A Non-Peer-Reviewed Review of a  Peer-Reviewed essay by Adeline Koh

[What follows is a response to a recent Hybrid Pedagogy article making the rounds. It serves as a companion piece to one by Roopika Risam. We both took time away from writing articles for a digital humanities collection that solicited scholarship engaging with questions of race and difference to write these responses. Roopika and I wrote separately and come to these issues with different experiences within the field. Our interests only occasionally overlap but happily co-exist within the universe of digital humanities].

With the rising visibility of the digital humanities across the world, resistance and anxiety are expected to grow. In the United States the reactions are taking a particular bent based on the institutional histories there, linking the problem to a purported lack of critical engagement. The genre is not new. Even as far back as 1965, the important American critic Jacques Barzun argued, to the relief of many, that working with computers for the humanities was merely clerical, sounding a (gendered) labor division in the humanities that still rings true today. A few decades later, Jacques Derrida took on the baton in a series of lectures on James Joyce published under the combined title Ulysse gramophone/Deux mots pour Joyce by Éditions Galilée in 1987. In these texts, Derrida argues that Joyce is a “joyciciel” that reduces our computers to “un jouet d’enfant préhistorique.” Only the critic who would be able not to think like a computer could truly engage Joyce (cf. deconstruction). The lordly Barzun, and the slippery Derrida, like their forgetful avatars, felt they were the sole standard bearers of a true critique.

Though the rhetorical gesture remains the same, “I am the critical one,” the growing number of contemporary openings of this old wound are cut by exponents who think of themselves as “a new breed of digital humanists” on the margins. Whereas the two Jacques would not have wanted to be inducted into humanities computing, their avatars want to be recognized as digital humanists, to own it even, enacting a series of complex and complex-laden identifications in the process. Perhaps this is a result of the democratization of computing technology, the success of Big Tent policies of several generations of practitioners, the eternal september, the pressures of trenchant reward mechanisms and prestige economies, the persistence of the construct, or the phenomenon we see in some quarters where digital humanities has become the One Ring. We hear these developments play out in various ways in one of the genre’s most recent sallies, Adeline Koh’s “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Despite its prestigious antecedents, Koh’s peer-reviewed essay, I hope you agree, is very much of our time.

The essay’s brevity and the author’s growing influence justify a close review of the whole, à la Barthes. Given that I may be accused of bordering on the ad hominem, I’m hoping a serious, direct rebuttal will be interpreted by my more generous readers as a dignifying gesture instead: for such an agonistic intellect, becoming the desired agon is perhaps the only sympathetic thing to do. I may be wrong, and I predict a keen hindsight after I hit the publish button. You see, not many folks remain willing to disagree with Adeline Koh publicly. Some have become afraid of engaging her because of her less-than-collegial tactics, which she attempts to ground in theory; others, bored with the subject, dismiss her as irrelevant without giving it a second thought; some, the most condescending ones, agree with her because they feel disagreeing with a minority woman is not okay in our U.S. racial environment; a select few, whom I admire enormously, engage only obliquely and in the most graceful prose imaginable. Her damage piles on. Well… I am not afraid, I acknowledge her topicality, I will not condescend to a woman of color, and I am not feeling particularly graceful this week, so here it goes.

A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.

She is correct here. No practitioner I know of disagrees. The title, though, connects Koh’s peer reviewed essay to a debate that erupted last year over comments she made on an Inside Higher Ed article titled “Digital Humanities Bubble.” In the article, Koh had stated, “I agree that people are starting to realize that DH isn’t the kind of savior of humanities jobs it was touted as being a while ago.” After the article was published, she was asked on social media by Melissa Terras to provide evidence for the people that had made these claims. A joke by Dan Cohen was exhumed from early Twitter by Jesse Stommel, others jumped in to ask her for serious evidence, accusations of racism were bandied about, and by the time the intimidating and embarrassing episode fizzled out, no substantial evidence had been offered. Not our finest hour, to be sure. The episode serves as a backdrop for this latest offering.

The choice of the epistolary genre is another matter.

I am often asked about the digital humanities and how it can update, make relevant, and provide funding for many a beleaguered humanities department. Some faculty at underfunded institutions imagine DH is going to revitalize their discipline — it’s going to magically interest undergraduates, give faculty research funding, and exponentially increase enrollment.

My sympathies to these beleaguered departments. Koh’s reference to them somewhat grounds the open letter, making these departments—as opposed to practitioners—carry the burden of imagining that “DH” will save them. Although I do not share her experience, I am willing to give Koh the benefit of the doubt. Again, we agree here, if this is the audience. Alas, I wish I knew how to help them, but I would hesitate to arrive from out of town with a blanket solution as Koh does later on when she offers “the new wave of digital humanities,” especially without knowing the institutional histories, institutional structures, and specific state politics at play.

Well, the reality is this: what has until recently been commonly understood as real “Digital Humanities” is already belated and is not going to save humanities departments from ever bigger budget cuts and potential dissolution.

“Commonly understood” begins to set up the straw man. Though her purported audience does not know what digital humanities is, Koh tells them that such an understanding has been reached by those in the know. Like Derrida before her—who, invited to Johns Hopkins to speak on the hot new structuralism, inaugurated post-structuralism—Koh is here to tell these departments that they are late to the party. The tone is ominous also. The “ever bigger” attached to budget cuts suggests that these cuts are inevitable.

Yes, of course, everyone will tell you that there are multiple debates over what actually defines Digital Humanities as a field, whether it is a field or not, yadda yadda yadda.

Let us ignore the unprofessional, dismissive “yadda yadda yadda” which somehow passed beyond the peer reviewers. Actual, well documented “multiple debates” have and continue to take place around what digital humanities is and can be. A simple perusal of just the few texts that Koh cites in her fifth paragraph will convince you that this is what we could call a fact. Are we ready to pretend that people debating is a sign of their secret agreement? Maybe.

But the projects which have until very recently dominated the federal digital humanities grants — the NEH grants, the ACLS grants, among others — are by default, the definition of the field, or the “best” the field has to offer.

According to Koh, the Digital Humanities (or any other field) is the surface effect of an aggregate of funded projects. Are you convinced by this definition, “commonly understood”? In its kernel I see the hints of a promising Marxist argument. For example, a neo-Marxist thinker like Slavoj Žižek would say that we digital humanists debate the definitional question to blind ourselves to the collusion with funding agencies. He would call it an example of “an unknown known.” Though I see how a series of funded projects could start to give you an idea of the scope of the field, I remain unconvinced that they can represent in their relatively minuscule range the diverse set of practices that we see out there today.

We should note further that funders are structurally limited by guidelines that are pre-determined in advance, and therefore cannot serve as a part for a whole in a state of becoming. The ODH’s Startup Grant and ACLS Digital Innovation Funds are limited, for example, by the need to foster “innovation.” The officers are very aware of these limitations, and not one of them would claim that they represent the field. Though influential, these funders are just one set of stakeholders among many in the United States making evaluative judgements on digital humanities projects and practitioners. The influence is naturally multi-directional, and hardly top-down: the directors, officers and reviewers of these agencies have to stay attuned to developments as anyone else. Having submitted a few applications over the past few years, I can also testify that the reviewers of the applications often disagree with each other in their comments, as one would expect from any other review process in the academy.

To reiterate, most digital humanities in the United States and in the world happens outside of agency funding: through existing salaries or stipends, stealing time away from recognized duties, or worse, perfectly unpaid; and though agencies are influential, their role is limited structurally and historically.

This means that until very recently and with few exceptions, the list of awardees rarely includes digital work that focuses more on culture than computation, projects that focus on digital pedagogy, or digital recovery efforts for works by people of color.

“This means that” sets up a non-sequitur, but that is the least of the problems with this statement. These claims are not backed up by evidence. Without evidence, we even find it difficult to know what the author means by “culture” or “computation.” I would not separate them as easily. The author should do well to revisit her own writings, where she sides with those who do not believe computation is acultural.

Since she is publishing in a venue focusing on “digital pedagogy,” and her peer reviewers know more about the field than I do, I will assume that what she claims about agencies’ awards relating to the use of technology in the classroom, online or hybrid learning are true.

As far as “the digital recovery efforts for works by people of color,” the author does not seem to acknowledge the work of other divisions of the NEH or ACLS, or the fact that the agencies are not exempt from our racial history as a nation, digital humanities or not. Instead, and bordering on irresponsible, Koh lobbies an accusation of structural racism without providing evidence or a clear path forward for the agencies themselves.

If you look through the projects that have been funded in the last decade you’re going to see a lot of repeated themes. Heck, even when you look at the roster for who is being invited to give DH talks and what they are talking about, you see many of the same names and the same topics. You’re going to see a lot of emphasis on tools. A lot of emphasis on big data analysis. A lot of emphasis on computation, and the power of computation. What aren’t you going to see as much of? Emphasis on why computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing. Why is that?

Like in any other area of activity in the academy, regular names and common themes do show up. That is neither a bad, nor a good thing. A confession: I study the work of Aimé Césaire in the context of Caribbean Literature and History. I could not go to a digital humanities talk expecting everyone to be overly familiar with my area. Surely, I always find a few folks who are. I don’t study with any degree of depth the history of technology, or new media theory, or digital art. I get exposed to those areas of study because they are important to what I do, but their research questions and mine are different, and my knowledge of technology does not come from them alone: I embody that knowledge in practice.

Adeline Koh seems to want me to change my research focus. This is one of her main errors. I hope the reader does not assume that folks like me are uncritical of technology because we don’t engage in her prescribed line of archival research. I know some folks who do both excellently. She names a few down in the long list of names at the end. When I go to a digital humanities talk, as a speaker or as part of the audience, though, I want to address our use of computation and computers to shape, share and preserve our research, and yes, our teaching, on x. I hope you understand why I would want to do that at some venues, in some journals, label them digital humanities or whatever. That we may try to convince others to shift perspectives in their own areas of research is par for the course of what we do. To ask that we change our areas of research is just absurd.

Unless I misunderstand what she means, we should note that we already have and have had room for the debates on “computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, [and] a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing” that Koh prescribes. She could have availed herself very easily of the archives of Humanist, for example, and using easily available research tools gathered the evidence she needed to make her strong claims about these absences. Given the author’s purported familiarity with the subject, even accepting paid invitations to offer advice to departments on digital humanities, I have to wonder why she did not use her research skills and training to bolster her claims?

In any case, she doesn’t seem to be talking to us anymore. As we can divine if we follow her logic to its radical conclusion, she wants the halls, the podiums, the grants, the websites billed digital humanities today to be divested of their current occupants, to be replaced exclusively by her own “new breed”: a rift, a paradigm shift, made up of those who finally put the critical in digital humanities.

Because “digital humanities” is currently defined in many existing works as coming out of a field previously known as “humanities computing.” This field is cast as the primary antecedent for what is now called the digital humanities, immortalized by the publication of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, in which the term switched from “humanities computing” to “Digital Humanities,” the use of DH in forming the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations as an umbrella global organization, and the development and naming of the NEH ODH branch. “Humanities computing” projects have primarily focused on digitization of canonical texts, text encoding and markup, the creation of tools to facilitate humanities research, and more recently, “big data” and ways to study it, such as “topic modeling.” Uniformly, advocates of DH as humanities computing have argued that DH is, in the words of Matt Kirschenbaum, “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.”

In this iteration digital humanities is the result of the lineage behind the term. Coming several generations after the first practitioners of humanities computing, those who rebaptized it to digital humanities were practicing in the field of humanities computing. Koh describes the situation correctly here, but misses the more important point that digital humanities today is a much larger and diverse field of practice than its predecessors could have ever predicted. Let us note also how Koh collapses time when she says “and more recently,” as if the digital humanities of today still just consisted of only markup, digitization and “tools to facilitate humanities research” besides the “big data.” Again, here as elsewhere the evidence on the ground is lacking.

This focus on methodology is important, because throughout the majority of Humanities Computing projects, the social, political and economic underpinnings, effects and consequences of methodology are rarely examined. Too many in this field prize method without excavating the theoretical underpinnings and social consequences of method. In other words, Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools to further humanities research, and not to study the effects of computation as a humanities question.

I cannot parse the logic here very well. The first sentence says that it’s good that Humanities Computing focuses on methodology because HC rarely pays attention to its causes and consequences? Maybe it’s important that others focused on it because now she can focus on it to make a claim no one thought to make? The second repeats the second sub-claim of the first. The third adds that Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools (computers?) to help all forms of humanities research, but not the one question we should apparently be focusing exclusively on?

But “digital humanities” in the guise of “humanities computing,” “big data,” “topic modelling,” “object oriented ontology” is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM. Think about this: Why would you turn to a pseudo-STEM field that uses STEM methods to answer your questions, rather than to STEM directly? Indeed, when I brought up “critical making” — what some consider to be the perfect marriage of “yack” and “hack” — with my engineer spouse, he commented, “Isn’t engineering already ‘critical making’?” “Critical making,” in Matt Ratto’s definition, is “processes of material and conceptual exploration and creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves.” After mulling over my husband’s remark, I realized that engineering is indeed already practicing critical making as its DH practitioners prescribe it — arguably better than they are. But in relation to the humanities, engineering does not integrally inspect critical identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making, issues that designate what the humanities considers to be “critical.”

Ah. The STEM paragraph. Let me answer Koh’s central question: “Why would you turn to a pseudo-STEM field that uses STEM methods to answer your questions, rather than to STEM directly?” The answer should not even be controversial: most people in STEM do not share our training. We wish it were not the case, that the boundaries would erode further, but for now, we must simply collaborate as much as we can and learn from each other. Some folks in STEM who are not collaborating with us are making claims about narrative, plot, history, etc. without the benefit of our disciplinary memories. They make many avoidable mistakes when they do, as I’m sure we make many mistakes when we decide to blind ourselves to their disciplinary memories. For the most part, though, most of the technology that we use in our everyday practices does not constitute a research problem for computer science anymore, or in many cases, comes from non-academic sectors.

Anyone who would engage in active engineering surely would understand “identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making” better. The opposite is nonsense: in order to understand “identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making” one should leave making up to the engineers.

As I suggested above, and this is key, in the era of the anthropocene and techno-utopianism, of technocratic capital, the Arts & Sciences need to work closer to each other than they have ever done before. The myth of the two cultures is exactly that. In the era of EbscoHost and ProQuest, of Google and Amazon, we cannot afford to let others engineer our research outputs and capitalize on them, not when the technology is easily available for us to dis-alienate ourselves from our knowledge production. Koh seems to forget that we are not only charged with writing “critique” in prose. The past does not live of narrative alone, and this means we must engage with the engineering of preservation systems, critically. You sure you want to leave the task to engineers alone? Labor structures also suffer when we think of the engineers as the makers (producers of medium), and us as the critics (producers of content). This division of labor can lead to abuses in the academic workforce in very specific ways related to our classifications as employees. A better alternative to these absurd divisions is for us to work together, and for some of us to become hybrids of sorts, producing new forms of knowing and being.

Another thing: if you want to start a DH program to save your probably very underfunded humanities department from extinction, trying to practice DH the way resource-rich, research-oriented institutions do might be prohibitively expensive. Big data analysis, 3-D printing, tool-building: these are expensive endeavors to undertake, even on a small scale. Because of their mission and resources, the majority of non-wealthy, non-R1 institutions are going to concentrate on smaller scale projects involving undergraduate students. These are not normally the sorts of projects that receive federal funding for DH.

