DTC 560 Blog 1/26

MOBILE FIGURES is primarily a kind of interactive experiment. In working to represent “contradictory figurations” of Irish people in the midst of famine, it also seeks to upend, to disrupt, and to reimagine the ways in which we interact with and value scholarship. To that end, it claims to eschew linear organization in favor of a rhizomatic one. For these reasons, interface will be my first primary focus in looking at the site, followed by collaboration, content, and finally structural challenges to academic conventions.

Note: an alternative location for the project may be found here, with simplified explanation of how it functions, on the author’s personal website. Citations of MOBILE FIGURES will refer to the published version on Vectors, unless otherwise stated.


“Mobile Figures” sheds light on our contemporary moment of globalization, as the 19th-century movements of the Irish provide one trajectory through which we might historicize and analyze the accelerated processes of diaspora and displacement that so characterize late capitalism.

“‘Mobile Figures’ seeks not only to present an account of Irish mobility in the nineteenth century, but to enact that mobility and its effects. Structured around the three tropes of Irishness, potato, dung and miasma, the text constructs a rhizomatic network of movements between nodes of argument, archival material and amplifying commentary.

Author’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

The site’s interface aspires to be an example of “interfaces that challenge,” outlined by Miriam Posner. In speaking about The Knotted Line, Posner states that she believes the interface is effective not because it is easy to use, but because its form mirrors its content. She also makes the distinction that the interface appears to be skillfully made. This observation is key, because resistant interfaces must be so purposefully, and well-executed in order to allow the form and content to work together–or as Drucker might say, to allow the form (interface) to be content.

“Interface, like any other component of computational systems, is an artifact of complex processes and protocols, a zone in which our behaviors and actions take place. Interface is what we read and how we read combined through engagement. Interface is a provocation to cognitive experience.”

“The electronic spaces of interpretation will also serve as sites of mediation, and finding our way selectively among the many threads of this n-dimensional environment will depend on the emerging relation between diagrammatic imagination and consensual conventions in a scholarly community.”

Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory”

The author and designer are clearly going for this kind of effect with MOBILE FIGURES, and for that reason they speak about it as both a challenging and freeing experience for them:

“In an early design meeting for the project, David Lloyd expressed the hope that the piece might produce in the reader a feeling akin to dropping into a bog, a sense of displacement and radical reorganization. As such, he was interested in mining the affective registers of argument set free from the strict linearity of the traditional essay, opening up the possibility for contingency, juxtaposition, accident, and meandering as modes of scholarly engagement.”

Editor’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

“Although the text can be read as a series of propositions organized within a linear argument and supported by evidentiary material, it can also be read as a potentially inexhaustible fabric of associative threads, each node of which branches into other sets of association. Such a text seeks to use the possibilities of web publication to enact the processes that a standard print-medium essay would only describe.

Author’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

It is this blogger’s humble opinion that they do achieve these goals in their interface design. However, the project also straddles the line between the feeling of “dropping into a bog” and a more guided experience, due to the presence of a fairly thorough tutorial. The tutorial has the added benefit of explaining some of the reasoning behind the design of the interface (the rhizomatic theory behind it), which may lend the project a bit more credibility with more traditional scholars. Creators of such projects have to decide whether or not appealing to such audiences is a priority. As Posner asks, “who is our work for?” This question of audience was relegated to a brief segment of her article, but I believe it central to any project and any interface design.


MOBILE FIGURES is an excellent example of how born-digital projects can change the entire process of scholarship instead of simply the product. One finds in the following statements evidence of a different type of collaboration, for a new type of project, which generates new kinds of thinking, digging, and sharing:

“Through a process of iterative collaboration, Creative Director Erik Loyer and Lloyd have succeeded in modeling a more rhizomatic form of scholarship that simultaneously sustains linear argument and pushes hard against it.

In deploying this ‘both/and’ logic, the piece points to new modes of historiographic inquiry by forging points of intersection between oft-distinct modes of thought, linking up political economy, visual culture, literary theory, and an investigation of subaltern agency. It creates a space for those associative lines of thought that regularly get pruned away as we force our ideas into the confines of linear print.

Through the Vector scollaboration process, it also became clear that Lloyd was unearthing fresh dimensions to his argument, allowing a new ‘form’ to reshape what he could do and say with ‘content’ he knew quite well.”

