Week 1: Question 6 - Intervening Across Disciplines
  • Q6: Liu proposes that DH needs to intervene across disciplines to better address its technological and intellectual infrastructure. What might such an intervention look like? Where has work like this begun already and where is there room for more?
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  • My favorite sentence, which I think sums up the entire piece, is "To my digital humanities colleagues in this room, let me say that, while we have the tools and the data, we will not even be in the same league as Moretti, Casanova, and others unless we can move seamlessly between text analysis and cultural analysis.

    I'd also like to address Adeline's last question. We just submitted a roundtable to the Rhetoric Society of America conference that will discuss how large-scale digital tools, like the ones Alan Liu has mentioned, have been used across disciplines, including humanities and social sciences.  

    One question: What is the relationship of close/distant readings to small/big data? Big data is all the rage right now (again, Alan Liu mentions Ngram as an example), and I wonder if, due to size, the only readings possible for big data are distant ones? What demarcates close/distant? Does a word frequency cloud count as a close or distant reading, and does it matter if such a word frequency cloud is of one text (possibly small data) or several texts (possibly big data)? 

    Another question: Does "cultural analysis" manifest as theory, as interpretation, or both? 
  • Interesting questions Jenny. My impression is that distant reading refers to the machine reading of a much larger corpora of texts than can generally be read by one person. Whether a word cloud of a small text--say, a short story, makes up 'distant' reading is an interesting question; one which I'm not quite sure how others will answer. 

    Re: "cultural analysis"--I think both theory and interpretation. A number of prominent DHers--see Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie)'s "Resistance in the Materials"--also argue that theory is already built into the tools; a hugely important point which Bethany's recently-funded NEH seminar "Are We Speaking in Code?" (Voicing the Craft & Tacit Understandings of Digital Humanities Software Development) will make clear.  
  • "One question: What is the relationship of close/distant readings to small/big data? Big data is all the rage right now (again, Alan Liu mentions Ngram as an example), and I wonder if, due to size, the only readings possible for big data are distant ones? What demarcates close/distant? Does a word frequency cloud count as a close or distant reading, and does it matter if such a word frequency cloud is of one text (possibly small data) or several texts (possibly big data)?"

    I can only speak from my own experiences doing digital analysis of some fairly big data, and that is the two are iteratively related.  Distant reading gets some answers, but I've yet to produce anything without zooming in for some close reading.  To me close reading = key words in context, i.e. I "click" on some result, a word in a visualization, or in my case, a word in a list, and I get the actual texts where that word appears.    the raw #s of word frequency are the "distant" part for me, the "close" when I look where and how those words are used.

    In corpus analytics digital loops close reading, over and over and over again!   

  • "Interesting questions Jenny. My impression is that distant reading refers to the machine reading of a much larger corpora of texts than can generally be read by one person. Whether a word cloud of a small text--say, a short story, makes up 'distant' reading is an interesting question; one which I'm not quite sure how others will answer." 


    Hi all! Really interesting discussion so far. My opinion on the close/distant debate tends to hinge on a methodological point, rather than a hard rule about the size of the "data set" involved. If one is analyzing a textual object, whether a single text or a corpus of several thousand texts, from a distance, i.e. from a perspective that is privileging a critical metric beyond the actual meaning of the words on the page (be that frequency, connectivity, statistical significance, etc.) then one is performing a distant reading. I also think, though, that distant reading and close reading tend to exist as a happy pair. Moretti, for example, continually and very consciously oscillates between distant and close reading in iterative feedback loops. Stephen Ramsay has argued for the same kind of continuous movement back and forth between the algorithmic, machine-reading perspective and the human-centered, close reading perspective. I don't think one needs an enormous corpus of texts to perform a distant reading. Once again, Moretti himself famously performs a distant/network-based reading of Hamlet in "Network Theory, Plot Analysis." It's a distant reading because he's explicitly focused on the relationships/connectivity of the characters in the play, their interactions with one another, and the overall "shape" that the play takes on, rather than the language.

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    In relation to the larger question of what a trans-disciplinary intervention might look like in the digital humanities, I think that at a certain point DH scholars will need to begin asking more critically self-reflexive questions about: the tools they choose to build (and why many feel the compulsion to build tools at all), the methods they choose to use and adopt from other fields and disciplines (and the embedded histories/ideologies contained within those tools, their original purpose/design context/function, etc), the emphasis on collaboration/process/innovation within the field, and how that emphasis might impact or be at odds with or blind to "traditional" aspects of their respective fields.   
  • A major funding (4 million euros) was granted to the Nederlab project [http://www.nederlab.nl/] recently. In the first months of 2013 the project was launched and since then, software engineers and data curators have been working to get a beta version of the intended research platform ready to launch in the last months of 2013. The project intends to bring together all digitized Dutch texts from the year 800 up till today, to provide a online, open access research tool to look through all of those texts together. The project is envisioned by linguists, but it is safe to say that the platform will be of relevance to anyone researching trends and patterns in Dutch language, literature and culture.

