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MLA 2013

These notes are on the MLA convention in Boston which I attended. The notes were written on the fly so they will have errors and they are limited.

How to get started in DH

I participated in the Get Started in Digital Humanities with Help from DHCommons MLA associated workshop. It started with a panel on the subject of how to get started in DH. My answer was:

Start a project!

  • Figure out who else is doing projects like what you want to do.
  • Figure out what techniques you need to learn to tackle your question.
  • Start learning the techniques by charming the people who seem to know the techniques.
  • Organize the training you need or go to it.
  • Prototype the project.
  • Show it to people and find out how poorly you planned it.
  • Throw out the project and start a new one.
  • Iterate.

Others said similar things - you have to try to do it to get started. Like a programming language, you won't learn it unless you try to do something with it. Some of the other ideas included:

thinking through theoretical things

I gave a paper at a session (167) titled Digital Humanities and Theory. The session was organized by Stefano Franchi from Texas. My paper was titled "thinking through theoretical things" and discussed how things could bear theory. My slides are up at:

I ended by distinguishing between those things that bear theory (just about everything made by us bears some sort of theoretical assumptions) and those "theoretical things" designed to communicate ideas. Theoretical things have these features:

  • They display their workings in a way that allows the user to understand the principles of operation rather than hide them.
  • They can be manipulated to aide in understanding.
  • They are embedded in a context (like a performance) that draws attention to how they communicate theory.
  • They are supplemented by other materials like code, documentation, and labels that encourage their use as theoretical things.
  • They are designed to resist or interrupt transparent use while drawing attention to their theoretical workings.
  • They fail in interesting ways.

From Artificial Intelligence to Artistic Practices

Stefano Franchi presented on "From Artificial Intelligence to Artistic Practices: A New Theoretical Model for the Digital Humanities" where argued for a change in the encounter between the humanities and information/computation sciences.

  • The encounter between the humanities and "sciences of the artificial" has been one way with the humanities borrowing from the sciences
  • We can learn from how artists have engaged the sciences

Franchi then gave the example of microsounds and the effect of Curtis Road's idea of microsounds. What Curtis Road did was:

  1. Pick a new object
  2. Provide new theoretical structure capable of handling the new objects
  3. Build new tools to handle this new structure of objects

Franchi suggests that this is what we should be doing in the humanities with the digital.

Instead, we see the sciences picking off our problems using this strategy:

  1. Pick an open issue from philosophy or psychology
  2. Formalize the problem into a theory
  3. Simulate the theory until you can validate it

The role of the humanities is limited to providing a reservoir of interesting problems.

This reminds me of Geoffrey Harpham's essay on Science and the Theft of Humanity (see my blog entry).

Franchi then stepped back and discussed Poeisis vs Theoria.

  • Perhaps we should think of our work as poesis - the making of things rather than just interpreting things
  • The humanities should not get trapped in always pursuing truths of interpretation

Object-Oriented Ontology

David Washington gave a paper on "Object-Oriented Ontology: Escaping the Title of the Book".

I didn't the follow the paper as well as I should have as I had just finished my paper and was distracted. He did however mention Ian Bogost and his Latour Litanizer that generates random lists from the Wikipedia. Reading what Bogost has to say suggests that he is arguing for "carpentry" or an approach of building theoretical things, "construction of artifacts that illustrate the perspectives of objects."

Bogost has written on What is Object-Oriented Ontology.

I can't help feeling that the rich history of philosophizing about what a thing is has slid out of sight and is therefore being recapitulated.

Open Sesame

Susan Brown of CWRC organized a session on Open Sesame. This session was on interoperability. I argued that text projects should make their e-texts openly available so that they can be used with different research tools. There is a storify version of our discussion at:

I recognize that some projects don't feel they can share their texts openly. I discussed ways to protect and share texts including:

  • Licensing texts (and potentially charging for access to licensed texts)
  • Steganography as a way of protecting etexts. I suggested that one could do things with white spaces to watermark texts.
  • A network of trusted research sites where people can access protected texts. I think the Hathi trust may be doing something like this with all the Google scanned books.
  • Sharing indexes that can be used for comparison, data-mining, and control. This is an approach suggested by Stephen Ramsay in his Tamarind work.



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