In “The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction,” Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth discuss the ways in which computing has cut across disciplines, and the methodological focal points that have arisen from this shift:
“There is, for example, a shared focus on preserving physical artifacts (written, painted, carved, or otherwise created), that which is left to us by chance (ruin, and other debris of human activity), or that which has been near-impossible to capture in its intended form (music, performance, and event). Yet many disciplines have gone beyond simply wishing to preserve these artifacts, what we might now call early forms of data management, to re-represent and manipulate them to reveal properties and traits not evident when the artifact was in its native form” (1).
This distinction between preservation and “re-representation” exists as a fundamental gap between scholars, one that has the potential to hinder collaboration. While this boundary is by no means fixed, in my own experiences I have noticed a clear divergence between scholars within what are typically seen as “preservation-based” disciplines (information and library sciences, classics, archival work), and those within what we might call “performance-based” disciplines (design, media arts, music, dance). Again, these boundaries are by no means fixed, but in examining the issue through this binarism, we can notice clear values emerging.
The “performance-based” disciplines are generally interested in the idea of “doing”: making, creating, producing a scholarly product that, at least in some ways, mirrors the artistic object of study. Peter Lunenfeld, Design and Media Arts professor at UCLA and Digital Humanities faculty advisor, sees DH as contributing to the ongoing study of how scholars can participate in a “maker’s discourse” which emphasizes issues related to the creation of an artwork. These types of projects often embrace a certain level of abstraction, as they attempt not to preserve and re-create a historical artifact, but rather “re-represent” and manipulate them to reveal hidden properties or new meanings once the “artifact” has been subjected to a new “performance.” This level of artistic abstraction runs the risk of alienating certain viewers in a similar manner as works of art, a perfect example being the Vectors journal, which “melds form and content to enact a second-order examination of the mediation of everyday life” (from the journal website, emphasis added). This “second-order” examination is exactly the strategy of “re-representation” which distinguishes this project from what have been perceived as more “scientistic” projects that analyze big data/metadata/variables, etc. through more “objective” means (generally, algorithmic software programs). As we saw in seminar last week, this journal proved a point of contention between those who enjoyed the open-ended nature of the interface, and those who were annoyed by the fact that the goal of the project seemed vague and non-user friendly.
On the other hand, “preservation-based” scholars seem to be concerned with examining the ways in which projects such as archives can be seen as “productive” work. Whereas “performance-based” scholars may see their own work as an aesthetic product as sorts, “preservation-based” scholars often invoke the production of knowledge as a key result of their work. In this way, the tension between the two modes of thought within DH can perhaps be reduced to the long-held Marxist distinction between material and immaterial labor. Often, this is the type of knowledge that the humanities have always dealt with: ontology, epistemology, and other origin myths.
In a 500-word blog post, these distinctions may seem to bear little weight, and it is likely that your experience in the vast and constantly growing landscape of the Digital Humanities is quite different from mine, but it is as of yet unclear to me whether these disparate approaches to the question of “What do the digital humanities do?” will ever actually come to terms with each other. Perhaps that is why collaborative spaces such as dh201 are so useful…