Inverse Niche ? Ta ! ( The dead data divil in my digital detail)

Inverse Niche ?  Ta ! ( The dead data divil in my digital detail)

I wrote a little bit about some initial experiences with Ireland's first tranche of 'digital humanists' back in 2009: Coming from a twenty five year writing and technology background, I almost argued, without intentionally offending anyone I trust, that essentially many in Ireland venturing into the emerging discipline at that time were not theoretically equipped to actually comprehend it's true creative potential. Many of the defining ‘leaders’ elsewhere in the field were merely engaged in collating and grafting data, tools and technology onto humanities old ways of thinking & doing.

I heard among participants on more than one occasion at that time that new chestnut about ‘Newtonian thinking in an Einsteinian universe” and I was inclined towards agreeing with that over-simplified assessment. It has been only three (deep research) years since I first formally ventured into that digital humanities tool shed, coinciding with my first year of my PhD in the creative writing in digital literature at UCD. My friend Conor Farnan, Poet, Gentleman and Scholar messaged me a link via FB to yesterday’s TLS digital humanities article:

He asked me what was my take on its final paragraph ?

"It remains to be seen whether its practitioners will make good on its potential to incorporate humanistic values – interpretation, nuance, analyses that go beyond data – into the digital framework of our lives."

I began a short response to Conor and ended up running out of space in FB so below is my longer reply to his question:

Despite the genuine journalistic merit of the article that preceded it, I believe that final statement is naïve and potentially flawed in terms of an explicit misunderstanding of some of the fundamental composites of not just digital humanities but humanities computing and creativity itself. That the word ‘incorporate’ connotes ideas of a body of agreement, big business or some form of homogenisation betrays the on-going diversity and experimental nature of much of the activity in the field. Many academics that engage in digital humanities (& that term is now a very broad academic brushstroke – almost like the terms maths or science) are generally not 'practitioners' in that traditional sense that they practice ‘the art or craft of digital humanities’, ok they may use computers and digital tools to achieve specific ends, analytical to understand and parse data, as platforms to conduct various experiments like distant reading, yes they employ aggregators, data visualization tools, etc, they often tend towards applying these tools to existing corpus.

I however believe that, for simpler contextualisation in relation to such statements as the TLS one above, much of such digital humanities activity could more easily be classified as 'secondary creativity' and as such maybe we should expect little likelihood of making good of any kind of desired or predicted ‘potential.’ ‘Potential’ to me in the first instance suggests diverse poles of activity, something adhering to Ohms law or at the very least a motive force of some infinitesimal order, if that were the true criteria to determine success in making good.. it already has and continues to do so..

I wonder is it therefore fair or accurate for me to speculate that few if any digital humanists are engaged in building, making, digital objects from scratch that exploit the (obvious to me) inherent humanistic affordances of new technologies ? It was for this very question, reason, that I was personally drawn towards electronic and digital literature, and firm in my determination to not succumb to merely study it but create it.. primary creativity is native in my chosen academic space and its genesis or evolution can be (and is in my thesis) traced into both poetic practise (in that primary creativity sense) humanistic theory (both philosophical and literary) and technologically based creative practises (code, software studies, etc) the TLS article itself touches upon some of the diverse range of activities and perspective that the ‘catch all’ umbrella term digital humanities covers. I want to call out some other quotes from the article:

“The New York Times has documented some of the most eye-catching work in its “Humanities 2.0” series. No wonder that William Pannapacker, an English professor and blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education (my employer), described the digital humanities as “the next big thing”

“ Pannapacker was fretting publicly that the digital humanities had become so fashionable that they had given in to cliquishness.”


“At the MLA gathering that year, Stephen Ramsay, an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, gave a deliberately provocative talk arguing that true digital humanists build things – by which he meant things such as software programs for computers. “Do you have to know how to code?”, he asked. “I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say yes.”

These two series of quotes in some sense reflect distinctions in my own personal, albeit a short-cut, classification of digital humanist activity into primary and secondary creative areas. Pannapacker rightly eulogies new affordances that technologies bring to the ‘traditional’ humanist, and there appears that similar ‘potential’ idea again and perhaps a consequent fear of future spectres of bandwagons and silos. Stephan Ramsay seems to be dealing in primary creativity, write the code for the tools, write the tools, use the tools, use the code, but that must be in the context of an ever expanding field of choice as the range of tools increase and also GUI and UX developments continue to move users further from any coalface coding action. As someone who once endured assembly, direct CPU addressing and Hexadecimal headaches, ‘knowing how to code’ itself is while a valuable idea to many, a persistently illusive or vague concept to some and, as Ramsay himself acknowledged, susceptible to (mis)interpretation as ‘blithely exclusionary’.

Yet I find that I must agree with his underlying or fundamental premise, let me phrase it as my own much more mundane rhetorical question. “how can I meaningfully engage with computer based activities without having a foundational knowledge of how and why these machines perform/operate like they do.”

I can easily engage to some degree, but the further I move from Ramsay’s position, the less meaningful it becomes for me. Specifically in terms of understanding my own personal computer based creativity. Also as soon as I begin to introduce the idea of ‘a meaningful concept’ I (unwillingly) enter a philosophical realm, traditionally the preserve of humanist enquiry.. I’m now in danger of an Ouroboros overload, a feedback of belief in these digital humanities as (to perhaps echo Pannapacker) my own current ‘big thing’ grows bigger and bigger within me… as perhaps I alone only see and feel it, but isn’t that somehow reminiscent of Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism and if I attempt to slay my strong and precious belief… or isolate my understanding behind a wall of terminology (academic gibberish) well I become guilty of a greater degree of exclusionary activity, a communicative obfuscation employing extra-canonical terminologies.

Digital Humanities may just not be for everyone in humanities and those that genuinely seek do eventually find their niche. A large broad label like digital humanities is the inverse of such a niche, we are back at umbrella terms like ‘digital frameworks’ which while holding the promise of dimensional or disciplinary containment, don’t actually restrict any Z axis of meaningful activity.. Dantesque down there in digital detail… is where we can find ourselves..