I can only say here that I support anyone who wants to practice digital humanities without agency funding. You are not alone. In fact, you are probably in the majority. The good news is that access to a terminal and the internet means you’re already halfway there. I’m at Columbia University. Not only R1, but Ivy League. We have resources, trust me. Would you believe me if I told you that a large number of the worthwhile things we do around here we do without grant agency money, or university funding in excess of our salaries? Many of them with undergraduates just like you?

So this is what I want to say. If you want to save humanities departments, champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core. Because the humanities, centrally, is the study of how people process and document human cultures and ideas, and is fundamentally about asking critical questions of the methods used to document and process. And because these questions can and should be dealt with by people in departments who care about research with undergraduates, by people without the resources to develop the latest and greatest cutting edge digital humanities tool (which, quite frankly, will be enveloped by commercial industries in the blink of an eye.)

The digital humanities that values the humanities is the same old digital humanities that was humanities computing before, composed of humanists of all stripes.

The definition of the humanities that Koh offers here is not without merits, though: we study human cultures and ourselves studying those cultures self-reflectively. The definition almost notices that we re-produce the culture we study in auto-poetic ways. But she’s not there yet. Said otherwise, in the process of studying it, we recreate the past. If we focused on writing narratives or interpretations alone, we would be poor humanists indeed. As a librarian in the Humanities & History division, I would make a poor excuse for a humanist if I just wrote new books that others would catalog “mechanically.” No, the humanist must tend to the production and re-production of sources, archives, narratives and significance as Michel-Rolph Trouillot would say. This task is exacerbated by the same needs of un-silencing the past that Koh recognizes. I do hope that this new breed of digital humanists she speaks of is ready for that task. I warn the new breed that you will need the skills or collaboration of those old computational digital humanists, and if you’re not careful, you will end up being a ‘traditional’ digital humanist after all.

So instead of pouring more money into tool building or the latest and greatest 3D printer, let’s not limit the history of the digital humanities to humanities computing as a single origin point. Let’s consider “sister fields” to the digital humanities as actually foundational to the digital humanities. Consider work with undergraduates and digital pedagogy (Rebecca Frost Davis, Kathryn Tomasek, Katherine D. Harris, Angel David Nieves, Janet Simons, Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris) as foundational to the field. Consider the work of scholars who engage media studies as foundational — especially as they deeply engage with questions of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, ability and the digital (Lisa Nakamura, Anna Everett, Alondra Nelson, Tara McPherson, Elizabeth Losh, Alexandra Juhasz, Wendy Chun, Cathy Davidson, Fiona Barnett, David Theo Goldberg, David Golumbia, Martha Nell Smith, Cheryl E. Ball, Edmond Chang, Anastasia Salter, Carly Kocurek, Jessie Daniels, Amy Earhart, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, Radhika Gajjala, Carol Stabile, Nishant Shah, Michelle Moravec, Monica Mercado, Simone Browne, Moya Bailey, Brittney Cooper & the Crunk Collective, etc). Consider Sandra Harding and the postcolonial and feminist work of Science and Technology studies foundational to the field. Consider HASTAC, FemTechNet and FemBot foundational initiatives, none of whom have ever received NEH funding for their operations, but have been instrumental to the recent shift in federal digital humanities awards towards the “H” in DH rather than the “D.”

What an impressive list of names! I know half of them from, well, digital humanities conferences. Yes, fund these people, please, somebody. At least the ones that need it the most.

The insistent focus on computing and methodology in the humanities without incisive, introspective examination of their social implications is devaluing the humanities. We shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the ideological structure of the process explicit and their social effects and presuppositions open to inspection; we shouldn’t be funding the digitization of canonical (read: white, often male) authors without the simultaneous digitization of works by people of color, especially women of color. To do both is to betray some of the most important lessons which the humanities has learned with the rise of women, gender and sexuality studies, race, ethnic and postcolonial studies and disability studies.

I almost agree with Koh on the first point, except that I would change the words “material conditions” for her “ideological structures,” as in “we shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the material conditions of the process explicit.” (N.B. The process is already so to the point of fastidiousness). Ironically, the “incisive, introspective examination of [computing and methodology’s] social implications” can only come with a thorough encounter with the current mechanisms of computing and method that she accuses those who are proven experts of lacking. Though I shiver at the thought of a state organism in charge of vetting the ideological purity of humanists, I fear more the continued insistence that learning computation and engaging in the creation of tools to help each other with our shared mission is somehow auto-magically stopping us from being critical. I fear it more because it is our continuing past.

The second point still needs better documentation. The author has not considered, for example, that private companies do most of the digitizations and databases of primary and secondary sources that libraries consume at prices inflated to protect DRM. I could go on on this subject, but I feel the author has not merited a response based on her lack of research or clarity in the matter.

Instead, let’s reconsider what “core” digital humanities means. Let’s redefine what we mean by the “best,” most critical and seminal digital humanities research. Let’s open digital humanities research to people who don’t have the time and resources to learn a programming language like R, but are happy to use Wordle as an entry into literary texts as data. Let’s consider pedagogy central to DH. Let’s consider class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality primary to and constitutional of the digital humanities, not simply the “diversity box” of political correctness. Let’s remember the fringe fields and movements who did this in the past, but did not receive widespread support and funding, as part of the central history of DH. Only when we completely reconfigure and recenter the humanities in DH will we be able to talk about using the field to “save” humanities departments from extinction.

Digital humanities practitioners in the United States could be doing more as a class to engage in critical matters of the present. No doubt. We are moving in that direction, but we must do so prudently and together, and as time allows. Many individuals not listed above have been doing so for years. We should note also that the United States is very provincial in these matters. A whole world of digital humanities is out there and it does not map neatly to our issues. To speak of cores is difficult in the context of this enormous diversity. As Roopika Risam argued eloquently at the DH2015 conference in Lausanne, local practitioners are the best judges of the quality of an intervention. If we follow her logic, we can see how no ‘core’ or ‘best’ can or should be pushed forward as universals. I would be particularly careful not to do that from a position within the American academy, regardless of the color of my skin or my diasporic credentials.

On the subject of coding, what can I say? Coding is difficult to learn, no doubt, but digital humanities was never closed because you didn’t have the time to learn R. I can’t speak for the construct. The construct might have been closed. Like in any other field of the academy, in digital humanities we find beginners, apprentices and veterans. Beginners are always welcome to make the most of a word cloud. I remember my first! To be honest, I still consider myself to be an apprentice (after roughly ten years!). I will probably be one for years to come. What is perhaps confusing is that training in digital humanities happens outside the curriculum for the most part, and therefore cannot be mapped onto your existing place in the academic hierarchy. Many of us work really hard not to alienate those who are willing to learn coming from the position of experts in other areas. I have also seen enormous acts of patience from some of my teachers when a younger beginner would announce that he/she is the one that is finally going to bring a critical attitude to DH. (This happens very, very often). Koh may be a hero to those beginners who ‘discover’ her. She confirms and reassures folk that what they do is valuable and should be valued. That is a laudable impulse in Koh, the sign of a good teacher, perhaps. Most of us share that sentiment, though. The main difference is simple: most practitioners do not actively seek to divide us into critical thinkers and non-critical tool makers. This is still Barzun, this is still Derrida—even if the circumstances are different, and this is accompanied by the ambivalent desire of walking through a door that was never closed.

 

Category: Digital Humanities

A Sentimental Education in the Humanities, Part I

[Last year I accepted 4 invitations to lecture in 4 different cities (New Haven, College Station, Nashville and Pittsburgh) on 4 different subjects… without noticing they were all on the same weekend. Considering I’m unlikely to have an actual lecture series anytime soon, I decided to make the best of the occasion and rolled my own by connecting the talks around an overarching narrative. What you see below is more or less what I said, emphasis on less; or even better, what you see below was inspired by the recent adventure. The post is cross-posted on the LAIC department’s blog in support of their wonderful re-imagining of a departmental site.]

Prologue

At Yale, I asked, “Can Aimé Césaire survive the 21st Century?” To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question; I just would prefer him to, and for very good reasons. Amongst the bounties that Césaire has left us I include poems which can transform us into starfish—beyond the awkward Cartesian Man high on his rational soul, divorced from his organs; poems which open up a more capacious brand of universalism; poems which reconcile dreams and history and rescue the drowned archive of its losers; dramas that subtly train us to face the incommensurable in politics; political speeches that balance prudence with resistance; and, the crucial idea that de-colonization must be holistic and perpetual.

He surely may survive through more familiar mechanisms. For the last few centuries, these include: critical editions, author papers, mass paperbacks, the curriculum, trans-mediation and performance. My question then refers to the new mechanisms that have come to live side-by-side with older ones, in the process inflecting them, and by extension, the way collective memory carries on now and in the foreseeable future. Our new online critical editions, for example, allow for a different kind of deformation and apparatus than their analog counterparts. Author papers can now be imaged and shared more broadly with resolutions that double as magnifying glasses; mass paperbacks are now kindled and webbed in various ways; the possibilities for re- and trans-mediation have multiplied, or at the very least, have become more democratized; and of course, performance now may involve social media, games or code. In these new formations, can Césaire be iterated enough times, in enough contexts, to cross the threshold into the 22nd Century, still standing as a major beacon of anti-colonial possibility? I don’t know. We have a few obstructions to overcome.

Though their name is legion, I predictably focused on five obstructions: The © wars—preventing us from producing open digital editions; migrant archives—dispersing the control over Césaire’s material traces to many incongruent actors; jealously guarded, my-precious archival discoveries—which must be kept secret lest someone sneaks in that article before you do; the hold of Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat over the production of our knowledge; and finally, graceless death—hanging over us, signaling utter disappearance of interface and effort, or worst, fueling the libido of the undead.

To these obstructions I opposed the tactical prototype, five of them actually—not in a one-to-one relationship to the obstructions, but as tentacled approaches: Genetic deformance—to allow us to create hypothetical génétique editions on-the-fly based on bibliographical cues, i.e. make-your-own genesis for works under copyright; the block catcher, to rediscover the repetition of blocks of text within a series of disconnected corpora; the legogram—to map a social field of repetition for any given work; the researchathon—to distribute bibliographic research and publication across co-located teams willing to stick it out on pizza and coffee; and finally, a multimodal sand-clock—a digital essay whose sole purpose in life is to die gracefully. Many more prototypes are possible to march forward, and of course, many more obstructions to hold us back. After all, five anythings are bound to be somewhat random.

The point of the talk, for me at least, was to highlight the need for the forward transformation of the ideas, documents and authors we are called upon to steward. “The point is to change it,” said Marx, and McGann changed it when he published The Point is to Change It, like Pierre Menard changed the Quixote by re-writing it verbatim from scratch. The ‘it’ here are the texts. Articles and monographs won’t do by themselves. The point is to remake the texts. And if we are to construct a new republic of letters—there, where our new attentions dwell—a republic that can include Césaire and survive 5, 50, 500 obstructions—while going about it justly and penny-wise, one of the best things to do for now, I concluded, is to play. While the obstructions fade, crumble, evaporate and die without grace, we to play—not like Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame, whose idea of play required Clov to do the work, but like the kids back home reclaiming dusty streets to play la plaquita, a replacement for cricket, played with expired license plates, milk carton mitts and a broomstick, or like

Robin Hood and Little John walkin’ through the forest, laughin’ back and forth at what the other’ne has to say…

Act 1: Tinkering with social contracts.

In the question & answer session at Yale, I had a chance to hint at my next topic: teaching others how to play. I have been arguing for some time with Dan O’Donnell—who co-chairs Global Outlook::Digital Humanities with me—that the techne of building scholarly networks should be examined and shared. Thinking scholarly networks, when you have a hand in helping to build them, has one foot squarely in the territory of social engineering, or said otherwise, the architecture of societies. If we were to go there, why stop at engineering networks of far away scholars? Why not also tweak the student-teacher social contract—find the sweet spot at which we all become permanent students and teachers, à la Spivak? And what of our rigid divisions of labor? Why not shuffle efforts, embed ourselves in the roles of others to learn the whole? Why not borrow construction materials from neglected social structures? Barn raising, street corner dominos?

We know that a substantial part of current digital humanities research and training is happening outside of the curriculum—both in terms of registered courses and professional reward mechanisms—like children’s play, during recess. Alas, we should be under no illusions: the push to playgrounds comes with a discrediting of some forms of academic labor; and some get to play, while others, discredited down other pipelines, don’t. While we linger there, though, in that extra-curriculum, pseudo-curricular societies are taking shape, and we may yet have a hand in shaping them before they, İnşallah, become our curriculum.

How lovely that the children get to play! Look how they incorporate learning into their games… Wait, what’s that? The children have taken over the school!… Sorry, I digress.

In my current practice, given certain freedoms attached to my official role as ‘coordinator,’ I try to design or join projects, events, formats that allow for some form of semi-calculated reconfiguration of the academic social contract, opening up alternative spaces for sharing can-do and know-how. This comes from the conviction that at this juncture, when it comes to digital humanities, emphasizing learning over projects is, paradoxically, one of our best bets against the rapid rate of interface rot, and not so paradoxically, against the insistence of stultifying labor structures in the academy. Said more banally, it’s the people, stupid. The more humanists that can understand current mechanisms of knowledge production, dissemination and preservation, the better we will all be. Bonus points if we can get a sizable chunk who can understand and harness the mechanisms of our collective memories.

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with David Seaman, who is now Associate Librarian for Information Management at Dartmouth University. I met David almost a decade ago, while he was still directing the e-text center at the University of Virginia, the same center that would later morph into the Scholars’ Lab. I remember sharing a version of the paradox with him on this occasion, “the most we can do for sustainability right now is to teach people.” He thought about it for a while, and then admitted he was struck by the fact that of all the accomplishments of the e-text center, its most enduring contribution to the digital humanities was the people that began their journeys there. I was one of them.

I had been a “computer kid” of sorts all my life. I was certainly the first kid to own one in my neighborhood in Santo Domingo in 1982—a Commodore 64, with all its attendant gaming magazines and the inevitable painstaking transcription of assembly arcade games. My second job as a teenager was working for the database center of the Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas, our drug laws enforcement agency. Many computers and odd jobs later, now a graduate student in the English department at the University of Virginia, I end up at the e-text center with the dream of an online library of Caribbean literature—no clue about the history of humanities computing, or design, or digital arts, or how to actually do anything with computers at this point beyond clicking interfaces and typing prose inside boxes.

I was introduced to TEI at the center. The first and only title we would work on was one of our most important sources on Caribbean piracy in the 17th century and the progenitor of the popular genre. The Bucaniers of America: or, A true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of the West-Indies, by the bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French can still be found on the UVa etext viewer. Although a brief effort was made to get me to tag the text, the tagging was done by other student workers. You see, this was being done not for me, but for Professor of French A. James Arnold, who was the Principal Investigator.

