When I recently returned to Tufts for commencement, a friend still in the English grad program was surprised by my active use of digital humanities tools for research and teaching; she knows how much I love spending time in archives. On reflection, my early research on Elizabethan satirist Thomas Nashe directly anticipated what I like most about working in the digital humanities – getting “under the hood” of a text or corpus, taking it apart, figuring out how it works, and then re-framing extant arguments to create original scholarship. Nashe utilizes extraordinarily dense intertextual networks that juxtapose prose, drama, poetry, chronicle history, chorography, philosophy, multitudes of Latin tags, and topical in-jokes that required me to learn about early modernism across disciplines and often languages. He also frequently deploys allusions to classical, medieval, and contemporary works as defensive postures designed to occlude subtexts of often seditious criticism of his Queen, her court, and Crown politics. Until his works were summarily banned in 1599, these maneuvers worked.
Nashe remains my spirit animal in part because one cannot read his work in isolation. That is to say, if Nashe makes sense, then he makes sense in conversation, in the context of these multitudes of intertexts. The Thomas Nashe Project is currently using digital tools for authorship attribution. Someday I should like to see a database vast enough to analyze Nashe’s works in the context of of his intertexts – and that day is not too far off.
My journey from Nashe to working with digital media distantly echoes media guru Marshall McLuhan’s. McLuhan pioneered digital media studies after writing his Cambridge dissertation about Thomas Nashe and the Learning of His Time. McLuhan’s dissertation examined Nashe’s work in the context of the classical trivium: grammar, dialectic, and logic. What struck me when I read McLuhan’s diss was how deeply intertwined writing styles and the writers’ theological and political positions were.
McLuhan understood that the parallel explosions of information technology at the turn of the seventeenth-century and the turn of the twentieth offer an ideal opportunity to think critically about how knowledge is created in the public sphere. Print culture directly informed early modern rhetorical practices across discourses and vice versa. He is also said to have been highly amused when a print run of his influential text The Medium is the Message was misprinted as The Medium is the Massage. I too prefer “massage” – digital media does not directly translate or convey information, but represents an act of mediation, and subsequently interpretation. Whether the intermediary is a human or a computer, there’s always more to digital media than meets the eye. And, one can discover much by using DH tools to explore any kind of digital artifact’s metadata – the stuff under the hood.
But many still ask: what are the digital humanities? Digital Humanities Quarterly offers a useful definition on their “About” page:
I like the three “E’s” in this definition and I would argue that the goal of digital humanities is to explore, evolve, and engage in ways that help us re-frame our conventional understandings of information processing and knowledge making.
Tufts’ own Perseus Project offers a watershed example of digital humanities in action – I have seen the project evolve from hero to hydra as they work toward their goal of making the “full record of humanity” accessible. The Perseus team has devoted extraordinary amounts of time to translating, transcribing, and encoding pre- and early modern texts. (And, I’d like to thank everyone involved for continually helping me stretch my Latin proficiency.)
Perseus’ digital curation efforts – like those at The Folger Shakespeare Library, The Map of Early Modern London, and The Kit Marlowe Project are critical for cultural preservation. Plus, these digital resources provide opportunities to explore how patterns of language and knowledge making emerge across works, time, and discourses in ways that material texts cannot.
At a DH talk I gave with my colleague Mary Erica Zimmer at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center in February 2017, the moderators invited the seminar attendees to introduce themselves by name, affiliation, and discipline. When the introductions reached Northeastern’s Syd Bauman from the Women Writers Project, he replied: “undisciplined.” Syd might be on to something.
One talks much about “interdisciplinarity” in the context of digital humanities. But the prefix, “inter,” or “between,” suggests precisely the kinds of gaps one encounters institutionally. More often than not, “interdisciplinary” courses are a pastiche of content areas and methods that illuminate shared practices and points of content – and that’s great! (I’ve taught a few of these myself.) But the prefix “inter-” insistently informs disciplinary difference.
Such disciplinary difference appeals to educational systems and institutions because it facilitates creating manageable taxonomies, specifically, manageable taxonomies that can be assessed. But knowledge does not evolve along disciplinary boundaries. Scholars understand this fact.
DH platforms and projects do not simply connect the space between disciplines – as the “inter,” the prefix to “interdisciplinary” suggests. These connections enact not just links, but extensions of knowledge that are extensible – like the XML (extensible markup language) we use for markup. To be fair, knowledge has historically been extensible, but written representations of knowledge have conditioned humans to think linearly and two-dimensionally.
The Perseus Project’s ambition to make “the full record of human knowledge available” is wildly exciting – in part because they’re clearly not worried about scope-creep! In all seriousness, at the crux of every project I’ve worked on is a desire to aggregate as much data as possible so that one may explore the evolution of knowledge in the context of its inception. By building increasingly large datasets of that reflect “the record” of human knowledge, we will have the opportunity to recognize contingencies that make discoveries possible, we will realize that what seems like a fixed “record” is anything but.
I can’t help but think that by translating knowledge into the language of computer networks, we transform it into energy.
Already, DH projects emerging around the globe are, like Gutenberg’s printing press, agents of change, traversing discourses and simultaneously extending them node by node to revolutionize the way we make knowledge today — or, perhaps, better reflect the way knowledge has always already been made.
– Kristen Abbott Bennett, 16 March 2018