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Response to Week 8 reading

In the article “What’s in a Name?,” Kenneth M. Price is primarily concerned with the labels we choose to describe our work. It seems to me that this tension is inextricably associated with apprehensions about the current state of the humanities and liberal arts in general. Essentially, I mean that there is a growing concern with legitimizing, justifying, or otherwise defining the importance of the humanities in general that seems to be informing this article. For example, Price states:

For many people, electronic work is even more dubious [than traditional editorial work]: what relatively short history it has is marked by distrust, denigration, and dismissal. We all know the charges, however distorted they may be: digital work is ephemeral, unvetted, chaotic, and unreliable. When suspicion of the value of editing combines with suspicion of the new medium, we have a hazardous mix brewing.

This clearly articulates a concern with how much authority or respect digital editing might be given; a concern that is largely based upon how “others” might perceive the value of the work, in this case based upon how we choose to title the genre. Price frets, “In the fraught circumstances of the academy, driven by a prestige economy, humanities scholars are well advised to be highly self-conscious about what we do and how we describe it.” This fear is driven by a sense of legitimacy, place, and belonging that I would argue should not be extant in digital humanities the way that it is in regular humanities. Perhaps this is still an issue of definition, semantics really, in the sense that if we define digital humanities (in this case digital editing) as something other, or capable of more, or at least not limited in the same ways as traditional editorial work, then why be afraid of how the genre will be defined? Let the product of the genre define it. If, on the other hand, we define digital humanities as simply an extension of what has been before, limited by the same constraints of glacial-speed progress, then we should be afraid of what others might impose upon the work, and we should be selfishly and actively gobbling up and claiming the right to digitize every text ever written, staking our claim and marking the territory as “ours!” My rhetoric makes it obvious where I fall on the spectrum, and while there may be some growing pains associated with a new field, I do not believe the hazards must necessarily be as many as Price is suggesting.

As Folsom and Price explained in their grant application to the NEH, “The amount of Whitman’s work is so huge that no two scholars could hope to edit it effectively in a lifetime — fourteen scholars spent the better parts of their careers editing the materials that now make up the Collected Writings. But we do believe that developments in electronic scholarship have made it possible to enhance and supplement the Collected Writings by editing the materials that have not yet been included.” This would be true for any large body of work, or for any canonical author. The answer does not lie in traditional editing. Why limit the technology we have available, and the speed with which these large projects might be successfully assembled, by using traditional methods, and traditional criteria to define who can assemble these collections? Crowdsourcing can solve the problem of being reliant upon a previous scholarly edition printed in traditional form. Starting from scratch is not as daunting when you have a thousand scholars (albeit scholars whose experience litters the spectrum of experience) working on the project instead of just 2.

In some ways, for me, it seems as though some of the concerns voiced here are similar to the idea of pac-man (the traditional humanists) trying desperately to gobble up all of the pellets (digitize traditional works) before the ghosts (librarians, system engineers, or other “less specialized” persons) do.

Possible Projects for Collaboration

I stumbled across this while I was doing some research for class today. It’s a list of DH projects that are currently looking for help, and most of the entries include what kind of work they’re looking for and who to get in contact with. It might be useful in looking for end-of-the-semester projects.

What Makes a Game Political

Screenshot from Cart Life

Since we’re discussing games today (Or more specifically, games that try to teach you something), I thought this New Statesman article might be useful. I think politically charged games, in their attempts to make arguments through the limitations of a designed system, face challenges similar to those faced by the Edutainment games we read about in the article assigned for class.

The New Statesman piece raises questions like “What makes a videogame political?” and “What happens when unforeseen consequences undermine a game’s intended argument?” The article highlights some games that have clear, political agendas and others that would probably prefer to be considered on the basis of artistic merit.

McDonald’s Video Game, mentioned in the title of the piece, is funny, dark, and disturbing. In this game, you play as CEO, and try to run the McDonald’s corporation successfully, which necessitates maltreatment of animals, injecting food with ambiguous drugs, regularly firing and rehiring employees, and strategically implementing devious ad campaigns. Though the game is effective and presents a persuasive case, an observation from Ian Bogost deftly addresses a hole in the game’s argument:

It’s very anti-corporation, but a lot of students play it and say, ‘wow, I really empathise with the CEOs of multinational companies now – they have such hard jobs!’”

