DHSI 2014, Digital Humanities Databases

 

A view of the ocean in Victoria

This year’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia was my first.  From the time I applied for a scholarship to when I returned home on June 8, I couldn’t help but notice the well-established and inviting community surrounding the institute.  The information on the conference and the individual classes gave me a real sense of the organizers’ mission and their commitment to promoting the digital humanities defined broadly.  That said, and as the press dedicated to examining it attests, simply promoting big tent digital humanities is problematic, or at the very least, some people have some problems with it.

It’s my feeling that the challenges DHSI poses to its detractors is what make it so effective and valuable.  DHSI has a lot in common with the average humanities conference (as far as my limited experience can serve as a guide), but it also differs in important ways because attendees are taking classes, acquiring skills, returning to their home institutions with concepts, complete or in-process projects, and experiential knowledge about the realities of doing work that claims space under the dh canopy.  So, like at other humanities conferences, everyone gets exposed to new ideas and engages in dialog in ways that having everyone in the same place at the same time has for so long facilitated (though twitter seems to have gone some distance in trivializing the importance of presence at a conference, and this is a dh question).  To this familiar conference setting, DHSI adds the classes that are comprised of different mixtures of theory and heavy-duty computing (mine, Digitial Humanities Databases, was a great mix of the two).  Breaking out into the classes reminded me the seminar model used by conferences like the Modernist Studies Association which groups attendees into topic-driven roundtable-style sessions which are more enjoyable and rewarding than 90 minute panel sessions.  My experience at the 2012 MSA in Las Vegas was amazing; I was in a seminar on modernism and spectacle and I contributed a paper that interpreted Samuel Beckett’s Film and compared it with Bioshock the first person shooter.  

Still, this seminar structure is unlike the DHSI class because where I left MSA with new ideas and new email addresses and twitter handles, I left DHSI with a database I built in MySQL using command line.  There were moments in the course when my ears perked up as it was revealed to me that MySQL language, developed in the ’70’s (let’s historicize MySQL discourse, I’m comfortable with that), and is based on mathematician grade symbolic logic set theory.  It just so happens I’m wildly interested in set theory (though I have no practical knowledge of it) because of some recreational reading I’ve done on Kurt Godel and his incompleteness theorem.  I wanted to ask questions about whether or not one could make a database that took the incompleteness theorem into account, or if the creators of MySQL language found Godel’s thinking to be a problem for the potential coherence and completeness of databases.   I wanted to see the database, to read it, close read it as a matter of fact, and suss out the places where it may contradict itself or expose the ideologies it unknowingly promotes.

The instructors made no attempt to exclude these kinds of questions, and following some of the other classes’ twitter feeds showed that they were asking theoretical questions about digital topics.  (The feminist dh class in particular was performing what seemed like close readings of computer programs question whether or not they contained gender biases, which I found fascinating, but never followed  up on.)   Our focus, and we were pressed for time because there is a lot to cover in five six hour sessions, was squarely on the building of databases.  We did talk a lot about the types of queries databases, as a logic of information organizations, allow for, and we had some hilarious conversations about how databases and digital culture differ from document culture.  This distinction revealed the intertial influence print exerts on digital technology and our tendency to think of the internet and databases as documents.  This is all to say that the class wasn’t not theoretical, but the theory parts of the course were geared toward understanding the affordances a database offers (what can a database do that a document can’t and how might this help me as a humanist?) and how to ask programmers better questions when we need help as our projects develop.  I found this shift in thinking exhilarating.  We weren’t usurping issues of interpretation with graphs, maps, or trees (and we’d still have to interpret those anyway).  We were learning how things work and shedding light on how our own disciplines were similar and different.

My own research on Pound, Joyce, and H. D. requires a lot of close reading interpretation.  For modernist literary studies, these authors are often the close reading gauntlets everyone has to test themselves against.  On the other hand, in addition to being interpreted as poetry and novels always are, The Cantos, Ulysses, and Palimpsest themselves use daunting amounts of inter and intratextual quotation.  This is a dynamic I had originally tried to approach with archive theory, intertextuality, and even museum studies, but for various reasons I found myself wanting to express situations these suites of ideas didn’t address.  Eventually, with the help of my dissertation advisor, I came around to the idea that these texts may be forecasting the textual effects of more contemporary information presentation methods (e. g. Vannevar Bush’s 1945 description of the memex has a lot in common with The Cantos and The Wake).  Without getting into the specifics, I shifted from questions about what does this or that passage mean (though I am still very much on the hook for that type of work) to why is this passage here on the page before me?  How does this text work?

Thus my experience in the database class resembled my dissertation in that I had to set aside the “what does it mean?” questions in order to try and understand the “how does it work?” ones.  The interpretive questions do not disappear.  If anything, they are more persistent and grounded because this approach forces me to integrate the physical realities of each works’ composition and the ways it generates meaning into my interpretation of it.  I’m not pretending I have a coherent revelatory takeaway from this shift, but if this is what dh is, then the fears over machine reading solutionism or whatever alleged takeover of humanities departments computers are staging, are unrecognizable to me.  Overall, the experience of looking at information differently thanks to my class on databases really reminded me of the shift in my thinking that eventually became my dissertation idea.

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1 comment
  1. Mom Erson said:

    Awesome.

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