Archive | April, 2013


22 Apr

Today at High Pressure Days, we have a curious blast from the past.  I would like to take some time to consider the Introduction to a book published aaallllllll the way back in 1999, when the Digital Humanities was young, fresh-faced, and filled with a sense of optimism for the future, as uncharted and tempestuous as it often seems.  The book is Redmediation: Understanding New Media by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin.  The purpose of this particular book is to study the process indicated in the title- Remediation.  As far as I can tell, the central concern of Bolter and Grusin’s text is to establish a much-needed sense of continuity between the so-called (and it should always be called ‘so-called’) ‘New Media’ and older forms of media.  The process of a newer form of media borrowing from the features and techniques of older media is remediation.  The key to understanding any novel media formation is to consider the primary function of all media- to mediate experience between actors.  Remediation is the changes undergone by technologically constructed forms of communication.  

The most tantalizing question that I asked myself while reading Bolter and Grusin’s piece involved the debate over the possibly teleological nature of technology, or whether or not media technology and new media forms were ‘going somewhere’, and the possibility that there may come a time when media reaches a perfect form, making no further alterations or developments neccessary.  What would that perfect form look like?  The Introduction to Remediation begins with an account from the film Strange Days, a curious science fiction effort that depicts a new form of media called ‘the wire’ (no relation) that allows a person to come in direct contact with another consciousness.  It is a form of media that effectively obliterates mediation as such.  If technology generally, and communication technology in particular, has a telos, i imagine it would resemble in form and function something like the wire. 

This suggests that the ongoing tendency to alter the nature of mediation through the development of new media platforms and technologies is essentially a desire to go beyond mediation as such.  Since the act of communication (here understood to be nothing more or less than the transference of information from one party to another) is of central importance to media, the question I am inclined to ask is why are people so keen to alter the way they communicate, and why the ‘perfect’ form of communication suggested by ongoing technological developments is what it is.  My own pet theory would be the ‘theory of scale.’  Human communities keep getting bigger, more stratified, and ever more complex, and our ways of communicating and conceptualizing other human beings has not quite kept pace, and modern alienation is the order of the day.  In this kind of post-industrial social environment, the desire to experiment with new forms of making contact with others and forging human bonds must be very strong, although whether modern media such as the World Wide Web has increased or decreased the overall sense of alienation in the wider culture is very much debatable.

Like everyone else involved with the Digital Humanities, Bolter and Grusin are concerned with the interface, and identify the experiential extremes of immediacy and hypermediacy (What’s a new humanities paradigm without a neologism?).  Immediacy is the interface which most allows the user the feeling of direct, or immediate contact with an experience, while Hypermediacy is close to the exact opposite, an interface that draws attention to itself and conspicuously alters the nature of the experience being mediated.  Bolter and Grusin seem to not unreasonably believe that there is demand for both kinds of mediation, and the interplay between these two extremes no doubt informs a great deal of what is of the greatest interest in the process of remediation.  It is also what will probably most undermine any ‘teleologically’ oriented understanding of the development of media.




Disability and the Digital Humanities

12 Apr

If the disease of modern Humanities studies is Balkanization then the cure is intersectionality.  Of course, I am using the term ‘intersectionality’ in a somewhat atypical fashion here, as I am not specifically referring to lines of connection among different forms of discrimination experienced by multiple disenfranchised groups, but simply identifying the more ideologically neutral phenomenon of the consonance occasionally found between different sub-disciplines within the humanities.  It has been said that one of the measures of a theory or field’s usefulness is the degree folks pursuing wildly (or seemingly) different intellectual objectives find it useful for their work.  I must confess, I was not anticipating any conceptual shocks when I looked into George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” (available in the anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities) but I did get a couple, the most noteworthy being the idea that the development of alternative computer interfaces for disabled persons has the potential to reveal the essential contingency of much modern digital technology, and by extension, offer radical re-conceptions of how we engage with it.

George Williams begins his essay with the assertion that disability has the potential to force all of us to reconsider our “embodied relationship to data.”  The storage and manipulation of information through digital technology is something that, like everything else human beings do, occurs through the physical manipulation of objects and the processing of any resultant activity with the five human senses.  But what if the physical body is disabled or any one of the five senses deficient? The oral and aural, as well as the tactile, interfaces utilized by blind people are significantly different, even alien, to sighted people, and the absorption of data patterns constitutes a whole other experience.  

