanities, more than most fields, seems positioned to address many of those changes” (Gold 1). This “potential” is taken up directly or indirectly by authors in this volume with some range – for some, DH is simply another avenue for traditional scholarship, for others, it contains the same problems of hierarchy and homogeneity that the humanities in general contains, for still others it is a revolutionary force that should be harnessed not just within the academy but outside of it. Whether we consider DH to be a “Big Tent” or a meeting place, a category or a method, it’s clear that DH has the potential to transform. With that potential, I think, comes a certain amount of power. But – and yes, I’m going Spiderman on this one – does it also imply a certain amount of responsibility?


To put it another way: Does DH’s revolutionary potential within academia mean that DHers have a subsequent responsibility to practice the kind of projects that push directly against traditional peer-reviewed publishing, devaluation of collaboration, the monograph, etc.? Do the “fault lines” that Gold says have “emerged within the DH community between those who use new digital tools to aid relatively traditional scholarly projects and those who believe that DH is most powerful as a disruptive political force that has the potential to reshape fundamental aspects of academic practice” imply that some are taking up this revolutionary cause, and others are shirking their DH obligations toward creating a greater good?

If there is a responsibility tied to DH’s transformative potential, is it limited to transformation within the academy, to “practices (or “sacred cows”) such as tenure, publication, and peer review” (Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities” 1)? Is that responsibility toward the larger humanities community in general, to “assist humanities advocacy,” as Alan Liu and 4Humanities state (Liu, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities”)? Or, as Elizabeth Losh suggests, is it not only about “hacking the academy” but “hacking the world” – does the responsibility to reshape also extend outside humanities and the academy in general, into public forums and social justice (Losh, “Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University”)?

To me, it seems that the transformative potential should at least be taken advantage of with respect to academia’s traditional value systems, or “sacred cows” – and this internal transformation could perhaps lead to a renovation of the humanities in general, over time. But do we have time?

Charlie Edwards points out that “The analogy DH’s critics like to make is with Big Theory, and this is the implication: that one day we will look back on DH as just another wave that broke over the academy, eroded its formations perhaps in some small places, and then receded, leaving a few tranquil rock pools behind” (Edwards, “The Digital Humanities and Its Users”). William Pannapacker implies something similar, that the revolutionary potential of DH may have an expiration date as its recognition as a discipline grows:

There’s justice in this turn of events: well-earned success for a community that has long regarded itself as facing uncomprehending resistance. At the same time, the tendency to become like Big Theory may change the attractive ethics of the field, described by one panelist “as community, collaboration, and goodwill.” The grassroots days seem to be ending. (PannaPacker, “Digital Humanities Triumphant?”)

There may be a danger, it seems, as the once novel becomes the new normal, as we drop either the D or the H in service of the other letter, that DH will be subsumed into the traditional values systems of academia and leave “humanities education, in general…unchanged” (PannaPacker). Will DHers, feeling the pressure to stay afloat and reach success in a system that isn’t suited to evaluating their work, push to adapt to that system? Or alternatively, as the system does begin to see the value of DH, which seems to be happening more and more, will DH lose the edges that give it its initial revolutionary potential? How does DH keep from morphing, over time, into Big Theory?

Lastly, does transformation need to take place first within the digital humanities in order to have any outward effect? Do internal mirroring of larger issues in the humanities (hierarchies, elitism, a lack of attention to gender, race, class, and able-bodied biases, etc.) detract from DH’s transformative potential?

If DH is, as it is sometimes framed, a sort of new superpower subgenre of the humanities that can either remake the system or bolster it, be subsumed into it or shape the world outside it, how does the community decide that power’s orientation? Is DH a traditional, strong but silent superhero in service of the status-quo, a la Captain America? Or is it a socially conscious vigilante like the Green Arrow? Or maybe the messianic narrative is a little more than DH can handle at this point – perhaps DH (as a whole) is more analogous to an adolescent who finds themselves in a position of power and is torn between disrupting the system, doing the right thing, and just doing cool stuff?


