Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

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Archive, bro

I’m still a newbie to the world of digital humanities (DH), gradually wading into its tide of terms and tensions. At this stage, as I stand ankle-deep, I couldn’t help but think that some of the contention surrounding terms like “archive” come from the many uses it has.

As Trevor Owens points out, the word itself is already stretched and multivalent, ranging from tape decks on a bottom shelf to a specific philosophy of preservation and presentation, a philosophy that Kate Theimer explains eloquently.

But even more directly in the realm of DH scholarship and work, “archive” serves multiple meanings and plays off similar terms, like “database” or “collection” in different ways. More generally, it seems to serves as both repository and tool. In other words, it is a place to  preserve texts and contexts, drawing from a variety of sources, like the Walt Whitman Archive, but it also must present this information through coding, interfaces, and an effective use of metadata.

In particular, the potential that this presentation allows distinguishes DH archives from more traditional archives, in that it brings in both human and nonhuman participants into rather intimate, hybrid contact. Done effectively, it echoes the sort of “ice-skater’s dance” that Alan Liu describes in “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” in which human and machine can co-construct and co-discover knowledge  together. But done poorly, a digital archive is rather like a grandparent’s attic, filled with a wealth of fascinating odds and ends, but buried and scattered.

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Coming “Home” to a New Place

[A work in progress, a freewrite of sorts]

To work on my PhD, I’ve come back “home” to my birthplace in Syracuse. I’ve even come “home” to my parent’s house, where I grew up. I suppose I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to ideas of home. What it is. What it means. And now I’m experiencing a certain renaissance of that sensitivity.

I suppose I awoke one day from a more unquestioning view of home when I traveled abroad alone for the first time. Something about traveling alone–the hotel rooms, the airports, the isolation–brings on such thoughts. Particularly because I had to spend the night sleeping in Newark Airport, shivering from the air-conditioned cold and woken up every view minutes by an automated message.

Before that, though, it began by looking at the workers as the airport drifted into evening hours. With fewer people there, the isolated workers stood behind empty lines. In the gray and metal guts of this whale, we stood, all of us just there by chance, all strangers.

New walls are like strangers. They are alien and unfamiliar. Unwelcoming. Distant. People try to make a place homey by painting it certain colors. By getting comfortable chairs. By getting paintings by Mary Cassatt or Monet, maybe.

But what is it about that chair we sit in at our favorite cafe, that parking place we always park in, that bench we always sit at in the park? Why are we so attached to bits of wood or blacktop? So pissed off when someone robs us from our place? And feel so alienated by new walls, even if they have nice, warm paint?

Places have memories, like people, and like people’s, they fade. Trees with hearts carved by pocket knives get blown over by summer storms. New growth fills once-empty hiding spots. Buildings get weather-stained and worn. The “regulars” we knew in a place shift. Drawn to different places without goodbyes.

I once wrote in a journal that home is a geography. It is a concrete place. At the time, I was traveling a lot. And it is, I think. It is a place. Like a parking space or a bench. But like Heraclitus’ river, it’s always changing. It’s always becoming something that isn’t home. Like entropy. Shifting away from us, as we grapple and try to impose home on the world, onto the raw, living geography of a place.

My dad is a child psychologist, and one of the tests he gives is having a child draw a house and a family. The kids scrawl doors with heavy padlocks, families missing fathers, a grave for a dead dog, terrifyingly tall mothers, fences “for keeping bad guys out,” monstrous siblings, smiling stick-figures holding hands. He interprets the image using certain criteria.

It reminds me of a short story by Varlam Shalamov called “A Child’s Drawings.” The narrator finds a child’s drawing book. At first, he thumbs through the pictures of the countryside. Bright, crayoned-on sunsets. Then barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and planes start to cover the pages.

In the end, another guard comes and throws out the notebook because they can’t burn it, where it gathers frost on trash heap.

The iconography of a child’s drawing. It’s hues and stick-figure people. It’s trapezoid houses. It’s fences and locked doors. It’s smiles. Permeated by “home,” whether that home is a mansion on a hill or an apartment in a war zone. Whether it is filled with trauma or love.

“Humanity” in the Hybrid

[My first blog post for CCR 733]

Digital humanities, and a good portion of academia at large, is a bit like RoboCop in RoboCop 3. For those unfamiliar with the brilliantly corny 90s flick,  the plot is essentially this: large, militarized corporation is trying to evict people for an international business deal. To get RoboCop on their side, the company tries to tune down his human elements and make him more susceptible to programmed orders. Of course, this doesn’t work, and RoboCop gets involved with the rebels, later joined by police and blue collar Detroit citizens, to fight the corporate army.

“Humanity,” in the movie, seems at odds with programming. Or more particularly, humanity lets RoboCop morally settle his conflicting programming  when law enforcement is no longer on the side of the people. RoboCop, unlike the fully robotic assassin he fights in the film, is human. And through that humanity, he can behave with compassion, violating immoral orders.

I think a similar fear is lurking in academia, especially in the humanities, that emotions and all the human elements that speak to our “human condition” are getting vacuumed out by technology and neoliberal policy.

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