Mellon Funded Seminars in the Digital Humanities at UCLA

I attended the most recent UCLA seminar — virtually, of course, in Second Life.  Johanna Drucker presented the project she has been working on all year as a Digital Humanities Fellow at Stanford University:

A distant view of the UCLA Mellon seminar projected into Second Life

A distant view of the UCLA Mellon seminar projected into Second Life

Her talk was part of the series launched by Jeffrey Snapp and Todd Presner, “What Is(n’t) the Digital Humanities?” Drucker’s work with Jerome McGann in developing projects at SpecLab (UVA) will be described and analyzed in her forthcoming book called SpecLab.

Drucker is in my opinion THE scholar to watch — as Snapp acknowledged in his introduction — for determining what is and is not part of the “non-field” of Digital Humanities (Drucker’s term for it).  She is a poet immersed in the look, sound, and etymology of language; she is a textual scholar who has formulated theories about editing, most notably (along with McGann) the notion of reading as “deformative criticism”; and she is a book artist with both historical and practical knowledge about typography and book design: Drucker has just been appointed Bibliography Chair in the Digital Humanities program at UCLA, and here “bibliography” does not mean a list of works cited.  She is genuinely a scholar who studies the intellectual power of the graphic nature of books.

I took voluminous notes about Drucker’s new project called I.nterpret, a work and publishing space for digital humanities scholarship, which I will be glad to send to you upon request.  But two features of her talk, one explicitly articulated, one implicit, struck me as most important.

Explicit: For Drucker, the work that humanists do is fundamentally a design problem.  Not “merely” but “fundamentally.”  That is, a historian trying to understand democracy (Drucker’s example) does so by rummaging through materials and re-ordering them in a new way: that process of finding original placements and re-ordering them produces “thinks” that couldn’t be “thunk” before (to quote Dr. Seuss).

Implicit: During her talk, Drucker spoke of states of scholarly process, states that can be tracked, saved, and published using her new software.  Often she called them “game states.”  Thinking of scholarly endeavors as playing games might bother some people: Tom Stoppard offers a particularly unflattering portrait of Romanticists as gamers in his play Arcadia, and Roland Barthes’s “Victory to the critic!” isn’t any kinder.  But we humanities scholars do in fact love the challenge of the chase through the archive, as much as our children and students love the nintendo DS and the Wii.

Drucker’s I.nterpret will allow scholars to publish not only finished scholarship but every step of their scholarly process.  It exposes the interpretive decisions and actions behind any production of “fact,” be it scholarly argument or scholarly edition.  Theoretically speaking, Drucker’s I.nterpret will stage what Bruno Latour calls an “Iconoclash” in which human interference in reality via signs can be recognized as simultaneously creative and effective at objectively discerning reality: reality is always simultaneously found and made because human interpretation is inextricable from things (Bruno Latour, “What is iconoclash? or is there a world beyond the image wars?” Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002], 14-38, see esp. 14-21; s.a. N. Katheriine Hayles, Writing Machines, 33).

As even a cursory glance at the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities will show, scholars hope that digital editions and archives will much more easily — more easily than printed books — reveal the interpretive decisions that take place in the process of editing or choosing passages to quote from a text when explicating it.  The hope is that digital editions and scholarship will demystify authoring, editing, and reading processes.

The fact that editing and explicating ARE interpretation and that scholarship involves moves in a game has indeed been hidden by the printed book and article forms as well as the disciplines of English, History, and Philosophy.  But as hiders, our traditional scholarly forms and fields do not merely mystify: they also filter.

The new cry in building the digital humanities archive has been “save every detail” (see David Simpson’s “Is Literary History the History of Everything?” for instance).  Alan Liu’s essay on the detail argues that cultural studies renders the detail transcendent.  In my view, then, details take the place previously held by god-authors and canon-texts.  The detail can demystify.  But who on earth will be able to run their consciousness through all those details?  We are back to Vannevar Bush’s mountain of information.  A character in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey says that he always reads criticism of a book rather than the book itself because he can get in short order not only knowledge of what the book says but also of what to think about it.  Though this is obviously Austen’s irony at its best, it is also true.  The canon, the finished edition, the finished scholarly essay: these filtered out the noise in information so that humans could get the important stuff. What filters will we use with their demise?

This notion of how to choose one’s information is precisely the point made by Alan Liu in his talk at MLA when he asked us to pretend that interpretations are not free.  We seem able to weave an infininte number of them, but imagine, he said, that we have a limited quota of interpretations.  We do in fact have limits, most notably mortality which tends to put a damper on the process of interpretation.  The fetishization of detail is predicated upon someone living forever, continously accumulating all bits and pieces of knowledge, ever more and more conscious of the world around her.  In contrast, the fetishization of author and canonical text was, to quote Frank Kermode’s title, a “Form of Attention”: it told us what to read and why.  Attention isn’t free, and it isn’t forever.  What can we pay attention to? But more important, in this new digital age, what rough forms, their hour come round at last, aspire digitally to be born?

For Drucker, that is the key question upon which the non-field must focus.  Drucker’s I.nterpret beautifully opens up discussions about what digital forms will make available and what they will hide, and provoking such discussions was her goal.  The important win states are no longer allegedly finished compositions — but if not, then what are they?  In presenting her own software design, Drucker insists: let’s not let computer scientists orchestrate what’s visible in the information deluge; let’s participate in creating the software that filters it OUR WAY(S).  Her I.nterpret scholarly platform doesn’t just say, “USE ME,” it says, “use me, AND devise your own platform, and THINK about your filters, about the politics of visibility and invisibility (Latour, Mondzain, Koerner, in Iconoclash 21, 164-213, 324-335).  How to I.nterpret is what we need to think about.  Thanks to Drucker for a wonderful presentation.

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