By yorkc on August 4, 2010
What is a date? A seemingly trivial question, and perhaps Foucault would not appreciate the tongue-in-cheek tribute to his influential essay on authors. However, as digital humanists move to embrace online timeline tools and explore new ways to visualize temporal relationships, it’s worth examining whether the fundamental unit of a timeline, the “date,” fits our expectations. How do humanists use dates? Are these dates the same as computer dates, whose implementation reflects generations of software engineers filling specific needs in operating system and programming language design? By contrast, what is a humanities date “for”? As part of Hyperstudio’s exploration of digital humanities timelines, this series of four blog posts will probe the boundary between humanists’ dates and computer dates, with an eye to the practical consequences for timelining.
The author’s name, if nothing else, provides a convenient way to order a shelf of books. (Consider this Foucault for digital librarians.) Readers examining an unfamiliar novel by Jane Austen, nevertheless approach it with certain expectations in terms of genre, milieu, quality and so on conditioned by its shelf-mates by Austen. However, one could just as easily order the books by publication date, a scheme that might instead sensitize readers to the grand sweep of prior thought and inculcate a notion of the changing concerns of particular eras: an intellectual timeline, if you will.
Much like reading through a box of ordered letters between a group of close correspondents, classification by date rather than author presents an invitation: to periodize, to speculate about influence and intention, about cause and effect, to draw connections between seemingly disparate events and to situate specifics in context. Beyond all of these, it brings into contrast missing evidence, whose absence is otherwise hidden. In an ordered file of Beethoven’s correspondence, a wide silence opens in reply to his impassioned letter to his “Immortal Beloved”—immediately sparking curiosity and date-based inquiries. Did Beethoven destroy her reply, if any? Which female accomplice could he potentially have met in Karlsbad in July 1812?
Or, return to the analogy of a date-ordered library: here the shelves corresponding to materials from the Library of Alexander would doubtless stretch empty miles to mark Caesar’s careless torch. Wallace and Darwin’s books would jostle each other a mere call year apart. Horrified accounts of Aztec human sacrifice would take up dialog with neighbouring Counter-Reformation tracts and religious self-examination. As these and other cases suggest, viewing the world through the ordering lens of dates incites us to explore not just presences but also significant absences, explore unseen connections, periodize and debate influence and affiliation.
Carlo Ginzburg aptly terms the humanistic process “sleuthing,” and points out that its modus operandi bears more resemblance to Sherlock Holmes’ technique of close observation, with inferences drawn from many scattered clues, than it does to a scientist’s exploration of phenomena through repeated experiments. In the world I suggest above, ordered and examined through the lens of dates, the sleuth comes furnished with tools for several different kinds of temporal inference. Forensic accumulation accounts for some—for example, consider John Snow’s famous conclusion that the London cholera outbreak on 1854 was somehow tied to the water pump at Broad Street in Soho. Here the sheer number of cholera cases with dates within a single week suggested an affiliation or causal influence.
However, the accumulation of dates just as easily suggests inadequacies in the evidence. To take another cholera case: wandering through Neapolitan graveyards and noting the curious prevalence of dates around 1910-11 prompted historian Frank Snowden to uncover another cholera epidemic, which Naples’ council authorities had systematically covered up, for fear of damaging the city’s international trade. Here the accumulation of dates and silences conspired to suggest new avenues of research beyond the official timeline.
The addition of new dates in a series can completely reposition the accepted interpretation of an historical situation, and the motivations and affiliations of the actors involved. When Fidel Castro revealed (decades afterward) that he had in October 1962 requested that the Soviets launch an all-out nuclear strike on the United States—the missiles were already in place—it prompted scholars to re-envision the international dynamic of the era. Kennedy’s “finest moment” as a firm, strategic negotiator with the Soviet Union was revealed, as well, as the moment when the US pushed Cuba to trigger armageddon.
Perhaps more important than virtuoso interpretations of individual events, however, viewing knowledge by date develops a sensitivity for periodization: an intuitively-understood affiliation between specific circumstances and their larger context. So the mention of an American conscientious objector in 1970 immediately suggests a set of concerns and a timeline relevant to the Vietnam war, and a wider shift in American attitudes towards nationalism and citizenship. Or, the story of a Sephardic merchant in 1550s Amsterdam immediately identifies a specific milieu, probably involving Jewish persecution in the Spanish or Portuguese Inquisitions. Likewise, someone with a keen knowledge of Detroit would summon up very different pictures of the city in the 1950s golden era of unions, and in today’s economic hardship. So the process of seeing through dates may involve engagement with specific incidents; but the end proficiency is often aggregate, a form of cultural literacy involving rough knowledge of periods and milieux more than mastery of detail.