In 2008 I caught a lucky break and stumbled upon a manuscript of a play by Aimé Césaire that was unknown to scholars and publics, and which effectively changed the way we understand his early period. Without warning, I began encoding it in TEI with the hopes of one day having a digital edition. I had very little sense of direction, and all I could hope to do was convert the XML into static HTML pages using some rudimentary XSLT skills. At this time I was also becoming a heavy user of Juxta to help me with my work as co-editor of the emphatically print critical/genetic edition of Césaire’s semi-complete works. Césaire’s textual condition was a challenge for Juxta, and that was a good thing. A few years of encoding and breaking Juxta, I started hovering around the Scholars’ Lab (Bethany Nowviskie, Wayne Graham, et crew), NINES (Andrew Stauffer and Dana Wheeles) and Jerry McGann, until I nagged them all enough to give me fellowships and fellowship. At the Scholars’ Lab I got in with a project to create digital ‘forgeries’ of manuscripts using naught but HTML and CSS—such was my TEI fatigue. At NINES, I wanted to get Juxta to catch repetition before difference in order to deal with Césaire’s incessant transpositions. With Jerry, Bethany and Andy, I just let my imagination run loose.

Why am I giving you these biographical details? Because as you soon will see, it was a semi-calculated reconfiguration of the academic social contract, on the margins of the curriculum, that made all the difference for me. There, at the tail end of my graduate career is when my truest sentimental education in the humanities began.

In 2011 I joined the first run of the Praxis Program. The brain-child of Bethany Nowviskie and the Scholars’ Lab team, and I quote from the site,

The Praxis Program funds a team of six University of Virginia graduate students from a variety of disciplines to apprentice with the Scholars’ Lab each academic year. Under the guidance of Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff, they design and create a full-fledged digital humanities project or software tool.

Our cohort—the first cohort—met on Mondays with the Scholars’ Lab team for two hours, and we had eight hours each week to work on our project. Our project, or tool, was to be called Prism—a name that would take on tragicomic connotations soon enough. (As you can see on the back of my laptop, our logo is much nicer than theirs). Our Prism was to be a tool to “crowdsource interpretation.” Given a poem, a crowd of readers, and a few colored markers with predetermined meanings—say a green marker for metaphors and a red marker for metonym—how could we visualize the way different readers interpret the text? Our Prism was to be an app to allow us to do just that.

During the first semester we were introduced to a range of topics and skills required to build our Prism: project management, design, data models, programming, etc. During the second semester we started building, and build it we did. The cohort that came the year after us enormously improved on our work, and the tool you see today is the result of our relay race.

Prism is great, love that thing, but the Praxis Program was and is so much more than just training on how to build “a full-fledged digital humanities project or software tool”: We were funded to learn and collaborate across disciplines, working side-by-side with a team of professionals on a project we would all own, and receive equal credit for. And here’s the key: Everyone in our team was exposed to everyone else’s roles before the division of labor happened, letting us find our way “to the vocation wherewith ye have been called,” without losing sight of each other. This model of apprenticeship—neither cathedral, nor factory—allowed for our taking ownership, in the truest sense, of our Prism. If we academics find ourselves today alienated from the means of production, distribution and preservation of our knowledge, one important reason is our premature adoption of the division of labor that turns us into ‘content providers,’ or as some jerks out there call us, ‘content monkeys.’

Prompted by our shared ownership, a sentimental lesson of sorts set in against the need to critique compulsively. We learned instead to adapt our critical impulses in medias res to the limitations, aptitudes and deadlines of our fellows. The socratic impulse which had served us well until the tail end of our graduate careers, was giving way to a love supreme—our own transition from hard bop to modal.

After the pilot year of the Praxis Program was over, I was hired at Columbia University Libraries to help them build some tents for digital humanities. One of my first tasks was to help design a model for professional development for my team—the Humanities and History Division (a.k.a the subject and reference librarians)—centered around digital humanities. After flirting with the idea of doing a survey, or worst, having the developers at our neighboring Center for Digital Research and Scholarship do all the platform work, the team bravely embraced the Praxis model and agreed to work on all aspects of a project together. Thus we set out to build a Digital History of Morningside Heights (our neighborhood in New York), using the Omeka platform. Two years later, some stubborn library divisions are beginning to thaw: we work closer with the IT line, we have embedded ourselves in projects and classrooms, we collapsed reference for digital, analog and the in-betweens, and much more. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Our team has left a trail of breadcrumbs on our process blog, Breaking the Code: The Developing Librarian Project.

Besides the #devlib project, I have been able to deploy mini-versions of the model in other environments to good effect, but not all iterations of the praxis playbook have worked. In fact, and I think tellingly, the one time that I tried to deploy it in the graduate classroom it failed dramatically. In the Fall of 2013 I was invited to teach the Graduate Seminar, which moonlights as the introduction to methodology in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia. Traditionally, the class has been taught as a theory survey course, very differently than its counterpart at the University of Virginia, which focuses on the archive. I was asked to teach a combination of the traditional course and “the digital dispensation.” I went about it very enthusiastically in the best of DH spirits: we would write the syllabus together, flow into teams, polish our DIY skills, and all the while, read some of the brightest critics of the 20th century “for the method.” Knowing the calls by Bethany Nowviskie and others to leverage precisely this class to get graduate students up to speed on the basics of digital scholarship, I felt a particularly strong sense of mission going in.

Nope.

My students felt rudderless; I was “asking too much of them;” I was “mean,” or worst, “chaotic.” The same democratic spirit that had transformed me at the end of my graduate career was frustrating my graduate students at the beginning of theirs. Praxis is not to blame, of course. As we can learn from the diverse models in the Praxis Network, this cat can be skinned in many ways. The key is to make sure the model fits the environment, and I did not adapt the model appropriately to the graduate classroom at Columbia, partly as a result of my failure to recognize student expectations, partly as a result of the enormous pressures that first years are under. The lesson was learned: you can never be too careful when you’re playing with social contracts.

To be continued… or as the buzzers say these days, You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

Las humanidades digitales en el Antropoceno

[Esta es una traducción al español de la charla magistral de Bethany Nowviskie, “The Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene,” leída en Lausanne por Melissa Terras, durante la conferencia DH2014. El trabajo original, junto a las diapositivas se puede encontrar en el sitio web de Bethany. Esta obra tuvo un gran impacto en mí y muchos de nuestros colegas y es un honor poder ofrecerla en español para un otro público. Como casi no escribo en español les ruego que me ayuden a pillar cualquier infelicidad del lenguaje que se me haya colado en la traducción. Dejaré los comentarios abiertos para tal propósito.]

Versión PDF

Las humanidades digitales en el Antropoceno

Texto original de Bethany Nowviskie

Traducción al español por Alex Gil

 

Y poco a poco Christopher Robin llego al final de las cosas, y callo, y ahí sentado miraba el mundo, deseando que no parara. — A. A. Milne

Todas las mañanas, mientras el sol de Virginia se derrama sobre el borde del valle de Shenandoah, me lanzo a las aguas de mi piscina municipal y pienso en las ruinas de los baños romanos. De cada uno de los lados del carril donde doy mis vueltas están los azulejos de ceramica, mortero de un artesano del siglo ya pasado. Ahí leo dos letreros mientras nado de ida y vuelta: bajo y profundo, bajo y profundo.

Estoy aquí para dar una charla que al igual pretende deslizarse entre lo superficial y lo profundo por turnos. Mi esperanza es localizar nuestro trabajo—el trabajo de la comunidad HD que me ha cultivado con cariño alrededor de 18 años—menos como se imagina estos días (como una conjunto fragmentado de intervenciones metodológicas en el agon disciplinario actual de los estudios humanísticos) sino más bien como una improbable y cohesiva posibilidad optimista. La posibilidad es la de conectar las tecnologías y los patrones de trabajo de la humanística al tiempo profundo: a la vez a los pasados remotos y a los futuros por venir. Pero también nadare en lo poco profundo—porque, meditando sobre los mensajes que pusiésemos enviar o recibir desde los más largos de los longues durées, intento al igual animarlos a tomar una posición activa y penetrante en las HD orientada hacia el presente, hacia un compromiso con las condiciones tecnológicas, del medio ambiente, y éticas de nuestro tan vital hoy mismo, aquí mismo.

Prometí en mi abstracto una charla de practicante, y eso es lo que haré. No soy filósofa ni crítica. Soy hacedora y cuidadora de sistemas, de modo que esta noche intentaré ofrecerles la perspectiva de una artesana al hablar de estos temas.

Para que quede claro, esta charla reposa en la siguiente premisa: Yo doy por hecho la evidencia científica de que los hombres han transformado de modo irrevocable las condiciones para la vida en nuestro planeta. Creo también que nuestras acciones pasadas se orientan al futuro: que debemos una "deuda de extinción," como la llama David Tilman—y que esta deuda sera pagada. Cuando las especies desaparecen a una frecuencia cien o mil veces mayor que su promedio previo, yo acepto—a pesar de ciertos impredecibles, pero no sin horror certero—que estamos al borde de una extinción en masa de plantas y animales, en tierra firme y nuestros mares. Estamos aquí para vivir un momento lo mejor que se pueda, para trabajar, y para ayudar a nuestros compañeros de viaje tambalear a traves sus propias breves vidas—pero tambien poseemos un conocimiento despabilante y raro. Nosotros, y las menudas generaciones que nos siguen, serán testigos de la 6a gran extinción de la vida en la tierra. Esto es un fin de las cosas, puertas que se cierran, no visto desde la muerte colosal que clausuro la era mesozoica, 66 millones de años antes.

¿Que hacemos con este conocimiento en HD en el año 2014? ¿Como afecta nuestra percepción de nosotros mismos como practicantes de la computación en humanística? Ciertamente, nos recuerda lo que tenemos en común, y a nuestro destino compartido. ¿Puede hablarnos, como una creciente banda de gremios escolásticos con lazos tenues; como archivistas y bibliotecarios; como guardianes y interpretes del patrimonio cultural? ¿Puede hablarnos, como tecnólogos, programadores, y especialistas del metodo y la forma; como investigadores, administradores, estudiantes, formadores y hacedores de todo tipo? ¿Que responsabilidades, para la comunidad HD, implica este conocimiento? ¿Que perspectivas se enfocan mejor?

No creo que pueda responder esas preguntas en el transcurso de los próximos 40-45 minutos. Sobre todo, me interesa plantearlas—y usarlas para reunir cierta caja de herramientas para los años siguientes. Les pido entonces, que me permitan plantear varias preguntas más, y delinear mi charla antes de comenzar de lleno.

Esta noche les pido que se tomen a pecho la noción de que, al lado de las millares de alegres, juguetonas preocupaciones eruditas e intelectuales que nos motivan en las humanidades digitales, o mejor aún, descansando al fondo de todas ellas, como un tipo de substrato, reside la seriedad de un problema de base. El problema es el de la extinción—de multiples extinciones; extinciones que rompen el corazón; aburridas, cotidianas, casi invisibles extinciones—tanto el eco de ausencias acarriadas por los siglos, que las erosiones dispensables de nuestro desmoronado día a día. Editamos para adivinar los bosquejos de un poeta, quemados en la hoguera hace años. Excavamos las capas estratigráficas de la tierra intentando descubrir modos de vida ya olvidados, y pegamos los fragmentos de jarrones para validar nuestras teorias. Algunos modelamos como cambien los lenguajes al traves del tiempo, y aprendemos a leer las manos que no serán escritas de nuevo. Algunos promulgan los estándares para evitar el aislamiento y la perdida. Con gran trabajo y cuidado, migramos sistemas hacia adelante. Re-diseñamos nuestros sitios en la red y nuestras herramientas, o las abandonamos, o (menos a menudo) conscientemente las archivamos y las apagamos. Los HDeros nos asomamos por microscopios y macroscopios, a ver las cosas que no podemos ver. Y mientras nos da mucho placer construir lo brilloso y lo nuevo—y venir a reuniones como estas a celebrar y compartir y avanzar ese trabajo—sabemos que alguien, antes o después, cura los bits de cara a nuestras ruinas.

¿Cuales son las humanidades digitales que se enfrenta constantemente a las pequeñas extinciones y que puede mirar a la cara a una Grande? ¿Es de consciencia social y activista en tono? ¿Refleja el carácter administrativo y resuelve-problemas de nuestras instituciones del siglo 21? ¿Es el asunto la preservación, conservación, y recuperación—o entender lo efémero y adaptarse al cambio? ¿Nos ayuda nuestro trabajo a apreciar, honrar la memoria, o llorar por las cosas que hemos perdido? ¿Altera, para nosotros y para nuestros públicos, nuestros marcos globales y nuestro sentido de la escala? ¿Se trata de enseñarnos a nosotros mismos a vivir de un modo diferente? O, como escribió un soldado de la primera guerra del golfo en el New York Times, ¿es nuestra tarea central la de aprender a morir—no como "individuos, sino como civilización," en el antropoceno?

Mi plan esta noche es, primero, dedicar un poco de tiempo a definir el concepto de antropoceno y compartir algunas de las maneras claves en la que ha sido discutido por los eruditos y ha entrado en la conciencia popular. Identificaré dos categorías amplias de respuestas populares y eruditas al tiempo profundo, la extinción y la disminución. Presentaré estas categorías a traves de las provocaciones de dos grupos hermanados, compuestos de poetas y científicos, filantropos y supervivencialistas, eruditos, tecnólogos, artesanos y cuentistas. Estos son los grupos Long Now Foundation (Fundación del largo ahora) y el Dark Mountain (Montaña oscura). Contare entonces, sin explicarlas necesariamente, dos pequeñas historias. Mis historias tratan el contemplar el tiempo mientras construimos para el tiempo—enfocados en el problema de la comunicación a traves de milenios. Vienen de la arquitectura fascista y el campo de la semiótica nuclear de la pos-guerra. Finalmente, concluiré con algunas ideas sobre la intersección de estas preocupaciones mayores con los metodos, sistemas, proyectos, y valores en las humanidades digitales. Identificaré algunas cosas que la comunidad HD particularmente pueda hacer, facilitar y dar de ella. (¿Están conmigo ahora? Adelante entonces).

Nos gusta jugar con términos que puedan encapsular nuestro creciente sentido de la responsabilidad hacia y la imbricación con la naturaleza. Si los seres humanos se han convertido en una fuerza geofísica, capaz de impactar la corteza y la atmosfera del planeta, y si las fuerzas geofísicas se convierten en objetos de estudio, presencias capaces de ser delineadas por millones de años, tenemos un problema de denominación. En 1992, el periodista Andrew Revkin hizo una predicción: "Los científicos de la tierra llamarán a este nuevo período, que sigue al Holoceno, en honor a su causa, a nosotros. Estamos entrando en una era que en algún día se llamará, digamos, el antroceno. Al final de cuentas, es una era geológica creada por nosotros mismos." De hecho, gano una variación alternativa de la palabra—Antropoceno—acuñada por el biologo Eugene Stoermer en los 1980s, siendo esta popularizada durante principios de los 2000s por un ganador del premio Nobel, el químico Paul Crutzen. En 2008, la Comisión Estratigráfica de la Asociación Geológica de Londres comenzó el proceso para eventualmente adoptar el término antropoceno como nomenclatura oficial—lo que lo pondría al lado del Pleistoceno y el holoceno en un sistema cronológico que mide, no giros alrededor del sol, sino el tiempo geológico: las complejas señales químicas, elementales, magnéticas y bio-físicas que observamos en las capas de piedra. Este trabajo—que los camaradas TEI en el auditorio pueden apreciar—sigue avanzando en los diferentes organismos de estandarización internacional relevantes. Un motivo de desacuerdo y discusión es el delimitador—o sea, donde exactamente localizarán los geólogos del futuro lejano y los paleontólogos extra-terrestres el limite—, que para nuestros detectives de rocas, es un verdadero "Clavo de Oro." ¿Detectaran la sorprendente firma isotópica de las bombas atómicas del siglo 20, evidente en nuestros dientes y huesos? ¿Notaran los trazos químicos y minerales—acido y hollín—o los desajustes físicos de los mineros en la tierra datados de la Revolución Industrial? ¿O, se dará como comienzo al antropoceno en el microscopico número de fósiles que marcan la propagación de la agricultura, hace algunos 8-10,000 años atras? ¿Quien sabe? Es todo un pestañeo de ojos, y nosotros habremos desaparecido hace ya mucho tiempo.

