resistance in the materials

[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé’s presidential forum on “Avenues of Access.” The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.]

Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I do this before I dive into my email, head off for consultations and meetings, or (more rarely) settle in to write. There’s a grinding whirr as the machine revs up. A harsh, lilac-colored light clicks on above the golden Kapton tape on the platform. Things become hot to the touch, and I walk away. I don’t even bother to stay, now, to see the mechanized arms begin a musical slide along paths I’ve programmed for them, or to watch how the fine filament gets pushed out, melted and microns-thin—additive, architectural—building up, from the bottom, the objects of my command.

I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I suppose I print to feel productive, on days when I know I’ll otherwise generate more words than things at the digital humanities center I direct at UVa Library. Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3d-printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things. That they kind of… want to. It’s like when I learned to set filthy lead type and push the heavy, rolling arm of a Vandercook press, when I should have been writing my dissertation.

I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. And when the extruders stop extruding, and the whole beast cools down, I’ll crack something solid and new off the platform—if a colleague in the lab hasn’t done that for me already. (It’s a satisfying moment in the process.)

Sometimes, though, I’ll come back to a mess—a failed print, looking like a ball of string or a blob of wax. Maybe something was crooked, by a millimeter. Maybe the structure contracted and cracked, no match for a cooling breeze from the open door. Or maybe it’s that my code was poor, and the image in my mind and on my screen failed to make contact with the Replicator’s sizzling build-plate—so the plastic filament that should have stuck like coral instead spiraled out into the air, and cooled and curled around nothing. Those are the mornings I think about William Morris.

It’s not too long ago that we couldn’t imagine humanities computing becoming so mainstreamed as to have a cutesy acronym, or cluster hires everywhere, or a dedicated office at the National Endowment and common campus centers, full-time strategists, and DH librarians—much less frustrated outsiders and active (rather than passive) detractors. In those days, as a grad student in the late 1990s, I apprenticed under Jerome McGann at the Rossetti Archive. Jerry had recently been interviewed for Lingua Franca by a then-unknown, 26-year-old tech writer (Steven Johnson), and had thrown a little Morris at him, by way of explaining the embodied frictions that become beautifully and revealingly evident when you move scholarly editorial practice, born in book culture, from print to digital media: “You can’t have art,” Morris, the master craftsman of the Pre-Raphaelites had said, “without resistance in the material.”

It’s a compelling line—reproduced (somewhat mechanically and often slightly mangled) all over, and only rarely contextualized or traced back to its source. Morris’s erstwhile son-in-law, Henry Halliday Sparling, reports it in a 1924 study of the Kelmscott Press, as part of the designer’s extended complaint about a newfangled device: the typewriter. For many years, in its precise terms, this seemed to me an odd quarrel to pick.

“Morris condemned the typewriter for creative work,” Sparling tells us, saying that “anything that gets between a man’s hand and his work, you see, is more or less bad for him. There’s a pleasant feel in the paper under one’s hand and the pen between one’s fingers that has its own part in the work done.” Morris goes on to extol a nicely-proportioned quill over the steel pen, and to condemn the pneumatic brush, “that thing for blowing ink on to the paper — because they come between the hand and its work, as I’ve said, and again because they make things too easy. The minute you make the executive part of the work too easy, the less thought there is in the result. And you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value.” So far, so good, but then Morris—whom I believe had never used a typewriter—concludes, a little awkwardly: “And it seems to me, too, that with a machine, one’s mind would be apt to be taken off the work at whiles by the machine sticking or what not.”

I’m generally with Morris until the final turn. Isn’t “the machine sticking or what not” just another kind of maker’s resistance? A complication we might identify, make accessible—which is sometimes to say tractable—and overcome? After all, the “executive part of the work” should never be “too easy.” Isn’t a sticky typewriter something to be worked against, or through—a defamiliarizing and salutary reminder of the material nature of every generative or transformative textual process?

But as I reflected on “Avenues of Access” (our theme for today’s session), I came to understand. Morris’s final, throwaway complaint is not about that positive, inherent resistance—the friction that makes art—which we happily seek within the humanities material we practice upon. It’s about resistance unhealthily and inaccessibly located in a toolset. 20th century pop psychology would see this as a disturbance in “flow.” 21st century interaction design seeks to avoid or repair such UX (or user experience) flaws. And, closer to home, precisely this kind of disenfranchising resistance is the one most felt by scholars and students new to the digital humanities. Evidence of friction in the means, rather than the materials, of digital humanities inquiry is everywhere evident in the program of this MLA convention. And it’s written in frustration all over the body of proposals and peer reviews for a conference of much greater disciplinary, DH-generational, and professional convergence I’m chairing later this year, Digital Humanities 2013.

