Bethany Nowviskie

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.

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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a game nonetheless

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[I recently had the pleasure of responding to a creative and beautifully grounded talk by Kevin Hamilton of the University of Illinois, called “Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes.” Kevin spoke as part of a workshop on “Algorithmic Cultures,” hosted by Chad Wellmon at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The great Frank Pasquale also presented on themes from his new book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, to which Siva Vaidhyanathan offered an illuminating response. My thanks to Chad and the IASC for hosting the conversation, and to Frank and Kevin for their encouragement to post these remarks. I hope Kevin will publish his terrific paper! You’ll only get glimpses of it in what is to follow.]

I want to begin from Kevin Hamilton’s own, very effective jumping-off point. By doing that, I’ll hope to encourage some further historical and contextual thinking about these problems in much the same way Kevin did, with his situating of the “black box” metaphor in changing 20th-century conceptions of agency and work—in our evolving notions of the relation of laborers to the systems and environments they inhabit. My context is a little different, though, if closely aligned, because I’m thinking of modes of interpretive work, of scholarship and creativity in the humanities. I’ll also talk a bit about the formal definition of the algorithm, and why I think it’s useful—particularly for practitioners and critics of the digital humanities but really for all scholars engaged in a discussion of algorithmic culture—to be clear on what an algorithm is and is not, especially in its connection to the kind of work we and most of our academic colleagues do.

“What do we do,” Kevin productively asks, “when the sociotechnical system we hope to study is obscured from view?” You’ve heard from him about a range of experimental approaches, all tending toward the conclusion—which resonates strongly with my own experience in digital project and platform design—that the most fruitful research paths may lie beyond or alongside the impulse to “reveal” the contents of a so-called algorithmic black box: even to include making a kind of peace with our platforms and our growing awareness of own situated positions within them.

But I’ll ask again. Traditionally, when we become interested in obscured systems, what do we do? Well, “we” (the sort of folks, that is, in the room today)—go to grad school.

Nobody lives with conceptual black boxes and the allure of revelation more than the philologist or the scholarly editor. Unless it’s the historian—or the archaeologist—or the interpreter of the aesthetic dimension of arts and letters. Okay, nobody lives with black boxes more than the modern humanities scholar, and not only because of the ever-more-evident algorithmic and proprietary nature of our shared infrastructure for scholarly communication. She lives with black boxes for two further reasons: both because her subjects of inquiry are themselves products of systems obscured by time and loss (opaque or inaccessible, in part or in whole), and because she operates on datasets that, generally, come to her through the multiple, muddy layers of accident, selection, possessiveness, generosity, intellectual honesty, outright deception, and hard-to-parse interoperating subjectivities that we call a library. Read the rest of this entry »

open and shut

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I recently collaborated on a project a little outside the ordinary for me: a case study for a chapter in a forthcoming textbook for, well, cops and spooks. (Cue performative outrage and sub-tweeting about the digital humanities’ complicity in our modern surveillance state–which I will address in a moment.) The book is the infelicitously-titled Application of Big Data for National Security: A Practitioner’s Guide to Emerging Technologies, edited by Babak Akhgar et al. These are circles alien to me, but in which my chapter’s co-author, Gregory Saathoff, frequently moves.

I write about the project here for two reasons–seemingly different, but in fact closely aligned. The first is that I successfully and quite easily negotiated alterations to my author’s contract with Elsevier (my own little valentine) that made it possible for me to reconcile placing the chapter in a Butterworth-Heinemann book with my deeply-held open access values. (I remain, in terms of journal publishing, a Cost of Knowledge signatory, pledging not to publish in or contribute editing and reviewing time to Elsevier journals until their business practices become less damaging to academic libraries and the public good.) I thought it might be helpful for others to know how I undertook this negotiation, and why open access publishing is usually even easier for me. The other reason for this post has to do with the content and message of the book chapter, and its relation to recent debates in the digital humanities. This, too, relates to problems of openness, audience, and the public impact of humanities scholarship. Read the rest of this entry »

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.