Representation and the digital environment: Essential challenges for humanists

Breslauer Professor of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles

The basic challenge for humanists comes from adopting visualizations that don’t suit our fundamental epistemological values. Obviously humanism is not monolithic. But methods of statistical analysis and empirical observation are grafted onto the humanities, they were not created from within the traditions of textual analysis and study. Put simply, the distinction between humanistic and empirical methods is the difference between interpretation and scientific positivism. I have no quarrel with the latter, only with the ways visualization techniques from the natural and social sciences have been adopted for use in the humanities. The result is reductive, and in most instances, produces a reification of misinformation. Exceptions exist.

Nicolas Felton’s work is a performance, nearly parodic, of the process with which I take issue. His wonderful designs, beautiful to behold and an amusing, diverting, presentation of self-generated statistical analyses of his own existence, are annual report type graphics put in the service of his auto-ethnography. “Here I am in numbers and graphs, here are all my activities, allocations of time, energy, attention.” Does he actually document the amount of time he spends documenting? I can’t recall. In Harry Mathew’s darker The Journalist, the OuLiPian writer creates a classification scheme for his own journal entries. The scheme becomes so self-referential that it smothers the author, making it nearly impossible to write anything but more refinements of the scheme. All content is absorbed into metadata. But back to Felton, what gives his work a humanistic spin is the way it activates the reader/viewer into consideration of how one is or is not like Felton. The gap of critical thought is the space for production of interpretation as an generative, recognized, substantive part of the activity of a text or image.

The principles of humanistic method are simple, after all: interpretation always produces a work as a reading; no work, image, text, is self-identical, it is always produced anew; and the humanities are fundamentally concerned with interpretation, which is necessarily grounded in embodied individuals whose historical and cultural identities factor into the work. Extrapolate from this to our basic notions of time and space. If we consider that time is always experiential, rather than given, and that space is not a container, but an effect of actions, behaviors, movement, motivations, then we realize that we have to shift our understanding of these fundamental categories towards temporality and spatiality. Thus temporality is time with a factor of some kind – where the factor can be emotional, economic, political, in short anything that is integral to experience (e.g. anxiety). Does Felton include such notions in his representations? Of course not. He uses standard metrics borrowed from the empirical sciences. As do almost all projects in the digital humanities.

Yannis Loukassis, a designer/scholar I met recently, has produced some remarkable visualizations of urban geography in a course he developed on SurfaceCities. These maps are humanistic. They are built as an expression of spatial experience, rather than assuming space as a given that can be shown on a Google map. The difference between putting humanistic information into a pre-set convention – e.g. using a standard metric timeline to show experiential or relativistic records—and using these experiential foundations to build the basic model is enormous. I could cite other examples. Stuart Dunn’s work with modelling experience in prehistoric structures in Britain, Leif Isaksen’s work on Ptolemaic mapping, Chris Johansson’s work on point of view systems within the Roman Forum—each has engaged humanistic experience in the content model of their digital projects in interesting ways.

What’s at stake is the cultural authority of the humanities. If human beings matter, in their individual and collective existence, not as data points in the management of statistical information, but as persons living actual lives, then finding ways to represent them within the digital environment is important. If the value of interpretative approaches to epistemology matters, it is because it undoes the fundamental assumptions of univocal authority, singularity of point of view, and absolute values.

In whose interest is it to find an expressive graphical and conceptual vocabulary for humanistic approaches to knowledge as knowing, as partial, situated, fragmented, and located in specific individuals and their point of view?

In whose interest is it not to?


Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Information Studies at UCLA and a contributor to the volume Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. She is also the author of many books, including SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing.

“Is there such a thing as ‘digital’ humanities? From statistical crunches of texts to new forms of online collaboration and peer review, it’s clear something is happening. This book is an excellent primer on the arguments over just how much is changing—and how much more ought to—in the way scholars study the humanities.”
—Clive Thompson, columnist for Wired and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine

“I look forward to the day when anxieties about the disruptive nature of ‘digital humanities’ fade into memory and the innovative methods, theories, and approaches championed by those who have contributed to this valuable volume are respected across academia for their rigor and utility. This book will go a long way toward clarifying the debates within and about digital humanities.”
—Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry

Leave a Reply