This pattern suggests to me that the game’s capacity to inspire empathy was underestimated by those who wished to harness its persuasive power. Before presenting McDonald’s Video Game as a persuasive tool, one assumes that the player’s response will be,  “I really hate all of these terrible things this corporation does to get ahead!” But instead, the player might think, “Wow it’s really hard to be a successful corporation!”

But perhaps it’s unfair to attribute this presumably unintended response to a flaw in the game’s design. Perhaps we should consider this response as one of the inherent complications of the society in which we live. After all, the game encourages its players to do terrible things by placing them in a situation in which they must do terrible things to succeed. This situation creates some level of empathy, whether it’s intended or not. In order to keep the company afloat, the player must exploit the system. When playing this game, morality isn’t just gray; it becomes invisible. One might argue that the cold, calculating numerical system underneath McDonald‘s Video Game doesn’t carry any political connotations; the manner in which the system is dressed up is what makes it political.

After playing McDonald’s Video Game, one might be compelled to ask: Can McDonald’s be “fixed?” Is it possible for something like McDonald’s to exist without most of us looking the other way when it’s convenient? Does focusing exclusively on the corrupt practices of a corporation like McDonald’s allow us to overlook more important, underlying, systemic issues that allow those problems to exist in the first place? Such questions, I think, mark an effective political game. No one likes to be preached at, and if a game is just an excuse to shout at people on the internet, then I think that game must resign itself to irrelevance.

It’s interesting to see McDonald’s Video Game, Sweatshop, and Darfur is Dying discussed alongside more personal works such as Cart Life, Lim, and The Castle Doctrine, which were presumably designed with artistic intentUsually people consider political games, educational games, and entertaining or artistic games as separate entities, but I think these categories are too easy, and they’re holding back people who are interested in games. This is probably why the designers of both Cart Life and The Castle Doctrine actively resist the labeling of their games as “political.” I think Richard Hofmeier’s reaction is more justified because I believe Cart Life is one of the most important, affecting games ever made. Until now, I hadn’t much considered its embedded political argument because I don’t think it’s as important to Cart Life‘s aesthetic.

I first played Cart Life last year, while I was working at Starbucks. For me, playing this game was a poignant, personal experience that spoke to working in a retail environment, repeating the same claustrophobic set of routines everyday, and trying to make a living while retaining emotional stability. But now that I think on it, it’s true that political statements are embedded in Cart Life. The game inspires empathy by evoking a feeling of constrictive repetition, which implies a political argument about the systemic problems of capitalism and bureaucracy. It’s not an easy argument that you can put in your pocket and save for your next political debate, but it is one that helped me try to become a better human.

Project Review: Electronic Literature Organization

Project name: Electronic Literature Organization

Web address:

Status: functional, non-profit

Affiliation: MIT

Focus: “Born-digital” literature directory.

I first heard about the Electronic Literature Organization through my twitter feed. Having opted to follow a fair number of the digital humanities twitter feeds from Daniel Cohen’s compiled list, I’ve recently been introduced to a plethora of DH projects. I chose ELO because I think it is a fair representation of both the best and worst aspects of current digital humanities, which makes it a fairly interesting project to study.

The most interesting thing that ELO does is to catalog obscure “born-digital literature,” that absolutely would have been lost (and perhaps should have been) without their persistence in finding, salvaging, and storing the projects. For example, Anipoems, a set of black and white animated gifs that are loosely translated as “peoms,” is described and linked from their directory. The page itself is typical of something homemade you might have encountered on the web in 1997, the year it was created. The site offers little in the way of entertainment or enjoyment, but from a historical perspective it is fascinating. This is the crux of the beauty and beastliness of ELO. Predominantly they have simply created a list of literary “other” projects. Members can find and list the web locations of these projects, along with a synopsis of their function or history. Ultimately, that is a pretty boring idea, the realization of which is no less boring. However, there is some gold beneath the dross that is worth mining.

Though the catalog style presentation of the project is somewhat unappealing, it functions in two rather successful ways. First, it functions as a free-to-the-public database of information that is searchable in much the same way that our library databases are. While it is debatable how useful this particular database would be for standard scholarly research, it does have the same bells and whistles as scout or Ebscohost, but without the associated cost. Users can browse the collection by author name, for example, and be presented with a list of all works by the author. They can also search and sort by title, year of publication, subject, and even by meta tag. Beyond the useful features, the site offers a second function that is perhaps its most viable justification for existence. It has compiled a record of known digital born works, which historically is unprecedented. The very existence of such a record is a sort of archive of where digital humanities has come from, and in that way the project represents one of the better aspects of what DH might be. The curator role is not the only way in which this project is a functional contributor to digital humanities.

