What does anthropology have to say about digital humanities? What does digital humanities offer to anthropology? When I was recently invited to participate in the American Anthropology Association Conference in Denver Colorado, I wasn’t sure how to answer these questions. The following is a video capture of my presentation at AAA and my attempt at approaching this strange new set of issues. Here also is a link to my co-presenters!
(If you watch to the end, you’ll get to see my embarrassingly cluttered desktop!)
I’ll also just go ahead and post the text of my presentation here:
I am excited to present here today partly because of how strange and unfamiliar it is for me to be invited to such a large meeting that is so thoroughly outside the scope of my experience. The concerns of anthropology are certainly at a remove from my expertise. I can only hope that some unanticipated overlap occurs and that my performance of being strangely not present are productive somehow. Without the benefit of gauging your response to my comments in real time, I hope you do not tire too quickly of the performative license I’ll take here. After all, I will remain, perhaps frustratingly so, unfamiliar because I will not be able to meet you beyond the confines of this chat window.
A theme running throughout my comments today will certainly relate to bridging the gulfs between us (that is, this set of academics concerned with championing the term digital humanities, or DH) and the us that exists within this room in Denver. Already, I feel like a bit of an outsider through my method of participating. Here, within an off hand comment about methods, we come to the crux of what defines digital humanities. A good definition might simply claim that “digital humanities is the exploration of humanities based problems with computational tools.” And so, within this working definition, it’s possible to identify a trilogy concerns for my comments here. Some of the gulfs that we will cross today will be disciplinary, others will be methodological, and still others will be institutional.
So, let’s look to the relationship between these gulfs: I was also excited to participate here today partly because I find the premise of the conference and of the panel out of step with my day to day research activities and my experience of interdisciplinarity. It seems strange to me to arrange our concerns through such a rough binary: strangeness and familiarity are so context bound I doubt if a stable definition is even possible. Yet, here we are, discussing DH as a strange new interloper, with the noble goal of de-exoticizing the field. And, I should say, I am playing a little coy here. [SLIDE] When the Chronicle declares DH “the next big thing,” DHers should expect some interest. There are reasons, some historical and some technical, for DH’s perceived stranger status. Which brings us immediately to certain institutional challenges.
Digital humanities has always existed outside the norms of university academic structures. [SLIDE] Ted Underwood puts it this way: “It’s an open secret that the social phenomenon called ‘digital humanities’ mostly grew outside the curriculum.” It grew through an ad hoc system of labs, centers, and research groups interested in digitizing materials, building databases, building tools, or working collaboratively. [SLIDE] While these achievements are now organized by centernet, it grew at first in an improvised way that met the requirements of affiliated research groups. DH has always been extracurricular, extra-disciplinary, and (if I may) extra-institutional.
The perception that digital humanities is a singular revolutionary force elides the field’s history and the experiences of the vast majority of humanists working in dark basements on old machines, carving resources and space out of preexisting departments and faculties. In this context, it is less surprising to claim that digital humanities is an old discipline. [SLIDE] It has a history that spans back into the 1940s with Roberto Busa and the development of the Index Thomisticus. Incidentally, by way of completing our historical frame, the Index Thomisticus is a complete lemmatization of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and his apocryphal or associated texts. When Busa began his project, it quickly became unmanageable with traditional paper based methods, so he convinced Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, to sponsor his project in 1949. It took another 30 years to produce the 56 volume Index and finally appeared on the web in 2005. The labors of an outsider working in a basement, perhaps.
In the intervening years, the digital humanities community has produced many projects and platforms that have revolutionized research and teaching in the humanities. The William Blake Archive (1996) is an important early example of a project headed by a multidisciplinary team and edited by Morris Eaves (University of Rochester), Robert Essick (University of California, Riverside), Joseph Viscomi (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The archive is sponsored by the Library of Congress (no less) and has ongoing support from UNC. The Rossetti Archive (1993-2008) hosts a scholarly collection of materials to facilitate the study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet.
The Archive’s editor Jerome McGann, who remains one of the foremost thinkers and theoreticians of digital humanities, is an interesting test case for how DH emerged. [SLIDE] The Textual Condition (1991) and Radiant Textuality (2001) represent canonical works for DH practitioners. In fact, McGann describes a new generation of humanities scholars in Radiant Textuality that has proven to be prescient and is kind of scholar who I work to train on a daily basis; [SLIDE] he says of these new scholars, “The next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing texts.” As a student working on the Rossetti Archive, Paul Fyfe recounts his surprise upon learning that “Jerome McGann does not especially like computers” (1). The affordances of a digital archive that interested McGann. There is an emerging tension between research-specific computing needs and expansion of knowledge that is possible by, as Fyfe puts it, “opening those projects to questions he had yet to imagine” through computing (1). In many ways, the “digital” descriptor for DH is purely practical and emerges from a sense of wanting to make things and ask new questions.
It is no longer a controversial claim to say that computational methods have redefined the pace, scale, and type of work being done by humanists. However, a new conceptual framework is still needed to understand the social and cultural changes that are occurring in scholarly communication and how this communication is increasingly public, outward facing, and socially engaged. This metadiscussion about DH is certainly not done. [SLIDE] In the words of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s now canonical essay, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” published in the Association of Departments of English Bulletin in 2010, the digital humanities is about “a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people that live an active 24/7 life online” (6). We are witnessing a moment when our communities of practice are growing methodologically, but we are also witnessing a moment in which our knowledge stakeholders are expanding along with the reach of the web.
