My gramophone. My Film. My typewriter.


The way that I compose has become disjointed, disoriented, dysphonic. I used to write long-hand, and I had a gigantic bump on my right middle finger to prove it. My nail there did not grow out the same way as my other nails. This of course, was a reason to chew it off. I wrote so much that I had a permanent cramp in my hand, and now I have a little arthritis in my thumb.

Every essay, every tutorial paper, every seminar paper, every long preceptorial essay was first handwritten on yellow legal pads. It was revised, annotated, rearranged, and then finally typed. My first typewriter was a Brother typewriter that had a teeny tiny screen that held about three pages worth of elite pitch words. If my essay was longer than three pages, it got whacked out three pages at a time. The finality of typing is different from the temporary print button. If I changed a word that was long enough, it would change the layout of the entire page, which would change the layout of the next page, and soon a complete revision was in order. The pages that I saved were saved only in hard copy. There was not enough memory on the Brother to save a paper, let alone a semester’s worth of work. My words were physical, not ephemeral electronic impulses. I could not backspace over them, eradicate my error, correct it, and move on. I had to use an eraser strip, back up over the erroneous word, type over it, whiting it out, and whack out the new word. I found that the organization of my papers was meticulous, diligent, beautiful; I felt myself crafting something, not producing something.

Now, when I write electronically, I find that the quality of my writing is not nearly as exacting as my handwriting. It is easier, however, to manipulate my voice, my tone, my personality. My persona. The person that I am on twitter in 140 characters is not the person that I am on facebook, is not the person that I am in emails, is not the person that I am in person. The distance that we have from each other is vast, here in the world of the gramophone, the film, and the typewriter. What had been a point of direct contact is now a distance away.

The distance between ourselves and the electronic self is immediate and mediate. The face is there, the person is there, the place is there, on the screen in a second’s second. The photograph is not. It is mediated by ones and zeros, by distant servers interconnected and linked with miles of fiber optic cable, wireless data waves, satellite signals. The Library of Congress puts the American Memory Project at our disposal, and we can go back to Truchas, NM, back to Trampas, back to Silver City. Somewhere, an FSA photographer made those photos, and now here they are, for everyone to see, and then forget. Maybe they’ll be part of a MOOC someday.

But they aren’t Aunt Joyce as a baby sitting on Granma’s handlebars in front of the CCC camp in Silver City. They aren’t photographs of that day in Taos with the sun filtering through the trees on the the lift. They aren’t a bobcat named baby Baby sitting on Granny Hall’s lap. They can’t be handed back and handed down and shoved in a drawer. As the family archivist, my job is to catalog the memories of the family, to organize the photographs in albums and conserve the negatives. I order reprints from Camera and Darkroom, and ask for prints, not digital copies when a cousin requests them. I don’t send out DVDs.

Where are our voices, images, and music going to go without us to conserve them? Who will get a copy of my iTunes catalog? Who will download all of the photos in my computer, that I neglected to save anywhere else? Somehow, we have fooled ourselves into believing this totality of digitization is totality, and it isn’t. Its impermanence is its totality.

Such Great Heights


Hello, Kittler?

I was wondering what you would make of this cathartic experience? There we were, all singing along, to electronic music, capturing the moment on our smart phones, and uploading our images, our voices, our collective experience, on those optic cables that are the internet.

Come on down, now, Kittler!

Poiesis and Techne


There is a desire to make sense of the whatness of technology. What are we doing with it in the humanities? What should we be doing with technology in the humanities? Is what we are doing with technology dangerous? If it is dangerous, should we proceed with caution, or throw our caution to the wind and proceed with reckless abandon and do statistical analysis, generate word lists and concordances, digitally image and represent, shut up in silos, and certify authorship without let or hindrance? What are we doing and why?

It is interesting to turn to Martin Heidegger with regard to the nature of the essence of technology. Despite the fact that reading Heidegger can make anyone feel like a first rate moron, persistence will pay off. After all, you can feel like a super-mega-hella-nerd when you are able to throw around seemingly incomprehensible phrases like, “Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.” What? Just. . .What?

Let’s get down to this. Heidegger presented a few lectures on the nature of technology. Writing after the destruction of the firebombing of Dresden, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the attempted cultural annihilation of Jews (and gypsies, and homosexuals, and communists, and labor union organizers, and political dissidents, and religious people of all stripes who opposed the Third Reich’s state-based religion of Nazism), Heidegger had a reason to question the essence of technology. An unapologetic Nazi sympathizer, though he did say that it was the “die größte Dummheit seines Lebens” (the biggest stupidity of his life), Heidegger saw technology put to violent uses–chemical pesticides and atomic energy used to kill humans. He also saw developments that would be more peaceable–radar, originally developed by the RAF to detect the Luftwaffe, used to track weather, and Alan Turing’s “bombe”, the machine at Bletchly Park that cracked the Enigma Code, eventually made into computers, such as the one that you’re reading this blog on. Heidegger’s entire philosophy rests on his annoyance that people don’t question enough. They don’t look into the quidditas of the world and of their perceptions. They’re hampered by philosophy. What is the essence of technology?

