Author Archives: JP Essey

Limits of Graphical Visuals

As Alan Lui laid down the gauntlet for cultural criticism, so has Johanna Drucker laid down the gauntlet for information visualization. Equivalent to a guardian watching her charge run into a children’s shop and indiscriminately grab every “toy” within reach, Drucker forcefully puts a time out to the situation insisting on a pause and a reflection of what is the situation is, where we are and what are we doing there. The approach to graphical display that has been taken from the harder sciences is, according to Drucker, “a trojan horse” that will subvert basic tenets of the Digital Humanities enterprise, which is, as the names implies, a humanistic science.  She makes a strong argument for changing direction on how we approach our visualization of capta, which is a stronger reminder of the subjective nature of how we in the field acquire ‘data.’ I think this call to action is relevant and bring the field back to stated endeavors of humanistic, cultural insights which require an individual, with their own agenda, to collect. Data has to be interpreted as well as collected and is not ‘out there’; it is subjective. After she discusses the three components that are fundamental to a ‘perspectival position,’ she gives examples.  It is here that I started wondering why in all of the example she frequently starts off with the emotion of fear and anxiety. Those are emotions start with I kept thinking.  Why those?  Another question that arose in my mind was whether she wasn’t doing what she was cautioning about.  Graphically visualizing data in the humanities is to bring the issue to liven up some more insights and add a relevant point to the conversation.  Yet, in her example, I wondered when can an experiment designed to show temporality be useful by having the experiment measure the people’s conception of time while standing at a bus stop? I wanted an example to help anchor or solidify the concept, but it didn’t come.  Are we reducing the idea too much? By zeroing in on the parts to minutia, are we losing the magic.  Literature, philosophy, art have something that is more than the sum of the parts. Discussing the parts if, of course, very useful and relevant, but the overall picture is what is the end goal.  Dissecting them to individual parts is the area of other sciences, equivalent to a neurosurgeon explaining the human soul. That’s a wrong venue.  Do we do an injustice to the work if we go too far, or possibly even run into a danger zone?  This is as relevant to a novel as it is to a group as Guiliano and Heitman point out regarding gathering indigenous data.  Perhaps there is a limit to how far we can tread.  As it is unacceptable to indiscriminately gather items without consideration to the subject, which in an indigenous population means respecting their traditions of what is shareable and what is not, so it is in some other areas like a novel or work of art. Being culturally sensitive, I think, needs to apply here as well. Drucker has laid out a position that is impossible to ignore.  Unless we heed her insights as foundational elements for graphical work, DH will have a stomach ache like that child who just gobbled all the candy they saw in the shop before a guardian changed their direction away. 

Presner & Mangle of DH

Reading Presner was very engaging for me and solidified the debate of the function of DH, whether to ‘critique’ or to ‘build.’ I believe Presner build a strong foundation to support the view that one in DH must build, which he did by threading a connection between the Frankfurt Schools’ theory and Liu’s critique before continuing from there. The Frankfurt School philosophers articulated the difference between a ‘traditional theory’, which is about, ‘the pursuit of factual knowledge,’ or a ‘critical theory,’ which is a continuing development of Kantian philosophy that factual knowledge is not enough. One must be aware of knowledge but also engage with the social world. This was an elegant three-pointer to use a basketball metaphor. And a way to put this into practice is to use a ‘negation,’ or to shake things up or to punk it (rock’n’roll metaphor), which leads to a ‘mangle.’ This, I believe, is what he means when he states, ” DH is experimental, dirty, and completely suffused by social and material diabetics or resistance and accommodation.” Punk rock lives! Mangle is what one gets when things are shaken and no longer rarified, when the structures are crumbling, when ideas are fraying, or a new chapter is being written.

I will make only one more observation, which is his elaboration of utopia. He made an excellent point about what is not said when one is stating a social criticism. What is not said and hiddenly implied is that the author has a vision of something better which is not brought into the conversation.(This is thought of a strength or virtue for most people.) As he states, “Nowadays utopian ideas have a bad rap because they appear hopelessly naive or programmatically prescriptive:however, without an idea of change for the better, there can be no constructive social critique.” I think this is something that has to be stated and not just even implied by the person giving the critique. It must be articulated as part of the process, which is where Presner leads to by emphatically stating that ,” For the DH, that there is a utopian idea at its core: participation without condition”

Presner definitely set the DH in a philosophical framework to expand the essence of the traditional humanities for the next century by articulating the humanities’ social, participatory, and ethical dimensions leading to a better, more inclusive world.