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Category Archives: Essays

Written content, including articles, editorials, weblog entries, and poetry.

The Progress of the Canon

The Odyssey of Homer

The Odyssey of Homer

In Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance, Euphrasia declares that she venerates Homer “as much as one unlearned in his own language can do” (19). Unlearned in Greek, she has read the translatation by Pope. But, her praise is not without measure:

Homer must always claim our respct and even veneration.–But after all this can you forbear smiling at the extravagant fallies of his imagination, can you approve his violent machinery, in which we degrades his deities below his heroes, and makes deities of men.” (20)

Hortensius is surprised by this “bold attack,” and expresses some anxiety that Euphrasia “would engage me in a new course of reading,” that is, to change the definition of what is canonical so as to include, perhaps, the Provencals or the Troubadors (21-22). It is at that point that Euphrasia calls upon what was, at the time, a very non-canonical work: the “Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” declaring that if Hortensius reads it

“you will think that either the genius of Homer was transfused into the writer, or else that he was well acquainted with his works; for he certainly resembles Homer in many particulars… In the history of Sindbad, we have most of those that Ulysses meets with in the Odyssey: insomuch that you must be convinced the likeness could not be accidental.” (23)

Today, with The Arabian Nights now fixed as a piece of canonical world literature, it may be hard to imagine the incredulity with which Hortensius asks, “You cannot be in earnest in this comparison?” (22). Yet the comparison is not wholly impossible to imagine, as three small excerpts should make clear:

“…Then on the tenth
our squadron reached the land of the Lotus-eaters,
people who eat the lotus, mellow fruit and flower.
We disembarked on the coast, drew water there
and crewman snatched a meal by the swift ships.
Once we’d had our fill of food and drink I sent
a detail ahead, two picked men and a third, a runner,
to scout out who might live there–men like us perhaps,
who live on bread? So off they went and soon enough
they mingled among the natives, Lotus-eaters, Lotus-eaters
who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead . . .
Any crewman who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,
their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all member of the journey home
dissoved forever.” (Homer, 9.94-110)

“The tenth we touch’d, by various errors toss’d,
The land of Lotus, and the flowy’ry coast.
We climb’d the beach, and springs of water found,
Then spread our hasty banquet on the ground.
Three men were sent, deputed from the crew
(A herald one) the dubious coast to view,
And learn what habitants possess’d the place.
They went, and found a hospitable race:
Not prone to ill, nor strange to foreign guest,
They eat, they drink, and Nature gives the feast:
The trees around them all their food produce;
Lotus the name: divine, nectareous juice
(Thence called Lotophagi); which whoso tastes,
Insatiate riots in the sweet repasts,
Nor other home nor other care intends,
But quits his house, his country, and his friends.” (Pope, ll.95-110)

Sinbad the Sailor, as portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Sinbad the Sailor, as portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

“Things went on like this until fate brought us to a pleasant island, full of trees with ripe fruits, scented flowers, singing birds and limpid streams, but without any houses or inhabitants. The captain anchored there and the merchants, together with the crew, disembarked to enjoy its trees and its birds, giving praise to the One Omnipotent God, and wondering at His great power. I had gone with this landing party and I sat down by a spring of clear water among the trees. I had some food with me and I sat there eating what God had provided for me; there was a pleasant breeze; I had no worries and, as I felt drowsy, I stretched out at my ease, enjoying the breeze and the delightful scents, until I fell fast asleep.” (The Arabian Nights, 2.464)

The first example is a modern translation of Homer, and the second is the translation by Pope with which Hortensius and Euphrasia would have been familiar. The third example is a modern translation of one of the voyages of Sindband. It is clear that the subject material shows marked similarities, even down to the particularity of sophisticated concepts (consider, for example, the parallel between Pope’s “Nature gives the feast,” and The Arabian Nights‘ “I sat there eating what God had provided for me,”). It is easy to see why Euphrasia argues that the author of The Arabian Nights “resembles Homer in many particulars.”