One DH lab / center that has definitive stance on the transformative power of the digital is the Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University in the UK. The Centre focuses both on the study of “disruptive technologies” as an object as well as experimentation with disruptive technologies as a tool (“Our Take on Disruption”, Center for Disruptive Media). Their projects range from the creation of archives (see the digitization of British Telecom’s Archive) to collaborative, open access publications like Living Books About Life or Performative Publications that “align more closely the material form of a publication with its content). Their main interest with these projects, however, is:

“the future of university teaching, learning, research and publication in the age of disruptive media. We view the emergence of media technologies such as smart phones, tablets, p2p networks and the mobile web as providing us with an opportunity to rethink the university – fundamentally, yet also creatively and affirmatively. In other words, our concern is with how digital media technologies can help us to disrupt some of the university’s core foundational concepts, values, practices and genres, both theoretically and performatively. These include the idea of the subject as a static, stable, unitary identity, the indivisible and individualized proprietorial author, the linear argument and text, originality, the finished object, ‘fixity’, intellectual property, copyright and even the human.”

One project, Liquid Theory TV, looks at alternative methods of being an intellectual / communicating intellectual ideas through new technologies. This first episode, for example, focuses on “Liquid Books” by Gary Hall and Clare Birchall:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vG7s1VlanO8 (Is there a way to embed videos on here? Couldn’t figure it out!)
Their project not only seems oriented toward collaboration between scholars, but also broadening access to the public – and the decision to “demystify” is also something of a collapse of a typical informational hierarchy. “Open access” seems to be big at the Centre for Disruptive Media – I wonder how much of the transformation of academia – “Hacking the Academy” – is an opening of the academy to the outside world?

Armstrong, Blog Post Week 2: Assigning Credit

“discussions have tended to focus primarily on establishing digital work as equivalent to print publications [in order] to make it count instead of considering how digital scholarship might transform knowledge-making practices” (Purdy and Walker 178).

“Fair evaluation of collaborative digital scholarship can only function within a complex network of responsibilities” (171).

I think this assertion was what I took away most from this Nowviskie article. In part because I was so intrigued by the Purdy and Walker quote above mentioned at the beginning of her article. As much as this was discussing the proper crediting of collaborators and the implications of that in DH, it was just as much, in my mind, about the crediting of DH to begin with. Not necessarily in the way that Purdy and Walker discussed in the first part of the quote, about some sort of equivocation to equal a standard accepted method, but in a more nuanced way.

This crediting came from the way that DH is being discussed in panels, from the way Nowviskie discusses it in her article, how seriously and complexly it has been looked at and ways in which there are already demands on departments (even if it is an abstract discussion for some) to take these issues seriously.

I’m interested in how this article both breaks and follows traditional academic power structures. While it is trying to expand the ways in which DH is accepted, it is still having to become accepted by those higher academic powers; it is having to legitimize itself before being accepted as legitimate. I think the thought and movement towards a responsibility within the community makes it legitimate already, and I wonder how this fits into the discussion within the community. How is this discussed within departments?

Works Cited

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Where Credit is Due: Preconditions for the Evaluation of Collaborative Digital Scholarship.” Profession 2011.1 (2011). Web.

Purdy, James P., and Joyce R. Walker. “Valuing Digital Scholarship: Exploring the Changing Realities of Intellectual Work.” Profession (2010): 177–95. Print.

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The Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization of Digital SPACE

This week, I’m interested in concepts of SPACE —specifically, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization[1] of digital space or the space of digital humanities. There seems to be a polarity set up between the virtual and the physical (tangible), that which is rooted in territorialized space and that which “takes place” in abstract space. This differentiation occurs most notably in Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms but is also exemplified by the encounters in Svensson’s “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” – different labs lean toward the physical or the virtual, their goals (and modes of engagement) lean towards the expressive or the analytical: the philosophy of ACTlab in Austin, a “performance and production space,” cannot be separated from the studio space, and demands that its participants “make stuff” (Svensson 11). Its “spatial grounding” is seen as essential. The HASTAC meeting, though it contains a “distinct physical grounding,” is “based on the idea of a virtual organization” (13). Its goals are infrastructural and facilitative; they attempt to make institutional space for the digital humanities as a field.

