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Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #1

As I posted above, I’m here in hot & muggy Washington DC for Early Modern Digital Agendas, an NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities. Writing on lunch break on the second day, reflecting on the first.

The initial hours of the institute can fairly be summed up with one word: orientation. As a new reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I had to have myself photographed, fill out forms, learn how to use the (seemingly innocuous but quite complicated) combination locks in the cloak room, learn my way around the maze of multiple levels, how to request books, etc and so on.

The group–a list of whom you can find here–started off with a consideration of Turner-prize winning artist Grayson Perry’s multimodal art project The Vanity of Small Differences. This project exists as an excellent iPad/iPhone app, a documentary series that aired on Channel 4 (watchable in the UK) and a series of six full size, woven tapestries based on his investigations of the British class system. Discussing the digital genesis of these artifacts was particularly interesting: Perry first drew them up as sketches, then scanned his freehand drawings into Photoshop, inserted color and otherwise manipulated them, sending those digital files to a weaving shop in Belgium that actually wove the wall-sized tapestries.

Coupled with this, we considered the initial chapters of Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis (this link is to Scott Weingarten’s live review of the text). In his book, Jockers quickly recaps the role of computation, and especially computation as it relates to large sets of information, in humanities study. Generating some interesting critique, it also gave rise to a fairly substantial set of critiques-among them a questioning of how relevant some of the discoveries made about Irish literature especially are to literary criticism vs their important to literary history. “Correcting the record” of history was more or less seen as valuable, but those same insights were problematic when it came to challenging critical interpretation of pieces within that same time frame. I have a feeling that when we get to the second half of the book our discussion will crop back up.

This morning (Tuesday) Jonathan Sawday led us in a deeply interesting discussion that touched on many things, among them: technological optimism, the role of generative play derived from “weird” and “toylike” DH projects, and so on. Eventually we drew on Tiles & Oberdiek’s ideas of technology as an ecosystem, the introduction of new technologies into which can cause unpredictable results. More later, if you are lucky!

Post lunch (in 5 minutes, in fact) we are discussing several upcoming articles form American Literature with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun; centered on the role of theory in DH (or the lack thereof), our afternoon discussion promises to build on our morning meditation on technology and ethics from this morning.

I have a feeling, which others will hopefully confirm, that the emerging central question today will be something along the lines of: How do we “do” DH morally? How does technology impact, form, and respond to ethical systems, stated or not? What role do we academicals play?