Let Me Show You What I See (part II)

In the last post a while back I gave a run-down of Rosenbloom’s attempt to build secure foundations (if I may use that overworked metaphor) for the digital humanities. Read his attempt. Read my recap. Proceed.

First off, what have we learnt? We have learnt that in order to be heard at all one must be published in Digital Humanities Quarterly, uh, this is obviously the first take home point.

But seriously … the first point of criticism that I will make is that though Rosenbloom leans heavily on the philosophy of science it is interesting that philosophy itself must necessarily fall outside of the four great scientific domains as he conceives them. But I’m sure Rosenbloom would agree that the philosophy of science has helped increase his understanding of this problem space and was in some way a bridge to his conceptual framework. If this is the case then philosophy is at once scientific (using Rosenbloom’s definition of scientific) and yet outside every great scientific domain. What are we to make of this?

Second off, the contrasting of understanding versus shaping seems to have echoes in the more standard contrasting of theoretical with practical or in another way the formal with the applied. Again, what are we to make of this? The formal sciences are often seen as a great scientific domain, but in Rosenbloom’s conception of things they all seem to fall under computing science. I’m not saying that he is wrong, I’m just saying that in the usual way of seeing things, they are seen as their own separate thing.

Third, and this is more of a meta-point. It occurs to me that really we should settle these debates in the digital humanities using methods from humanities computing if we were to stay true to our motto, “shine a computational light on problems in the humanities”. I have an idea how that might happen but that is for another day. The debates in the digital humanities inhabit a problem space in the humanities surely, traverse this problem space with computational methods I say.

Let’s proceed the more traditional route for now though. Which is words on a page, digital and virtual though that page may be. What exactly is the problem? Why is Rosenbloom even putting forward a conceptual framework in the first place? It is because institutionally and methodologically digital or computational methods challenge, or at the very least cause us to revisit the methodological issues of the humanities. This feeds into the perennial crisis in the humanities. I will demonstrate how I make that link. Whatever the purported crisis in the humanities is claimed to be I claim that really what the humanities suffers from is a deep-rooted methodological and epistemological angst. In less highfalutin and less obscurantist jargon the humanities does not know how it must know what it must know.

If you think that a strange viewpoint let me present to you the birth of the humanities. Because it is here we should look. It is here where the Rosenbloom’s of the world should look. I asked our coordinator, Brendan Dooley, in a kind of jokey aside at a tedious academic meet n greet, “where-from the humanities”. I did not at all expect the answer I got. Chalk it down to my endless ignorance, my dismay at which drives me to dithering procrastination. Dooley said Petrarch. I had not expected Petrarch. But Dooley is a professor of Renaissance History and this is exactly the factoid that should reside in his nonce. Curiously though, as coordinator of the digital humanities programme here I do not recall Dooley having ever shared this salient factoid. But then again, maybe nobody had asked, “where-from the humanities”.

What the majority (that’s a hedge, I’m guessing that it’s actually all) of the arguments in the debates in the digital humanities fail to do is enquire into the origins of the humanities. Granted we must give an account of the digital but we must also give an account of the humanities and that means giving an account of the origins of the humanities. That is the way to proceed. That it took me two years to ask the question myself is worrying. Maybe humanities scholars (I dislike the term ‘humanists’ for some unknown reason) are so acquainted with the origins of their own meta-discipline that my enquiry is seen as trite or pointless. But sometimes the best questions are exceedingly obvious, at least superficially.

It turns out that Petrarch is called the “father of humanism”. This is interesting. It makes us realise that the humanities hasn’t always been a feature of the academy and that there was a period when it came into being. I won’t dig too deeply into the historical intricacies (me, a historian? never) but I will say that up until Petrarch or thereabout what was thought to be the proper object of study was theology or law or logic: things of this nature, austere, absolute, you get the idea. A change occurs around this time: man is deemed to be worthy of study in his own right. How to do this? By studying the works and history of man. And how does one do this? Mainly by literary and artistic criticism and the compilation and study of histories. I really should read up more on this era but it is my feeling that what could be called the humanist turn which eventually led to secular humanism and the loosening of the grip of religious temperament in Europe at least had its origins in ideas that crystallised around about the time of Petrarch. This is important. Petrarch also coined the term, “the Dark Ages” which enabled the term Renaissance. This is how meta-narratives are built. And meta-narratives, like most narratives, are fictions.

