digital humanities

ancestral data: practicing the digital humanities #dhdebates

In Debates in the Digital Humanities, Michael Witmore discusses the idea of "ancestral text" (which is a republication of this blog post). Witmore is essentially meditating on the impact of speculative realism for big data digital humanities projects. He writes

Our quantitative work with texts adds an unexpected twist to these debates: as objects of massive and variable address, we grasp things about texts in precisely the ways usually reserved for non-linguistic entities. When taken as objects of quantitative description, texts possess qualities that–at some point in the future–could be said to have existed in the present, regardless of our knowledge of them. There is thus a temporal asymmetry surrounding quantitative statements about texts: if one accepts the initial choices about what gets counted, such statements can be “true” now even if they can only be produced and recognized later. 

Witmore acknowledges that scholars make choices about what to count in these big data projects "offers a caricature of the corpus and the modes of access this corpus allows. A caricature is essentially a narrowing of address: it allows us to make contact with an object in some of the ways Graham Harman has described in his work on vicarious causation." That's an important acknowledgement, and yet one might say similar things about scientific practices. All measurements and analysis are limited in this regard, and thus the claims made as a result must be similarly limited. 

Thus perhaps we are left with pondering what Meillassoux's claim that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" means for digital humanities. At some point, would one want to claim that digital humanities scholarship produces knowledge that is ontologically different from that offered by conventional criticism, in that, like the ancestral scientific knowledge Meillassoux describes, it describes conditions outside correlation? I'm not sure what the answer is to that question. Neither is Witmore. However, I think it might turn the complaint about the lack of theory in digital humanities on its head.

At the same time, such questions need to be investigated carefully. It is all to clear that the various populist detractors of the digital humanities offer warnings that DH will offer itself as a quasi-science and start making scientific truth claims based on data. I don't think that's likely to happen. However, it is still a misunderstanding of the problem, at least as I see it. Here, again from a Latourian perspective, the problem comes from how we understand the sciences. Instead, briefly, if we think of scientists as constructing knowledge through use of methods, tools, etc., then we can see the digital humanities in the same way. It's not that dh is true but rather that it is constructed in a different way from conventional humanities. It begins with a recognition that texts are real objects in the world and seeks to describe them on those terms. Speculative realism does offer a way to think through that process of description in philosophical terms. 

Whether or not Meillassoux's particularly mathematical approach to ontology will gel with digital humanities particularly mathematical approach to studying objects, I'm not sure. But I'll be interested to see where it goes.


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