Bethany Nowviskie

alternate futures/usable pasts

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[While I’m cleaning up the text of a talk I gave at Harvard’s Hazen Symposium last week (see #HazenatHarvard or Merrilee’s Storify for tweets from many great presentations), I thought I’d share just the prelude and final paragraph to one that preceded it, and was really a first stab at the concept. This is from Marquette University Library in late September.]

It wasn’t until I took a job in the library that I became unstuck in time. I thought I knew what time was, in that way that you think you know things, now, when you’re just out of your 20s and it’s possible you could have it all together. I thought I knew time as a young mother: how it drags and loops with repetition (sleep and milk and laundry); how quickly it passes, as little bodies grow and reach and change. I thought I knew it as a scholar. My academic training had been in classical archaeology, on the one hand, and poetry and textual criticism on the other—the meter of lyric verse and the history of print culture—with a weird stop-over in the middle to teach the design and aesthetics of video games. Each of these disparate fields has its own ticking metronome, its particular largo or accelerando. They have positionality as disciplines and different ways of positioning the objects of their study, all splayed out on timelines of their own making.

I thought I knew time, too, because I’d designed software to model it. Part of my dissertation work around (ahem) the turn of the century, in which I was grappling toward something I called Speculative Computing, had been to collaborate with a small team (Johanna Drucker, Jim Allman, Petra Michel, and many generous colleagues) in prototyping a tool for humanistic timelines. These were timelines not governed—as nearly all digital interfaces to time were then and still are—by the mechanical ticking of a scientific clock. We were funded, oddly enough, by a grant to Johanna from the Intel Corporation, which was interested in hardware requirements for the Don Draper-like transcendent moments they hoped you might have with the digital equivalent of your family’s slide carousel. They wanted to sell computers that were machines for memory, rather than just memory-machines. So they offered money (time is money) to some humanities scholars (who come cheap), to tinker with stretchy, squishy timelines, to imagine interfaces and interaction modes for the personal and uniquely human experience of time.

We created timeline tools for fiction and memoir and contested historical events, lines on which nothing could be pinned precisely, tools for sketching ambiguous causes and imprecise moments. Our Temporal Modelling Project made timelines for causal relations and visions proleptic—acts of revision and retrospect, anticipation, prediction, self-illusion, and regret. We modeled time that zips by, and time that drags its feet. We also built branching timelines, my specialty, in which the subjective observer’s standing-point—the moment of the now, my experience necessarily very different from yours even in the same instant—was like a bead: any number of beads, really, all valid imaginary nows—which could move freely back and forth along unraveling threads of time—concentrating them for a moment, maybe, into a contingent view of past, present, and future—but always in motion and part of a fabric of observation and interpretation, being perpetually unmade and made.

So I guess I was primed to look beyond progress narratives and linear conceptions of time. Read the rest of this entry »

everywhere, every when

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This is the text of a presentation I made yesterday at a wonderful Columbia University symposium called Insuetude (still ongoing), which is bringing media archaeologists together with stones-and-bones archaeologists. I started my talk with a bit of film, as a way of time-traveling to the middle of my theme, in part for the pleasure of taking a jarring step back out. Please watch the first 90 seconds or so of The Last Angel of History, a brilliant 1996 documentary by John Akomfrah. You can catch it in this clip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now—what would it mean to take an explicitly antiracist approach to the digitization of cultural heritage? To its technological recovery? To its presentation, not as static content to be received, but as active technology to be used? What would it mean to create an actively antiracist digital library?

Let us first understand the construction of libraries in general, along with their embedded activities of remediation and digital stewardship, as exercises in spatial and temporal prospect. This is work that requires practitioners and builders to develop a geospatially expansive imagination, and to see their charge as having as much to do with things speculative as with retrospect—as much, that is, with scrying for possible, yet-unrealized futures as with reflecting documented, material pasts. If we agree that our collective network of libraries, archives, and museums should be made for prospect—with spatial scope and (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) holding “the future in their bones”—then taking up the design problem of an antiracist digital library, particularly in this country, means addressing one fundamental question.

Where and when do black lives matter? Read the rest of this entry »

capacity through care

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[This is the draft of an invited contribution to a forum on “care” that will appear in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2017, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. It’s a capsule summary of my NEH talk, “On Capacity and Care.” (A more digestible pill?)] 

The grand challenges that face (and link) little cultures and fragile creatures across the implacable Anthropocene must be met by an academy made more capable—in every sense of that open-handed word. But our perpetually erupting anxieties about data-driven research and inquiry “at scale” seem to betray a deep-seated—and ill-timed—discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities.

There are obvious and valid reasons for humanities scholars to be skeptical of big data analysis, distant reading, or work in the longue durée: problems of surveillance and privacy; the political ends to which data mining can be put and the systems of consumption and control in which it is complicit; intractable and cascading structural inequities in access to information; and disparities in sampling and representation, which limit the visibility of historical and present-day communities in our datasets, or filter them through a hostile lens. We can further understand and respect a discomfort with vastness in fields that have, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff: working in bits and bobs and “small things forgotten.”