Williams draws attention to these alternative interfaces for the purpose of advocating the principle of “Universal Design” for the digital humanities.  Universal design is a fairly intuitive concept, and simply entails constructing tools and built environments that are accessible to the largest range of individuals possible.  The needs of, the disabled, the elderly, and the low-status are all to be taken into consideration.  Indeed, it is the needs of the otherwise able-bodied that are central to the practice of universal design, as considering such needs has the effect of maximizing accessibility for all.  An example- the sidewalk curb cut.  Although originally conceived as a means to assist the handicapped, any person who needs to haul a large load on wheels down the street will likely find them useful.  The application of this basic principle to digital technology has already occurred to some extent.  Screen-reading software that communicates the content of web pages via audio is commonly used by blind people.  Some of Williams’s suggestions to expand the accessibility of digital technology include the development of open-source accessibility tools for Content Management Systems, such as WordPress or MediaWiki.  Such tools could include features like the one developed by Williams and some other collaborators at the Maryland Institute of Technology, which was an alt attribute imbedded in a transparent GIF only a square pixel wide (and thus invisible to sighted users) that enabled blind people using screen-reading software to skip over any web content they did not need or want to hear once the program “read” it.  Braille translating and subtitling tools could also be developed, and transcription tools could significantly expand the accessibility of certain online projects.  See- Scripto.

The implications of such efforts and what they may entail for the digital Humanities I think was succinctly expressed by Graham Pullin, in a quote helpfully provided in Williams’s essay- “…the prevailing assumption in product design is that new developments in the mainstream slowly ‘trickle-down’ to specialist products for people with disabilities…  However… sometimes the effect works the other way, when the issues around disability catalyze new design thinking and influence a broader design culture in return.”  Technology is intrinsically artificial and of an assistive nature.  It presupposes human limitations, or the basic human inability to single-highhandedly, or single-mindedly, perform any task s/he may wish to perform.  Yet human limitations are diverse and often contingent.  Therefor, exactly how technology is modeled to assist the human is somewhat unstable, and subject to reconsideration.  Who says that the screen will always be the digital world’s primary means of communicating and displaying data?  Would human being in general benefit from interfaces that are more tactile and aural as opposed to visual?  Certainly, from the point of view of somebody with an interest in literature, a more aural interface may well return the experience of texts to a more oral sphere, and the tactile interface may well make a form of textuality previously only available to the blind more widely experienced.  Ultimately, the practical task of making material accessible to the disabled may very well hold the key to radically altering the study of the digital humanities generally.  




Margaret Soltan’s Online Poetry Course.

8 Apr

Margaret Soltan’s online poetry course for Udemy is yet another project that fuels my conviction that the principle achievement of the Digital Humanities pertains primarily to the recognition that digital and information technology can be used to enable what are still largely traditional approaches to the teaching of the humanities.  The main draw of an online course like Professor Soltan’s is that it makes information and the experience of learning about literature from an informed source available to a wider range of people than would have previously been possible.  The main drawback of such a course is that it lacks a sufficiently communal atmosphere.  Though communication with the professor via email or online chat is possible, the one-on-one, face-to-face interaction enabled by a traditional classroom setting is simply not possible, to say nothing of the student camaraderie commonly found in especially vigorous class discussions.  As is always the case, the experience is made more distant, even alienating, once it is expanded to a certain point.  The internet in essence allows the whole world to be a classroom, and while, as near as I can tell, no information as such is lost in the transition from real space to cyberspace, the experience of receiving the information is more distant, and the process of communication is both more distant and delayed.  