Yet as both Mechanisms and Svensson’s encounters show, the digital humanities seem particularly adept at existing in both deterritorialized and reterritorialized spaces, in multiple spaces with simultaneous and varied purposes, though there is a tendency, as Kirschenbaum points out, to categorize the field as existing only in virtual form. His emphasis on “forensic materiality” is an antidote to our tendency toward “medial ideology”; it pushes against supposed ephemerality, fungility, and homogeneity and reterritorializes “storage space”—putting it back, conceptually (technically, it never left), into the physical machine.

This urge to reterritorialize or root the digital humanities is intriguing to me – not just in Kirschenbaum’s emphasis on the forensic materiality of digital objects, but as a form of concretizing other aspects of abstraction in the digital humanities field. If we expand the “material” side of the digital to include the material side of the digital humanities as a field, reterritorialization would encompass physical labs (as opposed to virtual cohorts), purpose or use driven projects as opposed to “purely” intellectual ones, projects that are “with” and “for” objects instead of just “about” them, as Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson state in “Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship,” part of “Evaluating Digital Scholarship” (Anderson and McPherson 149). To me, “reterritorialization” would even point to articulating the digital humanities field through concrete examples as opposed to hypothetical qualifications – one of the biggest challenges for me in understanding the digital humanities as a field has been connecting abstract concepts to real projects.

Incedentally, I’m hoping that this particular example will help to concretize my comments about deterritorialization and reterritorialization, which are completely abstract!

Vectors: The Roaring ‘Twenties by Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson’s project, The Roaring ‘Twenties, was published two years ago in Vectors and exemplifies this position of simultaneous territorialized and deterritorialized space. Described as “an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City”, the project is driven by and rooted in physical space, but uses the capacities of virtual digital space to occupy multiple temporalities and catalog a history of sound.

roaring twenties

In her Author’s Note, Thompson describes the book on which the project research is based as “a history of the intersection of the evanescent and the concrete. Throughout its narrative, the ephemeral vibrations of sound interact with a material world intended to control those vibrations” (Thompson 1). Responding to a contemporary tendency to “dissociate the sounds [we] hear from their places of origin” and “render [ourselves] oblivious to the space in which [we] are physically located while [we] listen,” Thompson chose to “deploy these technological tools in a different irection…reinvoke a sense of the very specific historical times and physical places in which the sounds of the past are embedded” (Thompson 1).

In creating this interactive archive, Thompson is reterritorializing and deterritorializing space at the same time. While this is only one example of such a project, I think that this use of digital space as both physical and virtual points to the unique space within digital humanities for creating such projects – because it is multimodal, collaborative, and often expands beyond insular academia, it is suited to existing as a sort of physical and virtual “commons”[2] space, with multiple uses, orientations, and participants.


Works Cited

Anderson, Steve, and Tara Mcpherson. “Engaging Digital Scholarship: Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship.”

          Profession 2011.1 (2011): 136-51. Web.

Joselit, David. After Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

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

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010): 1-36. Web.

Thompson, Emily. “Author’s Statement.” The Roaring ‘Twenties. Vectors. 4.1 (2013). Web.

[1] When I say deterritorialization and reterritorialization I’m thinking of the slip into abstraction vs. the tangible, that which is rooted in a physical reality vs. that which is removed from physical reality, etc. For me, these terms also align with Kirschenbaum’s forensic materiality and medial ideology, forensic materiality being an instance of reterritorialization of the deterritorialized medial ideology.

[2] In using the word “commons” I’m thinking of a space analogous to David Joselit’s definition of a commons in after art as a space that “may host several actions, both actual and virtual” (Joselit 50).

