Criticizing DH: Response to “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities”

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To a newcomer such as myself, the digital humanities can be an awfully intimidating field. DH is inclusive: you have to be in the club to know who’s who. And DH is constantly evolving as a discipline: today’s hot text may be discarded tomorrow.

I wouldn’t mind the rapid flux and the insularity if it weren’t the case that DH is often presented as being only the best of these things. It isn’t inclusive: it’s communal but equality-challenged; it’s not in flux, but rapidly-paced and multifaceted. A certain positivity covers the surface of DH. What I am sceptical of is jingoism, and DH is certainly on a mission to prove itself a worthy endeavour, one that humanities departments should dabble in. Though, dabblers may find themselves jumping into the deep end of what is actually a discipline, complete with internal feuds and conflicting canons. Personally, I find that too much positivity is a frightening sign. I want to know about the dissent and criticism, to see politics laid out flat. In short, I wish that I could find a primer of who’s in and who’s out, the latest tools and texts, and the state of the discipline

This is a dream, and I know that. DH is a new field, and politics even in well-established disciplines are rarely ever laid out flat. For adventurous souls, not knowing is half the fun. But it was a delight to me, at least, to discover David Golumbia’s blog. He discusses politics and he criticizes DH and its practicioners. He has also identified some of the vitriol that I’ve been looking for beneath DH’s shiny veneer – and confirms some of my worst fears.

In his recent post “Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities” Golumbia talks about some of the very personal attacks that can take place in DH, which he argues are the product of a certain unexamined conservative political leaning. He argues that there is a “brutal incivility” associated with the “politics that persists very near the ‘nice’ surface of DH.” He goes on to tell how after delivering a talk he was attacked with ad hominem barbs by a prominent DHer. He argues that illogical arguments, like those that were thrown at him, are meant as cover up for a “poisonous political agenda” common to some in DH.

Golumbia argues that opposition to his talk was prompted by a difference in politics. His general thesis is that:

“as a politics its function [DH’s] has been to unseat other sites of authority in English departments and to establish alternate sites of power from existing ones, and in no small part to keep what I broadly call ‘cultural studies of the digital’ out of English departments, and generally to work against cultural studies & theoretical approaches, while not labeling itself as such.”

The DHer who was so infuriated with Golumbia denied that DH has inherent power imbalances. Golumbia argues that denying that these exist is an argument that is heard “only from the political right, which is to say, the party that benefits from its alignment with power, an alignment it often tries to downplay even as it benefits.” DH has a “facade of neutrality” that enables this kind of right wing political manoeuvring. When two of the DH speakers present at the talk ignore the angry attacker’s remarks, they are participating in this poisonous neutrality.

I have been studying DH for close to three months now, which is not nearly enough time to know whether Golumbia is closer to the truth than his attacker or not. I am glad that he is able to express his opinions; it seems clear from his interactions with the purported angry DHer that there are those who would prefer that he is silent. Reading over his blog, he makes some excellent points elsewhere, such as here on big data and here on Wikipedia. I find a discussion around power balances in DH to be essential reading. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser between other, more best-face-forward blog posts.

The apprehension that I have towards DH is still with me, however. This is an apprehension that I share with my classmates, who have wrestled to define DH (see here and here), although my fear is that I will be complicit in a neutrality that helps those who would be my enemies. Exactly who is in the right, though, is hard to tell. While I find Golumbia’s points convincing on a quick read through, I might feel differently if I were a committed DHer, for whom even the title of his blog would be untoward – Uncomputing. He himself remarks that he is a black sheep in DH. Is this for a reason?

Like Golumbia, I too believe that “Power and capital in our society are inextricably linked, and in many ways identical.” I also believe that critique holds a strong place in DH and that it deserves a future. I’ll be on the lookout for more political posts like this, and go forward a little more confident that DH can be critiqued and that criticism has a valid purpose within the discipline. It isn’t all sunshine and roses: what a relief.

 

 

Image Credit: Ruth Hartnup

Bridging the Gap between Tools and Texts

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When I sat down this week with a large stack of papers on textual analysis, I was hoping that they would illuminate for me how literary text functions on the web, and how analysis of literature has been changed by digital technologies.