Hortensius’s initial reaction seems to come from his belief that what is not original is not worth reading–indeed, his dismissal of The Arabian Nights comes in his declamation that Euphrasia’s argument “will only prove that this Arabian writer imitated Homer as many others have done.” But it is at this point that Euphrasia makes a very modern argument about the subjectivity of a reader:

“If I am not mistaken, it will prove something more;–namely, that there is frequently a striking resemblance between works of high and low estimation, which prejudice only, hinders us from discerning, and which when seen, we do not care to acknowledge: for the defects of a favourite Author, are like those of a favourite friend; or perhaps still more like our own.” (24)

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Hortensius agrees to read “the Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” and to consider the implications of its relation to Homer. The striking pertinence of the argument between Euphrasia and Hortensius should certainly resonate in the present, where the discussion of canon formation very often turns to ideas of originality, genius, significance, and the author’s participation in the culture of letters. After all, Harold Bloom’s theory of “The Anxiety of Influence” was central when, in 1994, he formulated his own argument for core texts in The Western Canon. Hence Hortensius and Euphrasia’s discussion was never resolved and has never gone away–in fact, it is still with us when we consider whether the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne Rice, and J.K. Rowling are worth study. And as with The Arabian Nights, that decision may well be rendered so absolute, centuries hence, that it will be difficult to imagine why there was ever a debate at all.

Works Cited
The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. Translated by Malcom C. Lyons. London, UK: Penguin, 2008.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1996.

Pope, Alexander. “The Odyssey.” In The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Reeve, Clara. The Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners; with Remarks on the Good and Bad Effects of It, on Them Respectively; in a Course of Evening Conversations. Colchester, UK: W. Keymer, 1785.

 
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Posted by on 3 April 2013 in Essays

 

Hobbes’ State of Nature in Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

The titular protagonist of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, marooned on an island off the coast of South America, applies his rationality to the examination of his state of affairs. In determining “that there was scarce any Condition in the World so miserable, but there was something Negative or something Positive to be thankful for in it,” he answers the ‘Evil’ that “I have no Soul to speak to, or relieve me,” with the ‘Good’, “But God wonderfully sent the Ship in near enough to the Shore, that I have gotten out so many necessary things as will either supply my Wants, or enable me to supply my self even as long as I live” (102).

When Crusoe replies to solitude with an observation about being well-equipped, he is not really answering to the Con with an applicable Pro–rather, it is a dodge. Having sufficient tools so as to provide for his physical needs cannot give him a “Soul to speak to,” nor can it relieve him of the burden of solitude. Yet, despite the rational insufficiency of his answer to the perplexity posed, Crusoe seems to be entirely satisfied with the result.

I suggest that Crusoe’s satisfaction stems from his awareness, even if only dimly or subconsciously, of the threats which the Hobbesian State of Nature posits–threats which will later be manifest in the form of the cannibals (who do not answer to his nation, his God, or even his code of morality); and of the muntineers (who have treacherously cast off the authority which governed them). Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan popularly established social contract theory, and its arguments quickly became part of the intellectual landscape of English philosophical and political thought. The currents of Leviathan can be seen in the ‘rational’ thoughts of Defoe’s protagonist.

Leviathan

Leviathan

Hobbes argues that “men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all” (102-103). And, on the “Island of Despair” there is no power apparent which is able to over-awe Crusoe, or anyone else. Consequently, the presence of another man would have brought strife and conflict, even if not at first than within the mind and disposition. As Hobbes writes:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known […] the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. (103)

Of course, Hobbes goes on to argue that men in this state do not engage in industry, agriculture, navigation, architecture, arts, and letters–so, in this regard, Crusoe appears to contradict Leviathan‘s State of Nature, for the castaway does set himself to industrious pursuits. Yet Crusoe’s industry takes place, at least initially, in the assumption that he is alone. For Crusoe, the fruits of industry are certain; he believes that there are no men who can take it from him. Hence, his solitude–far from being an ‘Evil’–guarantees with surety the fruits of his labours.