The essence of technology, Heidegger asserts, is to allow people to order nature, for people to uncover the already unhidden. After all, nuclear fission and fusion happen, they happen without human beings making them happen. Human beings can start a nuclear chain reaction, something that happens, thanks to physics, without human beings. All physicists have to do is put the correct things in order, order their experiments, and then, bam! The Gadget. The problem is, that human beings shouldn’t be the “standing-reserve” of technology. We shouldn’t be used by technology. Technology shouldn’t be an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. We should be able to make something of this revelation.

We need to question our techē, these activities and skills of craftsmen, to bring that technē into poiēsis. Certainly, this is difficult if we are talking about atom-splitting, but the research library at Los Alamos National Labs seems to point at this a way to approach this difficulty. Using the supercomputers available through LANL and Stanford University, researchers are able to write programs or use programs written by others, to reveal what is already present in texts that have been digitized. Research libraries like LANL’s give a place for researchers to develop programs and write code to untangle the unhidden. The problem then becomes, what do we do after we have ordered this text. Are we going to order it, as the technology allows us to do, and say that’s the end of our technē? or are we going to do something new with it?

What is already present is the text, the author, the sentiments, the plot, the words, the affect, the themes, the book, the print, the paper. What needs to be revealed is what the human being must reveal, but, as Heidegger observed, it’s unconcealed, it just needs to be detected. Here’s a good example. Karina van Dalen-Oksam presented a paper at the 2013 Digital Humanities conference about the epistolary novels of Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Denken. She wanted to know if one author wrote some of the letters and adopted a voice for those characters, and if the other author wrote the other characters’ letters and created their voices. Basically, her research looked into authorial attribution and the formation of character voices. Using a stylometric R-script program developed by Eder and Rybicki, she inquired into technē and poiēsis. What she found out was not what she was expecting. She expected to find that one author wrote a set of characters and that the other author composed the other set of character’s letters, and voila! Instead she found that Wolff and Denken shared the labor of crafting letters for a number of different characters, except for one. And that character was Abraham Blankaart, whose letters have a distinctive style and voice, pointing to authorship by either Wolff or Denken, but not both.

Certainly, Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Denken know who wrote which letters, but they’re long since dead, and what is unconcealed, their authorship, is hidden only because they took their secrets to the grave with them. Technology has allowed Van Dalen-Oksam to reveal the poiēsis of the novel, and she orders it, but she also reveals something in that ordering, and creates scholarship out of the ordering.

Technē indeed.


From van Dalen-Oksam, Karina. “Epistolary voices: The case of Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken.” Digital Humanities 2013.

We took analytics. . .

. . . Polite literature is in the last analysis emotions; and all its charms and message must be spiritually discerned.

The first requisite, therefore, in teaching literature, would seem to be some certain means of reaching and engaging the sensibilities more directly. So far as their exercise is called for in teaching science the method in general use assures it. By it each student acquires not only systematic knowledge concerning the aspects and nature of the phenomena considered,—which is of the understanding, but also experimental knowledge of each quality and process,—which is of the feelings and becomes part of himself.

(Sherman, viii)

Willa Cather wrote a scathing account of her University of Nebraska-Lincoln literature professor Lucius Sherman, who wanted to reduce literature to its irreducible: the word. Sherman wrote a text in 1893 called The Analytics of Literature, where he advocated a mathematical and statistical approach to the study of literature. Such a scientific process, where a student would break the text into its component parts, would be guided by a teacher in a laboratory setting, where the elemental sources of the poem, the words, would be the materials of experimentation. Such a study could only lead the student to understand the sublime emotions that literature inspires. Sherman proposed a few experiments, including analysis of word count and frequency to devise statistical curves to show “force” and “tone quality.”

When I read his preface, I was acutely reminded of a scene in The Princess Bride, where Count Rugen tortures the Dread Pirate Robert in the Pit of Despair. As Westley’s life is sucked away by the count’s Machine, he is directed to “be totally honest on how the Machine makes you feel. . .Remember this is for posterity, so, be honest.” Cather must have felt that her poetic life was sucked out of her by force curves and frequency lists. I wonder what Professor Sherman would do if he could use a concordance program like TXM or build his own program in R. Texts by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Browning are left, like the Dread Pirate Robert, “mostly dead,” their elemental life sucked out of them.

When Leibniz took a crack at trying to devise a symbolic language for mathematics so that he could one day create a perfect computing device, I wonder if he wanted to reduce all concepts to a symbolic logic, or to a Boolean if/then or true/false construct of concepts. Already, language and literature are in themselves symbolic, pointing to a truth outside of the word or sentence or phrase or line of poetry itself.