Hence, to the over-general question posed earlier, “what is a humanities date for?” we can scribble at least the beginnings of a list. Dates constitute an invitation to consider problems of influence and affiliation, to ponder the difficult boundary between co-occurrence and cause and effect, to situate specific incidents in context, to develop rough maps of periodization. This does not, of course, advocate for the primacy of timelining over other ways of seeing. Returning to the library metaphor: there is nothing necessary or natural about organizing knowledge, whether books or otherwise, according to either date or author. Pragmatic factors, such as the physical organization of a library as a “user-interface” could just as easily dominate. Hence it should come as no surprise that Harvard Library’s first catalog in 1723 classified books according to their size and Latin title. No doubt a similar rationale impels package stores to sort scotches onto the top shelf and trial sizes together elsewhere: this conserves shelf space, is esthetically harmonious, and correlates clientele with stocking patterns.
By contrast, how did the dates used by computers develop, and do they lend themselves to humanities timelining? The remaining posts in this series will consider, in turn, time and mechanical calculation; the genealogy of the computer date; and adapting computing dates to humanities purposes.
Next week: Time and mechanical calculation
Further materials on this post.
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1977).
Carlo Ginzburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.” History Workshop 9 (Spring 1980): 5-36.
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven. New York: Schirmer (1977).
Frank Snowden, Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884-1911. Cambridge University Press (1995).
James Blight and janet Lang, Fog of war: lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield (2005).
John Caserta, “Lost in Time: The Decline and Fall of the Universal Library.” Harpers Magazine (Jan 2000).
Hayden White, Metahistory: the historical imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (1973).
By Whitney Anne Trettien on July 24, 2010
At Digital Humanities 2010 this month, Christopher York and I had the privilege of presenting a poster on HyperStudio’s “Emergent Time,” a prototype collaboration tool for humanities working with timeline narratives. As often happens at conferences, the poster itself was less important than the many fascinating conversations it sparked. Here’s a few threads of discussion running through the conference:
- Digital Humanities is an unusually strong, friendly and supportive scholarly community; but we need to be better at publicly displaying these strengths. Melissa Terras’ keynote, “Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon,” was a rousing call for DH scholars to more actively argue for their relevance in the academy, both as a way of securing our discipline’s future and as a way of strengthening the bonds between us. While there’s the danger of “over-disciplining” (I worry about this, perhaps futilely, even as I recognize the value of disciplinary status), developing better presentation methods and stronger arguments for our work can only help us.
- That being said, digital humanities is still a “big tent.” I had the pleasure of meeting archivists, computer scientists, librarians, embroiderers, literary historians, lab directors, philosophers, linguists — the list goes on and on. And, while the field diversity itself was perhaps not novel to most participants, used to crossing borders, the widespread acceptance of this diversity perhaps was. In fact, most participants I talked with came to and stuck with DH for different reasons. Perhaps more interestingly, I met others in London, outside the conference, who were clearly doing DH work but did not identify with the broader community. It’s difficult to reconcile the pressures of consolidation, articulated by Melissa, and the need to remain open to multiple, even conflicting approaches.
- There are many young and/or emergine scholars and students involved in Digital Humanities. Precisely because the sense of community is so strong in DH, it can be difficult for them to break into the pack. As we think about alternative conferencing formats, it’s also worth thinking of ways to welcome newbies to the community – not so much teaching them the ropes (which arguably don’t exist) so much as inviting them to contribute their own ideas, forming new partnerships and spaces for collaboration. Although I was unable to attend, I imagine the pre-conference THATCamp could (and perhaps did) serve this purpose.
By Anna van Someren on July 2, 2010
with Dave Della Costa and Kurt Fendt
How to visualize a conference on visual interpretations?
After all the exciting talks, presentations, conversations, and Tweets at the humanities + digital conference on Visual Interpretations in May and the great feedback we received afterward, we at HyperStudio were wondering how to process and present this information. Our idea was to figure out a way to represent the whole conference, including the program schedule, presentation abstracts, and Twitter feeds, in a visually appealing way. One way to begin quickly surfaced: why not use our own Chronos Timeline to visualize the whole conference in a time-based manner?
