Sunday, June 28, 2015

The New Digital Humanities w/ Angie Bennett Segler

"As long as data is confined to a particular space–be it a book, laptop or even cloud service–it is accessible only through the entry points that medium makes available"

Digital Piers Plowman

In honor of reaching 100,000 readers
I am hosting a digital humanities forum
showcasing the work of other fantastic young DH scholars
who inform and inspire me with their innovative projects.


I never really thought of myself as a “digital humanist” until very late in the game. DH had pitched itself in some very particular ways—Big Data, text mining, distant reading—or at least, one particular variety of DH was dominating the landscape. Instead, I saw my own work as being that of a very traditional skill set used to ask some non-traditional questions. That is, I thought of myself as a codicologist [], and I returned to a study of manuscripts rather than “texts.” As I did so, I began to think of them—the manuscripts—as being intrinsic to the “work” of literature itself.

That is, the work—the labor—that went into producing the text in all its myriad forms and copies was just as much the work of literature as the text itself was. Prior to the advent of the printing press, which changed both the nature of the “Work of Literature” and the nature of literary labor, works were unstable, changing with each new instantiation of them in written form. Literary “things” (Latin rēs) were a kind of public property. They gained authority through communal use, re-use, absorption, and recapitulation.[i] Which is why it doesn’t make much sense to think of a medieval “author” (an ill-fitting designation in itself) as ever “plagiarizing,” since quoting from an existing source, even manipulating it and recasting it in one’s own work, would have just served to authorize the source itself, to turn it into an auctor.[ii] 

Indeed, when we think of “copies” of a medieval work, we may be altogether using an inaccurate idea, an idea that comes from print technology. It is only in print that we have an authoritative “original” that is then copied—or mass-produced in identical copies. In print, the closer a copy is to that original, the better the “copy.” The question then becomes one of locating and verifying what makes an original (the author? the printer? first version? last version? etc.). In medieval textual production, however, authorization works the other way around: it is diffuse, it accrues in the process of re-use and adaptation. 


In these terms, then, limiting our idea of a medieval “work” of literature only to what we conjecture was the author’s text (or texts) is a very anachronistic imposition of our idea of the “ideal” work of literature onto a set of other works of literature—the copies and recompositions of a text—that were unrecognizable in our print paradigm. All the labor that went into instantiating the work of medieval literature—all the scribes, all the quills and quill-making, the ink, the mixing, the collecting of oak galls, the parchment, the animals, the skin preparation, the lye, the soaking, the scraping, the binding, the sewing, the twine-making, the needle making, the wood, the trees, the chopping, etc.—is effectively erased by our removal of a “text” from its material “context”—or with-text.

In this case, context, comes to mean everything else that is with the text. In manuscripts this can mean other texts copied into the same codex, or it can mean the material with which the text is made, or it can mean the substrates from which the codex materials are made, or it can mean the ecologies and economies out of which all these materials emerge.

And this is where the digital comes in: if the Author-based paradigm neither helps me to establish what the real work of literature is, nor helps me to investigate its medieval con-text, what does?

For me, it is the manuscripts. Not just one manuscript, or a “best” manuscript, but all of them, with all of their contents and con-texts.


However, in order to take each separate “copy” of the text seriously as equally participating in the work of literature, I would need some new tools that would allow me to not reduce all the copies of a given text to one “ideal” ur-text, but to hold all these different instantiations of a text (and the material-textual con-texts they bring with them) in suspension for consideration at once. That is, I would need graphs, quantitative assistance, and computational intervention to try to make sense of what was now a much bigger object of inquiry.

And that has been the power of DH in my work—to totally and completely redefine my object of inquiry, to expand the boundaries of what I (and maybe you) consider to “count” as the work of literature.

In many ways, this work is only possible because the current revolution in textual media is pushing us far enough outside the print paradigm, or even the print ideology [] if you will, that we can begin to see the assumptions inherent in the ideology of print itself. That is, we can now better understand a pre-print paradigm only or primarily because we are beginning to be “post”-print* (or post print monoculture).

Thus, digital interventions in literary objects become possible—thinkable—only as they become desirable (which is, of course, only after the tool to see them in this way is available, or at least potentially available). If we use the terminology of physics-based agential realist Karen Barad to describe the relationship between knowledge and knowledge making, the apparatuses that we have available to take a measurement (or, say, make an interpretation) determine the kinds of measurements(/interpretations) we can make.[iii] Indeed, the apparatus even determines the kinds of “objects” we can “make” by knowing them. That is, the “object” itself doesn’t pre-exist the “measurements” we take of it (as Barad says it, “relata do not precede relations”), but comes into being as an object as it comes into legibility—by means of whatever apparatus we use to apprehend it.

In the case of medieval literature, having only a “print apparatus” to apprehend the work of medieval literature necessarily precludes our seeing many of the features and functions of the pre-print medium and literary milieu. While nothing will enable a “recovery” of what codex-culture “really” meant or how it “really” operated, digital tools and other technologies are different apparatuses that afford us the opportunity to not only take different measurements of our “object,” but to even re-make or re-define the object itself, in essence to make a new “literature” and a new “literary inquiry.”


Angela Bennett Segler is a medievalist and digital humanist, and Assistant Professor of English and Digital Humanities at the University of Nevada Reno. She works primarily on the queer materiality of medieval manuscripts, using digital and scientific apparatuses to apprehend their asynchronous ecology. She is the author of the blog A Material Piers Living in a Digital World, guest editor of a postmedieval special issue on “Quantum Medievalisms,” and has essays forthcoming on Queer Manuscript Studies, also for postmedieval, and on EcoDH for PMLA 2016.

[i] This is not unlike the mechanism of communal authorization of Wikipedia and other online Wikis.
[ii] All of this is a distillation of many works on medieval authorship, which is not uniform throughout the many times and places of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, most of “literary culture” shared these attributes for most of the Middle Ages. For reading on this form in particular, see Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory and The Craft of Thought.
[iii] See Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.


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