    This does raise the question however which texts have been digitized (yet). With a focus on canonized literature, I doubt either distant or close reading will yield interesting results. I am currently trying to get my own project funded, in which I want to combine the data that Nederlab is working with, with information on the dissemination of texts, to gain insight on the actual spread of reading matter (in the 19th century). Instead of focussing on the production of texts, I think the dissemination and consumption of texts provide different and relevant information on historical, societal interests and trends. Also: because of the extra 'layer' that Nederlab provides, I fear the 'distance' between researchers and their actual sources - the texts - will increase. Distant reading could results in a strong focus on a corpus of texts, while the writers, publishers, printers, booksellers and readers and their cultural, societal and personal contexts fade to the background.
  • There's also the question of language. I did a completely non-scientific survey of the Global DH listserv to see who was doing any work with "minor" languages within their national context (like Catalan in Spain or Gaelic in Ireland or Indigenous languages in the Americas). And there weren't many. This, of courses, raises questions of "access" broadly, but also (again) about what is available to read from a distance. 

    Then again, I heard a compelling conference presentation on the impossibility (and undesirability) of digitizing certain Indigenous texts. But again, there is always a danger in our current moment's techno-Utopianism that if it isn't digitized, then it doesn't exist and thus not worth "reading", further emphasizing the current division between the "literary" and the "oral". 
  • Since this section is the apt location for it, I want to talk about the confluence of sci&tech studies and DH. I am glad Alan Liu's article point to that as I felt that this has been under-examined so far. But firstly, we need to know who are the communities of disciplines that form DH, and by large, and I notice that they tend to be people from literature-type department or in library/information sciece, with the occasional historian and geographer. We have only a very tiny group of philosophers who are interested in how the digital is involved in their work, and from what I have heard, it seemed mostly limited to open access publishing and agregating their work online.

     Folks in STS are pretty varied, and the disciplinary interests and training of the people shape the way in which they approach STS type subjects.  Philosophers of science, philosophers of technology, historians in the philosophy of science, historians of science, historians of technology, sociologists of science, sociologist of technology, people in literary studies with some interest in STS or science studies type inquiry, and the list goes on, have different investments and involvement in the field.

    It is intereting that Liu mentioned the names of sociologists/historians of science and epistemology that are most known to literary-type folks (because of the nature and the form of inquiry these scholars are engaged in), but there are many others that would be known more to some disciplines over others. The thing is, given how fragmented and heterogenous the field is, and how limited the reach of DH still is even across the humanities board, how do we encourage more intervention of not necessarily the instrumentalist kind between DH and STS? How do we tell all these other groups of people who are in STS but not at all involved, or visible in DH, that DH has a lot to offer for their field?

    Also, those involved in technology studies of any sort would probably take issue with even the way 'Digital' is latched on to the 'Humanities' because, for them, it speaks of a misunderstanding of technology (and an overly binary way of thinking that reduces the meaning of the analog with the digital, continuous with the discrete) and how it works across different cultues. Iight of that, a more open involvement might be problematic.
  • Also, as an addendum, how can DH help encourage work done in underexplored areas of STS particularly involving non-Western civilizations that is neither India, China, nor what used to be part of the Ottoman Empire? Can the excavation of texts in these area be then organized and made more acessible? Also, in light of the discussion on languges, I think it is a great way to bringing in collaborations across disciplines from those whose work may not necessarily be in STS but can contribute to broadening the field through their various expertise ie textual interpretation of old texts, archaelogy, etc
  • I just wanted to comment on the resources for "minority languages".  I don't actually know much about the Digital Humanities, although I am a software engineer but I, also, do research in early Medieval Ireland so I will speak from that point of view.  In any case, there is a new NLP project starting up for Scots Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh at Celtic and Scottish Studies.  This should also work for Irish as they are cousin languages and have similar features (but note that Irish keeps nasalization that Scots Gaelic doesn't).  Also, for early Irish there is the CELT project which covers a good amount of early Irish texts in TEI format.  I have used it in my own research into anonymous authors in the Book of Leinster.  There is also eDIL which is the dictionary for Old and Middle Irish.  Anyway, if you would like more info, please feel free to contact me.

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