Crisis, what crisis? Really? Is there a crisis in the first place? Yes. But don’t focus on percentages or totals graduating or any of that. Crisis, which etymologically speaking derives from decision is an apt designator in this instance as it highlights the indecision that has in part debilitated the humanities project and by extension an indecision which the digital humanities has inherited. What is significant about the digital is not some kind of paradigmatic revolution. What is significant about the digital in the context of the perennial crisis in the humanities is that this refocussing on methodology gives us a space in which we can step back and look at what it is exactly the humanities is meant to be all about in the first place and how it is meant to be going at what it is about. All this requires philosophical insights. Strange then that philosophy departments are housed administratively and institutionally with humanities departments.

Science went through the same wringer. Of course it did. I am most emphatically not setting up that tired dualism. If something proceeds by the scientific method it is scientific. Up until now I am guessing that the methodological crisis in the humanities has been located by commentators within the qualitative/quantitative debate. Where qualitative is a shorthand for the human and messy and quantitative is a shorthand for the numeric/machinic and precise. I reject this duality, again this is talk for another day — this is not how I would characterise the science/humanities debate.

Nowadays we reject theological explanations. We demand scientific explanations. The same tectonic move in the history of ideas that can bring about these altered worldviews and demands also allows us to consider man as worthy of scrutiny. If we are to take the scientific approach however we would study man and his relations and society with a ruthless objective dehumanising gaze. But that is not how we go about things. What we have done is assert that we can “know man” or in other words “explain ourselves to ourselves” by looking at our literary, artistic, architectural and historical works. Generally, this was done initially by reading verse and history. The practise developed from there. Take note that the novel form was developed after the humanist turn. This is not a coincidence, nothing in the history of ideas happens out of coincidence.

For one who does philosophy I am mentioning history a lot. I have become as deeply suspicious of the historical project as Plato was suspicious of the poets. I think Plato missed a beat though, the poets never claimed to stand in for the reality they were imitating whereas historians (all hand-waving aside) do. History, narrative history is as much a product of literature as the novel is. I am not denying that things happen and that in happening they can be recorded. I merely want to point out that the story that I construct about my own life is just that, it is a story, it is not me. It’s just a nice fiction that I overlay on my actual being whatever that is. History is an accumulation of memoir and purported event. For the longest time I held fiction and reality in opposition such that reality partakes of the real or true and thus fiction must partake of the unreal or untrue. But fictions are neither true nor false. Fictions are as real as reality is real, they just generally have less footnotes.

My point is (to crib from Rorty’s playful characterisation of philosophy as “a literary genre”) that history is not something very far removed from the rest of literature. It is a literary genre that pretends to strut about the stage as fact. Mostly what history-as-narrative does is create and sustain collective identities. This is what I do when I construct the story of my own life, I create a narrative thread upon which to hang my identity.

Properly when we speak of history we should say which history: political history, economic history, history of ideas, popular history, and so on like this. That history until Marx was predominantly aristocratic history is undeniable in retrospect. The science of the past is archaeology, not history; the science of man is anthropology, not sociology.

What is undeniable also is that the digital humanities have finally breached this methodological beachhead. That disciplines like computational stylistics use wads of raw text as their proximate object of study highlights the textual nature of the humanities. We were always meant to use the text as a vehicle to get to the “human condition”. That is the entire methodological premise behind what happens in the humanities. We study Holden Caulfield and Lolita in the same way we study Julius Caesar. And not only that, we recognise now that a mere sliver of actual-existing humanity is immortalised in text. And only a sliver of all fictions become canonised. Characters like Holden Caulfied and Lolita are the emperors of our time.

I don’t deny that the desire to turn the microscope on ourselves is very powerful. I would question however our deci-millennial attempt. Literature does many things. I think the humanities has always fudged the many different functions of literature and art architecture. There is much consolation and despair and beauty and ugliness to be mined in the word- and art- and built-hoard of humanity.

I thought I could say what I wanted to say and I see now that I couldn’t. Oh well.

Dear Belated #DayOfDH , Let Me Show You What I See

Been reading over what I believe is one of the better stabs at getting to the essence of the digital humanities. It’s a piece called “Towards a Conceptual Framework for the Digital Humanities” (scroll down) by Paul S. Rosenbloom. It has appeared in a couple of places — in an issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ 6,2) and in Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte.

He says that his enterprise

requires some understanding of computing, the humanities, and the philosophy of science

Without coming across as too arrogant, it has long been obvious to me that the definitional debates in the digital humanities will progress nowhere until philosophy and philosophers are engaged; and similarly that philosophy will remain adrift until it engages with the impact of the digital on our world. It is great to see Rosenbloom acknowledge this in part — few seem to. Considering that the entirety of science used to be called natural philosophy not so long ago you’d think this much would have been obvious to almost any academic, but apparently not.

