The Theory/Praxis Feedback Loop

Submitted by Sarah Stanley on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 20:13

My first experience bumping up against the complexities of space/place happened (unsurprisingly) while I was working on a DH project. Over the summer, my colleagues at the Early Caribbean Digital Archive were trying to figure out how to handle contextual encoding (e.g. personographies and placeographies) for our texts. The Text Encoding Initiative had so many possible ways of recording information about people, places, organizations, etc., and we wanted to use those to their fullest extent.

We decided definitively that we wanted to be able to create extensive records of <place> that took into account the ever-shifting geopolitics and contentious colonial histories of the Caribbean. We began recording places in a shared google doc, with columns representing current TEI elements and elements we wanted to add to the ECDA’s schema. We decided we would record references to places during specific times, rather than referring to them as static entities. We kept extensive records of alternate names, primary languages, scales, sovereign nations—any information that would highlight our understanding of place as shifting, mutable, liminal, and unstable.

We gave up on the project after a few weeks, having accrued nearly 200 distinct places (some of which, by some standards, would be considered “repeats”). We stopped not because we decided that our project should think about place as being more stable and concrete, but because our project needed to. As we came up with the idea for our Google doc, I remember feeling the palpable excitement in the room: Our project is going to represent place in a way that no one has before. But after only a few days, the project team seemed exhausted—annoyed, even. We couldn’t represent our theories of place well in a spreadsheet, or even the extensible, customizable TEI <place> element.

At heart, I think the ECDA is still invested in its original conception of place, even though we struggled in our initial attempts to adequately capture it. In her essay on digital humanities scholarship, Johanna Drucker states that “[h]umanistic methods are necessarily probabilistic rather than deterministic, performative rather than declarative.”¹ Perhaps this is why our original attempts at creating placeography were so unsuccessful. While our theory of place was complicated, our attempts to represent it (in a google doc, with a set number of columns for data, mind you) forced a more deterministic and declarative idea of data. We had to come up with fixed delimiters (both geographic and temporal), events, boundaries, and hierarchies.

All of this is to say, our attempts at representing our ideas literally revealed an underlying assumption that beneath all of this theorization of place is still somehow a true, and concrete reality. The tools that were available to us (i.e. google spreadsheets, the TEI ) certainly influenced our decision to represent the data as concrete and static. However, I think our compulsion to come up with a fixed set of data fields like sovereignty, language, region, &c. reveals a fundamental issue with thinking of theorization as safe from asserting uncomplicated world-views.

Perhaps the best way of illustrating this is with the oft-used term in humanities scholarship: “turn.” While Jo Guldi defines it as “propos[ing] a backwards glance at the reasons why travelers from so many disciplines came here,” it seems as though “turns” in scholarship and criticism can be seen as a redirecting or a shift in focus.² The self-aware and self-defining nature of theoretical “turns” has the potential to send scholarship off at 90-degree angles, while ignoring more nuanced interpretations and understandings.

This is where I think the digital and the humanities have the potential to interact the most fruitfully. By inflecting our tools with “humanistically informed theory of the making of technology,” we can do research in more nuanced ways (e.g. Neatline vs. GIS).³ But forcing a relationship between humanistic theory and various digital tools can highlight the underlying ways in which our research sometimes superimposes structure and singularity onto multivalent concepts and objects. The tension created by digital methods and humanistic theory has the potential to reveal not only the ways in which our tools are overly simplistic, but also the ways in which our theories tacitly accept this oversimplification. We need to promote tools that force this sort of productive tension between theorization and building.

Notes

¹ Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”

² Guldi, “What is the Spatial Turn?”

³ Drucker, “Humanisitic Theory and Digital Scholarship”

Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Web.

Guldi, Jo. “What is the Spatial Turn?” The Spatial Humanities: A Project for the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship. Web.