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A Liu-cidal Massacre of the Digital Humanities!

In “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique,” Alan Liu discusses the advances made in overcoming the past short comings of the digital humanities, but despite these progressive developments Liu argues the field (not yet a discipline in Liu’s eyes) still posses major inadequacies that drastically reduces its potentiality — its inherent capacity for growth, development and expansion into a future representation of the Humanities.

In juxtaposition to Liu’s claim, however, some digital humanists contend the digital humanities will never represent the Humanities, but will in fact be an entirely separate discipline, or semi-separate discipline as Willard McCarthy proposes. McCarthy says:

But let me offer a different criterion for success: simply to be accepted as one of the community, to sit at the table among equals and talk, then to go back home to a department of the digital humanities, with its students, programmes, seminars and so on, and get on with educating and being educated.” (McCarthy 2009)

Akin to Liu, Patrik Svensson disagrees with the view that the future path of digital humanities will diverge from the Humanities. Svensson states, “it seems quite unlikely that the digital humanities would ever become a fully separate field” (para. 18). Similarly, Katherine N. Hayles warns that it would be “a tragic mistake” if a “radical divergence” occurred. In relation to the assimilation-distinction agenda of the digital humanities, Hayles states:

The kinds of articulation that emerge have strong implications for the future: will the Digital Humanities become a separate field whose interests are increasingly remote from the Traditional Humanities, or will it on the contrary become so deeply entwined with questions of hermeneutic interpretation that no self- respecting Traditional scholar could remain ignorant of its results? If the Digital Humanities were to spin off into an entirely separate field, the future trajectory of the Traditional Humanities would be affected as well. Obviously, this is a political as well as an intellectual issue. In the case of radical divergence (which I think would be a tragic mistake), one might expect turf battles, competition for funding, changing disciplinary boundaries, and shifting academic prestige (qtd. in Svensson para. 17).

Having said that, however, Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s preoccupation with the digital humanities’ disciplinary assimilation or distinction negates the total point and purpose of digital humanities scholarship. The essential nature of digital humanities is its ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and facilitate interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research. Digital humanities achieve this through the utilization of computational tools and methodologies, which establish an open-access virtual platform where information is not located or designated by disciplinary boundaries because these knowledge walls become soluble when submersed in a digital solution. It is for this reason that attempting to predict whether the digital humanities of the future will represent the Humanities or become its own discipline could be viewed as a futile endeavor, which appears to be fueled by a subconscious, technophobic fear of rapid change and development, and nostalgia for the simpler time when print culture was dominant in society. Knowledge unification and dissemination, however, is the intrinsic nature of digital humanities research, which is irrelevant to Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s fears of an inter- or intra-disciplinary divide with digital humanities and the Humanities on the basis of a print-digital binary. Even though it is attached with the prefix of ‘digital,’ the digital humanities is still in many respects ‘humanities,’ albeit in an alternative form. Therefore, the focus of concern should be on what digital humanities can do to compliment, advance or transform the Humanities, regardless of whether it has a symbiotic or aposymbiotic relationship status with the Humanities.

Moving away from this debate and returning to Liu’s article, the following will be a summary of some major points Liu mentions.

(1): Scale

Considering the sheer size of Liu’s article, it is rather ironic that he highlights ‘scale’ as one of the shortcomings of digital humanities. Liu criticises early digital humanities websites and projects, such as the William Blake Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive because of their difficulties with scalability (18). Liu compares early digital humanities projects to the “Tardis in the BBC Doctor Who television series” because “they were larger on the inside than they seemed on the outside” (18). However, due to the large scale of digital projects being developed at present, Liu argues, “that scale itself has snapped into focus as one of the field’s constitutive concepts”(18). Subsequently, “scale is a new horizon of intellectual inquiry,” but scale will always remain a mountain where the fruits of intellectual inquiry flourish at the summit (21). For large-scale projects such as the Linguistic Atlas Project, the fruits of intellectual inquiry are perpetually unattainable and out of reach of the plucking fingers of curious scholars involved. As William A. Kretschmar, Jr. states in relation to the (American Linguistic Atlas Project):