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Underground Technopower: Bridging “the Two Cultures” in Academia

Perhaps it is true that, “Literature changes more slowly than science,” (Snow, 8) [0] but I would argue that poetry is now in a state of evolution, wanting to engage with readers in a way it has typically been unknown for. Contemporary poets and poetry want to allow the universal access and human interaction digital humanities facilitate, “Knowledge representations are also the means by which we express things about the world, the medium of expression and communication in which we tell the machine (and perhaps one another) about the world. […] a medium of expression and communication for use by us,” (John Unsworth)[1].

Traditional notions of these two distinct disciplines imply that science moves towards a positive future, while literature seems to meditate on the past, and the anguish that dwells there. Marrying the two keeps us in the present, as well as the past, while helping us move into the future. Franco Moretti suggests in his article, “Graphs, Maps, and Trees,”[2] that we must step back and look at the big picture through collection and analysis of data to truly get an idea of what is happening in the field of literature. He makes a strong case for the field of Digital Humanities providing us with the ways in which the canon effectively erases literary history. Digital Humanities already appears a large part of the current climate in poetry, from online book reviews, to interactive poetry apps, to personal websites and public forums where important literary conversations are happening between key players and aspiring writers, to mass collections of literary documents and analysis, to the obsolescence of paper submissions to online literary journals , to online recordings of chapbooks whose existences are purely sonic[3]–a collective conversation is happening in the literary world through technological means.

It is clear that C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures was written in the late 1950s, for I cannot agree that, “There seems then to be no place where the two cultures meet” (16). Snow calls for a “third culture,” one in which these vastly polar disciplines meet. It is my opinion that a large spectrum already exists between the sciences and humanities, by means previously stated. Many books of poetry making art of biology and other sciences are being published as well, demonstrating another facet of this extensive spectrum. Spring Gun Press[4], for example, recently published “Eric Suzanne’s Riding SideSaddle,*[5] a work on 250 interchangeable index cards, that explores the construction of narrative and the authority of the novel form,” breaking down elemental data known of existing narrative and allowing the reader to interactively place cards in particular, selective orders to create new formulas and, consequently, new art–the relationship between analytical data and art is key here. Ian Hatcher[6], a developer who has worked on many literary projects with Spring Gun and other such presses, creates interactive websites[7] and apps, using complicated algorithms and code, allowing users with any educational or non-educational background to create poetry and interact with existing texts off of the page. Pedagogically, we teach young poets a sort of algorithm when writing poems. These teaching methods come from applied use, research, and collected data, highlighting the existing relationship between scientific method and literature of which Moretti emphasizes. When we pull back and see the larger milieu of literature and science, they are hardly distant, and yet, they remain separate in academic culture.

In his article, Hacking the Humanities[8], Elias Muhanna writes, “As I read through pages of perfect mimicry and snarky pastiche, I felt relief. The “two cultures” of the sciences and humanities were not so far apart, after all, or at least could be bridged by the lingua franca of pop culture.” Using a natural-language processing toolkit, one student created a “robot encyclopedist [that] spoke in magnetic poetry phrases, which occasionally yielded uncanny reproductions of Plinian syntax but often fell flat.” Muhanna goes on to say, “There were two things, though, of which I was certain. First, a machine guided by an undergraduate had taught me something new about the expository style of an ancient Roman natural historian. Second, I had to hire Henry.” Muhanna’s reaction is incredible considering what little rules exist when a student turns in a project like this. In my own graduate program, a student was punished by a colleague for creating an algorithm, which generated poems from existing sonnets. The teacher saw this as a form of cheating, or a way to avoid creating original poetry, which perhaps is true. Certainly as teachers and as writers, artists, etc. we are uniformly taught that methods such as these are not viable ways of creating art. But what would our academic landscape look like if students were encouraged to do such things or to follow their natural talents? What if students with more technological, mathematical, and scientific experience were taught to apply these gifts in the humanities?

Many poets have already breached this gap outside of academia, but I cannot help but wonder who got them there or if, as Cynthia Selfe puts it, they came to this medium by their own experimentation and research. Perhaps it is time that academia provide the tools and examples for developing writers and humanists to participate in contemporary conversations via technology between literature and science, or whatever place a student may fall on the existing spectrum.

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