Miriam Posner

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Char, Alex, and A.J. gave me a lot of free reign for my talk today, so I offered to talk a little bit about what digital humanities is and how we think about it at UCLA. I’d also like to take a moment to talk about some directions that I think would be really interesting for DH to pursue in the future. And I’ll leave a lot of room for discussion.

I apologize if this is remedial for anyone — I’ve so often been the person who’s mystified that I tend to assume no knowledge and build from there.

Digital humanities catches a lot of flak for being vague about what it is. In fact, if you go to whatisdigitalhumanities.com, you’ll get a different definition every time you hit “refresh.”

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But I have my own definition that’s actually pretty simple, and it’s my definition, so it should really be canonical. I like to tell people that digital humanities is the use of digital tools to explore humanities questions.

I say “explore” and not “answer” because I think it’s obvious — or should be obvious — that there is no answer to a humanities question. That’s not the point of the humanities.

When people talk about digital humanities, they often think of big data: text-mining large bodies of literature, making big databases, stuff like that. This is definitely part of DH, but I wanted to start by emphasizing some aspects of DH that are really important but often go unrecognized.

You can think of digital humanities as a kind of dialogue between a scholar and technology.

In DH, we really value the qualities that a humanist brings to scholarship: nuance, close-reading, interpretation, contradiction, the ability to hold multiple disparate ideas at the same time. These are things that computers are actually really bad at.

The “digital” part comes in when we match these qualities up with the kinds of things that computers are good at: storing and retrieving a lot of information at the same time, conducting a lot of processes automatically, displaying things in new or unexpected ways, performing operations on primary sources.

The power of the humanities is to try to understand each other better, using every tool at our disposal, but always knowing that a definitive conclusion will only last until the next epistemological shift. I reject teleological notions of human progress, as I suspect you do, and I reject technological utopianism. I think that’s important to say right at the outset.

So if digital tools won’t get us to the essential truth about human existence, then what’s the point of using them? You may well ask!

Ultimately, I think everyone has to have their own answer, just as everyone has to be permitted to conclude that there is no point.

For me, though, these tools are interesting to the extent that they help me understand the world better, or help me see something beautiful, or help me show my students something. Simple as that.

Some examples

Eric Loyer, “Freedom’s Ring”


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When a cultural heritage organization, like a library or museum, wants to make artifacts accessible on the web, it needs a way of organizing and displaying data. But a lot of these systems make assumptions about artifacts that could be problematic when you’re investigating the cultural heritage of indigenous or tribal people.

  • An indigenous group might want to make certain artifacts available to everyone, but shield others from public scrutiny.
  • Many library and archival computer systems make it possible to gather knowledge about artifacts in a standardized way — like “author,” “date of creation,” “geographical scope.” But what if these standard fields don’t capture what a different culture considers to be an artifact’s distinguishing characteristics?
  • Intellectual property laws are very particular to nations and cultures. So it makes sense that certain cultures may have different ideas about how cultural work should and shouldn’t be allowed to travel.

Edward Curtis

I’m actually going to show you your own project, because I really like it! Collection of photographs and other artifacts related to the photographer Edward Curtis. David and Jacque, and a number of other people from here at the 5Cs, have gathered together a large body of objects and presented them in really interesting ways.

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What’s particularly noteworthy, though, is the way David has used these artifacts to build data visualizations that actually attempt to dismantle what Curtis saw as the “science of race.” David and I taught together at UCLA a couple years ago, and this is something I learned from him that’s really stuck with me — that DH’s greatest power may come from its ability to deconstruct categories as much as from its ability to build projects.

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Let me explain a little bit.

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When we teach digital humanities at UCLA, we start with the proposition that any digital humanities project — really any scholarly project — consists of sources, processed, and presented.

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What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example.




Green Book map

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Melancholy Stories

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So, using this framework, you can see how we’re able to draw parallels between digital projects and the work that any scholar does. It’s just that you’re using different tools, and perhaps working with more people, when you’re doing one of these digital projects.

I find that this approach is really useful with students, because it forces them to unpack digital projects in a very methodical way.

And when we do it right, this approach calls attention to the inherent biases and assumptions embedded in every level of scholarly analysis.

You have to divide material up into categories in order to make it into data, so a digital humanities classroom is a great place to talk about the categories that structure our lives — things like race and gender.


Grid Garden

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  • how people define their races vs. how the Census defines race.

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Most students haven’t had occasion to think about the way we divide the world up into data, but it’s organizing their lives in profound ways at this historical moment, and I believe that it’s important for them to be aware of the implications of this.

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The same goes for things like mapping. What does it mean that we’re all stuck with Google Maps, given that it imposes a set of Cartesian coordinates derived from a history of Western imperialism?

Again, students haven’t really had a space to think about this, and digital humanities, at its best, gives them a chance to consider other possibilities.




The same goes for the interface. The interface has its own politics — things that it suggests that you do and suggests that you not do. Because most of our students — and most of us — haven’t built an interface before, they (and we) haven’t had to think about the choices an interface-designer makes when she makes certain options available and certain options unavailable.

That’s why it can be really powerful for us to build our own interfaces to our work. Or to show students interfaces like those we see in Vectors, the important multimedia journal at USC.

These tend to make students really mad, but in frustrating their expectations about what an interface should do, they open up new possibilities for how interfaces might look, if they’re built to prioritize different values than efficiency and profit.

Digital humanities doesn’t always do this, but one of the reason I’ve liked doing DH here in Los Angeles is that I’ve come to believe that there’s a particular kind of California-inflected digital humanities, as embodied by some of the people here today, like David Kim, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alan Liu, Alex Juhasz, Liz Losh, Wendy Hsu, and over at USC, people like Tara McPherson, Anne Balsamo, Craig Dietrich, and Eric Loyer.

I really believe that we do a different kind of digital humanities here, one that’s a little weirder than mainstream DH, more deeply engaged with critical theory and questions of social justice. I even suspect that it has something to do with L.A. itself — with the way you can’t help but come in contact with people from everywhere. That’s the kind of digital humanities I’m interested in — the kind that dismantles received ideas as much as it builds new ones.

We’re the home of the Korean taco and the bacon-wrapped matzo-ball, so why wouldn’t we question received categories?

So on behalf of everyone at DHSoCal, welcome to the community! We couldn’t be happier to have you, or more excited to see where you’ll take digital humanities next.

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