Though my primary focus is on this moment in the text, it is worth noting that, immediately upon encountering other men, Crusoe immediately fixates upon the power with which they can conceiveably be ‘over-awed’: God. And, with Friday, Crusoe embarks upon this very course. Converted to Christianity and its moral precepts, Friday dare not betray Crusoe, for a greater power governs both men. Encountering the mutineers, Crusoe uses his own power to enforce a lawful authority. His re-entry into the world of men is fraught with conflict–and that conflict is invariably resolved (and, indeed, can only be resolved) by reinstating Hobbesian power: man against man, until the Sovereign power insituted makes possible a time of peace.

Works Cited
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Evan R. Davis. Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press, 2010.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1950.

 
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Posted by on 29 January 2013 in Essays

 

Approaching Digital Poetry

This is reminiscent of early ASCII art.

Digital Poetry Word Art

This week, I shall try to be a little less prolix. My goal is to say something meaningful within five hundred words. Let ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ be my watchword for this blog.

As a lover of poetry and the poetic form, I was pleased this week to read Christopher Funkhouser’s retrospection on the first forty years of Digital Poetry. Once again, as has happened so many times over the past few weeks, I have learned that there is an important intersection between one of my particular interests with the digital sphere. Poetry, like video games, has a long digital history and a promising digital future. But what is digital poetry, and how does it differ from its non-digital counterpart?

Funkhouser’s explanation is not the sort of entirely negative or differential definition I was expecting: rather than defining digital poetry by what it is not, or in terms of how it differs from traditional poetry, Funkhouser creates an entirely new space for Digital Poetry:

“Digital poetry is a genre that fuses crafted language with new media technology and techniques enabled by such equipment, and is a reasonable label to use in describing forms of literary work that are presented on screens with the assistance of computers and/or computer programming. A poem is a digital poem if computer programming or processes (software, etc.) are distinctively used in the composition, generation, or presentation of the text (or combinations of texts).”

When I read this, I began to consider several things:
1) Is a poetic work ‘digital poetry’ if it is written on the computer with the intention of being distributed solely online?
2) Where is the line between ‘digital poetry’ and a piece of digital art that is not poetry?
3) Might works which I had previously considered visual art now fit under the heading of ‘digital poetry’?

The answer to the third question depends on the answers to the previous questions. So, we proceed up the list.

The second question is something that I do not think I alone can solve. In fact, principles of aesthetic inclusion have a large cultural component, so I would appreciate the opinions of others. For my own part, I would tentatively offer the explanation that digital poetry must have a language component which is necessary to its manifestation; digital art need not (my terms here are intentionally broad).

Now this is digital p-OH!-etry.

In this digital poem, a sound is played whenever the reader hovers over the letter “O”.

This leaves the first question. In considering it, I thought back to our earlier readings about how there were forces at work which were trying to establish–that is, to close off alternative readings of–the nature of digital humanities. Might a similarly restrictive methodology be at work here; and, is such an approach consistent with the underlying principles of digital humanism (which seems to value openness and inclusivity)?

Of course, most writing today–whether poetry or anything else–is done using a computer. Is all such work ‘digital’? Perhaps not.

I came back to my earlier conception, from question 2, of the necessity of the digital component. Therefore, if the digital component is a necessary part of the poetic work, it is a digital poem. Or, to put that another way, could the same poem have been composed in the absence of a computer (noting that I include the intended audience as a factor in the composition)?

So, whilst a Tweet poem might just have easily been written by hand on a piece of paper, the same digital audience could not be reached in that way–nor could any analogue to such an audience be reached. Moreover, the very limitations of the Tweet–140 characters–imposes a certain structural rigidity upon a poem which employs the Tweet format. Because these are factors which affect the creation of the content, and which cannot be escaped by the author (or, more precisely, which are deliberately accepted), they are necessary components of the content.

These are still matters which I am considering, and about which I have yet to form firm conclusions. But this is consistent with my conception of the digital humanities as a process, not a fixed destination.