His definition of scientific is

any enterprise that tends to increase our understanding of the world over time

and this definition is a lot looser than and shifts the focus away from the idea of science as synonymous with the scientific method and falsifiability and what have you; away from Popper basically. Witness, “This is more akin to Lakatos’s concept of a progressive research programme [Lakatos 1978] than to Popper’s focus on falsifiability [Popper 1959]” In his essay there is then some clarification and sculpting, the details are unnecessary here. Go read it. He name checks Kuhn and Feyerabend — Kuhn with approval, Feyerabend with disapproval. Because Rosenbloom focuses on the increase to our understanding (what would we call this focus?) and not on the scientific method he is comfortable with an, as he calls it, methodological pluralism but states that he stops short of epistemological anarchy. A lovely phrase.

Rosenbloom distinguishes four great scientific domains, the physical sciences, the life sciences, the social sciences and computing science. The notion of shaping comes into play here, a notion that moves beyond understanding. He goes on to say,

Broadly, a great scientific domain concerns the understanding and shaping of the interactions among a coherent, distinctive, and extensive body of structures and processes.

There’s a lot to take in here. The physical sciences have as their concern matter and energy. The life sciences focus on living beings. The social sciences concern themselves with, as he says,

humans, their products, and their cognitive and social processes

Finally, computing focuses on information in its various guises.

For him the humanities is seen as a subdomain of the larger domain of social sciences. (Mathematics is a part of theoretical computing, by the way, in this view of things.) In a similar way the digital is a feature of computing science. So for Rosenbloom the digital humanities can best be conceptually analysed through how these two great scientific domains interact.

I have skipped a lot already — we are about a half way through the essay. I have neglected much of Rosenbloom’s discussion on method. He claims that each domain has methods particular to it, that methods can be ranked and so on. I won’t go into the details or we’ll be here all day, have a look at them yourself. Let’s move on to what Rosenbloom calls a relational analysis of the digital humanities. The quote in full,

The relational architecture provides a means of analyzing scientific topics and disciplines in terms of the great scientific domains they involve and the relationships among these domains that are implicated. It also provides a vehicle for systematically investigating the space of interdisciplinary overlaps that can occur among domains.

He has developed something quite formal and novel, what he calls the Metascience Expression Language. We have the variables:

  • P denotes physical
  • L denotes life
  • S denotes social
  • C denotes computing
  • H denotes humanities. As he says, “H understood to be a subdomain of S (H ⊂ S)”

and operations:

  • + denotes a generic relationship of some sort or type, it is not really used, instead we use
  • / which denotes implementation, and
  • ↔ which denotes (bidirectional) interaction

Be combinatorial manipulation you can see that we’ll get [1] H/C and [2] C/H; and H↔C (or equivalently C↔H) which decompose into [3] (H→C) and [4] (C→H). What do these four distinct operations mean?


When computing implements the humanities (H/C) we get digital cultural artifacts, such as digital paintings, sculptures in virtual environments, immersive experiences, and digital books. […] In addition, all computing artifacts can themselves be viewed as (implementing) cultural artifacts even if there was no such intention when they were constructed. The area of critical code studies, for example, views conventional computer programs as cultural artifacts, and applies the humanities’ analytical methods to aid in deriving a more complete contextual understanding of them [Marino 2006]


the largely static nature of the humanities means that it cannot generally yield a full implementation of computing (C/H) — a book or a painting simply cannot compute all by itself

Again, I’m omitting a whole swathe of arguments in order to make speedy progress.


In the digital humanities, flow from the humanities to computing represents the automated computational analysis of cultural artifacts (H→C); for example, determining clustering of authors based on their literary styles [Luyckx, Daelemans and Vanhoutte 2006]. It could even be considered to include recent work on machine reading, where computers automatically extract meaning from text [Etzioni 2007].


In the reverse direction, a flow from computing to the humanities represents computational composition (C→H). This is an area still in its infancy, but that already includes, for example, computational composition of simple poems [Manurung 2000], stories [Pérez y Pérez 2007] and drawings [McCorduck 1990]

Rosenbloom finishes with a comparison with Svennson’s “five major modes of engagement between computing and the humanities” from Svennson’s 2010 essay “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” which appeared (again) in Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ 4,1). I won’t go into the comparison here.

This piece is already quite long — because I want to keep it brief I fear I may have introduced many an imprecision and not done it justice. This is important but unfortunate because now I am going to offer a little critique of the piece and put forward a conceptual analysis of my own.

But that is for another day.

