Goddesses of the Digital Humanities

In keeping with both Benjamin and Galloway, my post this week is more of a constellation or an arrangement of thoughts. As always, I beg your indulgence for my incoherencies and whimsicalities.

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Firstly, I wanted to let y’all know about Joanna Swafford‘s wonderful presentation on “From the Parlor to the Laptop: Victorian Lyrics and Digital Tools”, which I attended on Friday so I could hear more about her project: Songs of the Victorians is not only an archive of scores and recordings but also includes an analytical component as it is a venue for Annie to publish article-length work with integrated sound clips which would not be possible in the same way in a print journal. Such an originating desire seems like the best mode for approaching the digital humanities as a tool that fulfills rather than creates a need. What is so wonderful about Annie’s project, however, is that the tool she developed to display sound and score in unison, Augmented Notes, is now increasingly available for other scholars to utilize, extending its initial purpose into new fields. In discussing her two websites, I appreciated Annie’s careful explanations of the visual design—for example, displaying Songs of the Victorians on a Morris-style wallpaper background—which included the notion of brand continuity across her projects. We often talk of a critic’s distinct prose style so perhaps our digital presence should be equally individual!

So onto this week’s reading….  

I found Flusser as obtuse as he was interesting so I look forward to discussing his work with Anke. His consideration of the interplay between human agency and the automatism of the machine was fascinating but I was most enthused by his demolition of the notion of individual creative authorship as it addressed the questions of originality and intentionality I get so frustrated with. Collaboration is, as Flusser acknowledges, a utopian ideal in the context of current institutional structures, however.

The introduction to Excommunication confronted some crucial assumptions in many discussions of media, not merely the possibility and desirability of communication but also the evaluative approach to media impact often visible in studies on the topic. I adored Galloway’s mythological-etymological philosophy (Hermes! Iris! The Furies! Aphrodite!) of middles and mediation, particularly in his clear exposition of the hermeneutic and iridescent modes of approaching texts and their expectations of communication, whether reliant on interpretation or immediately experienced. So often in our discussions this semester I find myself working intensely to avoid common sense notions of media, and Galloway’s insight certainly was refreshing and clarifying for me. 

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Against the Disappearance of the Text

I was extremely enthused while reading the collection of texts Yohei prepared for us this week because “close reading” is an aspect of literary studies I am invested in, both personally and professionally. Last class we discussed how much we value the personal tales of transmission that can imbue texts with greater meaning. My undergraduate degree in English at the University of Cambridge was thoroughly grounded in the work of the department founder, I.A. Richards, and Practical Criticism will always remain a seminal text for me. As the title of my blog might indicate, in many ways I am a purist when it comes to idea(l)s of the literary canon and how we should approach it. I enjoyed Yohei and John Guillory’s articles because they historicized the perceived relationship between media and forms of attention in a way that reminded me that the Digital Humanities is a development rather than a revolution: a methodology that can enliven rather than threaten the work we all do.

Hayles and Moretti are harder for me to swallow, however, in their prizing of scale as one of the key potentialities of digital tools. While both are keen to emphasize that we can only ever contextualize–rather than overturn or lose sight of–the canon through “reading” a much wider range of texts (those that did not survive and may be far less interesting!), they seem to shy away from the question of judgment that was so central for I.A. Richards. There is a reason beyond the economic and the institutional that some texts survive and why some demand our study more than others. Isn’t there?! In Distant Reading, Moretti writes that the pursuit of an understanding of the “system” (all literature of all time and all locations, it seems) necessarily leads to “losing something”:

And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. (49)

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Moretti’s methodology asks us to step away from the primary texts and instead survey the secondary material. But surely one of the joys of English as a discipline is that we are uniquely able to include our objects of study within our scholarship: we quote text while (to paraphrase our very own Scott Campbell) biologists don’t put insects in their journals. I may be seduced by our desire for immediacy but digitization efforts do seem to stem from a wish to take us closer to the text and the synergy advocated by Hayles seems appropriate if we share the perspective of Guillory in “How Scholars Read” that “Both intensive and extensive modes are to be found at the scene of humanist reading” (11). His description of how we read in the archives rang true for me when I returned to the Dodd this week. I appear to have found some rich material in the papers of the British poet, John Temple, for my poetic palimpsests! 

Getting Stuck into the Stacks

The “Afterword” to Miserere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England by Clare Costley King’oo includes her reminiscences on working with printed out versions of the microfilmed collections that are now digitized at Early English Books Online. King’oo remarks that it was the amount of actual space that the penitential psalms took up which first attracted her interest in the project and suggests their overwhelming presence in the textual culture of the Renaissance might not have been so obvious if she had begun her search in a digital archive. It is a paradox that our attempts to engage with the materiality of texts have led to digitization efforts that we normally (however much Blanchette undermines this assumption!) experience as very immaterial. Having spent a lot of time perusing the Dodd Center‘s list of collections, it is the description of how many linear feet different collections take up that kept striking me.

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This Friday, I had the privilege of looking and touching the Charlotte M. Davis papers in the Dodd Reading Room. Firstly I want to recommend to Ruth and Sarah that they examine the collection for Davis’ compositions (including one on composition!) from her time in a Hartford school in the 1850s. My project ideas are moving in a slightly different direction and hopefully other collections at the Dodd will be more fruitful (watch this space!) but I did want to reflect for a moment on my experience with a material, as opposed to digital, archive in the light of our readings this week. One joy was the ability to open an envelope and unfold its contents (a continuing project as those of you will know who are familiar with the complicated folding and pagination techniques of c.19th letters!), becoming increasingly aware of differing thicknesses of content and the quality of the paper used. Several letters had black borders and the weight as well as the entrapment of mourning were visible in a way that a digitized image may not have been able to suggest: the borders were against my hand or the table as opposed to the apparatus of my Adobe Reader or indeed the black border around my laptop screen. 

I look forward to meeting on Tuesday to talk more about Clare’s project as well as Bolter and Grusin’s Remediations. Several questions concerning representation and mimesis–of course, such a central issue in literature studies–are haunting me! Wallace Stevens wrote that “A poet’s words are of things which do not exist without the words” (quoted here by Susan Howe) and I am intrigued if we can think of media as reality through such a model of literary creation.