Pero la idea de que el impacto de los hombres en la naturaleza es marcada y medible, de tal modo que pueda nombrarse, no es nueva. En 1873, el geólogo y cura italiano, Antonio Stoppani propuso que nuestras tecnologías, infraestructuras, y patrones de uso de la tierra habían ya cambiado fundamentalmente los sistemas del planeta, lanzándonos a una nueva "era Antropozoica." George Perkins Marsh pronto adoptó el concepto de Stoppani en una edición revisada de su tratado geológico de 1864, Man and Nature (Hombre y naturaleza)—con nuevo titulo y yendo al clavo, The Earth as Modified by Human Action (La Tierra modificada por las acciones humanas).

En 1922, el tomo de R. L. Sherlock, Man as a Geological Agent (El Hombre como actor geológico), nos ofrece una advertencia temprana sobre el cambio de clima debido al uso excessivo de las fuentes de energía fósiles, las cuales, como dice el prólogo, resultarán en un "cambio inoportuno en los entornos atmosféricos." Esto le sugiere, [y continuo citando] a "pausar y considerar que el uso y la alteración de la corteza de la tierra son para ventaja del futuro que como el pasado" (7-8). Me encanta que Sherlock es capaz de presentar tan presciente advertencia y al mismo momento entretener lecciones sobre una civilización en decadencia—en Marte. Los marcianos son introducidos como nuestros vecinos cercanos de mayor edad, cuya "batalla… con la Naturaleza ha sido mayor que la de los seres humanos," y cuyo planeta devastado y arido, esta marcado por las grandes y futiles obras de ingeniería de los grandes canales (374). Sobretodo quería pausar en este libro porque introduce temas a los cuales regresaré.

Primero, este pensamiento alegre. "Veramente parece que el ‘Hombre llena la tierra de ruinas.’ Pero esto es una conclusión alaga demasiado a la vanidad humana. El memorial más permanente del hombre es una pila de basura, y esa también está destinada a desaparecer algún día" (383). Señoras y señores, ¡la geología! No comentaré sobre este pasaje deprimente—pero quería señalar que deprimirlos así es la mejor manera de evitar jamas ser invitada de nuevo al gran escenario de una conferencia DH. (Seré una dama anciana, algún día, nominada el premio Busa, y alguien dira, "Si pero te acuerdas de Nowviskie en Lausanne!") Volveremos luego a la noción de la obliteración de "nuestros memoriales más permanentes."

Es la segunda cita la que me servirá inmediatamente. Sherlock, interesado en los estallidos caprichosos de la influencia humana cuando se compara con el barrido continuo de la naturaleza, escribe: "Quizas el problema más difícil, y a la vez el más interesante, nace… de la relación entre la sicología del Hombre y sus actividades geológicas. Sus más profundas interferencias en la Naturaleza tienen su origen en el pensamiento." (347)

Los usos que se le da a la etiqueta antropoceno actualmente—por científicos del clima, historiadores y eco-críticos, por filósofos, políticos, activistas y artistas del siglo 21—tienen que ver más que nada con esta relación, ya nombrada en 1922: la relación entre la sicología maleable de la gente, por un lado, y por el otro, las prácticas que llevan a sus actividades verificables desde el punto de vista geológico. Ustedes conocen nuestras batallas actuales sobre la ciencia del clima, y saben lo que esta en juego, o sea que no las revisare aquí—excepto quizas para recomendarles el trabajo substantivo de nuestro primer ponente, Bruno Latour, quien medita en un número de ocasiones sobre el antropoceno como un concepto tan poderoso que puede retar la antigua separación filosófica del hombre de la Naturaleza—y quizas arrebatarnos de una curiosa parálisis de la política moderna. Pero más que la tenue relación entre la política y la razón, esta noche me interesa la relación entre las luchas tecnológicas, estéticas, retóricas, y profundamente personales, a veces sentimentales que enfoca el antropoceno—y como estas nos puedan ayudar a asentar el trabajo de las humanidades digitales en el tiempo.

Enmarquemos estas luchas en el cuento de dos colectivos. La primera, basada en California, la Long Now Foundation, (Fundacíon del largo ahora) que se ha propuesto un número de proyectos, conectados los unos a los otros, con la meta de promover el pensamiento a largo plazo, a muy largo plazo. Long Now fue establecida en 1996 por Steward Brand (el hippie editor de Whole Earth Catalog y fundador de WELL), el informático Danny Hillis, y el músico experimental Brian Eno, entre otros. De hecho, los miembros del Long Now insistirían que la fundación fue fundada en el año 01996, una manera de escribir las fechas que acomoda los próximos 97,985 años. Para entenderlo mejor—50,000 años antes de que se le acaben los dígitos al Long Now, las cataratas del Niagara ya habrán erosionado los 32 kilómetros que la separan del lago Erie. Ese encuentro ocurrirá 30,000 años después que, según uno de los modelos léxico-estadísticos, las lenguas humanas retendrían solo 1% de las palabras actuales. De aquí a que el Long Now tenga un problema Y100K, las constelaciones que reconocemos hoy ya habrán desaparecido del firmamento. Describo estas cosas para remarcar que los del Long Now le añaden un optimismo traviesamente provocador a todo lo que hacen. De todos modos, la mayor parte de lo que hacen cabe dentro de la escala más modesta de 10,000 años, más o menos el largo de la civilización humana hasta ahora. Entre sus mejores esfuerzo, esta el Rosetta Project (Proyecto Rosetta), un esquema para reunir y documentar 2,500 lenguas humanas, algunas 13,000 imagenes de páginas grabadas microscopicamente en preciosos discos de níquel de 4 pulgadas. Otro proyecto es un gigantesco Clock of the Long Now (Reloj del largo ahora), de movimiento casi imperceptible. Actualmente, este reloj esta siendo instalado en las profundidades de una montaña en West Texas—con una copia planeada para el desierto de Nevada, a ser plantada bajo un arboleda de pinos longevo de 5,000 años. Brian Eno diseño el sistema combinatorio de campanadas del reloj—una computadora mecánica que tocará 3.5 millones de melodías diferentes a traves de los siglos. "Cual es el propósito de construir un reloj gigantesco en el medio de una montaña con la esperanza de que suene por 10,000 años?" escribe el Long Now. La respuesta: "Para que la gente se haga esa pregunta." Su más recién empresa es un bar, biblioteca y salón chic en San Francisco para las conversaciones sobre el largo plazo. Ya hay charlas TED.

Contrastemos al Long Now con el Dark Mountain Project (Proyecto montaña oscura)—fundado en 2009 por Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, un par de escritores británicos en sus años treintas, activistas del medio ambiente desilusionados, quienes financiaron la impresión de un manifesto a traves del crowdfunding, o financiamento de un público anónimo. Su panfleto, inspirado por el poeta Norteaméricano del "inhumanismo," Robinson Jeffers, se titula Uncivilisation (Descivilización). Exhortaba a los lectores a mirar, no hacia al pasado lejano, pero firmemente a nuestro presente de contracción material, colapse ecológico, y decline civilizacional, con un ojo puesto en la disolución y fracaso final de nuestros grandes mitos de progreso. "¿Qué viene después del fin del mundo?" preguntaron. Y si las historias que nos hemos hecho, sobre nuestro dominio sobre la naturaleza, el destino manifesto, la libertad y el avance y la comodidad, nos han llevado a este punto, ¿Qué tipo de historias nos podrían llevar a un nuevo modo de vida? Dark Mountain no le habla a los legisladores ni a los tecnocratas, sino a los escritores y artistas—pidiéndoles que se dejen de pretensiones sobre la perfectibilidad de nuestras tecnologías y nuestra capacidad de evitar el desastre, y que se ocupen mejor de ayudar a los grandes públicos al "desmorone… del mundo." La descivilización toco un nervio, y no se hizo esperar para que apareciera una compilación de escritos, junto a varios festivales de verano en Hampshire y Wales. Dark Mountain se ha retirado de los carnavales, pero no instante, siguen haciendo noticia, ahora con menos frecuencia, y publican dos libros al año. Yo los leo en la playa.

Introduzco estos dos grupos—el Dark Mountain y el Long Now—como forma abreviada de dos tipos de conversaciones académicas a las que raras veces citan o encaran, pero a las cuales sin duda pertenecen. A lo mejor es el Zeitgeist. El aire que se respira. Son para mi, esta noche, maneras de orientar y condensar los estudios que informan nuestro tema. Les pido que me excusen aún por un momento más mientras recorro un poco la literatura al respecto. Estoy reuniendo las herramientas que necesitaremos.

Bien. Long Now y Dark Mountain. No tratan exactamente el tiempo profundo vs. lo efímero y experimental; tampoco exactamente la manufactura cuidadosa y el parar de las maquinas. No van tampoco de la esperanza vs. la desesperanza. Pero, cuando en una colección editada sobre el post-medioambientalismo y el antropoceno, Bruno Latour nos incita a "amar a nuestros monstruos," es decir, para sacar una página del Frankenstein (aquí en las orillas del lago Léman), e invertir en un manejo más sistemático de las tecnologías que hemos creado—cuando nos dice que la esperanza consiste en ponerle tan gran cuidado a la mayordomía de nuestra tecnología inquietante, como el que le dedicamos a su creación—es un llamado para el pensamiento a largo plazo y un constructivo, largo ahora. "El medio ambiente," escribe Latour, "debe de ser cuidado, manejado, atendido aún más; en resumén, integrado e internalizado en la fábrica misma del sistema político."

Por el otro lado, cuando el experto en política tecnólogica, Steven J. Jackson ofrece en un ensayo reciente llamado "Rethinking Repair" ("Pensando de nuevo la reparación"), que necesitamos "pensamiento de mundo roto," se posiciona este en la pendiente de la montaña oscura. Jackson argumenta que los actos individuales de mantenimiento, desmontaje, y reparación son constantes en nuestras interacciones con la tecnología, como actos generativos y esperanzados, oscurecidos por una retórica cultural que privilegia "la inovación, el desarollo y el diseño." Hace un llamado a un encuentro considerado no tanto con hacer cosas, sino con arreglarlas, reutilizándolas en su diminución y desmantelamiento—no un hacer nuevo, pero hacer hacer o hacerselas, y de ese modo adoptar una "etica del cuidado mutuo"—con nosotros mismos, el mundo a nuestro alrededor, y (de manera literal) con los objetos de nuestra afección. Esta es una fuente [dice él] de "esperanza y resistencia" y es una manera de ser en el tiempo en el espacio que—observo yo—tiene raices profundas en el feminismo.

La eco-crítica pos-colonial de la literata canadiense Susie O’Brien de manera similar avanza una "agenda de empatía," pero complica el elogio de la "resistencia" de Jackson en los actos de reparación. En su ensayo reciente, "The Downside of Up" ("El lado abajo de arriba"), y en una posterior sobre "trabajo al margen" y la teoría de resistencia de Arundhati Roy, O’Brien nos enseña como el concepto de resistencia—de volver a ponerse de pie, de ser flexible y adaptable como una medida de fortaleza ecológica, pero también como cierto tipo de "merito moral"—se alinea con "los ideales del neo-liberalismo": volatilidad constante, dinamismo estratégico, desregulación, y el consiguiente "desmantelamiento de programas medio-ambientales y sociales." Hoy buscamos ciudades resistentes, infraestructura resistente, empleados resistentes. Es un termino seductor. Pero refleja que tan fácil, como escribe McKenzie Wark en un ensayo reciente sobre Heidegger y la geología, la resistencia se convierte en "gobierno bajo condiciones constantemente apocalípticas… algo a aguantar."

El historiador Dipesh Chakrabarty, en un articulo clave llamado "The Climate of History" ("El clima de la historia"), argumenta que el antropoceno desencaja las nociones recibidas de la libertad y la emancipación. Estos conceptos están arraigados en las narrativas de la Ilustración y pos-coloniales que continúan moldeando nuestras instituciones y tecnologías—para bien o para mal—los mismos mitos de progreso y comfort que incitan los anti-cuentos del Dark Mountain. La libertad es un marco intelectual, dice Chakrabarty, que conlleva una energía intensa y descuidada, que no se fijo en sus propios costos. Marisa Parham (del consorcio HD de los 5 Colleges) nunca hace referencia a Chakrabarty, pero se fija en esos costos inmediatamente en el comercio trans-Atlantico de esclavos, cuando examina los datos históricos en la visualización del HDero Ben Schmidt—una visualización de la prensa popular aferrada y etiquetada a "A Map of Nineteenth-Century Shipping Routes and Nothing Else" ("Un mapa de rutas maritimas del siglo diecinueve y nada más"). La pequeña entrada de blog, de una hermosa sutileza, se titula "Black Haunts in the Anthropocene" ("Frecuentadas negras en el antropoceno").

Eileen Crist, quien trabaja en estudios animales, esta en desacuerdo con el concepto mismo. En su ensayo, "On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature" ("Sobre la pobreza de nuestra nomenclatura") ataca el egocentrismo de la étiqueta ‘Antropoceno.’ Para Crist, designar la epoca en nuestro honor, nos quita la libertad conceptual de desengancharse: de limitar la presencia humana radical y voluntariamente. De manera similar, Brian Lennon, quien considera cuestiones ecológicas dentro del marco de la labor académica, sugiere como modo de resistencia el entender el tiempo como un vehículo de la investigación humanística, "en tanto que el tiempo mismo lleva toda la lucha mundana a la extinción" (189). El tiempo es entonces aquello que debemos proteger y conservar. "Las libertades que imaginamos para la investigación digital son al final simples eficacias productivas… Para enfrentarnos al atolladero ecológico actual no es demandar una nueva innovación critico-teorética… es más restringir algo la producción mecánica." Esto requeriría de nosotros una "re-evaluación de nosotros y nuestras costumbres de trabajo" (186).