ELO has compiled two electronic literature ‘best of’ collections, and hosts those digital collections on their servers. They have also produced CD-ROMs of the same collection for offline consumption, a concept which seems near to their objectives, but rather tenuous and unsustainable. They also host fairly large conferences to promote academic awareness and acceptance of born-digital works. This production comes at a cost, however, which is why ELO not only requires paid membership for contribution to the directory, but also to attend their conferences. This cost is in addition to the steep cost of the ticket to attend the conference in the first place, which is $150 (or $100 for lowly grad students). In my opinion this type of pay to play membership is exclusive of a large component of people who might otherwise contribute, but may not be able to afford the associated fees. I recognize the logistical necessity of the costs, but I have to wonder how that affects the open-source vibe of typical digital humanists.

The final note about the ELO I’ll mention pertains to their interesting history. The project was initiated in 1999 as an NPO, and found its first home at UCLA in 2001 as an inter-departmental collaboration between faculty and students there. In 2006 the project moved across the country to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, before moving to MIT’s main campus in 2011. This is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it shows the projects affiliation with big name academic institutions, and speaks to those organizations’ interest in digital humanities projects. Secondly, it demonstrates the necessarily transient nature of such projects. Must DH projects follow grants and funding? If not, how dependent are these projects upon “high-end” schools that can afford to fund them? I would be interested in discovering the exact reasoning behind the gypsy like migration of the project, and I wonder how much of the decision was based on requirements outside of economic.

Projects and Funding

I was surprised at how exclusive some of the funded Digital Humanities projects seemed. For example, “From Chopin to Public Enemy” is a book written by a music professor. I cannot contribute to this kind of project, nor does the project offer any openness to contribution. The book has been published under a single name. A few of the projects seem to be capitalist ventures with a “digital humanities” aspect on the side: “A Saloon, an Auction House, an Undergarment Store” is a project in which old buildings are renovated in order to give visitors a sense of what shopping was like in history. It does say it is a museum, but it does not say it is non-profit. The same goes for “Hidden Treasure” which seems like a renovation project which gained funding by agreeing to host a few humanities presentations from time to time. I could be wrong.

Many projects seem genuinely rooted in the goals of the Digital Humanities. The projects under Education, like the “Melding Literature and Medicine” certainly have all the right intentions (though I’m not sure how useful this specific fusion really is). The projects under Preservation remind me of a discussion we had earlier in class: is preservation Digital Humanities? How much funding is needed to put videos that are already recorded online? (I’m looking at you “Lightning Talks”). And what use are these videos when the the collection isn’t even comprehensive? “Chronicling America” seems to be a bit more useful; using QR codes allows access to their database from anywhere, arguably a lot more involved than simply digitizing material that already exists.

Response: Practicing the Digital Humanities – Daniel Cohen

The idea of engaging with new media types as they emerge is daunting, to say the least, but with the technological capabilities of modern computing and the internet, it seems entirely possible to accomplish. Cohen’s approach to new media publishing, especially the idea of automated publishing, is something that DH should be striving to harness. I think the emphasis of his argument should actually be on the urgency with which DH scholars should be anticipating and capitalizing on what should be a “humanist” lead endeavor (categorization, preservation, and publication of new human communications). Specifically, the viability of an algorithm that determines which digital publications are provoking the most discussion among scholars within a particular field, and then publishes those articles to some central ‘trending’ web-accessible location is exceptional. Cohen, in his address to the ACLS sums up the crux of the issue: “if you don’t do something like this, someone else will.” I think that is the heart of the matter with humanities (digital or analog)–if we opt to stagnate the void left by the absence of what we should be doing WILL be filled by some other entity, be it CS or some other science. The blogs and tweets and status updates are the new, streaming source of information, as it is being generated straight from the source of a human mind. If DH can organize and develop some standard for channeling this creative energy, then there will be no MORE viable modern program of study. The whole prospect is intriguing, but impetus to act is urgent–if we don’t embrace the new version of humanities study, it could easily be absorbed by some more eager and active field.


This article was linked in the second post in Fish’s blog series (By the way, does Fish ever really say anything in any of those essays? I feel like he’s just getting paid to sit in his easy chair while he delivers self-satisfied prophesies of the end times). Anyway, I must thank Fish for linking Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” because it’s fascinating. Written in 1992, the essay implies, in its dramatic title and elsewhere, that books are ending because linear, authored narrative is becoming less useful to everyone and also because “hey, computers!” And of course, I mean OF COURSE, twenty years later hypertext fiction still hasn’t replaced the regular kind of fiction (whatever that is) because the regular kind of fiction is much easier for people to deal with. So print texts have simply become digitized.