The name may be a pun, but this tart is not a lie.

devianTART by claremanson

The application of these thoughts leads to my wild card this week: deviantART (http://www.deviantart.com) deviantART (colloquially referred to as devART or DA) is the single largest social network for artists on the internet. It was founded in August of 2000 and receives over 100,000 submissions per day. Artistic endeavours of nearly every conceiveable form are represented, including digital poetry in abundance (some written by your humble correspondent). One can find writing of every type, and indeed of every style. Any number of studies could be done–including the sort of quantitative studies which were represented in last week’s discussion. In short, I think that deviantART is something with which every digital humanist should be familiar for, more than any other website which I have encountered, it seems to be built upon the fundamental principles of the digital humanities revolution–a fact no less surprising for its grass-roots origins outside of the academy and squarely in the realm of the public.

Well, I was not quite able to keep it to five hundred words–but that goal, like the digital humanities, is also a work in progress.

Bonus Wild Card: ELMCIP (Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice) — a more academic approach to the digital language art medium. (http://elmcip.net/)

 
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Posted by on 30 September 2012 in Essays

 

The Danger of the Longue Durée

The expanding use of quantitative analysis within the humanities has led to some surprising conclusions, such as when a cyclical structure seemed to appear in the course of analysing publication trends in order to graph the popularity of genres by the number of books published in those genres. In Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Franco Moretti observes that, “Normal literature remains in place for twenty-five years or so,” –and, drawing upon the work of Karl Mannheim, he concludes–somewhat uneasily–that these shifts are down to generational changes within society (Moretti 21). Uncomfortable with the term ‘generational’, Moretti feels compelled to employ it (or something like it), to describe the cyclical structure he observes when the rise and fall of genres, determined by publication data, are viewed at a considerable distance.

The only conclusion that seems to fit the data is that the election of Republican senators causes sunspots--or is it that sunspots cause the election of Republican senators?

Republican Senators and Sunspots

I believe that potential ends of this approach are subject to the underlying danger of taking a very large series of numbers (each of which are of individual interest) and then trying to create an explanation that fits the entire group, like unto the clothing of an entire school in the same bib-and-trouser combination, regardless of gender or age (the uniformity from above must look very nice, but the bib-wearing homecoming queen probably looks a bit silly up close). Moretti himself confesses that there are troubling issues with his generational argument, and I aver that it can entirely ignore what really drives the success of genres: individual luminaries who so entirely transform and transcend the canon–elbowing their way in and making a space for themselves within it–that they revitalise the genre in which they work, and encourage countless imitators to follow in their footsteps (cf. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon). These imitations, inferior though they may be, are snapped up eagerly by a reading public eager for more of what they desire. Only when the luminary has ceased to produce; when the imitators fail to satisfy with their base copies; when the reader will not be tricked into purchasing another ultimately disappointing text–only then does a genre fade away: the genre is both the beneficiary and the victim of its greatest artist.

A look at the rising and falling fortunes of the novel as a whole seem to offer perfectly just reasons for individual occurances of decline. Moretti notes that the dropoff around 1776 might well be attributed to numerous war-related concerns such as the availability of paper and the lack of artistic production. But I felt a twinge of unease when I read his concern that there was a systemic cycle at work, and that it is this cycle–not the proximate reasons behind the decline of a moment–which are the true causes for the repetition of decline.

But why is this a matter for concern? After all, cycles seem to find their way into governing every aspect of our life, whether we know it or not. Let us take as our example the income tax system. Consumer spending is affected by the annual returns issued by the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than try to explain what was so special about May 2010, May 2011, and May 2012–would it not be more logistically parsimonious to use one reason to explain them all? Very probably so–but it would also separate the analyst from the realities of monthly changes in technology advances, new productions, and price fluctuations which could be more useful as a means of understanding a particular historical moment than the broad-brush explanation of tax returns. Certainly, more money enters the public pocket after tax returns are mailed–but consumers need something to spend it on. Why are they so keen to spend it in the first place? What are they buying? Are they spending more because they have more money, just like last May, or are they spending more because companies, aware of the cycle, time their sales and new product launches to coincide with the readiness of funds? This line of inquiry is precluded in the ready acceptance of large-scale conclusions about apparent cycles.

