Notes towards moving ideas around the DH world*

[Update: February 6th. I’ve translated this post into Spanish here]

I don’t usually like to get involved in the controversial discussions on Digital Humanities. As a junior scholar I feel too exposed to being dismissed as inexperienced or, simply, not read. But in this case, the matter’s too close to home not to say at least a bit on what I’ve learnt in my years as a Spanish speaking DHer working in North America.

I’d like to begin with a recent anecdote.

A few weeks ago during the MLA convention I participated in the only Spanish Literature DH panel: New Digital Vanguards in Spanish Literature. As many other DH sessions it was included in Mark Sample’s extensive list. And as many other DH sessions, it was widely successful–there were people standing and sitting on the floor–the crowd was made up of a large majority of Spanish speaking scholars. When I talked to fellow non-Spanish speaking DHers, except for those who already knew me, I realized none of them had heard about the session.

In casual conversation, a colleague suggested he might have overlooked it because the session was in Spanish. When I pointed out that three out of four presentations were given in English, he suggested that we should’ve indicated that in the panel description, so that others knew they could attend. The titles and abstracts of the presentations were in English. I don’t know what, other that the word ‘Spanish’ on the session title, might have given the impression that the session would be conducted exclusively in Spanish. I want to believe it’s not a lack of interest in non-Anglo DH; afterall, DHPoco’s session on Sunday morning was packed too, but a matter of who brings attention to non-Anglo-American DH to this context, of how to give visibility to what and through which channels.

This anecdote and my blurry thoughts on it clicked on Saturday morning when, like many others, I came across Domenico Fiormonte’s post Humanidades Digitales y Diversidad Cultural and the ensuing debates on Twitter over the weekend.

In that post, Fiormonte challenges the title, and the choice and implications of the contents of Defining Digital Humanities (DDH). Fiormonte’s main concern is how the focus on Anglo-American DH work visible in collections such as DDH are fostering a skewed view of DH around the world. Or as he summarized it on Twitter, “The main point of my critique was that DDH does not reflect DH outside anglo world.” Responding to Bethany Nowviskie’s tweet sharing Fiormonte’s post, Melissa Terras co-editor of the DDH collection argued that DDH “couldn’t feature work which didn’t already exist” and that the contents came “from an analysis of most cited articles from 100+ courses”. Though the methodology explains the selection, on the downside it leaves out materials that, in Terras’ words, “no one reads or cites.”

Terras’ response has some points. It is fair not to know everything. It is fair to acknowledgedly exclude things based on methodological constraints and research or editorial objectives. But it is not fair to say that things don’t exist because we don’t know them. As Fiormonte put it, “The “material” is out there since 1949.” It almost seems unnecessary to say that much has been written on DH in many languages, but it is not unnecessary.

Now, what’s out there? A lot and I don’t think anyone could claim to know it all. I know I can’t, not even in Spanish, and that’s my fault exclusively. However, I have learnt a bit since I started MapaHD (a survey on Spanish and Portuguese DHers) with Silvia Gutiérrez, and that has led me to reflect on the issue of this particular community’s visibility (or lack thereof) for a while.

From MapaHD, we have learnt that early researchers’ trajectories stretch back over thirty years (a token of the polygenetic origin of DH as Fiormonte calls it). Thanks to Antonio Rojas Castro who started an Humanidades Digitales Zotero group in Spanish a few months back, we know that a lot has been written since the early 1980’s, more than I had actually imagined. Rojas Castro’s article “A historical and bibliographical approach to the emergence of Digital Humanities in Spain” offers a fantastic tour of these findings. The Zotero group has benefited from the contributions of about thirty members, and the library has gathered 202 items.

So, there is material. Articles and blog posts have been written, published, discussed, and archived. The archives of DiaHD (DayofDH in Spanish and Portuguese) are an incredible resource, by the way. The question then is what’s missing? Why does all this work seem to some non-existent? What has been the factor keeping from communication channels to be established? Why is it that none, or very little, of it is included in courses? Might it be just language? Why does no one read it? Who is that ‘no one’ Terras refers to? What is behind the “discursive domination” as Fiormonte puts it? What can be done about it?

Isabel Galina very rightly pointed out the need to do translation to favor a global DH community during her DH2013 keynote. Though totally right, her intuition seems to ask that Anglophone DH projects/articles were translated into other languages. However, I wonder if translations into English of DH projects in other languages are a greater necessity. Risking gross generalization, it’s not DH practitioners in other languages that need to come closer to Anglo-American DH (in El Humanista Digital online course, though there were a few complains about assigning readings in English, the majority of the students seemed to have no issue with it) but the other way around. It’s the articles, blog posts, and websites in other languages that seem to be in need of being translated into English or risk going unnoticed from courses and collections like DDH.

In a different article, Galina herself has listed four issues that might contribute to the lack of visibility:

  • Communication channels predominantly Anglo-American are bound to produce information about their initiatives and projects.
  • Although Digital Humanities is predominant, there is work being done in other parts of the world and in other languages.
  • Little is known about the work done in other parts of the world.
  • Information about other DH projects is non-existent or has little visibility. (my translation)

Issues of academic predominance aside. Issues of DH genealogy aside as well. Whether the work done around the world will be known by Anglo-American DH or not is going to be, at least partially, a matter of translation: linguistic as well as physical, since our beloved digital channels and networks seem to be coming short.

