Envisioning Spatial Humanities: A “Modernist Commonwealth”

Spatial Humanities and a “Modernist Commonwealth

I’ve just been reading J. Matthew Huculak’s great post on “Integrated Digital Humanities Environmentswith great interest, and I’d like to respond to it as part of a review of recent work in the “spatial humanities.”  I’ve learned a good deal from it already, and I look forward to learning more from him at this week’s Modernist Studies Association 13

Matt points out quite succinctly an old problem with DH work: despite the “long history of tool-creation” for our scholarly endeavours, there has been a wide disparity between the variety of approaches and objects and the common object or environment which they hope to foster: “If you wan to teach TEI right now, you have to buy Oxygen… for versioning, you must install Juxta or The Versioning Machine… For publication/exhibition you must install Omeka.  But what if we had all of those things in one learning environment, in one common and open system?”

To put it another way, one great virtue of the scholarly environment that we’ve been accustomed to for the last five hundred years or so has been its insistence on a common standard of convertibility: everything must be registered and “scaled” somehow as paperwork, as Bruno Latour put it in his seminal paper on the material bases of modernity.  Tycho Brahe’s calculations on the orbits of the planets could finally be brought into exact comparison with the predictions of Ptolemy— because both could be placed side by side on the scholar’s desk.  Whether a teaching syllabus, a sonnet, a tenure review, or a sign-up sheet, everything must be scalable to exactly the height and width of 8.5 X 11 (or a quarto sheet, or broadsheet, or whatever our print culture has for us at the moment).  A deeply seated print ecology sustains the ongoing conversation between novels, writers, and readers, as we can see best when readers like Franco Moretti deliberately disrupt that process.

In humanities computing/Digital Humanities, on the other hand, a common environment where interchangeability and “scalability” operate smoothly hasn’t yet been achieved.  It’s rather difficult to place a Juxta comparison within a marked-up edition of a modernist magazine, for example, and even more difficult to imagine how to make that “text” accessible to the larger discipline.  Except, of course, through discursive print arguments, which will remain the necessary baseline for our discipline in the foreseeable future.

In the classroom, as Matt and Brian Croxall have noted in different ways, we have a real problem with an integrated DH learning environment, in which the texts we work on and the tools we use to analyze those texts both “live” in the same place. Whether students can pull together a Wordle word cloud for their digital humanities class, and whether they can analyze that visualization in a coherent analytic paper: these are two very different propositions.

Editing Modernism in Canada has begun to address this problem through their collaboration with Islandora, which you can read about on their site: it’s a “Fedora Commons repository wrapped in a Drupal shell,” for those that can decode that.  Matt Hulacek and Dean Irvine are using this system to create a digital asset repository, in which images of texts could be uploaded, edited and published using a standard set of formats and tools, available for use in the classroom and in research.  Multiple textual witnesses could be compared in a standard format, by anyone anywhere, and the comparison could be itself publishable.

This emphasis on interchangeability and collaborative openness, in conjunction with existing projects like Omeka, moves us in exactly the right direction: towards a common DH scholarly ecosystem, in which results can be freely compared and claims can be tested or rejected.  Our project hopes to contribute to that ecosystem as well, by mapping out the relations and modes of modernist correspondence.  I’ll write more on the standards which might be appropriate to that soon.

First, though, another topic which Matt’s post bring to the fore: how should we start to theorize the “spatial humanities” infrastructure which we are even now beginning to build?  Kelly Johnson’s related post addresses the practicalities of the “spatial turn,” and issues a general CFP for pedagogical tools.  We are building in exciting times.

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