At a distance of some six million miles, one blue planet looks much like any other; it could be Uranus or Neptune. But this particular blue planet has a significance that can only be seen up close.

Earth and the Moon, from NASA’s Juno spacecraft

We could, therefore, conclude that the rise and fall of genres is down to generational shifts: regular, to be expected, ordinary. But to be ordinary is to be unworthy of comment, and perhaps even unworthy of study. Worse, the explanation of the cycle often only explains itself: “the fall of genres is due to generational shifts,” is a statement which conflates one term with the other: genre with generation. But this still does not tell us why one generation should prefer the Gothic to the Historical, the Epistolary to the Romance. At best, the explanation of a longue durée cycle can only offer us the lowest resolution of knowledge, the most general and therefore least felicitous answer to inquiry. At worst, it risks turning moments of true genius into nothing more than productions of temporality, economics, or cultural necessity. Shakespeare’s brilliance, seen from the terrifying heights of the cyclical longue durée, was just the centre of a generational shift. If he had not been, someone else–perhaps Marlowe–would have been the centre; and if not Marlowe, someone else. No longer the producer of genius, Shakespeare is become the production of a moment: as inevitable and as unremarkable as the coming of the tide.

Hence, the longue durée quantitification of humanist systems into vast cycles and distant graphs cannot be the explanation, but only the beginning of inquiry. To see a graph of the rise and fall of genres, it is only too easy to explain it away by describing it with an analogue to itself: “a recurrence every twenty-five years? That is about as long as a generation. Ergo, it is a generational shift!” But, if we instead observe the cycle and ask what is important about a particular dip, then to compare it objectively about what is striking with another, we might begin to see something of the causes that undergird the apparent cycle. But, it may just as easily be a mirage. Perhaps, a future survey of a thousand years of human genre production will show that the past three centuries of ‘cycle’ is just a strange aberration; a coincidence. Seen from an even greater height, even those details may vanish into the background.

Moretti, too, views the data as the jumping-off point. “Quantification poses the problem,” he writes (Moretti 26). It is only when he adds, “and form offers the solution,” that we part ways.

At this level, the individual atomic bonds can be seen, as can their tiny variations--tiny variations which are of enormous importance in physics.

A Single Molecule of Pentacene

Consider the history of video games. It is easy to see similarities in the crash of 1983 and events taking place in the industry at present: consolidation, economic pressure on consumers, and ever-increasing iterative production which is even now verging on saturation. Writing from a dystopic future where the video game industry has gone to bits once again, Moretti might well say it is a cycle, and proffer the forms above as an explanation which is corollary to both moments. But, I would prefer to study Atari in the case of the former situation, or Activision and Electronic Arts in the case of the latter, because their superficial similarities–so similar at a great distance–belie the significant differences visible only upon a closer inspection: differences that are tantamount to entirely different reasons for each crash.

These lessons are not purely abstract: in fact, they are important in thinking about the shift of academia towards embracing Digital Humanities and the institutionalisation that might follow upon it. Earlier readings for this semester touched upon the perils of Digital Humanities becoming instutionalised, just like the previous “Next Big Thing”. But rather than view this as just another episode in a cycle of innovation, institutionalisation, ossification, it might be better to consider the ways in which Digital Humanities is different–indeed, so different than it might transcend the very system that would enforce cyclicality upon it. Cathy N. Davidson’s sections on Decentering Knowledge and Authority and “The Future of Learning Institutions” in “Humanities 2.0” serve as perfect examples of this result (Gold, 480-483). Awareness of what makes a particular moment unique–what allows it to resist a cycle or what causes it to be subjected to it–can inform action in the present.