We cannot come to an end of the work because we are witnesses and archivists of how Americans talk, and they keep talking differently across time and space. Neither do I think that our humanities-computing representation of our research is capable of being finally perfected, of achieving some perfect state, because technology keeps changing and the demands placed upon our research keep changing. If we view the entirety of the Linguistic Atlas Project as a “large-scale humanities computing project,” the word “finish” is just not part of the deal. And we are not alone. While the creation of, say, a variorum edition may seem like a project that can be finished in both senses, actually we need to make new editions all the time, since our idea of how to make the best edition changes as trends in scholarship change, especially now in the digital age when new technical possibilities keep emerging.

The computational tools and research inquires of digital humanities scholarship is inconstant — continuously evolving and changing with time — which fuels project-scale growth. Therefore, scale is an irreducible, inevitable and (for the most part) and unavoidable constituent of digital humanities research.

(2): Form

Liu argues, “the field has so far largely lacked a considered focus on new media forms, whether in terms of genre, rhetoric, or style.” (24) According to Liu, digital humanists are “theoretically inattentive to the formal […] differences between the “static page” and “template-driven websites,” and “‘born-digital forms’” and “digitized-print forms” (24). Therefore, Liu contends, “digital humanists tend to understand new-media forms as residually print-centric” (24). To say that, however, digital humanists perceive the likes of Google Books as merely books and Wikipedia as only an encyclopaedia is a gross misconception and misinterpretation of the adoption and incorporation of print related terminology to describe new media technology.

For example, is an eBook a book? Not all, or even the majority of digital humanists, would answer ‘yes’ to this question. Although it is called a ‘book,’ an eBook is only a digital ghost or manifestation of a particular work. The most prominent distinction between an eBook and a book is the fact that an eBook is not inseparably attached or connected to the physical medium of representation. A physical copy is required for one to read a book, while an eBook requires downloading, a physical carrier and a physical reading device with the necessary software for the work to be represented for the reader so he/she can read it. Even though an eBook is viewed by many, without a great depth of consideration, as simply a book in digital disguise, the physical limitations of the print medium are not translated to its digital counterpart. Therefore, this raises the question: Should we be calling an eBook a book if the limitations that define a book are absent from an eBook?

(3): Data Aesthetics

According to Liu, “Data aesthetics” are missing from the text-oriented side of the digital humanities (27). The list, line or bar graphs and tag clouds reflect “the near-total imaginative poverty of the field in crafting an aesthetics of data” (27). Liu claims there is more focus on metadata than “the look-and-feel of data” (27).
Therefore, “the secret formula” for Katherine N. Hayles embodied experience of information, as Liu suggests, is the collapsing of “the phenomenological divide between metadata and data” (28).

With that in mind, one must ask: What about D3.js? Is D3 not ‘aesthetic’ enough for Liu? Although I agree that list, line or bar graphs are rather mundane ways of visualising data, one must ask oneself: what is more important the formal qualities of data visualisation or the meaning of the data the visual form is expressing?

Perhaps Liu is correct in saying that digital humanities is not yet prepared to represent the Humanities. Digital humanities may never be ready, but is it the goal of digital humanities to be a representation of the Humanities, a replacement for it or a self-defined discipline? This is a difficult question to answer, but if I had to choose what I believe to be the most probable outcome I would pick the latter outcome. As I said early, digital humanities is, in many respects, Humanities in an alternative form, but this “alternative form” is continuously evolving and changing with the rapid advancements in technology, along with the reconceptualization of intellectual inquiry as a result of these advancements. As Heraclitus claims, the only constant is change and if the digital humanities is in a state of perpetual inconstancy then we might not be witnessing the end of Humanities, but only the end of Humanities as we know it.

Kretzschmar, William A. “Large-Scale Humanities Computing Projects: Snakes Eating Tails, or Every End is a New Beginning.”

Liu, Alan. “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique.”

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities”

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