Entering the Digital Humanities

Three semesters ago (September 2012) I entered the Digital Arts & Humanities PhD programme here at UCC. I guess I should have blogged about that change in my life back then but I didn’t, I’m doing it now.

It is as if the reality of what I am pursuing has taken 15 months to go from action to reflection. First the purely factual. The DAH Phd programme in Ireland is an all Ireland inter-institutional programme. It is a collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy, University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, National University of Ireland, Galway, and as an associate University of Ulster.

I am in the digital humanities strand of the programme. I suppose this is where I should talk about what the digital humanities is all about. But I’m not going to. The truth is, the digital humanities is a new term and it is a term in flux. Part of what I hope to achieve as part of my research is to bring clarity to the ongoing and perennial definitional debates in the digital humanities.

There are two parts to my research. Firstly I must build a digital archive to virtually house the Boole Papers from UCC’s Special Collections. This involves digitally scanning, transcribing, semantically annotating, and finally hosting the papers. In addition it will be necessary to connect this digital archive to larger portals like Europeana via metadata. A neat twist on this fairly straight-forward series of steps is to harness the wisdom of the masses and get others involved in the transcription. So-called crowd-sourced transcription à la Transcribe Bentham’s Transcription Desk and Letters of 1916. A piece of cake for any halway competent software engineer. Well out of reach for all but a few humanities graduates. But this is to do the humanities an injustice. A good humanities scholar would take this as an opportunity for reflection. A humanities scholar would ask herself, “how many collections like this must there be the world over?” and, “where is the originality in what I am doing?” and, “why is it that a library archivist is not tasked with this project?” and, “how can I adequately documant the route I take so that others can build on my work?” A piece of cake for any halfway competent humanities graduate. Out of reach for most software engineers. And so immediately we can see that the DAH programme both highlights the technical ansd scholarly rift in academia and also provides a space within which to shore up that rift. That is what is most exciting about the DAH and leads me to the second part of my research.

The Robot Epistles. Initially I was asked to ground my research in the Boole Papers material. I imagined (indeed, I proposed and got accepted to the programme on the back of) using the personal correspondence, lecture notes and other material of George Boole and co. to focus on Boole’s place in mathematical history, Irish society, his teaching experience at the then Queen’s College Cork, and so on. All good humanities scholarship. Critical analysis and all that.

Except my background is a mix of code and philosophy. Historical scholarship does not really move me unless it is the History of Ideas we are talking about. The significance of working on Boole’s material nearly exactly 150 years after his death, as part of a digital humanities programme that seems philosophically adrift is not lost on me. Slowly the idea of the Robot Epistles has come to me. The Robot Epistles is to be a series of essays. Each essay will deal with the impact of the digital on each functional segment of society, on each social institution as it were. There will be a corresponding prelude which will elaborate a philosophy of the digital. This to my mind has not been done before, I would be delighted to hear otherwise. I imagine this prelude to be called Early Forms of Robot Life. That is not to say that nobody has done any work in this area. Of course that is not the case. There have been many who have written about technology and society. Castells springs immediately to mind (though I have not read his work, and frankly do not intend to) but there are many others. There are philosophers and thinkers who grapple with various aspects of technology: Heidegger, Benjamin, McLuhan, Aarseth, Hayles, Manovich, Chun, Turkle, Baudrillard, Lessig, and again many others. Then there are the technologists who have written about what this ongoing digital revolution means and what the likely impacts are: Lanier, Bush, Turing, Wiener, Engelbart, Kay, Joy, and so on. Their names are familiar.

I would like to take the following approach and see how it pans out. First one must start out with a decent theory of society. And I only know of one. That of Niklass Luhmann. I only see a theory as decent if it can be turned into a model. Show me another theory of society that can be turned into a model and I’m with you. Luhmann’s theory claims that modern society is functionally differentiated into autopoietic social systems. These social systems line up with the regular social institutions of sociology, And also strangely enough Althusser’s ideologicalal state apparatuses. (But that’s another day’s work). So the idea is to take each Luhmannian social system and inspect it from the perspective of the digital. These are the epistles and I am the digital prophet. In order to do that of course we need to have a worked out philosophy of the digital, which is why there must be a prelude to the epistles proper. The reason I use the language of religion (epistles, apostle, …) is because I want to subvert, or perhaps invert the rhetoric of ideology.

I realise that this all sounds very hand-wavy but it kind of has to be by necessity because this is just a heads-up as to what I’m about these days. I am putting together the final pieces of the software puzzle so that should see the light of day soon. I have already began fashioning the Robot Epistles but have taken a break from that writing in order to bring all my attention to bear on the Boole Papers archive. (In truth, I am an awful multi-tasker.)