What I found instead was a history of text encoding that entirely changed my focus.

In “Facilitating Communities of Practice in Digital Humanities: Librarian Collaborations for Research and Training in Text Encoding” Harriet E. Green looks at five case studies of text encoding projects that utilize TEI, or the Text-encoding Initiative guidelines, when encoding literary texts in SGML or XML, which are “two metalanguages that provide an application-independent standard for data interchange” (220). Libraries play a key role in educating scholars, usually graduate students, in how to use these guidelines and these markup languages. Scholars gain experience in a DH community of practice, gain experience in researching biographical information and other relevant contextual data, and contribute to projects, the final produce of which will offer enhanced searchability of texts and other benefits for analysis.

After reading this article, I was conflicted. The increased searchability of texts and other digitial advancements, such as word counts and text-marking, are wonderful for textual analysis. EEBO (Early English Books online) is a great example of a success in this regard. Being included in a community of practice is also valuable, especially in contrast to the solitary work of the typical humanities scholar. However, I couldn’t help but think that if I were a graduate student at one of the five case study institutions, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a project like this due to how labour intensive they can be. At the Kolb-Proust Archive, graduate students have worked with the librarian over the past fifteen years on the creation and editing of notecards about Proust correspondence. That’s quite a lot of labour for which most students didn’t see overwhelming results. The Victorian Women Writers Project VWWP at Indiana University at Bloomington has a similarly long history. Begun in 1995, it was revised in 2010 with all texts requiring updates and new texts being added. Students on this project showed a lack of enthusiasm in finishing the project. As one librarian explains: “We also had many students who didn’t finish their projects during the course of the semester. Most of them continued to work on them, but some we had to take care of their work for them” (225). MONK, a web-based text mining software hosted at the University of Illinois Library that contains TEI-encoded texts, is a prototype for many other projects. Even here, “the process of TEI encoding is so labor intensive” that projects were sometimes abandoned (222). The general consensus is that while the end product may be useful, the process of creating it is too arduous, and researchers feel “strong reservations about engaging in the actual process of encoding texts” (222). With regards to the University of Virginia (UVA) text encoding project, the librarian at the Scholar’s Lab notes: “‘Ten years ago… doing TEI was almost an art unto itself and people were interested.’ But now, she says, faculty and students are less inclined to do the encoding and far prefer to acquire the texts already marked up with encoding.” If I were one of these graduate students enlisted in mass encoding, I’d rather skip right to having the prefabricated tools as well.

However, I’m aware that receiving the tools after they have been created also means missing out on the community of practice inherent in working within Digital Humanities tools. Reading about the history of text analysis tools really makes me appreciate at DH today stands on the shoulders of so many innovators. Most histories of textual analysis, including “Towards an Archaeology of Text Analysis Tools” by Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, and “A History of Humanities Computing” by Susan M. Hockey” note that Roberto Busa, a Jesuit priest, was one of the pioneers of textual analysis (along with and his collaborator Paul Tasman). Busa’s work on the Index Thomisticus project, which is a tool for performing text searches within the massive corpus of Aquinas’s works, lasted for approximately 30 years. Now, that’s a long time to do textual encoding. He, and others like him, had to create the tools they were using, which shaped their very processes and products, as they went. “A History of Humanities Computing” traces textual analysis by advances made over decades, from times where scholars were “hampered by technology,” to where “where academic respectability for computer-based work in the humanities was questionable.” By advancing digital processes, innovators in early DH work made it possible for the tools that we have today to come into being. They also did a great deal of work at resolving “the two cultures” of humanities and the sciences, by bringing “the rigor and systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies characteristic of the sciences to address problems within the humanities.” Since the 90’s, and continuing today, problems with the two cultures have “emerged again” as there is a divide between scholars who create tools and those who use and talk about them (Hockey).

