Making Things in the Digital Humanities

When Off Paper invited me to write a piece on why I make things, I forwarded that same question to people in my field.



Marked by my use of “DH,” my field is digital humanities; and in a moment I’ll point to some example work. For now, I should mention that digital humanities (or, for some, humanities computing) is defined variously. Consider the litany available at Day of Digital Humanities, which not only documents the everyday lives of digital humanities practitioners but also asks them to define the term.

Here, however, I’m not interested in articulating some conclusive, all-encompassing definition of DH. Doing so would only smooth over the differences that enrich the field and give it texture.

On Defining Digital Humanities

Of course, not giving digital humanities any definition would also let me too easily off the hook—allowing me to remove myself from its debates and distance myself from its politics. After all, in the last instance digital humanities still means something to me, and I still reference projects, practices, and methods, saying: “That’s digital humanities.” So for the unfamiliar I recommend the following starting points: HASTAC.orgA Companion to Digital HumanitiesDebates in the Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities Now. And in the interests of transparency, I’ll also cough up the definition I typically provide when teaching DH courses at the University of Victoria (UVic): “Digital humanities is the combination of technical competencies in computing with critical thinking in areas such as history, literary criticism, cultural studies, textual studies, media studies, geography, musicology, and information studies.”

I call what I’m doing “digital humanities” when I shift from treating technologies as objects of inquiry (e.g., a cultural history of magnetic recording) to actually expressing my work through them (e.g., using a platform like Scalar). In this regard, my work is significantly influenced by scholars such as Cheryl BallTara McPherson, and Virginia Kuhn, each of whom is actively involved in “multimodal scholarly communication” (or blending multiple media, epistemologies, and forms of perception in order to enact a persuasive argument). I would also say each of them makes things, and—depending on the day and situation—I say the same of myself, too.

But back to that question . . .



And a few responses:


Process, Collaboration, Experimentation

Either implicitly or explicitly, these responses exhibit some pressure points across the field. There is an emphasis on process over product (e.g., “middle-state” publications at MediaCommons), collaboration over independence (e.g., CWRC), and experimentation over read-and-repeat strategies for knowledge production (e.g., Vectors and Humanities Visualization).

Many practitioners also tend to combine critical theory with practice (e.g., Queer Geek Theory), and—in higher education, at least—you’ll find them working in arts and humanities departments (e.g., English, history, art history, film studies, linguistics, music, and experimental media), information studies, computer science, and libraries, not to mention humanities labs and centers (e.g., the HCMC and ETCL at UVic).

As such, examples of making in digital humanities manifest in a number of ways, from maps (e.g., The Map of Early Modern London), digital archives (e.g., The Walt Whitman Archive), online exhibits (e.g., The Deena Larsen Collection), data visualizations (e.g., the Software Studies Initiative), and tangible devices (e.g., William J. Turkel’s “The New Manufactory”) to tools and platforms for text analysis (e.g., Voyant), bibliographies (e.g., Zotero), graphical expression (e.g., D3), and rich collections (e.g., Omeka). Projects as well as publications (e.g., A Companion to Digital Literary Studies and Hacking the Academy) are usually open-access and open-source, and discussions about building abound (e.g., Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building”).

Yet this array of examples does not directly address why people in digital humanities make things, and the reasons why cannot be collapsed into people’s practices or their stuff, even if both correspond with their belief systems. (And let’s be honest: claims to making are about as ideological as you can get.)

Layered Materiality

So, returning for a moment to the responses I received, in digital humanities I’ve found that people make things because they indeed find it fun and empowering. Echoing Matthew Fuller, to make is to become intricately familiar with “how this becomes that.” It involves shifts from conceptualization to execution and back again, to such a degree that time-stamping those shifts is tricky at best. Which is to say, the abstract and the concrete recursively relate in digital humanities work. For instance, an online map of early modern London is at once information and a digital object, some symbols on a screen and some physical artifacts inscribed somewhere on a server. Being involved in stages of its production (e.g., XML encoding) allows people to become more aware of its layered materiality, including its hardware, software, and (perhaps most importantly) the processes and labor required to compile source files into a well-designed argument.

Put this way, to make is to unpack what exactly you mean and to perform meaning for others. And for that reason, making through multiple modalities—mediated or not by a screen—pushes me to blend techniques and media and to avoid reducing creativity to a single paradigm (e.g., map-making, platform-building, or prototype-producing). I personally think this blend of techniques and media is central to DH across all the ingredients that may be involved: data models, markup, code, databases, text, video, images, audio, interfaces, microcontrollers, and bots. Almost by necessity, it troubles any neat distinctions between, say, human and computer vision, the authentic and artificial, the source and its expression. The production of meaning becomes a negotiation with objects, what they restrict and accommodate.

To Make Is to Create a Partial Memory

Although the stuff of computation may not determine our situation, it certainly exceeds knowability. That is, to make is to create a partial memory (the smells of sawdust and wood polish included). It is to remember, or re-compile, or re-construct; and—as Wendy Chun reminds us—remembering is anything but simple. It is complex and embodied, simultaneously intellectual and affective.