When established DH practitioners and tool builders are feeling overly generous toward ourselves (as we occasionally do), we diminish our responsibility to address this frustration by naming it the inevitable “learning curve” of the digital humanities. Instead, we might confess that among the chief barriers to entry are poorly engineered and ineptly designed research tools and social systems, the creation of which is a sin we perpetrate on our own growing community. It’s the kind of sin easily and unwittingly committed by jacks of all trades. (And I’ll return to them, to us, in a minute.) But it’s worth reflecting that tensions and fractures and glitches of all sorts reveal opportunity.

When Morris frets about “the machine sticking or what not,” it is with an uncharacteristic voice. He offers the plaint of a passive tool-user—not of the capable artisan we’re accustomed to, who might be expected to fashion and refine and forge an intimate relationship with the instruments of his work. The resistance in the typewriter Morris imagines, and the resistance DH novices feel when they pick up fresh toolsets or enter new environments, is different from the positive “resistance in the material” encountered by earlier generations of computing humanists. It’s different from that happy resistance still felt by hands-on creators of humanities software and encoding systems.

Until quite recently, every self-professed digital humanist I knew was deeply engaged in tool-building, and in the most fundamental and direct kinds of humanities re-mediation. The tools we crafted might be algorithmic or procedural—software devices for performing operations on the already-digitized material of our attention—or patently ontological: conceptual tools like database designs and markup schema, for modeling humanities content in the first place. These were frameworks simultaneously lossy and enhancing, all of them (importantly) making and testing hypotheses about human texts and artifacts, and about the phase changes these objects go through as we move them into new media. No matter the type, our tools had one thing in common: overwhelmingly, their own users had made ’em, and understood the continual and collective re-making of them, in response to various resistances encountered and discovered, as a natural part of the process of their use. In fact, this constructivist and responsive maker’s circle was so easily and unavoidably experienced as the new, collaborative hermeneutic of humanities computing, as the work itself that—within or beyond our small community—we too rarely bothered to say so.

So much for the prelude. Three crucially important factors, all touching on modes of access, are converging for humanities computing today. I believe we’re at the most critical juncture for the welfare of digital research of any in my 18 years of involvement in the field. The first factor I’ll share with you sets unheard-of conditions for real, sustained, and fundamentally new advancements in humanities interpretation. The second de-familiarizes our own practice so thoroughly that we just might all (established and new actors alike) feel levels of “resistance” adequate to allow us to take advantage of the first. But I lose heart when I think about the third. I’ll walk through them one by one.

The first of my three factors starts with the massive, rapid, and inexorable conversion of our material cultural inheritance to digital forms. Hand-crafted, boutique digitization by humanities scholars and archivists (in the intrepid, research-oriented, hypothesis-testing mode of the ‘90s) was jarred and overwhelmed by the mid-2000s advent of mass digitization, in the form of Google Books. Least-common-denominator commercial digitization has had grave implications not only for our ability to insert humanities voices and perspectives in the process, but also for our collective capacity and will to think clearly about, to steward, and to engage with physical archives in its wake. A decade on, as a community of scholars and cultural heritage workers, we have only just begun to grapple with the primary phase change of digitization-at-scale, when we’ve become (for the most part) bystanders at the scene of a second major technological shift.

I gestured at it in the images with which I began my talk. Momentous cultural and scholarly changes will be brought about not by digitization alone, but by the development of ubiquitous digital-to-physical conversion tools and interfaces. What will humanities research and pedagogy do with consumer-accessible 3d fabrication? With embedded or wearable, responsive and tactile physical computing devices? What will we do with locative and augmented reality technologies that can bring our content off the screen and into our embodied, place-based, mobile lives? Our friends in archaeology and public history, recognizing the potential for students and new humanities audiences, are all over this. Writers and artists have begun to engage, as we can see next door in this year’s e-literature exhibit. And I believe that scholarly editors, paleographers, archivists, and book historians will be the next avid explorers of new digital materialities. But what might other literary scholars do? What new, interpretive research avenues will open up for you, in places of interesting friction and resistance, when you gain access to the fresh, full circuit of humanities computing—that is, the loop from the physical to the digital to the material text and artifact again?