Para hécharle un ultimo vistazo a los temas que brotan del Long Now y el Dark Mountain, retorno a una de las preguntas con las que empece. ¿Qué significa?, les pregunte, ser testigos de una extinción en masa—el fin de tanta "lucha mundana." ¿Qué significa? o, ¿Qué debiera de significar, o motivarnos a hacer? John C. Ryan, investigador de la historia cultural de la flora australiana, resalta las perdidas emocionales y estéticas, las cuales han sido "poco articuladas en la literatura [científica]"—todos esos "colores, sonidos, aromas, comportamientos, y relaciones," ausencias que "empobrecen el mundo de los sentidos." Si es cierto, como ha escrito el antropologo Shiv Visvanathan, que "la ciencia no tiene rituales de luto,"—le convendrá a Ryan refugiarse en las inquietudes de la poesía junto a las ciencias botánicas. Pero esto, escribe, "requiere un marco [real] y modalidades actuales de luto"—una estética productiva, en el vero sentido del Dark Mountain—cuyo desarollo pudiese ser una tarea especial de la humanística digital y medioambiental de nuestros tiempos (52).

Thom van Dooren y Deborah Rose, del Grupo de Trabajo de Estudios de Extinción, estan de acuerdo. (Este grupo, cabe mencionar, incluye a la profesora Donna Haraway—quien frecuenta las charlas de HD más como un cyborg, que como una diosa). Rose y van Dooren se enfrentan al ultimo proyecto del Long Now que mencionaré, en una aguda presentación ofrecida el año pasado para la Royal Zoological Society of South Wales (la Real Sociedad Zoológica de Wales del Sur). Como Ryan, imaginan el luto como la tarea cultural primaria—en sus palabras "residir en la extinción"—porque el luto nos cambia, y solo un cambio interno profundo creará "la base para una respuesta sostenible e consciente." Van Dooren y Rose responden al proyecto "Revive and Restore (Revive y restaura), del Long Now, un nuevo esfuerzo para coordinar el "movimiento de la DeExtinción." Este proyecto apoya la ingeniería genética de es especies en peligro de extinción (alterándolas para que sean más fuertes en el período del antropoceno), el clon y la recreación al por mayor de especies extintas—palomas pasajeras, mamuts lanudos—trabajo que el fundador Stewart Brand promueve como "rescate genético."

Revive y restaura difiere completamente de la serie Rosetta Disk and Clock del Long Now, originada hace ya dos décadas. Ya no se trata de una provocación estética a pensar más cuidadosamente al largo plazo, sino de hacer algo, quizas cualquier cosa, ahora. En una charla TED del año pasado, Brand "postulo la pregunta de como [la historia de la extinción de animales causada por los hombres] nos hace sentir, y como debemos orientarnos en relación a esta." Van Dooren y Rose citan la charla: "Tristeza, furia, luto? [dice Brand] Nada de luto [dice el]—organiza. Yo lo vi. "Pues, [entusiasma al público] ¿Quieren especies extintas de vuelta? ¿Ustedes quieren especias extintas de vuelta?" El público aplaude.

Quizas ya, debido a los resultados imprevistos de nuestras soluciones tecnológicas, tenemos la cautela suficiente para preocuparnos de proyectos como el de la DeExtinción—de la creación, tememos, de demasiados monstruos a quienes amar. Al contrario, "residir con la extinción" sencillamente, como lo indica el Dark Mountain, parece demasiado sombrio—y posiblemente de nunca acabar. ¿Que nos queda entonces?

Permítanme colgar dos mascaras de la pared. Ambas son apotropaicas.

Primera mascara. El extraño, y especulativo campo de la semiótica nuclear nació en 1981, cuando el gobierno de los Estados Unidos y la corporación Bechtel, responsables de la Presa Hoover, comisionaron un grupo de trabajo. Su meta era disminuir la posibilidad de que en los próximos 10,000 años, una banda desafortunada de nuestros descendientes se accidentara por uno de nuestros repositorios subterráneos de desecho radioactivo, en vias de desarrollo en aquel entonces. Dos reportes importantes surgieron de este esfuerzo. El primero, escrito por el linguista y semiótico Thomas Sebeok, es famoso por plantear la creación de un sacerdocio atómico, un culto hierático devoto a la protección y transmisión del conocimiento sobre el sitio. Un reporte de 1993 de un grupo posterior incluye bosquejos de gusanos amenazantes, campos de espinas filosas, advertencias en piedra Rosetta, fotos de caras tristes, y cosas por el estilo. Sus letreros y estructuras propuestas deberían de ser claras: "Este no es un sitio honorable. No excaven aquí." Pero claro, ¿que llamaría más la atención a un arqueólogo del futuro que una unica, monumental y aterradora ruina de la civilización perdida de las Americas? La arquitectura de la admonición parece estar destinada al fracaso.

Más imaginativo que el reporte original, fue el numero especial del Zeitschrift für Semiotik Aleman, que, inspirado por el proyecto, hizo un llamado aparte y publicó un grupo de ellas en 1984, incluyendo una pieza breve de Sebeok. Phillip Sonntag, de Berlin, propuso poner el mensaje en un lugar seguro: en la faz de una luna artificial. El escritor de ciencia ficción polaco, Stanislaw Lem, sugirió que la información sobre el emplazamiento sea grabada en el DNA de plantas sembradas en la superficie. Pero el premio Dark Mountain lo ganan dos investigadores franceses, Bastide y Fabbri. Estos propusieron la creación de una raza de gatos—Strahlenkatze—cuya piel cambiara de color al ser expuestos a la radiactividad de manera consistente. Cuentistas, artistas, y compositores serían recrutados para plantar en cada cultura, en todas partes, un conjunto de fabulas y leyendas virales sobre lo malo que sucede cuando tu gatito se pone azul. La colección cierra com dos ensayos, por Susanne Hauser y Marshall Blonsky, quienes sugieren fuertemente que mejor nos ocupemos de desarmar y reducir el desecho nuclear—y declaran que la pregunta en si (quizas como esta charla) refleja una condición en la cual "una sociedad de capitalismo tardío en proceso de desintegración seduce a su elite a proyectar su propia… inseguridad sobre el futuro de la humanidad."

Segunda mascara. En 1934, Adolfo Hitler le pidió a su arquitecto jefe, Albert Speer, diseñar una estructura permanente que remplazara el tribunal de madera de una pista de aterrizaje de zeppelin en Nuremberg—un lugar que luego se convertiría en la infame base de manifestaciones del partido Nazi. Speer sabía que la arquitectura clásica inspiraba a Hitler, y que este estaba celoso de esa cierta continuidad que le otorgaban las ruinas de Italia a Mussolini con el gran imperio romano. Quizas, inspirado el mismo por un cuadro comisionado por el arquitecto del siglo 19, Sir John Soane, del nuevo Banco de Inglaterra, Speer le presento a Hitler más que una imagen del edificio terminado. Le ofreció un segundo esbozo, del campo de Zeppelin mil años en el futuro—ruinado, cubierto de hiedra, pero aun reconocible, quizas esperando a un Cuarto Reich a venir. Sus ministros se escandalizaron por ese memento mori del arquitecto, pero a Hitler le gusto, y Speer luego desarrollo y formulo la idea como "Teoría del valor-ruina," afanándose desde entonces a solo utilizar materiales de construcción que se desmoronen graciosamente. Les ofrezco esto, como los irradiantes Strahlenkatze de la semiótica nuclear, como ejemplos de nuestro impulso común de comunicarnos a traves de milenios—aunque no nos demos cuenta, que lo que decimos puede ser nuestro pecado más oscuro.

Y quizas esto explica nuestra lucha por darle etiqueta al Antropoceno: la esperanza en contra de toda esperanza de que si dejaremos huella, aunque esa huella sea una de transgresión. Quizas es también la razón por la cual—en una charla reciente sobre el retiro de las luchas dentro del campo académico a los campos en si—el teórico de la media finlandesa Jussi Parikka nos recuerda que la materialidad de la tecnología de la información moderna tiene sus raíces comunes en lo profundo, en los metales tóxicos de la tierra.

Dado todo esto—los lentes amplios de la ciencia, la historia y la especulación, que utilizamos para vernos a nosotros mismos en el tiempo, y el clima de extinción que rodea nuestro trabajo—¿cuales serían nuestras esperanzas compartidas ideales en HD? ¿Que tareas y proyectos tomaríamos?, o ¿a cuales nos uniríamos? ¿Cuales serían nuestras funciones—o, si prefieren, nuestras vocaciones, ahora? Quiero que utilizemos la seriedad de este momento para unirnos más con compasión, solidaridad, e inteligencia—como una comunidad internacional, multi-disciplinaria, y conscientemente inter-profesional—muy atenta a las extinciones cotidianas y a las complejidades de nuestro encuentro con estas, cautelosos de del lado y llamado oscuro de nuestro impulso de comunicarnos en el tiempo profundo, y al igual llenos de benevolencia y esperanza.

Creo que cabe la esperanza, y la confianza en nuestros dones. Dedicaré mis últimos minutos enumerando algunos de los más importantes de estos—de nuestros éxitos pasados y areas donde aún nos abrimos camino con nuestra labor. (Y les pido perdón por no asociar los nombres de individuos con la mayor parte de los proyectos que aludiré aquí: en estilo típico de HD, la mayoría son proyectos de equipo, algunos cruzando las fronteras institucionales y nacionales).

Primero, la recuperación digital de textos, objetos y rastros de la experiencia o el pensamiento humano, creídos perdidos durante siglos. Aquí (vistos desde fuera, claro), los logros del HD parecen magia: desde el Gran Libro de Pergamino de 1639, un fajo frágil desde el incendio de Guildhall de hace más de dos siglos, ahora desdoblado virtualmente y legible de nuevo—a los papiros Herculaneum, desplegados por última vez en las laderas del Monte Vesubio y convertidos en un instante en briquetas de carbón en el año 79 dC—poco a poco abriéndose con el uso de rayos X, micro-CT y barrido multi-espectral. Proyectos en prosopografía nos dan una visión más clara de las vidas cotidianas en el mundo bizantino, mientras acercamientos computacionales a la paelografía se convierten más profundamente humanísticos y hermeneuticos. Simulamos y modelamos (calculando, digamos, la manera en que la luz caía en una tarde invernal en una villa romana de antaño, o buscando ciudades perdidas en la Ilíada de Homero usando el GIS). Y exploramos nuestro pasado reciente con la arqueología y forense de medios operada en los recursos natos digitales—actividades que en sí mejoran avances en el area de la preservación digital. La resurrección puede ser un trabajo macabro. Creo que entendemos la extinción mejor en nuestros esfuerzos.

Siguiente, los grandes datos (big data) y el long durée. Si es cierto, como escribe Rebecca Solnit, que los seres humanos no saben "mirar a las grandes cosas" en esta, nuestra "era de la escala inhumana"—un concepto que Timothy Morton teoriza como "hyperobjetos"—entidades inefables, naturales y computacionales (como el calentamiento global) "distribuidas masivamente en el espacio y el tiempo" (37-9)—entonces el HD tiene un papel público y transformador que jugar. Para Morton, enfrentarse a los hyperobjetos puede llevar a "un tiempo de sinceridad, es decir, un tiempo en que es imposible alcanzar una distancia final de cara al mundo" (44). Jo Guldi se aproxima a esta idea cuando recuenta que "la información no va (y sí va) a cambiar el clima"—describiendo sus reuniones con docenas de esfuerzos cartográficos de base en India, y llamando a una "arquitectura de la información marcada por la participación" e informada por la historia. "Mapeo, codificación, y colección de datos deben de aliarse a un sentido de la memoria." Es un recordatorio poderoso para aquellos entre nosotros posicionados para enfrentar a lo que Guldi llama "el sobrecargo de información, la corrupción del privilegio y la ineficacia de la experticia," con nuestros diseños de datos y nuestras visualizaciones. David Armitage se une a Guldi en otro ensayo, historizando el estrechamiento reciente del ambito temporal de los historiadores académicos de habla Inglés, y describiendo como avances en lectura a distancia y digitalización masiva hace del "Retorno al Longue Durée" no solo algo factible tecnologicamente, sino algo imperativo desde el punto de vista político, y profundamente restaurador para la humanística a gran escala.

Sin embargo, imaginar historias de nuevo requerirá ir más alla del analysis y la visualización algorítmica de los grandes datos. Si buscamos un HD rico y humanista, capaz de dar la cara más alla de los retos tecnicos de nuestras enormes colecciones de datos geo-temporales, debemos desarrollar metodos de diseño que abordan fusiones teoréticas recientes del fondo y trasfondo, del tiempo y el espacio. El proyecto de Neatline del Scholars’ Lab es un tal esfuerzo, aunque aún solo completo a medias. Lo clave será insertar conceptos aquí como el "graphesis" de Johanna Drucker, permitir la producción del conocimiento a traves de la visualización iterativa—potencialidades que apoyan lo que Nick Mirzoeff llama una "contra-visualidad" ("counter-visuality") a las imagenes dominantes del antropoceno. Mirzoeff localiza las semillas de esa resistencia en el Sur global.

O quizas necesitemos una contra-facticidad—lugar para esos "extraños giros y productos híbridos del pensamiento y-si-fuera" que son el sujeto del libro próximo de Kari Kraus, Hopeful Monsters (Monstruos Esperanzados), un intento de "reorientar la humanística [en areas de la historia]" hacia posibles y positivos futuros. Laboratorios experimentales en las humanidades y talleres-hacedores de HD participan en esta reorientación con vistas hacia adelante, permitiendo a los eruditos a bregar, chapucear y construir, trayendo con ellos perspectivas críticas a la fabricación en 3D; hazlo-tu-mismo computación portátil e insertada; el trasteo con hardware, el modding, la reparación, la realidad aumentada, y la creación de bots y juegos. Al final de cuentas, como Armitage y Guldi argumentan en el caso del longue durée, "los futuros alternativos se convirtieron en el ámbito de los futuristas y escritores de ciencia ficción tan solo cuando los historiadores los abandonaron" (41).

Hay otros proyectos que podríamos emprender, individualmente o colectivamente, dentro del marco del antropoceno. Cierro con una lista fragmentaria. Los HDeros debemos ser más efectivos en nuestra comunicación con los públicos mayores, hacer más visible nuestro trabajo en preservación, computación especulativa, y memoria cultural—fomentar la colaboración con segmentos de la sociedad fuera de la academia que comparten nuestras orientaciones y preocupaciones. Necesitamos sistemas de recompensa que no solo premian lo nuevo, sino que encuentran nobleza en el actividades como la mejora de metadatos, mantenimiento de proyectos, y migración progresiva—y de esa manera impulsarnos a atender mejor a las condiciones de trabajo de nuestros colegas en instituciones de patrimonio cultural y aquellos que se ocupan de los sistemas y el software de proyectos HD. Necesitamos más "agendas de empatía"—y crear espacios seguros y acogedores para los vulnerables, donde sea que podamos hacerlos (y es aquí donde quiero parar y darle las gracias mis colegas de la ADHO y los miembros del equipo que ayudaron a crear el nuevo e importante Codigo de conducta de esta conferencia). Necesitamos ponerle más atención a cuestiones de accesibilidad y computación minimal, y estar consientes que la llamada revolución digital en las humanidades no esta distribuida de manera equitativa. Necesitamos reconocer las imperativas de la degradación elegante, para sostener una cantidad menor de proyectos geriátricos ya en su adolescencia que muy despreocupados han negado su propia mortalidad y así no han planeado para tiempos diferentes o disminuidos. Pero al mismo tiempo, y particularmente en las bibliotecas, necesitamos un discurso más robusto alrededor de lo efímero—en gran parte para darle licencia a los trabajos experimentales que queremos y necesitamos, que nunca quieren vivir por mucho tiempo, ser serios o madurar. Debemos ocuparnos de los costos humanos y medioambientales del HD—de nuestra complicidad con la manufactura de nuestros aparatos y los manipuladores de los medios sociales, con la pisada de carbon y el precio de conferencias como estas—y preguntarnos seriamente como nosotros podemos cambiar, o crecer. Mientras nuestros gobiernos utilizan técnicas de vigilancia militar en contra de ciudadanos comunes y planifican para desordenes civiles a causa del cambio del clima, necesitamos usar nuestra experticia y conciencia histórica profunda más en linea con las políticas de la vida en el siglo 21. Y tendremos que convivir con la extinción, cada uno de nosotros, de manera privada y profesionalmente, un poquito más de lo que les he forzado a vivir esta noche.