Changes to the system of peer review, collaborative writing, and the fundamental nature of how the academic humanities work could be the very factors that liberate Digital Humanities from becoming just another short-lived peak. In that case, far from being subject to a large-scale cycle, the advent of Digital Humanities could become, itself, the new structure against which future rises and falls are mapped.


Wild Card
Digital History Project. Web. 23 September, 2012. http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/
The Digital History Project is a resource maintained by professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Amongst its aims, it seeks to educate not only students but also scholars as to the uses of applying digital humanities techniques to the study of History. Numerous resources include blog entries, reviews of tools, and a directory of digital historians. Those interested in cultural studies–always closely related to the historical moment–might find this an excellent resource.
(Of immediate practicality are the reviews of online tools, which are particularly interesting given our upcoming assignment.)

 
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Posted by on 23 September 2012 in Essays

 

Gaming in the Digital Humanities

This *translation* are sick, but the game is top-notch.

Are this narrative? Or are it merely a game?

It may seem inconceiveable, but until this semester I had never thought that the study of game narratives within the humanities was something which could be done, let alone encouraged and funded. To be fair, a large part of this shortsightedness had to do with my undergraduate and Master’s studies taking place at Oakland University, where the literature department did not actively pursue studies in the digital humanities (at least, not in any particularly visible way). Indeed, my colleagues there were surprised–and shocked–to learn that I am, and ever have been, a tireless advocate of game narratives as literature. And, after all, my day job is dependant upon just such a position. Reading over the texts for this week, it seems that the work I have put into game journalism without cessation since 1998 (at AllRPG, The GIA, and RPGamer) might prove to be useful after all–and not just useful, but a positive boon in terms of a rapidly expanding field which needs earnest advocates.

Whilst my staff members have occasionally offered their own insights into story-telling and games, I made a concerted effort to keep games and academia entirely separate. Then, this week, I read the assigned blog entry from Alex Reid, in which he expresses his perplexity at how the “Big Tent Digital Humanities” themed Digital Humanities conference contained “no mention of games studies”. And, in Douglas Eyman’s forthcoming Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice, Eyman recounts how his early experiences with games shaped the ways in which he would come to view the computer in relation to composition and narrative delivery: “not as a machine for computation so much as a new way to experience the stories embedded in the gameplay” (Eyman 2). His participation in a MUD must have also introduced him to the ways in which digital and virtual worlds were affording users opportunities not only to consume, but also to produce, literary content (Eyman 6). And, in fact, the text itself is meant as an introduction to the work of Eyman and others who are involved in “developing new theories and new methods for working with “born digital” texts”–such as the user-produced narrative of a MUD, the storyline of a popular role-playing game, or the blog of an academic like Alex Reid.

Would Rincewind approve of a dour academic study of The Disc?

Is the narrative only the programmed content, or is it also the users who interact with it?

As I thought on the difficulty which Alex Reid had encountered with the Digital Humanities conference in February of 2011, I began to wonder if there were not other pathways which an interested party might take. Surely, the Digital Humanities conference was not the only game in town: were there academic journals or online resources which one could turn to as an alternative venue for presenting scholarly work or conferencing? Reid himself acknowledges that “there are dozens of games and digital media conferences.” A fair point, but the big conferences I am familiar with–the Tokyo Game Show, Electronic Entertainment Expo, and Game Developers Conference could hardly be termed ‘scholarly’ venues. So, a quick search of Google and Wikipedia led me to a number of promising leads. One of these was Gameology, which bills itself as “a scholarly community dedicated to the study of video games.” Perusing the front page turns up blog entries, announcements about upcoming workshops, article-length papers, and roundtable presentations. Run by Zach Whalen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Mary Washington, it lacks the large-scale editorial and review boards of Game Studies or Eludamos. But, this small size may be useful if one is interested in a low-pressure, scholarly environment in which it would be possible to gauge interest in a topic or toss around a few ideas to see what comes out of it.