Again, the slip occurs when practices or stuff alone represent why we create things. Some synthesis between them must happen, and ideally that synthesis involves an awareness of our own subject positions, our privileges and contradictions, and the affirmative possibilities for transfiguring our social relations. For this reason, digital humanities practitioners are seriously engaging social justice issues (e.g., THATCamp Social Justice#transformDH, and the work of Miriam Posner and Natalia Cecire) and the modes through which “coding,” “programming,” and “building” intersect with gender, race, sexuality, class, and neoliberalism. One ongoing concern is that the field’s emphasis on making could mirror conditions in other technology-oriented domains, where white cis male perspectives are the default. For instance, consider recent debates related to Wikipedia and Stack Overflow. The first step toward addressing such exclusionary formations is to acknowledge they exist and for whom. Another step is to articulate and perform alternative formations, much in the way HASTAC has done. I believe Fiona Barnett expresses it best: “Difference is not our deficit; it’s our operating system.” To ignore difference—or to act like we’re beyond it, or that it must resolved—is to treat it negatively. It also masks privilege and inequity. And in the particular case of digital technologies and making, it unfortunately convinces people that their tools are innocent and their cultures are value-neutral. There are things, and then there are instruments.

Happy Accidents, or: Against Mastery

Consequently, making need not imply some false sense of instrumental mastery over our materials and material conditions, and it isn’t always synonymous with control or transcendence. Throughout digital humanities, honest discussions of glitches, failures, surprises, and happy accidents run rife, and making rarely connotes “productivity” in any positivist sense. To make is to morph, not only stuff but also subjectivities. I, for one, often feel incredibly lost when making, and the effects are frequently not what I anticipated or intended.

Plus, there is no reason to believe that producing our own stuff automagically removes us from the markets to which we routinely contribute (knowingly or not). Here, I don’t mean to sound paranoid. Instead, I’m suggesting that making isn’t always about the do-it-yourself individual, or forms of self-ownership, choice, and voluntary action that ostensibly free us—Matrix-like—from the so-called “prison” of the mind, body, or economy. We can make with an awareness that our networks shape us, that human agency is not the end-all, be-all of the world.

To make is to think small and big at once, to enjoy learning about the particularities of material processes without convincing yourself you’re somehow outside them. In DH, this combination adds up, especially when cultural frameworks for science and technology inform the development of new things. However, it’s a combination that’s relatively novel to a lone scholar legacy of reading and writing in the humanities. That said, it’s tempting to situate digital humanities antagonistically against “print humanities,” “analog humanities,” or “traditional humanities” (whatever any of those mean). But such a gesture is misleading, reactionary, and naive at best. For one, it too easily distinguishes writing (the “old”) from making (the “new”).

The Transformation of Writing

I’m simply unwilling to accept that distinction. Even if it does seem odd to remark, “This week, I made an essay” or “I made fifteen footnotes this morning,” the real challenge is transforming writing in our current moment, articulating it not dichotomously with making but rather integral to it. Comparable to other kinds of making (e.g., sculpture, cooking, and knitting), writing—as Mia suggests—


gives people an opportunity to “do the thinking properly.” However, perhaps unlike other modes, it has been increasingly associated with distance from its object, especially in the case of academic and critical writing. “Please refrain from using the first person.” “Avoid arguments from experience.” “Remove yourself from your procedure.”

To be sure, critical distance is necessary in order to consider multiple perspectives, replicate methods, and produce abstractions (e.g., prototypes, diagrams, and maps). Yet we need immersion, too. Call it play. Or tinkering. Or hands-on learning, if you wish. It’s all serious. It’s also no more immediate, or authentic, or legitimate than its abstract counterparts. Rather, it’s one modality among many.

In the humanities and elsewhere, today we need distance + immersion not because making brings us closer to that enigmatic meaning, spectral source, or dodgy truth, always reinvented when it appears most at risk. Instead, we need distance + immersion now because our material cultures are increasingly cultures of conjecture and oscillation, constantly shifting from this to that, from the bird’s eye to the street view, from a concept to the grain. In such a moment, arguments assume curious forms, things become theories, and history is repeatedly re-animated.

Making, then, keeps us from kidding ourselves into believing we’re above it all.

I would like to thank English 507—namely Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Luke Maynard, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Caleigh Minshall, Daniel Powell, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, and Tara Thomson—at the University of Victoria for helping me think through the various issues mentioned here. Thanks, too, to Jenifer K. Ward for her feedback.

Jentery Sayers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria. More about him can be found here.

4 Responses to “Making Things in the Digital Humanities”

  1. Pavel says:

    March 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Working from a model of experiential education, I often wonder how writing can be further centralized…not merely as reflection, but as action in itself. There’s often a palpable tension between writing as something which serves other disciplines and writing as an essential act. Thanks for your point about the tension between immersion and distance; I think that helps articulate some of these issues.

  2. Zsolt Almási says:

    March 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for this illuminating paper. I just like the ideas, also the demonstration of the power of Twitter to crowdsource problems and solutions.

  3. alexj says:

    April 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Great post. For me, making “stuff”—which has until recently been making film and video and essays and books and classes, and now includes my “video-book” at MIT a glorified web-site made with the Vector’s authoring tool that anticipated and allowed for many of the requirements of Scalar—has been a simple matter of hoping to talk to the many people I am interested in interacting with, in languages and forms through which we can engage most comfortably about the issues and concerns that matter to us and the things we hope to change. I think of this “making” as translating across forms, which are the “stuff” people use to engage.