Es demasiado—¿No? Es paralizante y amedrentador, mi lista de cosas que debemos y necesitamos hacer, cuando ya hacemos tanto, y bajo condiciones limitadas. Pero "nosotros" somos muchos, y mucha gente con intereses diferentes gravitan cada día más y más hacia las humanidades digitales. En nuestra "era de escala inhumana," me acuerdo de una noche que pase, hace ya unos años, en la oscuridad congenial de un parque en Nueva York con los miembros del movimiento Occupy Wall Street. La multitud era enorme, y les faltaba el permiso para la amplificación de sonido, así que cuando hacía falta propagar una noticia, los "ocupantes" empleaban lo que tildaban de "microfono humano,"—o el microfono del pueblo—repitiendo y de esa forma ampliando las palabras de un parlante con cienes de voces y pulmones. Es un movimiento de base no tan diferente como la idea tan bonita de los susurradores de traducciones aquí en DH 2014.

Tenemos muchos mensajeros listos para las imperativas que les he planteado esta noche. No todos ellos trabajan con palabras, pero igual hablan. Una meta de nuestra colectividad en los años venideros—en tiempos que dificultan, y en servicio al mundo que viene próximo—es la de ampliar esas voces, a todo poder.

Terminé de escribir esta charla, pero no sabía como parar—así que me fui a nadar. Bajo y profundo, recitan los azulejos de ceramica, en los puntos finales de la linea que siempre elijo. A lo mejor a ti te gusta chapotear también. Yo empiezo con una de las palabras, y extiendo mis manos hacia la otra, de atras hacia alante, una y otra vez, mientras dura mi piscina.

Category: Digital Humanities

The (Digital) Library of Babel

[This talk was delivered as the closing keynote before the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. on June 6, 2014. It was a bittersweet delivery because I had to miss the first day of our Open Syllabus Project conference at Columbia U., but the commitment to deliver went beyond my gratitude to the organizers of DHSI. I dedicate these attempts to say something useful to my guides, Bethany and Jerry.]

SLIDES

exeunt to the world

I feel privileged to be here at the institute with you. When I received the kind invitation to offer my remarks on the subject of a global digital humanities I was elated, and immediately remembered that other marvelous congress, "El congreso" de Jorge Luis Borges.

In that congress, Alejandro Ferri remembers for us, about 20 Argentineans would gather on Saturdays at the house of another Alejandro, the red bearded, wealthy landowner Alejandro Glencoe. Inspired by guillotined Anarchasis Coots, "citoyen de l’humanité," Glencoe had founded El Congreso del Mundo to represent all men of all nations. Sic on the men. Their vast mission, combined with their small numbers, led them to come up with very clever solutions: Glencoe for example could represent landowners as well as men with red beards, or men sitting on a couch.

Naturally, they needed a library of congress. They started small, with a few encyclopedias. Soon enough the classics followed. Eventually, inflamed by Pliny the Younger’s suggestion that no book was without some merit, the congress set about collecting all of them, including 3,400 copies of Don Quixote in different formats, theater bills, and yes, dissertations.

On the day the bankrupted Glencoe ordered the books to be burned, he invited all to take a carriage ride through the night streets of Buenos Aires, declaring with great authority that the real congress of the world was the world itself. All accepted and exited clearheaded unto that largest of tents.

the disangelium of the digital humanities

I for one take dead seriously Jerome McGann’s impossible injunction that the role of the humanist in the XXI century is to tend to the history of our documentary pasts—recorded, written, painted or built—and oversee their remediation for our digital futures. But whose documentary past are we talking about? The world’s documentary past, of course. "Scholars are made," Jerry is forced to remind us in A New Republic of Letters, and we must make whole congregations of them for the task at hand. But who’s we? The world’s current scholars, of course—independent, librarian, professing scholars.

A new philology this way comes to regain its clement place at the center of our κόσμος. Do not hesitate. This is not the first time we build a republic of letters. We memorists have built countless already, each bound to specific mnemotechnics, labor arrangements and ideological charges.

For the first time, though, we have within our reach the means for both the production and dissemination of our own scholarly work at a massive scale. Provided the bloodstained cables, circuits and energy sources that support our digital mirrors clean up their act and survive our politics and commerce, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our collective memories on a different key. A humanities gone digital brings not the future, but a new past.

I’m sure everyone here is aware of the amazonic topographies of our inherited republic of letters: Canons built on top of nationalist and regional agendas; material traces of the past languishing in the libraries of former and current empires; brittle others crumbling under the pressure of the politicians and booklice of former colonies.

In our diligent present, authors upon theorists sign over their Microsoft Word documents to the serviceable folks of the publishing industry, who will surely PDF them, perhaps stain and bind some paper, then ship the product by donkey or cable off to select corners of the earth. The industrial indexers and bundlers never lag far behind, chock-full of DRM cufflinks. Eventually we end up with an accumulation of our scholarship in large metropolitan or wealthy academic libraries—mostly north, to be clear. On the margins of our inherited republic of letters, the provinces make do with hungry local productions and dark libraries crawling with all kinds of strange critters—trackers, leechers, seeders—as the global (c) wars rage on.

At this juncture, in sight of a new deal, as we slowly break lose from national narratives and the deflating tent of "The Western Tradition," building a global community of scholars who can harness the machines finds its reason and rhyme.

global outlook :: digital humanities

The seeds for GO::DH were planted during a series of conversation at DH2012, Hamburg, among several scholars from North America, Europe and Asia, including Neil Fraistat and Dan O’Donnell, our current chair, on the difficulties of making connections with mainland China. By this point, centerNet had already made enormous strides in connecting centers across the constituent members of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), but they had found some difficulties connecting outside of that tent. In 2012 we also see the publication of Melissa Terras’ map, "Physical Centres in the Digital Humanities Across the Globe," which inadvertently calls attention to its absences more than its contents, and Domenico Fiormonte’s "Towards a Cultural Critique of the Digital Humanities," in which he takes to task mainstream digital humanities as detrimentally anglo-centric.

With this backdrop, GO::DH began coagulating in earnest during INKE’s Birds of Feather gathering in November of 2012, in Havana. Many in this room now were there. I joined the conversation around that time. In earlier conversations, the group was dangerously imagined as an advocacy group encouraging ADHO members to seek out scholars on the empty hinterlands of Melissa Terras’ map in order to provide assistance to them. During our fortuitous debates in Havana, though, GO::DH started molding its current ethos for transnational collaboration based on a different gambit: to go global, we would look for intersections within existing practices and networks, rather than replicate or over-valorize the tents that sheltered us. In doing so, we transformed the we. Our we is now a function of our intersections around the world, and WE are now entering our second year. So far, so good.

In practice, GO::DH consists of a mailing list, (which anyone can join), a website, around 250 members worldwide, a series of working groups and an executive board. During our short run we have already drafted our first set of by-laws, successfully ran an international essay contest, helped organize a few tents in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico , added a few new working groups to the mix, tackled several hot-button issues on our list, and all o’ that without drawing the ire of the internet. We are just getting started, of course.

While our online forum is the soul of our special interest group, our hands are the working groups. Each of the groups has their own coordinating executive, which reports back to the GO::DH executive periodically. Working groups are strategic, in the sense that they help us carry out our larger mission in one way or another. THATCampCaribe 2: Cuba, for example, continued the work we started during the INKE meeting; the Translation Commons group embodied our distributed and collaborative approach to language diversity; the Rewriting Wikipedia project provided us with a model of groups working together in different geographies and connecting by telepresence as groups (an alternative to controversial anonymous, individual-centered models of crowdsourcing); our most recent addition, the Minimal Computing group is setting out to imagine a digital humanities conscious of global accessibility questions (bandwidth, hardware, electricity, etc.) If you’re in Lausanne this year for DH2015, make sure to catch our workshop, organized by John Simpson.

arounddh

Of the working groups, my personal favorite is the #arounddh in 80 Days project, which I’m happy to announce will launch one minute before the summer solstice. I promised I’d deliver in Spring, and well…

Turning Jules Vernes’ colonialist fantasy of homogenous space on its head, the #arounddh project, is a vehicle for addressing the challenge of multi-directional and reciprocal visibility in an asymmetric field. Starting June 21 and running for 80 days, the site will take us to different parts of the world to highlight a different digital humanities project every day. Not only can #arounddh allow us to get a sense of the rich diversity of scholarly engagement with digital environments around the world, it can also provide a piecemeal entry for beginners to the digital humanities, refracted now through a broader lens.

The first stage of the project consisted of compiling a master list on a Google Doc spreadsheet of digital humanities projects around the world (n.b. you can still contribute). Using social media and email, the working group was able to accumulate 300+ entries (and growing!) from contributors around the globe. The creation of the master list was itself instrumental in making connections between individual scholars, many of whom became more involved in the activities of GO::DH. The master list has already become a valuable resource in its own right, separate from the web project, and we’re already in discussions with DHCommons, MapaHD and other general directories of projects to find ways to mesh our data.

Production of the web project began in Ryan Cordell’s "Doing Digital Humanities" class in the Spring of 2013. Ryan approached us as collaborator with an understanding that the project would be a great pedagogical tool for introducing graduate students to digital humanities around the globe. Students in the class began work on the project using the Scalar platform, and were able to create a prototype of the project that included mapping and descriptions of the project. Students also made their selection process transparent. Their well-documented experience served as a foundation for the continued development of the project.

The next stage of the process consisted of gathering an editorial board of scholars from around the world to make the selection of the final 80 projects based on the master list. As of this moment, the final website is being designed using Jekyll, a static website generator, and using minimal design, like the SVG map you see in the slide, in order to make the project more easily accessible in areas with low bandwidths.

In the strongest sense, though, this project has been more about the process than the actual product. We have built many important relationships throughout the development stage, and expect to build more; we have also had an opportunity to see the pedagogical benefits of the anthological approach to the Introduction to Digital Humanities course, which is becoming a staple of our collective practices. More importantly the project has helped us broaden our network and put to test many of the ideas discussed in the forum.

decoding English, de-Englishing code

The thorny question of English—la colonialidad del poder—still hangs loose, never quite unraveling the emperor’s clothes, never quite breaking off. More recently, the question has been transposed to the realm of Critical Code Studies, where Roopika Risam and others encouraged us to tease out the role of English norms in Ramsey Nasser’s قلب programming language. The exercise proved that we are still long ways from sorting out how to foster a true babel. I personally have a longstanding love affair with the English language, but it does not blind me to the home court advantage of native speakers in large numbers.

Undoubtedly, many of these problems lie outside of the scope of what we can accomplish as scholars, but we can certainly tend to our own tents. At GO::DH we have approached these issues by foregrounding the role of translation, allowing all languages free reign. While for the most part the community reverts to globish as a lingua franca, our policies promise to be a model for other groups seeking a global outlook. For our essay contest, we decided to accept submissions in any language, with the plucky suspicion that we would be able to find a translator regardless what participants threw at us. Our gambit paid off. We received 53 submissions in seven languages, five of which the panel could easily read ourselves, two of which, Polish and Korean, we had no problems finding readers for.

Instead of requiring a lingua franca or official languages, we open language to the community, where a translation of the website or any forum post depends on the community itself. By allowing speakers to write in the language of their choice, we hope to chip away at perhaps one of the most daunting obstacles facing the global community of scholars to come. And because English speakers are all encouraged to speak in careful globish, we place the burden on the hegemon.

the dance of universals

Allow me to finish with a few maxims for those of you who are about to go out there to the disangelium. Perhaps I can send you off in good cheer.

  1. Do not confuse the dancer for the dancehall.

With In The World Interior of Capital, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reminds us that our obsession with dwelling within spheres and canopies is as old as dust, and like dust those celestial figures eventually must return to the ground. The rush for big data and massive surveillance, inevitably reduced to forms, continues an ancient search that could tame, and perhaps generate, the asymmetrical granularities of the real. If you pay attention, you will notice the Sanskrit grammar of Pāṇini is dancing to similar tunes as the Mercator Projection or the Universal Turing Machine.

Our new humanities must not refuse this dance, but we should dance it with our feet on the ground. Presented with a "massively addressable" past and present, we must resist the temptation to ignore what falls out of our buckets. Our task as memorists requires us to return always to a science of exceptions, to the punctum. As Nowviskie returns to Morris, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.”

  1. Rejoice in the dancers and their dance

Perhaps we have reached a point, saturated with complex procedures for generating figures that mostly elude us, almost mocking us, where we can allow flesh and form to dance in step. Here is a gorgeous example from The Forsythe Company, “Synchronous objects for one flat thing.

Notice the dance easily sliding from choreography to dancers to visualization; form to flesh to form. Each produces an effect without being subordinate to the other. As we begin our global collaborations, we must do likewise. We must certainly have choreographies in place, do the dance, but remain open to wondrous new forms in the process.

  1. Listen to the experienced dancers.

As we invent new dances and write new histories of dance, listen to those who have been dancing for years. The arts we preach are rigorous and demand years of dedication, perhaps lifetimes.

The eternal September of the digital humanities is only bound to increase in intensity in the years to come. Aren’t we ultimately talking about the eternal September of the academy? Let us welcome our students with patience and remind them gradually, but firmly of our disciplinary memories.

Finally, and this one is personal,

  1. Let us be excellent dancers to one another.

The world is a messy place, covered under the big tent of a capitalism flirting with authoritarianism, plagued by AK-47s and countless lunacies; but also agency and promise, the dance halls of communities.

We are a small, if albeit visible, band of hackers and pirates charged with an impossible, but ever so crucial mandate. To reach the promised land, we must not fall into facile Us vs. Thems, especially those of us who are wrestling with the tough questions of race, gender and other charged differences. I see many tents, and tents within tents, big ones and small ones, and clearings too; I walk among many of them and so can you. Let us count beyond twos and threes as we do so, and always err on the side of grace.

Our students and publics are watching us; they have their fingers crossed. Not to disappoint them, let us continue to be excellent dancers to one another as we exit unto the world.

Category: Digital Humanities

Why do the humanities matter, and what does that have to do with a bus?

One of my favorite humans in the world is my cousin Edwin. He makes a good living exporting used cars in Houston. We phone all the time to catch up on family gossip and to talk about movies or books. He was one of the few ones in my family who gave me moral, and sometimes financial, support to pursue a degree in English. He didn’t always understand why I would do such a thing with my life. “You could be a lawyer or a doctor,” he would declare, and immediately add the question “What’s the use of an English degree?” I suppose he supported me because he trusted me to know the answer to that question. “I believe in you,” he would remind me without an ounce of irony. I could always hear him thinking “but I have no clue what you’re doing or why.”