What changes has this led to in terms of viewing the field of Digital Humanities? Whereas before, my evaluation of the ‘digital’ sphere was primarily viewed in terms of resources, tools, and deliberately produced scholarly content, I now feel more comfortable thinking of the digital as including the narratives of games and online communities. In particular, I am fascinated with the idea that user-produced content might itself be a valid subject of study rather than a secondary by-product of digital interaction in the gaming sphere, and how this might connect with my own area of literary interest. For example, I have now begun to wonder about the analogues to the bardic tradition, or to popular entertainments of the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Perhaps, when users gather together to create and share their own narratives, it proves that the ‘travelling storyteller’ tradition is alive and well in the digital sphere.

 
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Posted by on 9 September 2012 in Essays

 

My Introduction to the Digital Humanities

An excellent book if one is interested in the history of the Crusades, or in the historical interaction between Christians and Muslims.

Soldiers of the Faith by Ronald C. Finucane

One of my first–and most pedagogically useful–experiences with the Digital Humanities came from a direction that seemed, on the face of it, the most improbable of all.

I was an undergraduate in my second year, labouring away at the three majors I had going at the time (I hadn’t yet given up hope of being an astronomer). I had to sit an undergraduate seminar on research in History, for the purpose of completing the degree requirements for that major, and I ended up taking the course with a professor who I had already gotten to know, being as he was the undergraduate advisor. His name was Ronald Finucane.

Professor Finucane was, to my young mind, the model of everything a professor should be. Fearless and frank in his academic opinions, graduated out of Oxford, consummately prepared with a lecture-heavy style, stern yet with a sharp sense of humour, and otherwise old-school in all of the best ways. Yet, this did not translate into a fear of technology or development: he encouraged the use of laptops as note-taking devices (to my relief and delight, as they have revolutionised the way in which I write my notes), and he also embraced the digitisation of resources.

Prior to the digitisation of resources, archival research was often ponderous, difficult, and contingent upon a fair bit of luck. One would speak to an archivist, hope to God they knew something about what one was researching, and go in to the archive with blind faith in what was selected for one to read over. Sometimes, this meant finding an unexpected treasure–usually, it meant fruitless hours spent in a dingy room smelling of mould and the withering dreams of prospective researchers.

One can hardly imagine clergy, accused of every sort of heinous crime, hiding behind this magnificent architecture--but they did.

St. Paul’s Church, Hammersmith, County Middlesex

Professor Finucane not only encouraged us to embrace these digital resources, he required it. Our final project for the course was to do a piece of original research using the Middlesex Sessions Rolls–freely available online–and to come up with an approach, topic, and thesis entirely on our own, with the use of that digital resouce being the only requirement. Professor Finucane would approve each topic, and the only restriction was on the years chosen–any one decade span during the reign of Mary or Elizabeth I.

The papers which were produced were varied (I wrote my own paper on instances of clerical misconduct and what this evinced about the behaviour and fate of London clergy) and, surprisingly, of a much higher calibre than those I would often encounter later in my studies. This was probably down, in part, to Professor Finucane’s fantastic teaching style (a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he would later become a distinguished professor at my university), but also to the ease of access to primary historical documents (almost always the best jumping-off point) afforded by digital resources.

The lessons obtained in that undergraduate course have stuck with me and formed my research style and approach more than anything since–more than any of the (now six!) specific courses on Critical Theory which I have taken (none of which, it must be said, even mentioned the digital humanities revolution). Digital research has been an absolutely vital part of every research project I have ever undertaken, and I attribute much of my success as a student to learning the value of effectively using those resources.

Professor Finucane wrote recommendation letters for me when I applied (and was accepted) to graduate school for History. He died that autumn, far too early, from lung cancer. But I remember him, unflinchingly and to the end, as a scholar who was never afraid of change or evolution in his field. Instead, he approached these developments as any scholar ought to: with native curiosity to discover what it might mean and how best to employ it.

Hopefully I, too, will be just as open to new developments and innovations in my discipline. And should I start to waver, I have the remembrance of some excellent role models to put me back on course.

 
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Posted by on 4 September 2012 in Essays