This is where I find Joshua’s language around “Culture, Community and Collections” as precisely where anthropology and DH might find common ground. Many humanists often find themselves bridging multiple learning communities and knowledge stakeholders that span along local and global scales. There is a way of looking at the world that is habituated to our institutions and our local communities that needs to be expressed to a much larger community online. For this, I’ve turned to Etienne Wenger’s language of “communities of practice,” which describes the various kinds of bridging necessary to define how we “do things together”: how we “make things. [SLIDE] He defines a “community of practice” this way: “Since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that share cultural practices reflecting their collective learning. […] Participating in these ‘communities of practice’ is essential to our learning. It is at the very core of what makes us human beings capable of meaningful knowing.” While DH emerges often in an ad hoc way, our reflection on the field remains defined by a shared methodology of computing. In this way, our disciplinary boundaries are very broad indeed.
The modes of belonging include how we engage each other, how we imagination ourselves, and how we are able to align with partners outside DH. Digital humanities is already very good engagement. Doing DH is, as many have noted, collaborative because no one can possess all the technical skill required to build digital archives or build a useful text analysis tool. By extension, DHers are also very good at this “imagination” phase, which has to do with the metadiscussion of the field. The “what is DH?” genre has been so well established at this point that Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte have collected an anthology [SLIDE] —Defining Digital Humanities—to preserve this particular developmental moment within the DH community. I suspect this text will be an important marker in future years. It will be a snapshot of our technological context as well as the evolution of concerns facing the field. Wenger’s final category is instructive because it is where DH is heading, and it is the topic I want to finally discuss in the context of a fledgling research project at Penn State.
I began by recognizing the need to become more aware of how our research activities are aligned with local and global communities interested in the information we share. [SLIDE] By taking the Penn State Digital Humanities Lab as a microcosm of how the humanities is evolving with computation, I want to present to you the findings, or rather, the methods of an undergraduate researcher with whom I have been working. [SLIDE] The 12th Street Project is a collaborative effort of the students and faculty at Penn State. 12th Street collects the history, culture, and contemporary voices of those living in Erie, PA. The project takes its name from a major street in Erie that has been lined with factories and businesses throughout the region’s history. We take 12th Street as a microcosm of the social, cultural, and economic forces that have shaped the region since the mid-19th century. Together we are charting the history of the region in an effort to imagine its potential futures. It’s developed on Omeka and the Neatline add-on. We hope 12th Street will become a local geographical history of the region that appeals to a global audience.
[SLIDE] Bridget Jenkins, a undergraduate researcher working on the project, developed a narrative history on the Erie Masonic Temple and how it survived its 100 year history. The building became a template for the evolution of the neighborhood and by extension the region. She was a diligent archivist, but was unable to obtain original documents in either the municipal archives or from the local historical societies. So, she began looking outside of the library system. Eventually she connected with an individual within one of the Temple’s Masonic bodies that had collected documents throughout the years, with the goal of having the Temple listed as a historic site. These documents existed in a three ring binder and may well be unique artifacts of this piece of local history. Bridget digitized the materials and is working to make them available on the site alongside her narrative account. This is local living history. It demands community stakeholder participation, and it requires researchers to do the fundamental work of history: that is, they are collecting primary materials. This research lives online, but it emerges from our local communities, while spinning off into larger networks of historians, cultural critics, and economic theorists. We encourage students to reflect on both the local conditions necessary to conduct research—in the form of archives, people, places, and cultures—and the broader effects of globalized and outward facing humanities practice; and the project is working to think about co-locating the social, political, and cultural impacts of humanities research that is occurring around the corner and around the world. This story, I suggest, describes what it is to do digital humanities. But, when similar research activities happen over time, the networks of relations (the communities of practice that form) produces a means of understanding that simply wouldn’t happen outside of a collaborative and digital methodology.
Working now towards a conclusion, I find it necessary to turn to the title of my talk: an intermediate criticism. I want to attempt to sketch one of the great alliances between anthropology and the humanities. Structural anthropology is a field, at least within then humanities, that has long been consigned to the realm of textbook summary and historical context of poststructuralism. The kinship that DH shares with structuralism is echoed in Northrop Frye’s description of an “intermediate criticism” in Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957 (11). Like many in DH, Frye argues that structural thought is really an intermediate criticism that must bridge the nuances found in close reading and the insight gained through quantitative and, even, computational perspectives. Anatomy of Criticism was among the first breaks with New Criticism, and, in some ways, remains an important reminder of the need for larger scale methods in the humanities.[SLIDE] It is Frye’s claim that “criticism is a science as well as an art” that historicizes this scaling up of humanities methods (7). The risks of failing to bridge disciplines (and their methods) or institutions and the communities they serve is a key ethical imperative for DH. The online collections, tools, and exhibits we build, in other words, define us as a community. The people who use these artifacts, for whom these artifacts are meaningful, shape our place in the world, both locally and globally. Our broader cultural relevance is predicated on engaging the public, serving our communities, and making things that matter.
[SLIDE] Thank you.