The second factor I want to address has a twinned potential. It could be dangerously inhibiting or productively defamiliarizing for our field. Currently, it’s a little of both, resting on the uncomfortable methodological and social axis of embodied inquiry. Without a clear call from people feeling barred from access to the tool-building side of the digital humanities, our software developers’ community might not now be talking about things we have long internalized—about what goes unspoken or is illegibly expressed in our day-to-day practice. And, frankly, if it weren’t for some measure of annoyance at that much-quoted false binary of “hack-vs-yack,” we might have remained disinclined—disinclined to voice the ways in which tacit knowledge exchange in code-craft and DH collaboration contributes to a new hermeneutic, a new way of performing thoughtful humanities interpretation. You might call it exegesis through stage-setting. It comes into focus as interface and architecture, through our own deliberate acts of communal, mostly non-discursive humanities design. The work we do is graphical and structural and interactive. It’s increasingly material and mobile, and it’s almost never made alone. Whatever it is, like any humanities theorizing it opens some doors and shuts others, but it’s a style of scholarly communication that differs sharply from the dominant, extravagantly vocal and individualist verbal expressions of the last fifty to sixty years. And like any craft it’ll always be under-articulated.

The call prompting this new introspection about the nature of our work comes most strongly from women, minority scholars, and other groups under-represented in software development, responding in their turn to an aggressively male global tech culture that is (on a good day) oblivious to its own exclusionary practices and tone. Now, all this is much more the case outside of DH than within it, and in truth, I find the humanities a piss-poor battleground for a war that should be fought in primary and secondary STEM education. But the prompt to make accessible the unspoken in DH also comes not only from people who feel they have lacked the basic preparation to engage, but from those who lack the time and tools: from rootless contingent faculty and scholars from under-resourced or teaching-focused schools—newly interested in DH but feeling unable to play along with their counterparts from research institutions.

All of these people would find the murmurings in the DH developers’ community sympatico and sincere. But our conversations are pretty much sub rosa now and (part of the problem) are happening in places either technologically inaccessible to most scholars or so coded as “unscholarly” as to be ignored by them. We’re doing what we can, from our end, to fix that. But will it matter? Maybe not to this discipline. Literary critics and cultural theorists may not (after the current DH bubble bursts) ultimately wish to engage in a brand of scholarly communication that places less premium on argument and narrow, expert discourse, and more on the implicit embodiment of humanities interpretation in public production and open-source, inter-professional practice. For the most part, though, I suspect many of our colleagues just can’t tell: to them, everyone with direct access to the means of digital humanities production speaks, sometimes literally, in code.

When I’m feeling sad about this stuff, I turn, again, to William Morris. As a self-help strategy, that yields mixed results: “In the Middle Ages,” he tells us, in Art and Labor, “everything that man made was beautiful, [eh.] just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; [yeah?] and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold… [hmm.] The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.”

I said there were three new conditions at play in this, our late age of DH. The final one is the rise of casual and alternative academic labor. First, on what has come to be called “alt-ac,” the increasing recruitment of humanities PhDs to full-time, hybrid, scholarly-professional positions in places like libraries, IT divisions, and DH labs and centers. Real advantages and new opportunities for the humanities are attendant on this development. Properly trained and supported, long-term “alternative academic” faculty and staff are potential leaders in your institution. They are uniquely positioned to represent and enact the core values of our disciplines; to serve as much-needed translators among scholars, technologists, and administrators; and to build technical and social systems suited to the work we know we must do. Absent their energetic involvement in shaping new structures in higher education, I am convinced that DH will only scale as commodity tool-use for the classroom—not as a generative research activity in its own right.

But they (to continue a theme of this conference), like far too many of our teaching faculty, are subject to the increasing casualization of academic labor. Positions in digital humanities centers are especially apt to be filled with soft-money employees. In a field whose native interdisciplinarity verges on inter-professionalism, full-time, long-term digital humanities staff already struggle against the pressure to become jacks of all trades and masters of none. How can grant-funded DH journeymen find the time and feel the stability that leads to institutional commitment, to deep engagement and expertise, and to iterative refinement of their products and research findings? And the situation is worse for more conventionally-employed, adjunct academics. If the vast majority of our teaching faculty become contingent, what vanishing minority of those will ever transition from being passive digital tool-users to active humanities makers? Who among them will find time to feel a productive resistance in her materials?

Casualized labor begets commodity toolsets, frictionless and uncritical engagement with content, and shallow practices of use. I am not an uncritical booster of the tenure system, nor am I unaware of the economic realities of running a university, but I find it evident that, if we fail to invest at the institutional and national level in full-time, new-model, humanities-trained scholarly communications practitioners, devoted to shepherding and intervening in the conversion of our cultural heritage to digital forms (now there and back again!)—and if we allow the conversion of a generation of scholars to at-will teaching and DH labor—humanities knowledge workers of all stripes will lose, perhaps forever, control over Morris’s crucial triad: our material, our tools, and our time.

We can’t allow this to happen at any stage of the game, but most especially today, it seems to me—as I listen to a community struggle to articulate the relationship between interpretation and craft, and as I crack some warm artifact off the printer of a morning. We’ve come to a moment of unprecedented potential for the material, embodied, and experiential digital humanities.

How do we, all together, intend to experience it?