Edwin is a smart man, a self-starter who has built a robust business through perseverance, discipline and acumen. He appreciates a good story, preferably told through film, and a good debate about religion, where he usually lands on the side of skepticism. Over the years, we inevitably revisit the question of the English degree, “what’s the use?” The closest I’ve ever been to convincing him that what I do is worthwhile was the time I suggested that people who write films probably have a background in literature. You see, Edwin is a private person, not very interested in the public sphere, not even Facebook. My cousin was just happy to know that something he loves had a connection to what I do.

I’m guessing a large number of grown ups feel the same way as my cousin. I hear it all the time from worried parents who would prefer their kids to major in Engineering or Business, perhaps get a Law or Medical degree. We also hear the pundits, all the way to the President, asking the same question as Edwin in one way or another. Tens of thousands of us have answers, perhaps even millions. I myself have a whole range of answers, some for Edwin, some for anonymous parents, some for politicians, some for students, some even for other colleagues at the university who should know better.

I’ll give you my favorite one, the one that convinces me to do what I do: I work to steward and interpret our material inheritance. I hope I don’t need to point out that the past survives to us only through its material traces. We have objects like books, manuscripts, buildings, paintings, you name it; we also have oral traditions and rituals that pass down from generation to generation; we even have our own bodies telling stories about the past. I specialize in that part of the past that we can call the world of books and manuscripts, trying to understand that past and make sure that some of it continues to survive. That means I also have to teach others how to do the same.

Notice that our understanding of that material past changes what survives and what doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. Many libraries in North America right now are digitizing print books and converting them to “e-books.” Some believe that by doing so they are getting rid of “legacy” containers. What they fail to take to heart is that the new thing is not the same as the old, and what is meant to survive now is something created in 2013, not 1913 or 1613. Of course, much of what we know of our past comes to us because of this telephone game, the Bible being one of the most famous examples. This ancient game has involved many players with less than noble agendas and many others who were uninformed, in many cases with horrible consequences for us. I do what I do because I know that our sense of who we are and our roles in the world depend on it.

Perhaps we might reach a point where we don’t try to save the past or try to understand it because we forgot how to do it, what we were doing or because we stopped caring. We’re not there yet. I know we all definitely have things we would like everyone to forget, things we would prefer not to understand. You can also tell that those who seem not to care are usually just trying to push their own version of the stories, in many cases painting a rosier picture, in others a very poor one. In the United States, for example, some folks are trying to convince those without access to education that the US Constitution was written by God. Obviously, these folks are not interested in getting rid of the past, they just want to transform it into a fairy tale. While we play the telephone game, what I do is also a struggle. If the time comes when we don’t care anymore about the past, and become a “race of immortals” as Jorge Luis Borges called people without a need for collective memory, then I won’t care either; I’ll be right there with you doing whatever it is we’re being compelled to do or just having fun.

In any case, my favorite reason for doing this is only a drop in the bucket. Here’s another great answer, this time by friend and colleague, Natalia Cecire. Like Natalia and me, many others have already answered, for centuries, but we need more, tons more. This is where the bus tour comes in, the “Humanities Matters Bus Tour” to be precise. We are “folks on a mission to defend Humanities education by taking a cross-country bus trip and documenting the evidence.” We are asking for your help financing the trip. If we succeed, our goal is to capture hundreds or thousands of video clips answering Edwin’s question, “What’s the use?” We are going up the East Coast of the United States starting in Virginia, and all across the continent near the Canadian border. We will stop in many cities, at many universities, to ask students, professors and librarians “Why do the humanities matter?” We want to hear as many diverse voices as possible, from Historians and Artists to Engineers and Economists.

Supporting the bus is one way to help us convince others to study or encourage others to study, teach and talk about Literature, History, Music, Art, Languages, etc. Here’s a couple of reasons why I like the bus in particular as a way to go out there and remind North America and the world why the humanities matter: the bus ride will be tons of fun (I mean, that one is just self-evident); we are capturing the most voices on video to speak at once in praise of the humanities of any other project before us, each of those voices, personal and professional, painting a picture of our very humanity in the process; we are highlighting the ways in which the humanities are also about building and reshaping cultural memory, and working collaboratively. They don’t call the original bus the MakerBus for nothing.

(I’ll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone: Our bus is also the illegitimate child of Furthur and a bookmobile in New Orleans. What could go wrong?)

We have six days of fundraising to go, and unless we get large infusions, we won’t be able to fund the bus. Help us #getonthebus. To contribute please visit our Kickstarter campaign or help us spread the word. Our twitter handler is @humbustour. You can also write to me directly if you want to make a contribution larger than $1000 and would like to know more details.

MLA 2014 Notes

On Arrival

The 2014 Modern Language Association annual conference took place on the week when the polar winds descended on the United States. Many students, faculty, librarians and vendors brought their papers and expectations to a frozen downtown Chicago. Several heated debates came to a fever pitch by the time of the conference. The most important of these were the debates on how best to address the condition of contingent labor in North America and the boycott of the Israeli academy. The world of Digital Humanities was not without controversy either, and debates about the role of critical theory and the scope of the field continued to flare up.

I arrived a day late from Beirut, where I was delivering a paper at the CASAR conference and working with the chair of AUB’s English Dept., David Wrisley, to develop strategies to foster digital humanities capacity in the Middle East. I was disappointed that I had missed the MLA Subconference, a pre-conference organized by “an independent and evolving group of graduate students in the humanities who are interested in creating a new kind of conference environment, in order to propose alternative professional, social, and political possibilities for ourselves and our peers.” I arrived instead the night before my first panel, New Ways of Reading: Surface Reading and Digital Methods.

Friday, Jan 10: Surface Reading; Beyond the Digital

The panel on Surface Reading was very well attended attended. The room was one of the largest in the conference, and seemed full from the stage. The reason was clear, we combined the DH and Surface Reading audiences1. The goal of the panel was to reconcile as much as we could of the two movements. Sharon Marcus and Heather Love began by recounting their experiences incorporating digital humanities methods into their classroom in the Fall semester. During the semester the students worked with a range of digital approaches to interpret the text of Herman Melville’s including “Benito Cereno.” During their talk Marcus and Love highlighted the effect of defamiliarization produced by encoding the text in TEI markup. Ted Underwood followed their talk by pointing out that computer science has its own versions of surface and deep reading, the latter being akin to latent probabilistic models. When my turn came, I argued that texts are “surfaces all the way down” by invoking Jerome McGann’s topological theory of textuality and using the example of a total library organized by Levenshtein Distances.

The question and answer was very vibrant and provoked a range of questions from both sides of the isle. The question of the political in relationship to reading practices surfaced, not surprisingly, since both surface reading and digital humanities have been accused of depoliticizing scholarship. All panelists addressed this misconception in their own way, leaving it clear that continuing to expand our interpretative arsenal can only lead to a more robust critical enterprise.

Early evening on Friday, another important DH panel took place. Organized by the Association for Computers in the Humanities, “Beyond the Digital” was designed to focus on the research questions, rather than the digital methods. In order to accomplish this, discussion of the methods were pre-circulated online prior to the event. The panel was an attempt by the ACH to reach out to those in the humanities who dismiss the digital humanities assuming research is secondary.

“In discussions of digital humanities we sometimes forget that the output of digital analysis is not the goal; rather, it is a means to an end: the interpretation of a text.”

Panelists included Jeffrey Binder, Ryan Cordell, Cedrick May, James O’Sullivan, Lisa Marie Rhody and Shawna Ross. The panel was well received, and Brian Croxall, the moderator, did a great job of keeping the conversation focused on the research questions. At one point the panelists were asked how did it feel to place research first within a digital humanities context, to which Ryan Cordell answered eloquently by reminding us of the primacy of research questions. The panel also worked well because the projects on display were focusing on computational approaches to “Pattern Recognition and Interpretation,” which are perhaps the easiest to recognize as traditional humanities research of the digital humanities genres.

Saturday, January 11: Evaluating DH

1:45–3:00 p.m Saturday morning was full of meetings for me—very normal for the MLA since the conference is an opportunity to catch up in person with colleagues and collaborators. In the early afternoon I participated in my second event, Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Candidate Success Stories. The goal of the event was to have a group of digital humanists who currently hold rewarding professional positions in the academy address questions of evaluation of work in digital humanities in dissertations and tenure & promotion processes. For the first half of the session the room was set up like an exhibition hall, with each of the panelists showcasing his or her own work at different tables. At my table I was showcasing some of the activities at the Studio@Butler and The Developing Librarian Project.

For the second half of the event, all the panelists regrouped around a table for questions and answers from our organizer, Victoria E. Szabo. On the table with me were Cheryl E. Ball, Matthew K. Gold, Adeline Koh and Kari M. Kraus. The panel was a combination of librarians with faculty, which made the conversation somewhat representative of the digital humanities in the anglophone world, where practitioners can hold positions at either or both. The questions hinged on best practices and experiences.2 How did we arrive where we were? Doing double the work many answered. How do we move forward? Revising guidelines for dissertations and tenure and promotion many answered. At the end of the question session from Szabo, our respondent N. Katherine Hayles offered some brief comments on how far we still have to go because of the lack of understanding of digital methods. All in all, the conversation was rich, and difficult to summarize. The panel itself is linked to attempts by the Modern Language Association to promote the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Work.

Following our panel, I had an opportunity to hop over to the panel on The Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and in Public organized by Katina Rogers. For me this was a reunion of sorts with the Praxis Program that initiated me into software development for the humanities. The original program brought together 6 graduate students from different disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences at the University of Virginia to learn about software development from the Scholars’ Lab team. The program lasted a year and was centered around a common project, in this case Prism, a tool to “crowdsource interpretation.”

The Praxis Network now represents groups from many different universities, most of whom where represented by the panelists, David F. Bell, Duke Univ.; Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York; Kevin Kee, Brock Univ.; Kelli Massa, University Coll. London; Cecilia Márquez, Univ. of Virginia; William Albert Pannapacker, Hope Coll.; Donnie Sackey, Wayne State Univ. The conversation hinged around the different ways in which each of these different teams has adapted the model for graduate training to the needs and peculiarities of their own local environments.

Sunday, January 12: DHPoco; Critical Making

My last panel was the much anticipated panel on Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities, or the #dhpoco panel as we would call it. The panel was assigned to the “dead zone” of Sunday at 8:30am, but we were still able to draw in a crowd. Sharing the panel with me were Adeline Koh, Porter Olsen, Amit Ray, Roopika Risam with the fantastic Anna Everett moderating. Amardeep Singh provided a a brief but fair summary of the proceedings on his blog, which I quote below.3

Adeline Koh outlined in a general way what a postcolonial digital humanities might be — she and Roopika Risam have built a website on this and are working on a book-length project on the subject. Porter Olsen also gave a really interesting presentation about the discourse of imperialism in “civilizational” games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Empire, etc. He also had some provocative examples of hacks and modded versions of these games—what happens if you give the slaves more power to revolt than the game normally would?

Alexander Gil described his work looking at DH projects from outside of the United States and Europe, and mentioned an interesting project called Around DH in 80 Days. Amit Ray talked about the economic and corporate basis of much contemporary computing, and argued that mainstream DH (especially the emergent “maker” culture) has not done enough to acknowledge its complicity in transnational capitalism.

The audience followed the presentations with some questions, but mostly praise. Worthy of notice was the presence of Martha Nell Smith, who praised the scholars in the panel and those associated with #dhpoco for drawing attention to questions of marginality and dominance that she had been advocating for at least two decades. In the last instance, the panel was a vindication of the hard work of Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, who have brought an enormous amount of social media energy to bear on #dhpoco, and have successfully inspired a large group of young scholars/activists working on these questions to get involved in the digital humanities. At the same time, the audience acknowledged the role their voices have had in helping senior digital humanists working to bring diversity and equality to the digital humanities.

Following on the heels of the #dhpoco panel, the panel on Critical Making in the Digital Humanities certainly showed us that maker culture in the Digital Humanities can provide a powerful mode of critical inquiry. Organized by Roger Whitson, the panel brought together two collaborations: “Theorizing Collaborative Making: Between Writing, Programming, and Development,” by Amaranth Borsuk and Dene M. Grigar; and, “Toward a History of Critical Making in the Humanities,” by Kari M. Kraus and Jentery Sayers. During their bit, Borsuk gave a presentation of her “Between Page and Screen” which creates a virtual space between books and their readers. For those who have not yet done so, I recommend experiencing it. Kari Kraus opened her talk by placing critical making in the humanities in at least three traditions: experimental archeology, physical bibliography and the GLAM profession. By doing so, Kraus shows us an alternative lineage to maker culture in the humanities than Amit Ray’s. Sayers closed the proceedings by highlighting several of the excellent projects at the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab, linking them all to critical practices. I regret not having time to stick around for the question and answer session, since I had to rush to the airport.

Distant reflections

I write these notes one month after the MLA was over, and I’m afraid I have left out much that was important. I invite the reader to explore further the many gaps left by these notes. A great place to start is by following the online traces of Mark Sample’s now canonical list of digital panels at the MLA. Another great place to explore the proceedings further is Ernesto Priego’s “distant reading” of the proceedings.

All in all the conference was an intense rewarding experience on a year full of tensions and troubles in the profession. As Amanda French put it after her MLA experience, it’s also the year when “digital humanities is no longer the next big thing — it’s beginning to be just an ordinary thing.”


  1. For an introduction to surface reading see Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction” Representations. Vol. 108, No. 1 (Fall 2009)(pp. 1-21).
  2. You could get a good sense of the Q&A session from the Storify put together by Michelle Kassorla.
  3. You can see Roopika Risam’s slides tracing the past and present of #dhpoco, or read Adeline Koh’s paper “From Print to Digital: Reconfiguring Postcolonial Knowledge” online.
Category: Digital Humanities

Spreading the love: The wrong and the right in digital humanities

[Thanks to my penchant for travel-induced clumsiness, I missed my own panel at the American Studies Association, “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University: Complicity and/or Resistance.” I will never know exactly what transpired in detail, and must console myself with the twitter stream I read while on the wrong bus to Washington, DC. My love to those who did make it and rocked the audience, Susan Garfinkel, Frances Abbott, Natalia Cecire, Lauren F. Klein and Miriam Posner. Below is a written rendition of what my comments would have, could have, should have been.]

The jury is still out on the role that the digital humanities can play in redressing some troubling trends in Higher Ed in the United States. I side with those voices that warn against placing too much responsibility on what remains an ill-equipped band of hackers and hucksters, for what remain at the core structural and historical woes that require political, financial and cultural redress at scale. The first question I pose myself then is not what can DH do, but why is DH being called upon?

For those who don’t understand and stand to benefit, the main attractor is the word “digital,” no doubt an empty vortex collecting sound and fury, the eye of a predictable hurricane. To those who begin to know and want to play, our importance derives from the knowledge of institutions, intellectual property, publishing platforms, networks and computation that inevitably accrues the more you spend time doing DH. In other words, the digital humanities seem to generate awareness and can-do that seem absent from business as usual, and perhaps could save the day. This misleads some to believe that we can provide or promise the conditions for full employment. Again, these are problems best addressed at other scales, through other registers.