But Coover’s article is also interesting because it’s pedagogical. He discusses how the hypertext form assists students in considering, dismantling, and undermining narrative structure. It facilitates a kind of experimental, collaborative authorship and also facilitates collaborative learning, which is theoretically the kind of learning upon which the academy is built. It seems like scholarship could benefit from a similar dismantling. What do we do when we do scholarship? We try to think of new ways to think about things. What do we do when we talk about something like intertextuality? We think about texts in a way that is boundless and nonlinear…like hypertext. Is writing a traditional academic paper in MLA style really the best vehicle for delivering ideas like intertextuality?

Twine is a free program that allows for quick, easy creation of hypertext documents. It seems like most people who use it are using it to write fiction/text games. On a similar note, Bee is a piece of interactive fiction by Emily Short about a young girl who is training for a spelling bee.

Thoughts on Fish’s Theology

“The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” Stanley Fish presents his reader with an examination and criticism of the digital humanities that reveals some interesting difference and similarities between DH and traditional scholarship in the humanities. Of particular interest is the fact that Fish apparently fails to realize that he lauds the same characteristics in traditional scholarship that he criticizes in the digital humanities. In his blog in the New York Times, Fish refers to digital humanists’ vision for their field as being theological in the sense that it “promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated…and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in full and immediate presence.” In other words, DH seeks to lead us to a sort of nirvana, an enlightenment of mind and spirit in which the “would-be knower” is no longer separated from any knowledge source. In addition, DH also promises to remove the obstacle of mortality by creating a “steady yet dynamic state where there is…no beginning and end, just all middle,” a state in which knowledge and existence would presumably continue in perpetuity. Based on this description, it would appear that Fish considers digital humanists as tech-hippies in pursuit of everlasting nirvana, eternal enlightenment; they want all knowledge made available to them, and they want it now and always.

In opposition to this vision of DH is Fish’s depiction of traditional humanities scholarship: “a hitherto linear experience – a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he control.” My issue with this description of traditional humanities scholarship is how is it any less theological than DH? Could the traditional humanities scholar not be seen as a god figure who decides what knowledge the readers (his subjects) should receive and in what order/structure they should receive it? And how is this more strictly delineated and hierarchical form of scholarship and knowledge-sharing really any different or better than DH? Are both scholarships not seeking the same thing: knowledge, or enlightenment? Are they not both forced to work within the limitations of their given field? And yes, both do have limitations. As Martin Mueller points out in “Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities,” just because an algorithm only takes “seconds or minutes to execute” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely on “data that it took weeks to prepare” or that it might “spit out results that it takes days to analyze.” Digital humanities may offer new possibilities, but it still functions within a set of limitations. So, it would appear that DH and traditional humanities scholarship have more in common than Fish would care to acknowledge. Perhaps, then, instead of pitting these two forms of scholarship against each other as stark opposites of which only one can prevail, we should more appropriately focus on the similarities of the two and the ways in which they can work together and complement each other. Perhaps Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore have it right when they suggest that the “job of digital tools [in the humanities] is to draw our attention to evidence impossible or hard to see during normal reading” and to serve as a complement to “the skills of close textual analysis that are the staple of literary training” (“What did Stanley Fish count, and when did he start counting it?”).

Response: Stanley Fish Columns

Am I posting this in the right place?


Reading Stanley Fish’s columns, especially “The Digital Humanities and Transcending of Mortality,” made me think of Lewis Carroll’s riddle: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” I think that a problem in DH debates is no one exactly knows how to define digital humanities, so this all-encompassing “it’s the study of everything except online with computers and stuff” definition is attached to it. So Fish’s lamenting of Fitzpatrick’s argument that “a blog privileges immediacy… This emphasis on the present works at cross purposes with much long-form scholarship, which needs stability and longevity in order to make its points” is, I believe, incorrect, or at least ill-placed.

