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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.  

 

                   

 

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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. 

 

         

Considering Medieval Blogs

8 Mar

The essay “Blogging the Middle ages” by GWU professor Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (available in the anthology Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog) is very much exemplary of a tendency in the Digital Humanities to consider digital technology as a personal and social phenomenon.  The cultural and intellectual dialogues enabled by blogging are given thorough consideration in Cohen’s essay, with the ‘Medieval Blogosphere”- that is, the network of Humanities scholars who specialize in the literature and culture of the Middle Ages- being the primary focus.  The main draw that Blogs possess for Cohen, and a great many others, is their essentially egalitarian nature.  They enable anyone to join an intellectual discussion with minimal formality.  As Cohen wrote himself, “”Like many Internet-inspired phenomena, blogs lack formality and rigidity, especially when compared to conventional print.  Much of what is disseminated through the medium is serious, sober, professional, and worth preserving.  Much is also light-hearted, whimsical, personal, and ephemeral.”  At their best, blogs would seem to serve as a sort of testing ground, roughly analogous to the conversational brainstorming sessions academic colleagues frequently have that serve as the genesis to bigger scholarly projects.  The advantage of the blog, of course, is a significantly expanded, even ‘global’ audience.  Scholarly projects and other intellectual endeavors can proceed at an accelerated pace in the blogosphere, and possibly develop on a larger scale thanks to the ease with which multiple parties can participate in one discourse.  Cohen is quite sensitive to all of the new avenues opened up by blogs, but is careful not to overstate their significance.  He is quite insightful on the question of supposed ‘information overload’, something commonly thought to be an innovation of the digital age, or at least the age of modern media generally.  Quoting scholar Eileen Joy, he reveals ‘there has always been information overload.’  Even biographers in the 17th century had to grapple with often overwhelming mountains of text and carefully pick and choose what was most important for their biographical effort.  What the internet introduced was an accelerated pace and greater accessibility for more people.  Back in the day it would seem that information overload was a privilege of the elite.  Now everyone seems to have it.  

The personal, communal pleasures of blogging are also given a great deal of consideration in Cohen’s essay.  In the real world, maintaining connections in a community of scholars can be a difficult task, but the blogosphere streamlines the process and enables contact across great distances and quickly.  The informal nature of blogging also allows personal interjections that make the community more hospitable, and more accommodating of a wider variety of needs, both emotional and intellectual.  Even with all this, Cohen resists the urge to wax romantic- he does not seem to believe that technological development will ever bring about utopia, either in academia or anywhere else.  He remarks, “The future of scholarly communication will likely mean that the technologies I have been using (traditional print books, blogs, Twitter, FB) will be superseded.  The future will arrive, and may well leave me behind, just like those for whom the be-all and end-all of scholarship was e-texts, CD’s, or microfiche.”

Graphs and Code

11 Feb

The promised follow-up to my previous post on Paratexts will have to happen on a later date.  For now, some thoughts on someone else’s thoughts on quantitative data and the history of literature

One thing that continues to dazzle me about the humanities generally is its seemingly limitless capacity for appropriation.  It would seem no discipline is safe from students and scholars of literature.  Freud, Foucault, Marx, every manner of philosopher, sociologist, linguist, psychologist, anthropologist and cultural critic has had their ideas incorporated into critical inquiries into every type of cultural object by people in English departments in universities around the world.  I must admit, Thomas Kuhn is one of the last philosophers I expected to see name-dropped in an essay about the history of the novel.  What is more impressive is that said name-dropping was not at all gratuitous or misplaced, as near as I can tell.

