Towards the Unknown: Flanders, Svensson, McGann

Link to Prezi:

I’ve entitled my presentation Towards the Unknown, as all three of readings for today are in some way about moving beyond what is comfortable and familiar, and taking a critical stance in relation to the use of technology in the digital humanities. Flanders invokes the unknown in her idea of “productive unease,” in which the friction produced by the unfamiliarity of digital representation makes researchers look more closely both at the object being represented and at representation itself. The unknown also appears in Svensson’s call for a uniquely humanistic cyberinfrastructure that doesn’t rely uncritically on familiar models from the sciences or the humanities, and, of course, in McGann’s notion of imagining what we do not know. The unknown will serve as a thread throughout my discussion of each of these articles and their emphasis on the unfamiliar in the constructions they offer for the digital humanities.

In “The Productive Unease of 21st-Century Digital Scholarship,” Julia Flanders starts with the model of technological progressivism, the idea that technology is getting better and better, and is doing so faster and faster. She argues that digital humanities often adopts a similar sense of progress, in that technological developments make more digital humanities projects possible. This narrative, however, works only for the “digital” side of digital humanities: while humanities scholarship may want to believe that each generation of critics is doing better work than the one that came before, it also resists a self-narrative of inevitable progress, instead privileging development and self-reflection. Flanders argues that rather than being concerned with the next big technological development, digital humanities should instead think critically about its use of technology.

Flanders points to representational technologies such as XML as not just representing textual objects, but also producing a distancing effect through their unfamiliarity that allows us to see the original more clearly. Flanders calls this effect “productive unease,” “a sense of friction” between accustomed ways of thinking and the new tool, between the familiar and the unknown. In Flanders’s formulation, this friction is key: projects that lack this tension may produce knowledge, but they will not produce something meaningfully new, because they lack the spark that can lead to truly innovative ways of thinking.

Flanders identifies three areas where digital humanities work is producing interesting critical friction:

  1. Digital scholarship is uneasy about the significance of medium. The digital medium functions as “a kind of meta-medium in which other media can be modeled or represented,” foregrounding the representational strategies of particular media.
  2. Digital scholarship is uneasy about the institutional structures of scholarly communication. Digital scholarship’s hybrid position, in close relation to the academy but not entirely at home in it, highlights the arbitrary limits of academic institutions.
  3. Digital scholarship is uneasy about the significance of representation in forming models of the world. In particular, Big Data models raise the issue of how to adapt scholarly methods developed to focus on precision and craft to analyzing massive data sets.

Flanders concludes by offering her own model for humanities scholarship: that it is not a forward motion, but a dialectic, whose success is measured not in power or speed but in the degree to which it makes us think, opening up the unknown to us in a useful way.

Patrik Svensson’s article “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure” displays his concern with developing a humanities-specific infrastructure. (While “cyberinfrastructure” is in the title, the kinds of structures Svensson discusses are not limited purely to the digital realm, but instead demonstrate his interest in the larger systems in which the cybernetic or digital components are embedded.) Svensson notes that conversations about infrastructure have so far been dominated by the sciences, which limits what is considered infrastructure, how that infrastructure is constructed, and what uses that infrastructure allows, particularly in a humanities context. The focus on science also drives institutional priorities and funding towards particular types of projects, in which the humanities rarely play a major part. For cyberinfrastructure in particular, the emphasis on science has resulted in great value being placed on having the most up-to-date technology possible. Svensson argues that the humanities have different needs and concerns surrounding cyberinfrastructure that need to be part of the conversation, and that humanities scholars need to think carefully and critically about what those needs are now and might be in future.

In relation to this thought process, Svensson identifies two flawed views about current humanities infrastructure that have the potential to distort future developments. One is the idea that digitizing the existing, library-based humanities infrastructure is sufficient to move forward. Svensson argues that this is an overly limited approach which does not allow for the emergence of other models, and which fails to take into account the changing nature of libraries themselves. The second flawed view is that the humanities lack infrastructure entirely. Aside from being simply false (or at least assuming an extremely narrow view of what constitutes infrastructure), presenting the humanities as a blank slate renders adopting the science model of infrastructure more tempting, which, again, would limit the kinds of humanities projects such an infrastructure could support. Svensson argues that humanities infrastructure needs to embrace the unknown: rather than uncritically adopting the existing, familiar library-based or science-based models, to develop something new.