I believe quite strongly that the divide between science and the humanities is an artificial one, and that applying scientific rigor to humanities projects is one way to overcome this gap. Although I can’t blame those graduate students who weren’t interested in encoding text, it’s a bit like denying the importance of basic procedures for scientific experimentation. You have to cultivate lot of samples into petri dishes before you can effectively prove germ theory. There’s something romantic, as well, about being on the forefront of innovation in the way that those early technologists were. I now get to enjoy the products of their labour via DH tools such as Voyant and the tools listed in Tapor, but being one of the first creators of a tool that no one had ever seen before would be something else. It reminds me of Stephen Ramsey’s controversial statement that “Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. [. . .] If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” I don’t agree, but I understand the appeal in believing so.

Using DH tools such as Voyant and the many tools available through Tapor brings me closer to understanding how English literature function on web, and how analysis of it has changed with digital technologies – my original goal for this week. I have explored these tools, and find that they’re quite useful. I particularly like Umigon, which analyzes the emotions in tweets. I enjoy using these tools that I didn’t have to construct myself, just as I enjoy using digital texts online with excellent searchability. They help me with conducting analysis, and I benefit so much from others’ work.

Having read about this history, though, I’m going to be asking myself two questions going forward:

How is what I am accessing online the product of another person’s rigorous labour?

And, what innovation could I create to help bridge the gap between the two cultures and advance DH? Projects that would not stultify an entire generation of graduate students preferred.

 

Readings:

Hockey, Susan M. 2004. “A History of Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 3–20. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Green, Harriet E. 2014. “Facilitating Communities of Practice in Digital Humanities: Librarian Collaborations for Research and Training in Text Encoding.” The Library Quarterly 84 (2): 219–234.

Sinclair, Stefan, and Geoffrey Rockwell. 2014. “Towards an Archaeology of Text Analysis Tools.” In DH2014. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Material Culture Studies Seminar: DH Gets Physical

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A retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is first up at the PAMM, including his installation According to What? shown at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

This week, I’ll be talking about Material Culture Studies in class for my seminar discussion. Here are the articles I’ve looked at. Rather than preparing a handout, I’ve decided to outline some of the key characteristics of these authors and articles here for you to keep in mind while reading. Latour, Bleeker, and Manoff all take very different approaches to Material Culture in their writing. My interpretations of their work are just that – mine – so while I’ve given an overview of these works here I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say in class about the relevance of Material Culture Studies to DH.

Bruno Latour’s work is characteristically easy to read – which is helpful given the complexity of some of his subject matter. In this essay, he gives an overview of “Actor-Network Theory,” or ANT, by discussing design, sociology, and technology. He posits that the objects around us, which we often ignore, impact our lives immensely. He illustrates, with the example of a door, how enmeshed humans and nonhumans are in the joint venture of saving (humans) work. Objects do labour that is set out for them by humans, but they can also be prescriptive, meaning that they can affect us because they are engineered to do so. Tangential to his main points, he discusses modernity and the false dichotomy it puts between humans and things, coding as a language that does action, and language itself and its tricky relationship to physical things.

Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane
Artifacts.” Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future.
Cambridge, Mass
. Ed. Deborah J. Johnson and Jameson M Wetmore. MIT
Press. 151–180.
http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/50-MISSING-MASSES-GB.pdf

Julian Bleecker is a theorist who follows on the footsteps of writers like Latour. His essay expands upon a basic Material Culture Studies idea: what if objects not only mattered, but they actively told us why? His idea of blogjects is fascinating and very relevant to DH. It might even make us think differently about many of the DH projects that we regularly encounter. Blogjects are objects that blog, that do so in collectives, and with minimal human intervention. In doing so, they reform human perception and make an impact on human decisions. He gives rules for blogjects and some interesting, if now dated, examples.

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins,
eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.
Best online version: http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf

Marlene Manoff writes about material culture with regards to digital librarianship. If we are to consider materiality as important, which she convincingly argues for, then we have to consider how materiality affects library practices. Digital and physical materials are not interchangeable. The type and quality of metadata are extremely important. While digital degradation is often ignored because of illusions surrounding the physicality of digital materials, it is essential that we pay attention to it for the sake of long-term preservation. Manoff also discusses code, but briefly. She gives a nice brief overview of the treatment of Material Culture Studies in librarianship and historical (read:theorist) considerations of the topic.

Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical
Perspectives.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311–325.
http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/journals
/portal_libraries_and_the_academ   /v006/6.3manoff.pdf

Bonus!

The following resources are also work having a look at.

For those of you who learn best by visual means or by exploring a website, check out:

This infographic: The Internet of Things: A Primer

These Bruno Latour Mixed Media projects

For my brethren the ra-ra-feminist-theorists:

This essay: Donna Harraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

This is a really interesting essay, but I’m not sure we’ll have time to talk about it in class. Part of why it’s so difficult to read is because it’s meant to be irreverent; partially it’s also highly theoretical. Still, cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids, are quite relevant to DH. All of us become cyborgs when we sit down at our computers and engage with the internet. Drivers in their cars are cyborgs; women with IUDs are cyborgs. Harraway is a renowned theorist, and this essay is a classic in Material Culture Studies, albeit slightly off the beaten path. Harraway connects cyborgs with feminism and with what I think we could call “internet identity” in a way that could be constructively compared with the DH Manifesto from week 1.

Some of Harraway’s best lines:

“The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

“From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

“Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and [sic] art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”

 

Three gold stars for anyone who tweets a favourite line back at me from Harraway, or from any of these readings. See you in class this Thursday!

 

 

 

Image Credit: Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn Print. Ai Weiwei. Installation from According to What? installation at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Image from: http://althouse.blogspot.ca/2014/02/why-did-artist-break-1-million-ai.html.

A Farewell to Passive Voice: The Hemingway App

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What if you could learn to write like Ernest Hemingway?

I’ve recently come across a program that purports to help. The Hemingway App is a simple tool for identifying common writing errors. The web-based (or desktop-for-a-fee) application allows you to cut and paste in your text. It then tells you where the passive sentences are, the adverbs, and the overly complex sentence structures. It looks like this:

 

Hemingway App

 

I enjoy using it. It’s nice to have a second pair of eyes to look over a paragraph that isn’t quite working. Of course, I don’t feel any need to slavishly follow its advice. Rather, it helps make my writing purposeful. I’m aware of my complex sentences and passive voice, and I can choose to alter them or not. The App is purportedly inspired by Hemingway’s lessons in writing journalism. Since I do not need to write in a journalistic style most of the time (you’ll note that I haven’t front-loaded this post, but buried the lede) I take its advice in stride. Sometimes it’s useful to write at a Grade 7 writing level. Other times, not. I do wish that it has been around for my undergraduate English students when I was still marking their papers.

Since this app is more than a year old, I have the benefit of being able to read earlier reviews of it. Author Jerry Coyne lists great authors throughout history who fail the Hemingway app, The New Yorker notes that Hemingway himself would fail this app, and scores of other reviewers pooh-pooh the very notion of it. They seem to think that the Hemingway App implies an absolute imitation of Hemingway, as if the App has passed a Turing test. Wouldn’t Papa turn over in his grave at the very thought? The negative reviews console the part of me that loves the poetry inherent in Hemingway’s work so absent in this app. Ernest Hemingway has his own style. It’s strong and crisp and poetic in its simplicity.The Hemingway App knows nothing of poetry. Its only job, which it does well, it to identify a select range of errors. It has nothing to do with the man himself. Like most writing tools, The Hemingway App doesn’t give you the ability to take a style and own it. Most generic advice tends to flatten, to dull, to unify. Writing tools are no substitute for confidence and voice, which writers must find on their own.

The App is best viewed as a simple tool to be used by a writer capable of knowing when to ignore advice. But, it also raises some interesting questions. The App doesn’t imitate Hemingway very convincingly, but what would it be like if it did? What if it could pass the Turing test and actually help one emulate Hemingway? This is a major part of the appeal here: to imagine my writing and Hemingway’s interacting in some digital way. While the creators of this App modeled it after a writer known for his clarity, what would it be like if they had chosen someone else? A Herman Melville, an Elizabeth Gaskell, a Shakespeare, or a William Carlos Williams? What would a really good App like this look like? (If you’ve seen anything better than a simple translator, please let me know). The idea of giving authors like these any impact of contemporary writing is fascinating, and very welcome. It reminds me of how modern Italian is based, in part, on the works of Dante. It isn’t too late for us to collectively decide to model our use of language on someone equally as fantastic. What if great authors could breathe new life into humdrum prose through the use of Apps?