Chronos, developed by HyperStudio’s software engineers Brett Barros and Dave Della Costa, has been conceived as a flexible web application that can be integrated into several of our projects. For example, below is a short video displaying Chronos within our US-Iran Relations Project. This project brings scholars and policymakers from both countries together to explore the period following the Islamic revolution in Iran and consider why improvements in bilateral relations did not occur. To facilitate this exploration, we’re creating a collaborative, multilingual research environment that allows scholars and policymakers to explore thousands of original documents from Mohammed Khatemi’s presidency in Iran and to compare and contrast views of events. Below you can see how Chronos displays a subset of events during the Iran-Iraq war, along with related tags, providing a multidimensional way to explore a data set.
By Kurt Fendt on June 3, 2010
Visualize this: over 250 participants, conversing, asking questions, discussing ideas both old and new, generating cross-disciplinary dialogue on the methods, aesthetics, and implications of data visualization in the humanities and social sciences. From the auditorium and atrium on the ground floor of MIT’s old Media Lab to the roof deck of MIT’s new Media Lab building, humanists, visual artists, computer scientists, librarians and many more engaged in an intense weekend: 3 days, 4 keynotes, 63 presentations, 250 participants – HyperStudio’s inaugural humanities+digital conference. (more…)
By Whitney Anne Trettien on May 13, 2010
By now, we’ve all seen the “Periodic Table of Visualization Methods.” Put together by Martin Eppler and Ralph Lengler (a presenter at next week’s “Visual Interpretations” conference), it’s a clever visualization of visualizations, showing common methods for charting data, information, concepts and strategies, as well as producing visual metaphors and compound graphics. In focusing on literacies, it misses a few. For instance, representations of geography such as maps and topographics are noticeably absent, as are tag clouds. But overall it captures how we typically think of visualizations: as illustrated frameworks for organizing content.
By Whitney Anne Trettien on April 26, 2010
What does it mean to be a Digital Humanist?
In a Dave Parry’s widely-circulated, post-MLA2009 blog post, tauntingly titled “Be Online or be Irrelevant,” Parry argued that social media should be front-and-center in Digital Humanities:
The more digital humanities associates itself with social media the better off it will be. Not because social media is the only way to do digital scholarship, but because I think social media is the only way to do scholarship period.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this claim sparked fierfce debate over the role, nature and future of digital scholarship. Who can claim to be a digital humanist? Do you have to have a PhD? How much coding do you have to know? Are humanities bloggers and twitterers participating in e-scholarship? At the root of it all: how do we (or do we not) want to delimit our community? (more…)
By admin on April 21, 2010
THE ROLE OF PROCESS AND DOCUMENTATION IN CREATIVE WORK /
A CASE STUDY OF MIT ACT’S FUTURE ARCHIVE PROJECT
Madeleine Clare Elish, Research Assistant
Part of HyperStudio’s ongoing research agenda in the field of Digital Humanities is to explore the ways in which digital tools can assist and augment humanistic research and education practices. This research paper is to explore what it might mean to create a digital platform that assists and facilitates a creative process. By investigating from a variety of angles a specific case, MIT’s Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) Future Archive Project, we hope to illuminate the possibilities of such an endeavor as well as potential sites of friction. Broadly, this case study stands as an emblem of a current problem facing many humanists – a problem that can and should be addressed through Digital Humanities projects. The complex necessity to gather, store and organize a range of material confronts many humanists, from artists to designers to historians to economists. A platform, such as that described for the Future Archive Project, might be expanded or adapted to any project that involves gathering and displaying material. Moreover, the concept of the walled garden allows this kind of project to be readily adapted to a classroom setting. Above all, this case study demonstrates the great potential digital tools offer in facilitating creative and research processes.
By lisanti on April 20, 2010
Comparative Media Studies (CMS) celebrated its 10th Anniversary! HyperStudio is a research group within CMS and joined several generations of CMS alumni and faculty who gathered to discuss where this program has been and where it’s going. Most of the events were open to the public, and we’ve listed them here. (more…)
By Whitney Anne Trettien on March 24, 2010
Earlier this week, I attended a talk by the National Archivist David Ferriero, entitled “Are We Losing Our Memory? A View from the National Archives.” Ferriero is a Digital Humanist’s librarian: during his tenure as the Director of the New York Public Libraries, he oversaw NYPL’s involvement in the Google Books Library Project, and as University Librarian at Duke was instrumental in the push to bring new technologies and cataloging systems into library culture. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he cut his teeth as a librarian here at MIT, where he worked for 31 years.
Ferriero’s talk broadly explored the challenges facing libraries in the 21st century, from the perspective of the National Archives — an institution uniquely situated at the nexus of public information and government record-keeping. (more…)