DH through the looking-glass

My favorite part of Through the Looking-Glass is Alice’s late encounter with a very clumsy and Lewis Carroll-like White Knight in a chapter entitled “‘It’s My Invention’” . The Knight offers to sing Alice a comforting song, and Alice reluctantly accepts (“‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.”)

The White Knight and the Aged Aged Man (or the Mad Hatter?)

After much fuss about the song’s title (vs. its name, vs. what it’s called, vs. what it is), the Knight settles into a song about an encounter between an “aged aged man” and a White Knight-like interlocutor who can hardly listen to him. (John Tenniel’s illustration drafts the Mad Hatter to play the aged aged man.)

Repeatedly the reflected Knight demands to know how the aged aged man lives. In response, the genial codger gamely describes various money-making schemes (capturing sleeping butterflies for mutton-pies, selling them to sailors; setting a mountain stream on fire to produce hair products; working haddocks’ eyes into waistcoat buttons; digging for buttered rolls; liming twigs for crabs; searching grassy knolls for cab wheels) — but the Knight continually zones out. That may be because the Knight is himself caught up in a series of equally absurd but less commercial schemes (hiding green whiskers with a large fan; getting fat on batter; warding off rust on the Menai bridge (me-and-I: a bridge to nowhere) by boiling it in wine).

I particularly like how disjunction and obsession jangle about each other in the White Knight’s song: how the narrating Knight, never listening, pursues one steadfast inquiry:

“Who are you, aged man?” I said,
“and how is it you live?”
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.

…having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried, “Come, tell me how you live!”
And thumped him on the head.

…I shook him well from side to side,
Until his face was blue:
“Come, tell me how you live,” I cried,
“And what it is you do!”

Who are you is tantamount to “how do you live,” which in turn is welded to “what is it you do.” And though nothing the aged aged man does or says seems to get through to his interviewer, or vice versa, the Knight will never forget “that old man I used to know,”

Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo—
That summer evening, long ago,
A-sitting on a gate.’

It’s an infectious sentiment: having made little progress in understanding or relating to the White Knight, Alice also tags her encounter with him and his song as unforgettable: “Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through The Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again…”

The whole episode is drenched with anxiety, self-consciousness, and nostalgia: it’s a world in which solipsistic, distracted agents wish mightily to connect — over the question of what each other *does*. At the heart of this discourse is the notion of identity as defined by work, and the further suggestion that work cannot really be communicated, triggering a retreat to surfaces.

***

Flipbook on the iPhone, atop a physical representation of all the documentation and code commits of the project. Image from http://craigmod.com/.
Perhaps you see where this is going. I’ve been thinking about the communicability of “work” lately, especially in the light of an interesting little meditation on the representability of a digital project posted last week by Craig Mod, an editor’s selection in Digital Humanities Now. Mod describes the challenge of representing everything it took to design Flipboard for the iPhone: “despite knowing we had been on a long journey, it didn’t feel like that journey was manifest anywhere.” The challenge to representing work, as he sees it, is to navigate from the “edgeless” realm of the digital into something that has tangible weight and shape. As Mod puts it, “There’s a feeling of thinness that I believe many of us grapple with working digitally.”

It’s an anxiety that anyone who works on digital projects can relate to — especially in an academic environment, where the value of this kind of work is uncertainly correlated, at best, to download or view or citation metrics. And the sentimental non-communication sketched out by Carroll is very much with us, I think. How much can we substantially know and talk about the true contours and efforts of each other’s digital projects? And given this fundamental challenge, how tempting is it to zone out, to think about our own private schemes of wine-boiling, even in the face of the most ardent demo of the next best thing?

We post code openly; we share project documentation; we create screencasts and sandboxes and guest access; we display and demo — it’s almost obsessive, if you think about it, all this effort to expose the work. And yet I share Mod’s craving for “a better understanding of what we’ve built and where we’ve been.” He resorts to a book.

