Let’s Do It Ourselves.

After reading the concerned posts of both Ammon and James, I’ll chime in with my own opinion that Ramsay seemed to be overpacking loaded words into his sentences, and will also accept that nitpicking a piece so concerned with ‘deformation’ of texts and best practices in text interpretation is hardly nitpicking.   I didn’t catch the concerns mentioned until they were brought to my attention, but I certainly picked up on the fact that there were portions of the book that I found borderline unreadable; that perhaps this could have been avoided if Ramsay had allowed himself to pen a 298 page book instead of the 98 pages I was presented with.

I sort of breezed through Moretti because I spent so much study-time re-reading each sentence in Reading Machines,  and while I feel that Ramsay’s book would have benefitted from a more welcoming narrative, I’m not ready to write him off completely.  There were a lot of key ideas in Reading Machines that Ramsay is advocating that many in the DH community are not, and they are some of the very things that piqued my interest in the digital humanities when considering Graduate level coursework.

To be specific, Ramsay advocates the “building of things” in DH, and it is clear that what he means is that we should be doing relatively difficult tasks most often found under the academic heading of computer science:

“The conceptual leap required to move from talking about novels to talking about web sites or computer games requires subtle shifts in thinking and reappraisals of one’s assumptions.  This remains a vital and fascinating area of investigation for students of new media.  But it is nowhere near as jarring – or, frankly, as radical – as the shift from theorizing about games and web sites to building them… there remains a world of difference… between talking about software and writing it (Ramsay, 84).”

I have not been a member of the DH community long (if I can even say, at this point, that I am  truly a member of it), but I have already heard it said several times, both in our classes and at my first THATCamp, that we should be collaborating with the computer science community and engaging in the use of software developed by that community.  I do not merely disagree with this, I think that this is a dangerous opinion to hold if you are hoping to have a career in the digital humanities (“traditional” or “alt”) in the coming decade.

Why dangerous?  It all has to do with “cultural currency,” a vital part of sustainability not only in the academy, but outside of it.  In her article found on #alt-academy Tanya Clement brings up a discussion had by Louis Menand:


“Louis Menand introduces his discussion with an anecdote about the apparent cultural currency even the most “outrageous” scientific theories (such as string theory) receive in comparison with humanities scholars who are expected merely to “confirm common sense” (“Dangers Within and Without” 10-11). It seems from these arguments that perceptions about the humanities stem in part from the misperception that humanistic knowledge is only about process or argument, whereas in the sciences it is about results and products — a misperception that ultimately leads to reductive theories about both disciplines and a reduction in institutional or financial support for the former <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/space-hire-alternate-careers-academic-inter-spaces>.”


With publishing in its death throws, and dangerously few possibilities on the horizon, our “product,” the scholarly book… well… we’ve established that it ‘ain’t what it used to be,’ have we not?  Now maybe you live in this dream world where you can outline some piece of “humanities” software and you are going to have this computer scientist whiz love the idea and give you top billing for his creation of it… or maybe you are going to publish your essay with an embedded map on Scalar, and this is going to lead to a tenure track position.  The world needs dreamers, but what the humanities need is a supplemental arm that can combat the realities of STEM with its own army of builders, DIYers, coders, and open-access/open-source entrepreneurs.  Now Ramsay may be verbose, but when he’s not saying the wrong thing, he is saying a lot of the right things.  I feel that both he and Moretti are opening some doors that those of us actually interested in DH need to walk through.  We need to be learning object-oriented computer languages (like Python and Objective-C, not just PHP), we need to be learning the basics of Photoshop, we better already know some HTML and CSS.  If we don’t come to grips with this stuff, not only are we doing ourselves a disservice, but we are going to end up folding into the traditional humanities and cheapening them.  We’ll be doing little more than creating supplemental executables inside of infrastructures that will just be more congratulatory fodder for the computer science community.

A lot in Ramsay’s “Potential Literature” and “Potential Readings” are at best hard to follow, and emulating Moretti’s work too closely is going to have you winding up with a deliverable that looks a lot like a lot of other scholarly deliverables. On the other hand, the considered examples from both authors are best seen as starting points for a developing an academic niche that could give its newest participants the opportunity to manifest “products” that outshine the essay, and create the kind of currency desperately needed as the academy’s ivory towers continue to collapse.


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