The nature of a blog isn’t the nature of scholarship, but journalism. I mean journalism in the expository sense–where articles are archived based on what is newest; that’s why they call it the news and not the olds–and journalism in the sense of journaling. It is a very linear method of recording thoughts. I don’t know where Fitzpatrick got the notion that blogs and academic scholarship (another gigantic and vague attachment) are even similar. They’re second cousins, twice removed, if anything. In the same way that newspapers, history books, or anything concerned with the recording of things in time does not encompass all of academic scholarship (that’s just history), so it is with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. The only difference between these forms of recording and a ledger or a diary available to the pubic is that one is material, with a beginning and an end, and the other seems to have no end.

Second, I am tired of people prophesying the end of books because of Twitter. Books aren’t going anywhere. Bookstores I cannot speak for. But when I look at history–people complaining that folks didn’t read enough of the Bible because it wasn’t available to them in their own language; people complaining that folks didn’t read enough literature because they were too busy working in factories, and if they did have time to read, they read “sickly, stupid German novels”; people complaining that folks didn’t read enough because they were too diverted by the radio-then-movies-then-television-then-internet– I see that nothing much has changed. Intelligent people who read will still read, because it is their civic duty as intelligent people, and those worrisome people who only communicate in short bursts of Twitter-like messages will still cling to a lower form of communication/entertainment than books.

As for how DH will change academics, the only real change I see it making right now is in libraries or research. As I said last class, until the end is changed (the dean/people in charge of hiring the college-educated masses/the government making public education mandates and also SAT-makers decide that turning upside-down present our way of life in favor of a groovy world where we can take online classes and get respectable degrees for respectable jobs, sharing everything and abandoning authorship) the means will not noticeably change. But I think Stanley Fish realizes that as well. That’s why he makes that “everything has its day in the sun” argument in “The Old Order Changeth.”

Response to Pannapacker

I’m not 100% positive that this is how we’re supposed to do this, but I figured I would give it a try. Here are my thoughts on our assigned readings for this week:

William Pannapacker’s blogs on The Chronicle of Higher Education in regards to the digital humanities accurately capture the major concerns, or at least my major concerns, about this rapidly developing field. Pannapacker captures one such concern in his observation that “the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table” (“Pannapacker at MLA”). This statement effectively highlights my fear that instead of making the humanities and humanities education more accessible and diverse, as is their intent, the digital humanities, like the universities of the past, is actually just forming a closed social club that accepts only those who are “coding” and “making”. My fear is that digital humanities is the future, but because I am neither “coding” nor “making,” it is a future in which I will have no place. It is a fear that I am sure others who are equally as technologically unsavvy as myself share.

In addition to this concern of the true accessibility of the digital humanities, the concerns of others that Pannapacker notes in his blog “On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’” reveal other glitches that need to be worked out before the field is likely to find the acceptance it needs to be taken seriously. For example, Pannapacker admits that in order to sell what they do to administrators and the like, digital humanists have a tendency to “talk about DH in ways that might trouble [their] colleagues in the humanities.” Likewise, there is an abundance of criticism against the digital humanities – it’s too diverse, it requires coding and gamification, it’s affiliated with MOOCs, etc. – as “a construct, something imagined—rather than the actual practices of individual digital humanists” (“Dark Side”). Pannapacker’s rebuttal to this type of criticism also points to its cause: “The digital humanities is not a monolithic movement: it’s a “big tent.” One of the major issues with the digital humanities seems to be that they are distinctly lacking a set definition of exactly who they are and what they do. Until such a definition has been reached, it seems only logical that people will continue to misunderstand the digital humanities and to express uncertainty and apprehension towards them and their endeavors.

Finally, in “Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities” Pannapacker’s questions about how the digital humanities will fit into the current graduate education system – “How would students’ work be assessed, and how would credit be allocated, particularly when projects involve many people of different ranks and develop over a period of years? How would projects be financed, given that graduate students in the humanities are usually supported for teaching rather than research?” – and his ultimate conclusion that “graduate education, as it is currently constituted, would have to change” speak to scholar’s concerns that their entire structure will have to be replaced. This is a concern for many not only because it means that the style of education used by generations will become obsolete (as we discussed in class last week, nobody really likes change) but also because it will mean a difficult, lengthy, and probably painful process of completely overhauling our education system. The lack of traditional tenure-track positions available makes it obvious that we need to reconsider how and for what jobs we train our graduate students, I feel like a complete overhaul of the education system is unnecessary and deterring. I can’t help that if the digital humanities could find a better way to work with the system already in play, it would be more readily accepted. Also, going back to my previous paragraph, if the digital humanities did a better job of defining itself and its practices, people probably wouldn’t be so uncertain about how to fit it into the education system in the first place.