Humanities scholars make theoretical and practical advances—including advances in the cause of social justice—by forwarding carefully observed, exquisitely described jewel-box examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to understandings of history and the arts that would otherwise fall along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities research has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged views. Scholars do this by elevating instances of neglected or alternate lived experience—singular human conditions, often revealed to reflect the mainstream.

The most compelling arguments against algorithmic visualization and analysis are not, therefore, fueled by nostalgic scholarly conservatism, but rather emerge across the political spectrum. Yet they share a common fear. Will the use of digital methods lead to an erosion of our most unique facility in the humanities, the aptitude for fine-grained and careful interpretive observation? In seeking macroscopic or synthetic views of arts and culture, will we forget to look carefully and take—or teach—care?

I see the well-established feminist ethic and praxis of care, itself, as a framework through which the digital humanities might advance in a deeply intertwingled, globalized, data-saturated age. An ethic of care—as formalized in the 1970s and ‘80s by Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, and others—means to reorient its practitioners’ understanding in two essential ways. The first is toward a humanistic appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, earthly things and their interrelation. The second is away from the supposedly objective evaluation and judgment of the philosophical mainstream of ethics—that is, away from criticism—and toward personal, worldly action and response. After all, the chief contribution, over prior directions in moral philosophy, of the feminist ethics of the 18th and 19th century that inform this work, was to see the self as most complete when in connection with others. Kantian morality and utilitarianism had valorized an impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others. The mark of a fully developed (implicitly masculine) self was its ability to stand apart from and reason outside of familial systems and social bonds.

A feminist ethic of care—like many a DH research agenda or platform for large-scale visualization and analysis—seeks instead to illuminate the relationships of small components, one to another, within great systems. Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls engrossment: that close attention and focus on the other which provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of the cared-for person or group—or (I would say) of the qualities and affordances of an artifact, document, collection, or system requiring study or curation. Humanities scholars hone and experience engrossment in archival research and close reading. We perform it in explicating subjectivity. We reward each other for going deep. Yet one concern in the literature of care has been whether engrossment can become too intense. I believe the answer is the same for caregiving (nursing, teaching, tending, mothering, organizing) as it is for humanities scholarship. Real experts are those who manifest deep empathy, while still maintaining the level of distance necessary to perceive systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. In other words, empathetic appreciation of the positional or situated goes hand in hand with an increase in effective observational capacity. A care-filled humanities is by nature a capacious one.

To me, this suggests that a primary design desideratum for Anthropocenic DH and cultural heritage systems must be the facilitation of humanistic engrossment through digital reading (viewing, listening, sensing) and large-scale analysis. Let us build platforms that promote an understanding of the temporal vulnerability of the individual person or object; that more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole; and that instill, through depth of feeling in their users, an ethic of care—active, outward-facing, interdisciplinary, and expansive: sufficient to our daunting futures and broadened scope.



[Trigger warning: miscarriage.]

Ten years ago today, I lost the baby that might have come after my son, and not between him and my daughter, but instead of her. How can I be sad, when such a child is in the world? But grief doesn’t work like that. I fucking hate Halloween. I hide it from the kids, but have hated it for nine years. I hate All Saints’ Day, too. This is the tenth Hallowmas I’ve had occasion to hate — All Saints’ to All Souls, día de los Muertos, de los Inocentes. Angelitos.

Looking back, though, there were sweet things even then. My boy was two. He had been a pirate the night before, with an eyepatch I’d made, and a tinfoil dagger. On November 1st and 2nd he was still wobbling around the house chanting his botched catchphrase: “Shiver my noodle!” And all the costumes and candy and autumn leaves since.

About a month ago, I started steeling myself, as usual, and realized I was feeling better. I thought, “Ten years! Maybe that’s a coin you toss in: the TPQ for getting-over-it.” Now of course the day is here, and I’m thinking this is less like stratigraphy and more like carbon dating. Is there a half life for this crap?

Losing a little, wriggling germ of potential can be incredibly lonely. You go from future to now, and us to awful me in an instant. I can’t even imagine the earth-stopping grief that must attend a stillbirth or the death of a child. But with a miscarriage, people — friends, even family — may not know yet, that you were pregnant. This contributes to a culture of silence around the issue, and makes what is actually an entirely common event (by some estimates, up to 20% of known pregnancies and 50% of all conceptions) come as a terrible, unexpected, and solitary shock.

A couple of years after it happened, I started sending quiet little pings out into the social media ether, in alternating networks, to mark the date. I’ve done this every other year since, sometimes deleting them after they’d been up a while, and sometimes letting them linger. I decided a long time ago that the tenth year would be my last, and most public. (This is it.)

I’m a pro-choice atheist feminist whose life is full of joy. I believe that any feeling a person may have about this matter — from grief to anger to guilty relief — is valid and okay to feel. I began writing about my own pregnancy loss because I was always teaching grad students in one way or another, and working in the gendered field of librarianship which put me into contact with lots of women of childbearing age — and also because my work brought with it a growing following of younger colleagues online, where professional connections turn easily into friendships. My past Twitterings and scattered signal flags on Facebook were all much shorter and less personal than this post, but they’ve shared the same message:

Like so many women, many more than you may realize, I’ve been there. If it happens to you and you find you need someone — please remember this message, and know we are of a sisterhood.

You can talk to me.

on capacity and care

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[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]

Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.

We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.
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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.