To illustrate how a new humanities infrastructure might be implemented, Svensson offers as a case study the HUMlab at Umea University in Sweden, for which he is the director. He describes the HUMlab as a “collaborative and intersectional place,” and its place-ness is key to the programs it supports. The space is configured not just for function, but also to promote an environment in keeping with its intellectual principles as manifest in design. The HUMlab’s design principles are a key layer between conceptual cyberinfrastructure and its actual implementation, forming a bridge from the abstract to the concrete.

Based on his experience with HUMlab, Svensson offers some general strategies for implementing humanities cyberinfrastructure. These include viewing infrastructure systematically, maintaining regard for physical space and local context, taking a step back from the cutting edge to find what works for a particular set of circumstances, staying involved in low-level technical decisions that may have a disproportionate impact on the finished product, and taking a vocal role in the decision-making process.

Jerome McGann, in “Imagining What You Don’t Know: The Theoretical Goals of the Rossetti Archive,” discusses some of the possibilities that digital technology has opened up for textual editing. McGann identifies several benefits of the digital approach. One is being able to combine multiple critical approaches in one edition. Another is the opportunity to take a crucial step back: rather than analyzing a text through adding a layer of textual criticism to the original, analyzing a text through digital tools introduces another level of critical abstraction, which McGann compares to analyzing natural phenomena through mathematics. Another benefit is the option to build the history of the project into the project itself.

McGann’s digital edition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s textual and artistic work, The Rossetti Archive, serves as a demonstration of some of the issues entailed in digital textual criticism. McGann describes the history of the project’s development. In the project’s early stages, two imaginative protocols for text and database management were common: a visual approach, focusing on information browsing and coded in HTML, and a conceptual approach, focusing on database analysis and coded in SGML. The Rossetti Archive straddled the boundary in being designed to privilege both approaches equally.

McGann describes The Rossetti Archive as a tool for “imagining what you don’t know,” where the “you” in his formulation is the project developers. In creating the archive, the challenges of making complex texts and images encodable prompted McGann and his collaborators to think about the materials in a different way (and, ultimately, to devise new tools they hadn’t initially planned, such as Inote). This act of imagination, however, is situated in the act of conceptualizing the archive for representation in the project, not in the ongoing use of the resultant representations by researchers.

McGann ends his article by describing an experiment of running through random digital image deformations of Rossetti’s painting The Blessed Damozel, an exploration that echoes Julia Flanders’s point about how technological approaches can have a distancing effect that leads to seeing an object anew. While I’m not entirely convinced that this experiment leads to any deep insights about The Blessed Damozel that could not be otherwise achieved, it does point to the importance of making room for play and experimentation as another way of imagining the unknown. But, again, this imaginative act is not offered to researchers; there is no tool built into The Rossetti Archive to enable researchers to create their own deformations of the images contained therein.

Reading these articles together raises several questions about the design and implementation of digital humanities projects.

  1. Do the HUMlab and The Rossetti Archive display the “productive unease” Flanders identifies as essential to innovative digital humanities projects? Why or why not?
  2. If, as Svensson argues, the library-based model of humanities infrastructure is overly limited, what other models might future humanities infrastructure projects pursue?
  3. To what extent does your grant proposal project move towards the unknown and take a critical stance towards it use of technology?

For my Prezi, I was broadly inspired by Svensson’s notion of the underground as a productive space for experimentation and by Flanders’s attention to the slippage between representation and object. The overall composition and movement of my canvas was to move downwards and then dig in deeper. My use of images as much as possible, rather than text, was aimed at invoking, again very broadly, a kind of “productive unease” in the collision between the ideas conveyed verbally and the images displayed, each of which suggested its own array of meanings beyond the representational uses for which I was appropriating it.

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