To those who do know, a couple of hacker-sized efforts seem a better fit: the construction of viable models for scholarly research and learning that move us away from the stranglehold of closed-access, print based publication; a revised, humanities-centered curriculum for graduate and undergraduate education, offering added possibilities to participate in the professional and academic middle class; sustainable oversight over the remediation of our material inheritance; a micro-cultural shift in the humanities from representative to participatory democratic collaboration, i.e. the death of the Genius; finally, and perhaps least urgent, a reconciliation between procedural thinking, arts & crafts and the critical enterprise.

The question of our collusion with that nasty neoliberalism comes from some unfortunate consequences of the efforts above—some unforeseen, some avoidable. That said, for the most part, we all find it hard to disentangle the complicit from the resistant; some of us even refuse to use the word neoliberal any more. As Dennis Tenen pointed out to me during the MLA 2013 panel, “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” all panelists were wearing Microsoft Research lanyards while they talked of DH complicity with neoliberalism. Complicit much? If not, what then? Is it crowdsourcing? Is it the use of computers with blood on the production line? Is it our energy consumption? Is it Twitter? Is it unpaid interns? Credential creep? Is it that espresso macchiato we had with the provost?  Is it race? Gender? Citizenship? The prevalent euro-centric canons?  MOOCs? (that’s not us, by the way). Is it doing while talking?

All these questions are receiving attention as time and talent allows, and as all human endeavor paving roads to hell with their good intentions…

I digress. What I mean to say is that within what is being done in the name of a humanities turned digital much activity can have unintended consequences. Who would disagree with that? Isn’t the answer to remain vigilant and respond with alternatives? I will just use one semi-comic example to illustrate my point: The production of expensive, gargantuan digital humanities projects funded by soft money for the glory of a faculty member who couldn’t open a terminal on their overpriced Mac if their tenure depended on it.  Such projects usually tend to hire either a contingent labor force or existing library developers whose role is reemphasized as that of staff, when in reality their contribution shapes the epistemological core of the project. These boutique projects tend to create more problems than they solve, not the least of which are problems of missed opportunity.

I am not opposed to large projects per se, just the ones that are imagined as mono-credit juggernauts. Undoubtedly, several layers of the administration, both in libraries and schools, benefit from such projects, but the knowledge and labor ecologies that we would prefer are sidestepped. Coincidentally, these projects become large burdens to sustain over a period of time, and make us wonder about the return for investment. A large project can, though, serve a more salutary purpose, if for example, instead of having those who can build it, have those who can’t learn how to; If we raise the status and financial well-being of those who can teach the digital in the digital humanities by hiring them permanently and gainfully as integral parts of the university; If the project is built as an addition to an existing community-loved platform, or as a new platform; If we make it well worth the students’ efforts by also paying them to participate. I have seen such models succeed first hand.

These are just some preliminary thoughts considering the question at hand is one of justice, the object of infinite desire. Coming from me, they will always be preliminary. I refuse to address all problems at once, and choose tactics over impotence. Call it an ethics of the Robin Hood in times of greed and subservient reason.

Category: Digital Humanities

The Césaire gambit: Marking and remaking the present

[The following remarks were offered on Sunday, August 11, as part of the Nature Island Literary Festival in Roseau, Dominica. In the panel with me, Schuyler Esprit and Serge Letchimy].

Thank you for inviting me to your home and to your festival. I also thank you for making Césaire the center of our wonderful activities, a man whose humanism and humanity continues to nurture and inspire many of us.

Today I want to convince you of three things in the name of Césaire. I know it’s a bit ambitious and I don’t have that much time, but I will try anyway. The first thing I want to convince you of is that we should transform the weapons used against us to mark the present; the second is that we should constantly study our material past to remake that present. If I succeed with the first two, perhaps I can convince you we should all use the new miraculous weapons, computers, to both mark and remake this present.

Césaire wrote most of his life on a typewriter or with a pen. His art was destined for the printed page, with the occasional stage or spoken word. Why didn’t he restrict himself to the oral traditions of the Africa and Caribbean he loved and channeled? He wrote in French. Why didn’t he write in Creole? I say he wanted to leave a mark on the present. That present was colonial, and not that different than today’s, despite what you hear. The book and the French language were tools of Empire, but Césaire would make miracles out of these weapons, transmuting them beyond their ordinary, yet toxic uses.

We heard M. [Serge] Letchimy on Friday remind us of Césaire’s desire to embed the black experience in the universal history of humankind. Césaire wasn’t alone. When he returned to his native land from his student years in Paris, where he had just finished the first version of his famous notebook, he partnered with other important intellectuals of the time—Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée—to found the journal Tropiques. Let me quote René Ménil in an article titled “Naissance de notre art” (Birth of our Art) on the first issue of the journal, published in April 1941, under the occupation of the Vichy regime.

Seuls, nous pouvons exprimer ce par quoi nous sommes uniques. Si nous ne voulons pas être seulement spectateurs de l’aventure humaine, si nous croyons qu’il faut payer de soi pour simplement participer à l’humanité véritable, si nous sommes persuadés qu’ici comprendre n’est rien et que c’est faire qui importe, nous savons quelle tâche nous incombe et quelle voie mène à sa réalisation.

(We can express what makes us unique by ourselves. If we want to be more than just spectators of the human adventure, if we believe that authentic humanity comes with a cost, if we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion).

A universal “human adventure” is not the only way to imagine history, of course. It doesn’t have to be universal, a global club we join when we pass the grade. If you want an alternative to this way of looking at things, I recommend you read Édouard Glissant, also from Martinique. No matter, the young thinkers and artists of Tropiques wanted to believe in a shared humanity, as do I. They understood that a cultural, and by extension political, revolution was necessary if they were to join their imagined global dialogue as equals, and their chosen vehicle was print and French. Given their goals, their choice makes sense, a bundle of paper with French markings could travel farther than spoken Creole in the 1940’s.

But the choice was not only about convenience, these machines were also colonial machines. They had been brought to these lands by the colonizer. They were complicit in the catastrophes of centuries. These naughty machines were asking for an intervention. Césaire and his friends set out to do this in grand fashion under the watchful eyes of censors. They rented the colonial press, “les Imprimeries du Gouvernement,” secured paper and wrote and managed editorial work by stealing time away from their busy lives. They formed friendships with important writers living elsewhere and sent copies of their journal across the continent, from Buenos Aires to New York.

While all of this was happening Césaire began writing his first play, Et les chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs Were Silent). The manuscript of this play was lost to us until recently, when I found it, first in a footnote on the biography of Yvan Goll, one of Césaire’s early New York editors, and then in a small municipal library close to the border between France and Germany, where said editor went to die.

Césaire started writing this work as a historical drama based on the Haitian Revolution. After 20 pages of composition or so, he started making the character of Toussaint Louverture central to the action. [Slide]

Typescript page

Top portion of page 25 of the typescript. Originally the 5th page. We can see the erasure of Dessalines as a character.

Césaire sent the finished manuscript to his friend André Breton, the famous surrealist writer, to get it outside of the island. Soon after, Césaire wanted the manuscript destroyed. It was too late, Breton had lent it to Goll, who never gave it back.

In 1946, after the war and censorship, Césaire’s first book of poetry, Les Armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous weapons), was published in Paris by Gallimard. The book contains a different version of Et les chiens se taisaint than the one in the manuscript. Although the new text contains about 80% of the text of the original manuscript, the text has been transformed enormously. All explicit references to the Haitian revolutions have been removed, Toussaint Louverture has become Le Rebelle (The Rebel), and about 70 or so blocks of text have been shifted in relative position to one another. [Slide]

Et les chiens se taisaient: From typescript to 1946

Et les chiens se taisaient: From typescript to 1946

Texts have bodies. We who value the spoken know that texts are embodied. Texts migrate. They get sent by post, carried by trucks, now over wires. Texts change. Author’s revise them. Reader’s misread them. Texts fragment. You can copy and paste. No one is stopping you.

Et les chiens se taisaient started as a historical drama meant for a Martinique audience, it became a long poem published in Paris. In the 1950’s it became a play again, it became a radio-play. In the 1970’s it became a film. This was not rare for Césaire. All his major texts went through major changes, major migrations. The Cahier d’un retour au pays natal went through at least 4 major versions. [Slide]

The Switch

The first version could be called spiritual, the second and third surrealist, while the last one, with spirit and sex removed, political. When you speak of the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal which one are you talking about?

The simple act of studying the material past—the ink and binding of books, manuscripts waiting to be discovered, the revisions and ruses of writers—takes us on a path that changes our present. When we take that next step and decide to present that past to others, we remake what we know now. The point is to change it. Césaire, the man, can’t change himself anymore for the twenty-first century, but we can. In return, our Césaire, can continue to change us. Such is the human pact with the past.

I want you now to notice the tools I used to do and present my study, this little machine I have in front of me, the result of empire and ingenuity, of another great twentieth century thinker, Alan Turing, and of many other forces. If I want to present my Césaire to our century, I can’t afford to do it on paper alone. As we speak, a new way of reading and doing takes over the world. When I look at the past being remade on the internet, I cringe. Time for us to intervene again. On Friday we also heard from my friend Schuyler Esprit, who reminded us in so many words that culture is a round of returns, where we must eventually give back. Césaire, who cannibalized the weapons of his day to re-imagine history and art, returning everything he touched transformed, would approve.

If we take this challenge, we must understand that these new culture machines are very different than books. We must learn to understand them in order to transform them, as Césaire understood literature and print and transformed them. We do not forget about the lessons of print or the spoken word. But we cannot afford to be simple consumers of the new culture machines, “spectators of the human adventure” as Ménil would have it. If we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion.

Thank you.

Category: Announcements

Recognitions

I usually agree with Natalia Cecire, and today was no exception. The Scholars’ Lab, one of my spiritual homes, recently announced Speaking in Code, a summit to tease out the “tacit knowledge” built into the craft of DH software development.

On the summit’s site they emphasize their desire to welcome you:

However, because software development—even in the more intellectually diverse and welcoming digital humanities—is a predominantly white and male profession, we are particularly committed to amplifying the voices of developers who are women, people of color, queer/LGBT, or otherwise under-represented among programmers, and to creating a friendly and respectful environment for collaboration at this event.

Natalia took them to task for populating the leadership with white cis males in spite of their best intentions, and pointed out this is NOT an ideal model of inclusivity. I agree. Now what?

I still hope minority developers do sign up, and that they contribute with their words and bodies. I’m going to reach the folks I know and do my best to convince them to apply to be participants, especially for that second day, where the goal is “to foster grassroots leadership among participants and seed collaborative projects that may be technical or social in nature.” You should too. The organizers are clearly allies, actively seeking to build a diverse community for DH software development while engaging in the difficult battle of defending the professional standing, precarious labor conditions and intellectual worth of DH developers. Fighting on two fronts is not easy, especially considering the situation on the ground.

Yes, while software development is a source of prestige in the world today and in DH, those two are not symmetrical. Software developers in DH work below market rates, they are not as hirable for admin or faculty positions as easy as the very vocal non-developers among us and they are usually on soft money. The usual setup is folks–mostly white males–work in libraries for a range of faculty who don’t understand technology very well. They build DH projects without getting much credit and oftentimes curving their creative potential in deference to the crappy ideas coming from the top. It is a good thing that DH is fighting for their prestige given these labor and intellectual conditions. The ideological reversal can cut both ways here.

The long term goal, a fight we should all be involved in, is to bridge the gap between faculty and library, between developer and researcher, so that we can get rid of this nasty service situation. Digital + Humanities. Simultaneously, our second fight: To build diverse spaces for developers at our institutions and beyond (we probably won’t get rid of middle class norms in the near future, but I’ll be happy if we tackle gender, race, disability and sexuality).

Without a doubt, this social mess—the result of histories in need of scribes—comes with a learning curve for everyone involved, but onward. We can only learn from each other, and in order to do that we need to BE with each other. Now that the message is registered that a next event should have inclusivity built into the section leads, let’s not wait for the one we really want and help make this one a success form the bottom up. Leaders can come in and out of here without having been leads that first day. No need to wait, we have work to do.

No revolution can happen without self-critique or courage. I would not wait for the next event, with the right set up at the top, precisely because of the question of tacit knowledge. Don’t we have our own tacit knowledges to tease out as well?

Pa’ lante, #guerilladh. Pa’ lante!

 

 

Category: Announcements | Tags:

Pour Césaire at Fontevraud Abbey

We had a wonderful day catching up on Aimé Césaire at the Fontevraud Abbey recently. The event was organized by the Maison des Ecrivains Étrangers de Saint-Lazare with the help of Phillipe Ollé-Laprune as part of a series of encounters that lead to a published collection. “Pour Césaire” belongs then to a series that includes “Pour Lowry,” “Pour Rulfo” and “Pour Génet.” The informality of the event fell somewhere between a THATCamp and a traditional conference. We had four round tables with a moderator and 2 or 3 speakers. I was told this is how the art world does it in France. After brief commentaries, the mic was passed around for questions. The conversations were recorded and eventually will be published along with selected writings commissioned from living writers. Much of the editorial team of the complete works was in attendance.

The main question posed by the “Dialogue d’introduction” (J. Arnold et P. Ollé-Laprune) was “which Aimé Césaire do we commemorate?” Not an easy question, but one that at least kept us honest. You hear in the question an acknowledgement that Césaire’s legacy should be contested. Since the editorial team was at hand you knew that an effort to nuance Aimé Césaire beyond the monumental Césaire of the 1950’s and early 1960’s was inevitable. That said, the desire for a coherent Aimé Césaire was manifest in several of the grand theories on display. Hello, one and the many.

I took notes on the first two round tables (below), since I was on the last one.

First round Table: La langue de Césaire. Sa traduction.
(L.-F. Prudent et L. Pestre)
Prudent made what to me seemed like the most clear and sensible comments about Aimé Césaire’s relationship to créole that I know of. The thesis is simple: Aimé Césaire’s polysemy and polyphony taps into créole to a great extent. The point is an important response to the créolistes who wish Césaire had used créole instead of, as much as or right next to French. He also added that the poetry, when read by a créole performer sounds very much like a Caribbean affair. I have no way of verifying the veracity of these comments because I don’t speak créole (yet), but they seemed quite plausible. (Note to self: learn créole if I’m going to continue to speak with any degree of authority about Césaire).

Pestre talked about her experience translating Césaire and her study of other translations of Césaire, particularly in romance languages. She continued the theme of polysemy, now as a major challenge for translators. She reminded us that Césaire’s works contain enigmas. They sure do.

Second round table: Génétique de l’œuvre et édition.
(Pierre Laforgue et Marc Cheymol)
Cheymol began by reminding us that statues also serve their purpose, the problem begins when we start mistaking them for reality. Cheymol speaks mostly as one of the main organizers of our edition of Césaire. He rehearsed a history of the edition, dating back to 2006, when the volume was being commissioned under the Archivos collection. He summarized our maturing editorial philosophy. The first principle was and is to make these texts accessible; the second was to make available texts we can depend on; and lastly, lately and not necessarily in line with the second principle, to offer a genetic vision of the production of these texts. The three principles in a sense guarantee a more eclectic rendition of the texts, avoiding as much as possible a monolithic interpretation of Césaire’s œuvre.

 

Category: Césaire