If one could peacefully cohabitate with Leibniz, Boole, Gödel, Cather, and Sherman, it’s not going to a battle to the death, but to the pain, and the pain is going to come from building the code that will allow the frequency lists and concordances to reveal something about the beauty or sentiment or sensation of the text. The trick, then, to becoming a “computing humanist” is to embrace both the mathematics of language and poetry and the language of discrete and symbolic mathematics.

I remember crying helplessly as a second grader trying to understand how to borrow when subtracting, and I suspect that all of my math anxiety comes from that moment. I understood that the 1 needed to be borrowed, but every explanation for the construct that allowed for that was dissatisfying and mystifying. What part of number theory did I not understand as an eight year-old? As soon as I got into more conceptual mathematics in trigonometry and calculus, I was much much happier, and started to enjoy the symbolic language of math. Perhaps Cather, francophile that she was, would enjoy the symbolic language of R, the computer language that would allow her to strip a text down to its parts in a few minutes of processing, so that the grunt work of finding “the least common multiple of Hamlet and the greatest common divisor of Macbeth,” could be done by a computer, counting it all out at last, so that the untangling of the “yarn” would be easier and easier.

The essence, though, of the story is still there for the analyst to pick through. Without a sense of the symbolic, the tune of the meaningful, the taste of the poetic, or the perfume of the aesthetic, the results of such calculations and computations are meaningless, and the analyst must set to work. The program cannot interpret, it can only offer up what the programmer asks for. As the women at Bletchly Park had to, so we must, as computing humanists, search for meaning in the data.

Willa_Sibert_Cather_University_of_Nebraska_sophomore_ca_1893 copy
(Willa Cather Archive)

Forcing the Question


Willard McCarty, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the humanities computing world, pushed at some real questions and problems about what it is that digital humanists do, and asserted that there is a profound mismatch between the algorithms created by coders and programmers and the data “normal” to the humanities–normal data like books, characters, historical events and personages, plots and themes, eras and epochs, documents and relia. Words. Where do these algorithms come from? From a symbolic language? From symbolic mathematics? Where are the data points stored? How do we liberate them from the digital silos where they are hoarded? What is the reality of the data, and what realities do the data point back to? What are some major ontological and ethical issues raised by DH?

Here is a start:

Located in northern New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a multi-mission national security science Laboratory, responsible for monitoring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, defense against all things nuclear, energy security, and scientific discovery. It is the senior DOE National Laboratory and the most productive scientifically. Its Research Library (SRO-RL) is a leading DOE digital library, providing state-of-the-art information technology tools to our research community and developing innovative web technologies to further information availability, accessibility, and digital preservation. We are seeking an individual with the vision, leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills to direct and inspire its world-renowned Research Library team.
(Job posting is from the Digital Library Federation (DLF-Announce) email list)

I am from New Mexico. Los Alamos National Labs is the site of the Manhattan Project, and it was at Alamogordo’s Trinity Site that they blowed it up good. What does weapons research have to do with “information availability, accessibility, and digital preservation?”

New Mexico’s national labs face significant questions about funding for the coming year, newly appointed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters during a visit to Sandia National Laboratories on Tuesday.
“We’re all suffering under a lot of uncertainty on the budgets,” Moniz said at the end of a day of visits to Sandia and Los Alamos labs.
Among the biggest unsettled questions are a proposed budget increase for the labs’ work refurbishing the nation’s B61 nuclear bombs and funding for upgrading the buildings at Los Alamos used to do the research and manufacturing work with plutonium, a radioactive metal used in nuclear bombs.

(Albuquerque Journal, 4 September 2013).

When McCarty observed about the digital humanities that “the moral seems clear enough: that computing belongs in the humanities because it accords with their final project. . . not to solve problems, but to make them worse” (1224), it seems that this sticky wicket is exactly the sort of thing that is making it worse:  that digital humanities is a philosophical and ethical pursuit that begs the same questions as any other ethical pursuit. While the traditional humanities approach seems to be one of book, notebook, pencil (or maybe book, laptop, keyboard), the digital humanities require more. The laptop uploads programs and coding to a server, that runs the code, applies data sets, and generates results. Some of the supercomputers that allow for these computations are housed in research laboratories like LANL that receive funding for the manufacture and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that could soon send us to the post-technological, post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear world of the monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Let’s trouble our own digital humanities water: the ethical problems are ones raised by our participation in a system that has its origins in DARPA, the Department of Defense, and weapons funding. The ontological questions that come into existence then are these: if the resources to do our work come from less than peaceable places, is the scholarship that we generate disrupting the reality of the weapons research labs? What is the nature of our scholarship’s existence, if its beginnings and continued existence owe less to the money generated by NCAA sports, and more to plutonium pits?

Digital humanities and humanities computing are more than coding, more than interesting plot and affectation charts, more than bar and line graphs, more than codices and concordances, more than GIS and more than imaging, more than online libraries with dirty OCR and inexpertly applied TEI. Digital humanities demand a theoretical approach and a metatheory to allow us to make our problems worse and more complex, not solve them.