Until then, if we can use Hemingway as simple inspiration to become better writers, so much the better.

 

Image Credit for To Have and Have Not courtesy of Adam Field

Redefining Work

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of technology in work.

It started when I read this New York Sunday Book Review ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’. Barbara Ehrenreich ties together two related works to talk about shifts in what work means. Rise of the Robots details how robots are replacing human workers. It’ll only get worse in the alarming future, as “technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment.” Job eliminations, in combination with the 2008 financial crisis, mean less work for the young, the unlucky, and the laid off. The second text, Shadow Work, is about how menial work is being newly divvied up. Bagging groceries once kept human workers busy. Now, there are no more low-level workers of this sort, but everyone gets a piece of the (menial) action: “[w]e take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared.” In addition, those robots that are taking our jobs are now adding insult to injury by giving us work to do, such as creating endless passwords (and after you’ve forgotten, recreating them) so that we can book our own travel tickets online.

Ehrenreich’s point with her review is simple: menial work is shifting hands. That labour is being redistributed in new and existentially horrifying ways shouldn’t be news to anyone in librarianship, a field that is undergoing so much transformation. Why I like Ehrenreich’s review is that she ties together the rise of our future robot overlords with the disenfranchisement of the young and underpaid. It’s all a part of the same mess where work is socially constructed and in flux.

At one point, Ehrenreich makes a wry comment about how her job could be automated,: “It’s impossible to read “Rise of the Robots” — for review anyway — without thinking about how the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.” It’s then that I realize she, like me, has had a long career somewhere considering the absurdity of this thing we call a job. Who hasn’t? When you get that first job making burgers, it all seems like so much to do about nothing. Writing book reviews might be more fulfilling but it’s still vulnerable to sudden obsolescence.

Of course, it isn’t appropriate to just say of menial work that it’s silly and meaningless when there are people’s lives at stake. It reminds me of this classic Kids in the Hall sketch which actually does a great job of capturing the tragedy of the decline in assembly line work in America. What most wageworkers of this sort do isn’t spectacular.

If all of this is a little bleak – and it is – consider this. Before the rise of the modern wage labourers didn’t exist as they do now. At least, according to Ivan Illich in his essay “Shadow Work,” the origin of for the title of the lately reviewed book. Before the modern age wage labour was considered lower than beggary (9). Personally, I find some comfort in the fact that wage work, now so important, is a fabrication as much as any other. According to Illich, through the rise of wage-labour: “work [became] presented as the stone of wisdom, the panacea, the magic elexir which transforms what it touches into gold…. this is the
fundamental position of classical economists from Adam Smith and Ricardo to Mill and Marx” (112-113). Work was transformed and elevated, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

I say that this is comforting because it’s a stark reminder that we as a species make work. This means that we can remake it any way we like. We can even unmake it by handing off the lowest of low work to the robots. Work may no longer be necessary, and if that sounds terrifying because people do need to earn money to eat, remember that we make those constructions, too.

What I say is: give the lowest, and crummiest, and most degrading work to robots who can do it better, faster, and easier, and won’t die of boredom in the process. Let them have it, and give them the shadow work while we’re at it. Technology can bring us so many wonderful new things – let free time and creative work be among them. That doesn’t mean that I’m in favour of unemployment, or of the kind of shadow work that preys on the most vulnerable even within technological webs. Instead, I’m in favour of making work meaningful again, or even making something better than work. And technology has to be an integral part of the strategy for doing so. Can we have both meaningful labour and everything else?

Technology can’t be a panacea, either. But it can be a tool for creating meaning, for transforming what is old and outmoded to be new and better. Down with flipping burgers. Up with the (time-saving apps and global communication and automation of plant work) robots.