***

Especially given absence of this tangible shape and worth, a standard reaction to a digital project is to ask for proof of efficacy. It’s a way of asking: whatever it is that you’ve done here, can you prove to me its worth? All very understandable, but in learning and humanistic contexts this is often a showstopper, if we’re to be honest. Imagine responding to a critical monograph, or an authoritatively edited volume, in that way. A demand for evaluation can be a way of not listening, or at sidestepping the shape and scope of the actual project.

If two thousand lines of code could be proven to produce the same effect as two million lines, would there be no difference between the projects? We can track how many times a project is downloaded or mashed or tweeted, but what does this tell us? Is aggregation of assets or users a virtue unto itself? We slide into quantification and rather crude versions of assessment, never a comfortable place for the humanities.

An absolutely ineffectual project (along whatever lines you wish to measure by) may nonetheless be very worth understanding; it may exemplify institutional relationships and workplace methodologies and asset combinations that would be fully instructive to represent. This seems especially true during these awkward days, when the basic conditions and activities of scholarship are so rapidly molting in front of our eyes.

The (mis)characterization of work is bundle-jumbled, as Carroll of course saw, with reputation, identity, and security, especially now. So many conversations about “Digital Humanities” spin into speculation about the capacity of universities to cultivate the skills and recognize the achievements of scholarship in the digital arena. And behind all this, I think, is the fundamental problem of representing the dimensions of work underpinning the projects that are or should be undertaken. Who inspires them, how do they get designed and built, who works on them, what do they contain, who uses them, who hosts them, how long are they alive, and what do they spur?

***

Lev Manovich’s recent work on visualizing large media collections is a thoughtful reaction to the general difficulty of comprehending the contents of digitized projects. Imagine, though, if such visualization were pursued beyond the surface — imagine the challenge of representing what it took to bring together what you see even in conceptually simple (if charmingly hypnotic) projects such as the 5930 front pages of The Hawaiian Star or 4535 Time Magazine covers or the 100 hours of the video game Kingdom Hearts (hello Wonderland!).

As captured pages or games whip past us or splay out for us along axes, as our eyes scan across an entire corpus for patterns trends and influences, we may also just barely make out the backstage ghosts of publishers, distributors, vendors, librarians, technologists, students, postdocs, gamers, maybe even a scholar or two.

Though Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative does a nice job of exposing digital humanities projects, tools, and the goals of cultural analytics, what it actually takes to do and sustain this kind of work remains, well, off the screen. If cultural analytics wishes to “better represent the complexity, diversity, variability, and uniqueness of cultural processes and artifacts,” we still wait for a parallel aspiration to visualize such projects themselves, a meta-visualization that would get behind the glass and convey a better sense of how they live.

We might take a cue from software developers, who have long grappled with collaborative work protocols and representations. A visualization tool like Gource, for example, conveys the build-out of a project as branches blooming off of a source tree. To see this in action, see Schuyler Duveen’s visualizations of several projects built at CCNMTL. Remember, as you’re watching these videos, that you’re just tracking code — not design documentation, not conceptual revisions, not the content and interactive elements of these projects.

So even if we were to let go of the lofty ambition of showing the institutional and cultural extents of a digital project — everything and everyone it really takes to make it “work” — just capturing the full extent of design, development, and implementation turns out to be a boggling endeavor. At any rate it’s clear that time and space are both necessary components for rendering the complexity of the kind of work we’re doing, as well as some schematic for conveying the choreography of a great amount of interdependencies.

***

Alice going through the looking glassMaybe such representation — and the understanding and recognition that it would engender — will be bolstered through the rise of what Henry Jenkins and his students have termed “a higher transmedia criticism”. Once we figure out how to weave strands of coherency and causation across media types, we may have developed better muscles for conveying a fuller sense of the ecosphere of a digital project.

A basic point of academic maturity in the face of the digital onslaught, I think, is to recognize the deep infrastructure (or looking-glass world?) behind what seems “merely” virtual, an infrastructure that takes us on intricate paths between modalities, institutions, and technologies. It seems to me to be no accident that early characterizations of the digital in essays like Sven Birkert’s The Gutenberg Elegies — with simplistic contrasts between print/digital like permanent/evanescent, deep/flat, sequence/signal — tended to fall away once scholars who actually worked on digital productions, such as Matt Kirshenbaum at MITH, pushed into fuller appreciations of machinery, interdependence, or “the forensic imagination,” to crib the title of Kirschenbaum’s 2008 book. Now that we’re not confusing (instant) access with (disposable) worth, what could a forensics of digital projects uncover?