Franco Moretti is conscious of the gap between text and interpretation to a refreshing degree.  In his chapter “Graphs” from his book Graphs Maps Trees he foregrounds three models of historical inquiry (philosophy of history is a major theme of his book as it is principally concerned with the now-neglected field of systematic literary history) as well as one of the three models of information that make up the title of his book.  The three models of history are Event, cycle, and longue durée.  Event refers to the focus on the specific, individual-centered historical occurrence, while longue durée is principally concerned with, in Moretti’s words, “the very long span of nearly unchanging structures.”  He posits that literary studies have been comfortable with these two historical models generally, and that they figure prominently in literary scholars’ work since the Event model is helpful in isolating the specific circumstances of the production of studied texts and the longue durée is applicable to more ‘theoretical’ inquiries that allow scholars to track long-term and cross-textual and cross-cultural patterns.  The middle-ground Cycle model has been largely neglected.  The Cycle model can probably best be understood- again, quoting Moretti himself- as “temporary structures within the historic flow.”  It is a model which can be used to quantify phenomena that last for a certain period of time but then cease.  The best way to exhibit such phenomena is, of course, via a graph.  This is where Moretti makes a crucial observation- that quantification and interpretation are separate and distinct tasks, and the graph is is only conducive to the former.  I have often been struck by what many consider the central dilemma in the Digital Humanities- The Humanities is principally concerned with interpretation, and it is still not entirely certain how digital technology has altered the process of interpretations, either for literary critics and scholars or people in general.  It is possible that digital technology is merely a tool, one that can be used to gather and quantify information for the student or scholar, but something that does not fundamentally alter his principal task of interpretation.  The precise nature of the epistemological shift brought on by the digital revolution is still being debated, meaning any person working within the field of the digital humanities is essentially required to perform multiple projects simultaneously.  S/he needs to demonstrate the efficacy of digital technology in the study of literature and culture, contribute to the ongoing discussion about the epistemic shift that has occurred as a result of the digital revolution and information technology, and define the parameters of a new literary paradigm vis-à-vis digital technology.  Moretti’s project does not address these problems as such, but can still be counted as an important contribution to the discussion for the simple reason that it addresses the field’s problem with information, the gap between the data and the interpretation of the data.  Principally concerned with the latter, those involved with the humanities occasionally fail to recognize the autonomy of the former.  

In “Graphs” Moretti utilizes his Cycle model for a consideration of the history of the novel, from the 18th century through the 19th.  He discovers that different ‘genres’ (which he persuasively defines as ‘temporary structures’) would appear on the scene, last for a period of 10-30 years, and then be replaced with other genres.  He speculates that the disappearance of one genre and its replacement by another reflects changes in the needs of the culture at a particular historical moment- some genres are more effective at communicating and eliciting certain emotional states than others, and some emotional states are more desired than others at specific points in time.  Anxious times often increase the demand for anxious writings, and so on.  Similarly, Moretti posits that the sudden disappearance of a large number of literary genres is probably the result of the passing of a generation of readers. This is where Moretti’s inventive use of Thomas Kuhn comes in.  These generic shifts- very much contingent on who is producing literature and for whom- result in temporarily stable but contingent literary paradigms that shift when new creative models intrude onto the scene and effectively force out old genres that no longer fulfill the culture’s desires.  Thanks to the tool of the graph, this phenomenon can actually be quantified  to some extent.  And who knows?  Perhaps predictions could be made.  A much larger body of data would need to be amassed for such an endeavor though, and perhaps only an advanced computer program would be up to the task of quantifying all the pertinent data.

Another essay which recently came into my purview was “The Esthetics of Hidden Things” by Scott Dexter, available in the anthology Understanding Digital Humanities.  It is primarily interested with exploring how computer code has altered (or perhaps only revealed) human conceptions of textuality, and by extension, human conceptions of information.  The rhetoric of concealment and revelation figured prominently throughout, and the thrust of the piece seemed to be that the distinction between the hidden and the revealed is very unstable in the digital world.  Because this essay is grounded in a technical literacy I simply do not possess, I do not feel very confident speculating about the merits of Dexter’s argument.  One thing I do find quite remarkable however, is the implication an unstable hidden/revealed distinction may have for the task of interpretation more generally.  It would force any would-be interpreter to abandon the notion of approaching a text in search of ‘hidden’ patterns or motivations.                 

Much else could be said, but time, as they say, is a-wasting.  For now, enjoy some Pere Ubu.   

 