Being a Spanish speaking DHer and working in North America, I have many times wondered what I’d take on as my mission in this context. It is equally a professional and a personal concern. How to bring Anglo-American DH closer to Spanish speaking countries?  How to bring Spanish speaking DH closer to English speaking countries? This issue has worried me for a long time (I wrote about it here for DiaHD). I’d like to believe the two movements are not mutually exclusive, but they are hard to mix. And in my extremely privileged position, I’m specially wary of the first option and the risk of becoming an agent of import contributing to build a Spanish speaking audience in Fiormonte’s words “conforming to Anglophone models” or something that looks like it. So I’ve tried to make a little dent in Anglo-American DH through my research work, when I meet colleagues, and through projects like MapaHD, which, incidentally, I started translating a couple of months ago so that it can reach a wider audience.

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to show the world from MapaHD is how taking as a starting point the center-centric DH praxis, we can see how inadequate the notion of ‘center’ was to provide a fair representation and location of the DH praxis around the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. An absence of centers in Mexico or Argentina–to use two examples that radically stand out in CenterNet’s map–certainly does not imply a deficit for DH practitioners in said places, but it does mean that particular work dynamics have been put in place for DH to thrive there too. Far from questioning the soundness of said practices, the issue is how can they be incorporated into a center-centric DH? How can they be invited in? This is a token example, but it’s also very telling of how adjusting the ‘terms’ and tweaking ‘the measuring system’ (from center to initiative/project, for example), can lead to discover a wide variety of practices, approaches, and definitions.

I’ve been pondering about this example above all as a starting point to think how that adjustment or tweaking can be done on a larger scale: to actually and consistently move people and their ideas around the world. I can only imagine that bringing scholars from around the world to North American and UK forums; facilitating the translation into English of even a little bit of the work that’s been done; and other ways of being inviting would have an equally favorable effect. This is something that we need to get used to working for as a community. Still, not everything would be read by everybody, not everything would be cited everywhere, but it would be harder to say that work done around the world doesn’t exist.

Multilingual translation is becoming the norm for conference CFP in the field. On the institutional side why not make it part of the ADHO’s Multi-lingualism and Multi-culturalism committee to search for and translate into various languages a selection of articles and blog posts annually or bi-annually. Non-institutionally, why not those of us who can do it, pick an article/blog post written in a language we can read, and translate it into our first language. It is an effort well worth some extra time/work/people. It is also something that can fruitfully be incorporated into DH courses and seminars: a way to engage hands-on and be responsible of the diversity of the DH field. And it is certainly something that we’d like to see be part of the global DH community if we’re to call it so.

*Many thanks to Josh Honn for his comments and suggestions during the writing of this post.

Language, Questions & Formulas

Language

Today is a day of transition for this blog. It will from now on be written in English. For about two years I have used this place to develop inch by inch my PhD dissertation project. There have been many stages when things seem to point in one direction, and then onto another, and another and so on. Typical dissertation stuff. The problem is, unless you read Spanish all of that will be… well, in Spanish.

So I thought a good way to relaunch this blog (and on the first of the month!) would be to survey it for all the newcomers the turn to this digital lingua franca will, hopefully, bring.

Questions

My dissertation project was born out of my obsession with reading, readers and narrative, and a handful of questions regarding that as they’re relevant in our time: What human needs and skills have made storytelling so crucial throughout history, so much so that storytelling is itself the subject of much storytelling? What makes storytelling so adaptable to whatever media or technological development is current at a given time? Why/how do we get so involved with stories even in — or because of — the supposedly alienating digital media? From there, the project has grown considerably, so in order not to write a very long post I will try to be mathematically abstract and concise — you can blame my recent rediscovery of math through a python course. The idea is to use it as an index to trace back my steps and, in the next few weeks, post again about previously explored topics. Hopefully some ideas will have changed and developed. while others might have been discarded for good.

Formulas

Very succinctly these are the problems I have encountered along the way and some of the places where I’ve looked for answers:

Problem 1. What happens when we read on a neuronal level, what implications for our life that has.

— reading + mind = (theory of mind + neuron recycling) + (social simulation + empathy)

Problem 2. Why read fiction? what we get out of fiction, and how that has been fictionalized too

— reading + fiction = (Don Quixote + Unamuno + et al) + metafiction +- postmodernism

Problem 3. The way ideas such as “book”, “story”, “social”, have changed through time and most relevantly how that seems to end up as new forms of narrative, and new stories

— history of reading = (book history + [the origin of storytelling + sociality]) ** new ways of telling stories

Problem 4. New ways of telling stories are currently being shaped by the new media through which we access/experience said stories

— reading + digital media = (convergence + intermediality) / (immersive fiction + metafiction)

That’s just the theory. After all, it’s been two years. More details on each of the problems will come soon, as well as the case study and the big methodology of analysis.