Soltan’s course involves the reading, discussion, and interpretation of poetry, and is organized along 16 sections totaling to 19 lectures.  The focus is on modern poetry, mostly written in English, though some non-English poems are discussed in translation.  The poets featured include Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, TS Eliot, Paul Valery, WH Auden, among others.  The recorded lectures mostly consist of Professor Soltan reading a lecture revolving around a specific topic, such as the analysis of a particular poem, general concerns governing the analysis and evaluation of poetry, and critical principles.  The course’s governing inquiry is the definition of poetry, and how it can be understood.  One of the more refreshing attributes of Professor Soltan’s course is the fact that it fosters in students a critical faculty- Professor Soltan actually wants her students to distinguish good poems from bad ones.  This is something which the casual reader does as a matter of course (of course) and it traditionally has been a feature of the academy as well, but the arrival of post-structuralist theory and the ultimate privileging of the pursuit of cultural patterns and the mysteries of textuality has meant that simply ascertaining a literary work’s quality and speculating how the author achieved (or did not achieve) that quality has fallen by the wayside in recent decades.  Incidentally, the Digital Humanities in its most ambitious forms have not promised to fundamentally alter this state of affairs, though it does offer the possibility of driving the pursuit of patterns to its logical conclusion; as N. Katherine Hayles wrote, “The unsettling implications of ‘machine reading’ can be construed as pointing towards a post-human mode of scholarship in which human interpretation takes a back seat to algorithmic processes.”  In short, it has the potential to eliminate the pleasures of ambiguity that are commonly thought of as intrinsic to the discipline.  On the other hand, this is only a potentiality.  The Digital Humanities may very well prove to be more expansive than that, as indicated by Stephen Ramsay when he wrote, “Why in the world would we want the computer to settle questions?”  They should be opening new critical possibilities, developing new theoretical models, and otherwise expanding the range of humanities scholarship.  The reason some of the more difficult questions surrounding the Digital Humanities refuse to go away, I believe, has to do with the nature of the computer itself.  It is principally, nay, entirely, a symbol-manipulating, pattern-analyzing instrument.  The study of literature and culture should not be reduced to the instrumentality of its tools.  One of the promising aspects of Soltan’s project is that the tool of the computer expands the tradition in an inspiring, democratic manner.  This is the digital humanities as lecture platform, a medium of communication as opposed to a method of analysis.  One thing the computer does for literature whether it is being used as a tool of communication or a tool of analysis is significantly expand the scale of any project being done.  Whether it be a larger lecture audience or a larger pool of data, one thing that I think we can confidently pronounce about the Digital Humanities is that it has permanently changed the scale of our inquiries. 



More thoughts on the Melville Electronic Library

1 Apr

As of right now, the Melville Electronic Library remains a great idea in theory rather than practice, as it still consists of little more than a set of ‘coming soon!’ notices.  Still, once it gets up an running the MEL promises to be one of the most intriguing and helpful scholarly sources on the net.  The key to its utility, and the source of its uniqueness, as I have indicated before, is its use of the TextLab software and its application to the works of an established, canonical author.  TextLab enables readers, scholars, and students to access a writer’s revisions, in the order s/he made them, thus enabling a kind of ‘fluid text’ analysis that allows a reader to gain a sense of a text’s development through time.  In many respects, Melville is the perfect author for this approach, since many of his most celebrated works appeared in different editions, or were left incomplete at his death. 

The reader’s engagement with a text is a notoriously complex and mysterious process, and a number of theoretical models are available to critics for understanding it.  When considering revisions, the reader is forced to confront the instability of texts, and possibly linguistic acts generally, right at their source.  The process of revision is the struggle of an imagination attempting to find the right words for an abstract set of ideas and an imprecise series of events.  The effort to find the desired language for a literary project constitutes a fascinating sub-textual narrative in itself on many occasions, and Melville’s studious engagement with his projects was probably marked by more struggle than most.

Another feature of MEL I find quite engaging (again, more in the potential than in the current reality) is the Gallery section.  It is a corner of the website that will consist of an image gallery of Melville-related images, with the principle focus being on works of art mentioned in Melville’s texts.  Moby-Dick especially drew heavily on the traditional visual arts for inspiration and imagery, and Melville’s rich symbolism was notably enhanced through his engagement with painting.  This gallery allows viewers to consider a picture alongside a sampling of a Melville text that explicitly references it with some accompanying scholarly commentary that sheds light on its significance in either Melville’s work or his life.  This multimedia approach to scholarship is exactly the sort of benefit brought about by information technology that I value.  While there is nothing in the image gallery that is, strictly speaking, dependent on modern technology for its existence (all of the information featured could probably be printed in a book with nothing lost) but the combination of instantaneous access with the ability to rapidly update and augment the information in the gallery streamlines a scholarly process in an immensely useful way, and enables an approach at once fluid and democratic.

As of right now, I can’t say I have a theoretical program to elucidate what precisely digital projects like the MEL “do” to canonical writings.  Software may reveal their fluidity and instability, but conventional research methods can do much the same.  For now, my appreciation for online digital archives lies almost exclusively with their utility.  They are nearly perfect tools.