Portfolio for English 606: Topics in Humanities Computing



Bogost’s Reading Machine (Week 4)

This week’s readings raised a lot of questions about the connections between the humanities (especially literary and rhetoric studies), the sciences, and computer technology.

Ramsey’s Reading Machines explores the use of computer programs for text analyses in the humanities. He supports the increased use of computer technology in the humanities, but he expresses concern that the field is trying to mimic the sciences’ position with computer technology as a means to create an objective analysis. Humanists conducting text analyses must find a balance between the machine’s objectivity and the researcher’s subjectivity.

Thinking about the title as I read, I couldn’t help wonder who is the machine: the computer, the researcher, or both combined? By the end, I would say it’s both combined.

A topic in this book that particularly caught my interest was Mathew’s algorithm, a procedure designed to generate poems by “remap[ping] the data structure of a set of linguistic units (letters of words, lines of poems, paragraphs of novels) into a two-dimensional tabular array” (29).

The author shifts the characters in each row to form new words in the column, combines the new words, and this creates an unpredictable poem or story.

While reading about Mathew’s algorithm, I was reminded of Bogost’s Latour Litanizer, as described in his book Alien Phenomenology, and so I wanted to put Reading Machines in conversation with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO).

The Latour Litanizer creates a list of things (objects, people, events) by utilizing Wikipedia’s random page API.

For example, right now I’m generating a list through the Latour Litanizer (by simply clicking a button) and the product is

“The Sea Urchins, Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, Subhash, Roman Catholic Diocese of Limburg, Barber-Mulligan Farm, Charles Teversham, 2010-11 Belgian First Division (women’s football), Knox Presbyterian Church (Toronto), George Davidsohn.”

The list is designed to be random (at least in the confines of the algorithm, which may exclude repeats and more). Despite the randomness, I still form connections between the words. For example, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Church (and some may argue cults) relate to religion and Limburg and Belgium are connected geographically.

On Bogost’s blog with the Latour Litany, he explains that this was created out of his curiosity of combining ontography and carpentry.

He describes ontography as “the techniques that reveal objects’ existence and relation” and carpentry as “the construction of artifacts that illustrate the perspectives of objects.”

The list puts things together than otherwise may never be linked, and we create relations from our knowledge and experiences. Therefore, the list may mean more to one person than another. Not only do we form or not form connections with the objects, they may form or not form connections with each other, although these connections are much harder to understand.

Although the Latour Litanizer seems more random that Mathew’s algorithm, both reveal new ways of read a text. They reveal connections (for example, Mathew’s algorithm revealed a prominent connection in form and the Latour Litany revealed the diversity of things humans deem worthy of having a Wikipedia page).

Whereas the Mathew’s algorithm may focus on a novel or a poem, the Latour Litanizer is constantly demonstrating new ways to read Wikipedia as a large body of text that represents society to some degree.

The Latour Litany is a unique example of a program that performs a text analysis of an entire website. It might not be the most productive exercise for researchers, but perhaps for distant reading, it could be useful for getting the bigger picture.


What’s in a name? (Week 2)

A continuous theme that I’ve noticed in many professional writing fields is that people get really hung up on definitions. ‘How do we define ourselves’ is a very prevalent debate in the tech comm field, and from the readings this week, it is clear that it is a very prevalent debate in the Digital Humanities (DH) field as well.

These debates are slightly annoying. Imagine what they could accomplish with all that time they’ve spent writing and presenting their disagreements with others’ definitions!? But when it comes to research, and especially when it comes to funding, the distinctions between the various similar fields becomes very important. From the definitions put forth in the readings, I was able to sense why it’s so difficult to define the DH field.

This may be completely incorrect, and is certainly an oversimplification, but I imagine a graph with humanities on the X axis and digital technology on the Y axis. A few people in the DH field are at (0.1, 10), a few others are at (10, 0.1), and everyone else is somewhere in between. To simplify, some people seem to lean more towards the “digital” side of DH and others lean more towards the “humanities” side of DH. Therefore, everyone is bringing a variety of skills and ideas to the DH field.

Although Gold did not express his preferred definition of DH in the introduction to The Digital Humanities Moment, he did note the tension after Ramsey’s “Who’s In and Who’s Out” talk. Ramsey describes DH as a field that builds/make things (a sentiment that aligns with the STEM fields).

This idea of building/creating is echoed in the introduction to Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities (RDH). Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson describe DH as a term that largely functions tactically (to get things done). They suggest two political moves for the scholars in rhet studies, TPW, and tech comm: selectively redefining their digital projects under the DH umbrella and studying the DH job market. When reading their introduction, the word “practical” kept coming to mind.

In the first chapter of RDH, Reid expresses that there is a problem with defining the DH field and tries to work out a definition by examining the fields doing DH work. As Reid points out, the obvious DH fields are those that employ computers to study traditional objects of humanities study (what used to be called humanities computing). Other fields he includes are media study and rhet and comp.

When it comes to the challenge of defining the field as a whole, Reid seems to partially blame the troubled relationship between rhetoric and humanities and the “correlationist view” both fields tend to take. Pulling in Latour, his suggestion is to approach rhetorical relations as relations with nonhumans. He calls to recognize how technology (nonhuman) affects technology. Rather than building, he focuses on theorizing.

Going back to the graph, I guess the DH field needs to find a balance between shortening the range while not excluding the field out of existence. It’s too early for me to settle on a definition, although I am certain that I lean a little more towards the “digital” side of DH.

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