Especially because I saw CHNM’s Tom Scheinfeldt talk this week about the values and tactics of THATCamp, I’m reminded that many posts on his blog have taken up the problem of Digital Humanities work. In 2008, for example, he was asking:

What happens to the increasing numbers of people employed inside university departments doing “work” not “scholarship?” In universities that have committed to digital humanities, shouldn’t the work of creating and maintaining digital collections, building software, experimenting with new user interface designs, mounting online exhibitions, providing digital resources for students and teachers, and managing the institutional teams upon which all digital humanities depend count for more than service does under traditional P&T rubrics? Personally I’m not willing to admit that this other kind of digital work is any less important for digital humanities than digital scholarship, which frankly would not be possible without it. All digital humanities is collaborative, and it’s not OK if the only people whose careers benefit from our collaborations are the “scholars” among us. We need the necessary “work” of digital humanities to count for those people whose jobs are to do it.

We can’t kid ourselves, though: this is swimming against a longstanding tide, and four years later, despite the DH hullaballoo, I’m not sure we’re anywhere closer to landing on firm ground. Though back in 2008 Scheinfeldt was heralding a “sunset for ideology, sunrise for methodology,”, anyone devoted to a digital humanities project runs into a certain recognizable chill, if not a wall: a recurring dichotomy between actual philosophers and actual workers that Jacques Rancière, for one, traces through Marx all the way back to Plato.

And this, I think, is the sharp edge of Lewis Carroll’s non-encounter: a general shirking of the work of understanding actual work. The giddily imaginative protagonists in “A-Sitting on a Gate” (or whatever it’s called) would rather conceptualize like butterflies than engage in the mechanics, methodology, or production of each other’s schemes.

***

Carroll’s poem, by the way, was a Jon Stewart-worthy parody of good old Bill Wordsworth, particularly the *also* provocatively odd (but much less humorous) poem “Resolution and Independence”. In Wordsworth’s poem, the interviewer and interviewee are, respectively, a young bi-polar version of the poet, and a severely aged man that he discovers at work on the moor, gathering leeches:

His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in life’s pilgrimage;
As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.

Anxious about the worth of a poetic career, our narrator approaches this imposing and ancient working man, so old he’s hardly human (“as a huge stone.. / on the bald top of an eminence…” “Like a sea-beast crawled forth”), positively aching for connection, for moral understanding, for the experience of bonding within the terms of life on this earth. And so the narrator strikes up conversation about work:

“What occupation do you there pursue?
This is a lonesome place for one like you.”

And just like Carroll’s Knight, despite a genial reply from the occupation-pursuer, Wordsworth’s poet just cannot listen. Just as the old man starts to describe “Employment hazardous and wearisome,” the poet zones out:

The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream…

Having dematerialized the leech-gatherer into a dream, it is not long before the poet is mulling over the same egocentric problems, the misery of poets like himself.

–Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”

You’d think this would try anyone’s patience, but the leech-gatherer seems an indulgent sort: he smiles, repeats himself, and starts to describe the extent, methodology, and waning supply of his trade. But there’s no holding our poet back from diving right back into that crazy Wordsworthian mental space, in which the mind plays tricks on itself, self-consciously, with mirrors; no matter what the old man says and repeats, no matter what his actual activities or the conditions that drive them, our daydreaming narrator is stuck “In my mind’s eye…” flipping over “thought within myself.” He climbs out of his mind only when the leech-gatherer stops talking, just in time to milk the encounter for a quick moral:

I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.

A firm mind? We’ll have to take the narrator’s word for it, since words from the old man himself are inexorably snuffed out; his auditor ends up content with the surface act of encountering.

The only way I can make sense of this poem is as provokingly insufficient: another example of man’s inhumanity to man, leavened with presumption and sentiment — yet one more instance of high-mindedly ignoring the conditions, demands, and contours of actual work.

Comments are closed.