The Digital Humanities is About Breaking Stuff

[Image by Kevin Dooley]

by Jesse Stommel

Folks have argued that the Digital Humanities is about building stuff and sharing stuff -- that the digital humanities reframes the work we do in the humanities as less consumptive and more curatorial, less solitary and more interactive. I would argue, though, that literary studies has always been intensely active, an engaged dance between the text on a page and the ideas in our brains. And literary studies has always been intensely social, a vibrant ecosystem of shared, reworked, and retold stories. The margins of books as a vast network of playgrounds. The digital brings different playgrounds and new kinds of interaction, and we must incessantly ask questions of it, disturbing the edge upon which we find ourselves so precariously perched. And what the digital asks of us is that every assumption we have be turned on its head.

So, the work we do in this class will be about building stuff and sharing stuff, but it will be especially about breaking stuff. This is the work of the digital humanities that most needs doing. Mark Sample proposes “what is broken and twisted is also beautiful, and a bearer of knowledge. The Deformed Humanities is an origami crane -- a piece of paper contorted into an object of startling insight and beauty.” And, by the end of our class, if we’re successful, this is what will become of our syllabus, our texts, and us. Sample continues, “every fact is a fad and print is a prison. Instructors are insurgents and introductions are invasions.” In this class, we will work to violently dismantle fact and print, instructors and introductions, and we will revel in both discovery and uncertainty.

We will also be called upon to reinvent our reading practices -- to read backwards, as well as forwards, to stubbornly not read, and to rethink how we approach learning in the digital age. The class itself will be one of our central texts, a collection of stories about reading and writing that we will actively hack and remix. Sean Michael Morris writes, “A course today is an act of composition,” an active present participle and not a static container. The fact that our class lives mostly online demands that we carefully examine the digital as a frame, while recognizing that the digital does not supersede and can never unseat the work we do in the world. Kathi Inman Berens writes, “It doesn’t matter to me if my classroom is a little rectangle in a building or a little rectangle above my keyboard. Doors are rectangles; rectangles are portals. We walk through.” So, this is what we’ll do together: assess the frame, break stuff, and walk through.

To begin, let’s break something as an act of literary criticism. Take the words of this poem by Emily Dickinson and rearrange them into something else. You can use any or all of the words that appear in the poem as many or as few times as you’d like. What you build from them can take any shape: text, image, video, a poem, a pile, sense-making or otherwise:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

Publish what you make to your blog, giving it a title or a concerted lack of a title, then add a link to your post in the comments below. Also, tweet a link with #DH306. Find the work of your peers and respond, analyze, and share.

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