Interdisciplinary Studies as "Chiaroscuro"

Submitted by Sarah Stanley on Wed, 09/10/2014 - 20:04

N. Katherine Hayles’ discussion of hyperreading in “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” describes the new ways that digital literature allows scholars and students to read and interact with texts.¹ This was of particular interest to myself and other members of Ryan Cordell’s course “Texts, Maps, and Networks” (#f14tmn). During the first meeting, many of my peers were interested in how different types of reading impact our relationship to the textual object. As we discussed hypertext and hyper-linking, it was observed that the preponderance of linked data could lead to confusion, loss of focus, or even reduced comprehension. To paraphrase a classmate: all of those links make it hard to get to the conclusion of a piece.

This is an interesting problem to think about as I work on the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA). This year, the project is focusing on open linked data and natural language processing to deal with personal names, place names, and quoted material. The project plans to include contextual encoding, drawing from sources outside of traditional literary studies (such as DBPedia or the Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Names).

Although the issue of getting lost in a hyperlink (or contextual encoding) rabbit-hole is certainly a concern, I wonder if the meandering, non-linear nature of hypertext is precisely what makes it so appealing to the ECDA. One of the project’s stated goals is to provide users with “newly emerging discursive platforms for generating new knowledges of the Caribbean’s rich body of materials.”² In a sense, the complex networks of links and contextual information can serve to distance the reader from traditional narratives of literary scholarship by introducing them to vast networks of information from multiple disciplines. One of the things that makes me the most excited about the ECDA is its commitment to disintegrating traditional narratives and refocusing (or remixing) the archive. For this project, following paths of contextual information—especially if they are non-traditional and resist discursive or disciplinary boundaries—seems to fall in line with the stated goals of the project.

Perhaps one of the things I find the most compelling about the digital humanities is its investment in creating cross- /inter- disciplinary knowledge. As Lisa Marie Rhody puts it “we want to bridge communities within the humanities, across to social science and stem disciplines”.³ The ability of digital tools (such as the TEI) to link data or combine “meta languages” within one document seems to make this desire uniquely attainable for the digital humanities.

Although, I suppose in making that statement, I am being untrue to Rhody’s concept of the “chiaroscuro” of the digital humanities. The linking mechanisms provided by tools do not necessarily signal a <soCalled>new era for interdisciplinary studies</soCalled> As Julia Flanders astutely points out:

In charting the intellectual aspirations of the digital humanities, it is tempting to elide the difference between this sense of ongoing debate and the gains in size and speed that come from the technological domain. But the intervention made by digital technology when it truly engages with humanities disciplines is something apart from both the simple progressivism of technology and the canonical resilience of the traditional humanities.

While it is easy for me to say, “Look how this project collapses disciplinary boundaries!” it is still important to keep Rhody’s “chiaroscuro” in mind. She proposes “that the ‘dark side’ [the “oscuro”] of digital humanities is that we are still struggling with issues that we began calling attention to even earlier than 2009 [such as] effectively collaborating within and between disciplines, institutions and national boundaries.”

Although it is easy to see they ways in which the ECDA’s encoding practices collapses disciplinary boundaries, there are many ways in which it reinforces them. For example, all of our encoding practices are based on pre-existing notions of what individual concepts are. When our TEI data is eventually visualized, it will reflect very specific notions of what literary scholars (with very specific research interests) think about individual concepts. Indeed, the act of capturing the TEI data itself necessitates filtering out many theoretical and disciplinary frameworks. The practice for encoding <commodity> element, for example, is based upon very specific ideas about how commodities function and even what commodities are. An economist probably would contest our definition of “commodity.” The difference between “interpellated slave narratives” <intSN> and “embedded slave narratives” <embSN> is based upon very specific knowledge created in the sub-field of Caribbean literary studies. These definitions are not necessarily accessible to people from outside of the field of literary studies.

Perhaps including different disciplinary concerns within digital projects will not necessarily lead to seamless collaboration across fields (we may never be able to come to terms with Rhody’s “dark side” of the digital humanities). Instead, it seems as though the focus on interdisciplinary concerns in digital projects accentuates the tensions and conflicts between different discourse communities. It brings to the forefront the nature of knowledge-making itself, emphasizing the importance of language, community, and agreed-upon theories and methods. By encouraging interaction and collaboration across disciplines, the digital humanities can elucidate how fields organize the world, while exploring how they often obscure other ways of knowing.


¹ Hayles defines hyperreading as including skimming, filtering, searching, and juxtaposing texts, among other things (Hayles, 66). For the purpose of this piece, I wish to focus on the issue of following hyperlinks while doing hyperreading. ² A discussion of the project's purview can be found here.

³ Chun and Rhody, 13. It should be noted my title plays on Rhody's title for her section of the discussion.

Flanders (2009)

Rhody, 7.

Nicole Aljoe's concept of embedded slave narratives is discussed here.

Works Cited

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Lisa Marie Rhody. "Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows Between the Dark and the Light." differences 25.1 (2014). Web.

Flanders, Julia. "The Productive Unease of 21st Century Digital Scholarship." Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.3 (2009). Web.

Hayles, N. Katherine. "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine." ADE Bulletin, 150 (2010): 62-79. Web.