Paratexts (Different from Intertexts)- Part 1

5 Feb

Gerard Genette would seem to be the latest in a long line of French post-structuralist philosophers and intellectuals whose work is being applied to recent Anglo-American critical endeavors in ways that they could not have possibly anticipated.  Foucault never dreamed of applying his theories to literature; and yet, there they are, splattered all over the American university’s English department like so many globules of paint from a Jackson Pollock painting.  Genette is a less surprising addition to the pantheon in many respects, though.  His project has always been concerned with literature, and I would like to take some time to examine some of his ideas involving paratexts.  The phenomenon of the paratext is perhaps more worthy of the technical French approach to critical analysis and its penchant for semiotics than many other broadly ‘literary’ forms.  The term refers to, in the words of Richard Macksey, those textual devices that “comprise those liminal devices and conventions, both within the book (peritext) and outside it (epitext), that mediate the book to the reader: titles and subtitles, pseudonyms, forewords, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, intertitles, notes, epilogues, and afterwords…”  It is a concept that is curiously medium-specific.  As Genette himself put it, “…the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to the readers…”  And yet, he also asserts that “a text without a paratext does not exist and never has existed.”  I am inclined to understand his position as basically being that paratexts are the textual elements that mediate a text to the reading public.  Paratexts shift with the medium of presentation, since the medium determines how the reader will engage the text and therefor how the text will need to be mediated.  It is quite intuitive to understand the paratext as a chiefly functional element that serves a practical purpose, and indeed, Genette clearly states that that is his position on the matter.  However, such an understanding does not preclude aesthetic or otherwise non-functional purposes for paratexts.  How paratexts relate to the ‘main’ texts they mediate has been a subject that has engaged authors of literature for quite some time, perhaps most famously Laurence Sterne.  

The medium that most concerned Genette at the time he was formulating his ideas was the printed book.  With the advent of the onset of the digital revolution and the personal computer, conceptions of paratextuality have broadened, if not shifted considerably, and for obvious reasons those with an interest in the Digital Humanities have turned their astute critical gaze on to recent re-formulations of the paratext.    

More to come in Part 2!

A DH Double Whammy- Part 2

4 Feb

The promised follow-up! Rejoice!

When considering Janelle Jenstad’s ambitious and ongoing online project, The Map of Early Modern London, it is tempting to get carried away by the novelty. To re-create a certain place of a certain time, to play time-traveler as it were, has an inevitably romantic flavor, and that flavor can be all the more potent when the time and place in question is the culturally and historically rich landscape of Early Modern London.

Have a look.

The Map of Early Modern London

One should not succumb to the novelty though, as Jenstad’s work serves a very practical scholarly purpose. As she outlines in her essay “Using Early Modern Maps in Literary Studies” gaining a thorough understanding of the landscape of early modern London can enable a student to better comprehend references to location, and the dramatic significance of location, in contemporaneous literary texts. When a comic character in an Elizabethan drama, for example, describes a series of unconnected city landmarks as if they were adjacent to one another to a foreigner as part of a practical joke, an uniformed reader may not understand what, if anything, is supposed to be funny. A handy map clarifies everything. In a more abstract sense, such a tool encourages students to embrace a unique sort of intertextuality- a consideration of the relationship between complex literary texts and more ‘practical’, utilitarian texts like maps. For make no mistake, Jenstad conceptualize the map, correctly I think, as a kind of text. She writes,

“The map has served well as the platform for a library and digital encyclopedia of London, but it is also a text in its own right. To a scholar trained to read for fissures, inconsitencies, representational strategies, agendas, and imbrication of early modern literature in culture, the Agas map [A map of London produced in the 1560’s that served as the baseline for Jenstad’s online map] demands analysis and interpretation. Early maps are what Jess Edwards has called ‘a noisily rhetorical art,’ with multiple signifying strategies that serve various ideological functions.”

The textuality of maps is not something I was inclined to consider before I read about Jenstad’s project. Thinking of maps as texts has caused me to reconsider the underlying assumptions I have been making about textuality itself. I was, and still somewhat am, tempted to think of texts principally in terms of language, and I think of language as a form of representation. I understand maps as a form of representation as well, but I think the lack of an overt linguistic element made me place them in a somewhat separate category as that of literary texts. To perceive them in a more literary fashion and to draw connections to literary texts is, for me, to focus attention on the role played by physical space in both formats, since setting is the most obvious feature a map and a story share in common. The rhetorical strategies that govern space would obviously manifest themselves in notably different ways in the hands of a dramatist and in the hands of a cartographer. Comparing how the two parties manage space, and manage their environment for themselves and their ‘readers,’ is a potentially fruitful route of inquiry that I had not previously considered.

Coming Soon!

20 Jan

Coming soon, my thoughts on someone else’s thoughts.

Specifically, before too long you, the fortunate reader, will have the opportunity to read what I think about Janelle Jenstad’s work on Archives and Early Modern Studies. Probable date- 1/27. In the meantime:

Digital Humanities Questions and Answers!

And the little number that inspired the title of this blog-