Editor’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

“The process is often accompanied by an understandable fear on the part of the author. Not in David’s case, however, and for this I’m grateful, not just because his adventurousness made our collaboration easier, but also because it allowed me to focus on the more constructive aspects of the design.”

Designer’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

The Author’s Statement goes further than these, potentially involving the reader in an ecosystem of reading, response, commentary, and revision:

Ideally, indeed, this is a text that would invite supplementation, the reader being invited to add citations and commentary that would extend the schematic net of associations established here, no restriction on legitimate and illegitimate associations being in principle possible, and each node opening onto fields that surely exceed the purview of any single “author”.

Author’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

Though presented as only an ideal which has yet to be realized (and likely will not be, given the length of time which has now passed), digital projects, especially today, have the power to make this much more of a possibility. As Drucker mentions, the idea that the reader is involved in constructing a text is nothing new, and we should be thinking about it in relation to the interfaces of our digital projects. In some ways, what the author describes here is a process of peer review, but it is also much more. More detail in this description could help one to visualize a 2.0 publication of this project more clearly, but the core idea of collaboration involving the reader is a strong one, and well suited to scholarship on the web.

Structural Challenges and Evidence

One problem that I see with the project is that the nature of the materials used for the project, as well as what credibility we might ascribe to their curator and author, is not entirely apparent from a visit to the project itself. Various materials appear, including what appear to be primary sources. Most, if not all, of the primary sources seem to be images which depict Irish people from the period of the famine. However, as they differ in style and form and lack any identifying information or citation material, it is not readily apparent that these are indeed sources related to the written material advanced within the project’s “rhizomatic” networked experience. Those written segments are also unmarked in any way, leaving us to wonder who wrote them and upon which evidence they base their scholarly claims.

It is bizarre that the only place in which one finds any discussion of citation throughout the project page and site itself is when Erik Loyd, the author, references interventions on the part of the reader:

Ideally, indeed, this is a text that would invite supplementation, the reader being invited to add citations and commentary that would extend the schematic net of associations established here…

Author’s Statement, MOBILE FIGURES

Does Erik Loyd envision a Wiki-style method here? Why ask readers to add citations when one hasn’t bothered to use any? Unfortunately, this idea is beyond me.

One would think that someone would have mentioned it in the peer comments, at least. Perhaps Erik Loyd has reached the point in his career where no one asks him for sources or evidence, but especially because we are presented with what appear to be primary materials in the “roots” section of MOBILE FIGURES, we should expect some.

Does this actually matter? That is the question. Drucker provides a context for thinking through interface as content, a “provocation,” but also links it with traditional scholarship and the practicalities of a functional interface. Posner goes further in suggesting that shaking up old structures is what DH must do next, and questioning what the humanities does now. Gallon goes furthest in suggesting that DH has already missed its chance to completely reboot the humanities–if you will–according to better principles, and arguing for DH scholars to revisit that opportunity as soon as possible. Does such a reboot involve throwing out evidence-based argumentation altogether, or simply redefining “evidence”?

As we discussed in Thursday’s feedback, there is a legitimate problem with expecting traditional citations for many kinds of artifacts and sources–few things fit into the perfect, English 101 definition of what a source should be. At the same time, with a project such as MOBILE FIGURES, we have a problem when the resources used in a scholarly publication can be cited in some way which empowers the reader to assess their credibility (and perhaps leaves it up to the reader, a la Drucker, to construct the text in this way according to their own ontological framework) and yet they are not. I would be very surprised if Loyd could not have provided sources for these materials, yet leaving them out is not part of the discussed goals of the project. Nor are the assertions made within the textual elements of the site connected to previous scholarship or supported with evidence. We are asked to take the author’s word as truth, which actually takes power away from the reader.

It is likely sophomoric at best at this point in my acquaintance with the academy, but I have to believe that evidence-based argument can move on from privileging certain kinds of sources, or even return to the drawing board in discussions of an ontology tainted by colonialism, without simply leaving behind evidence as a crucial value. In his colloquium presentation today, Dr. Trevor Bond mentioned the importance of provenance to understanding a collection of artifacts and what they might mean, for whom they were intended, etc. Could we reimagine digital citations as provenance instead of a rote adherence to one particular standard of what information is necessary or best? How would that affect our assumptions about credibility? Why not provide all of the information in a digital framework that is less concerned with space and which can utilize the tools outlined by Drucker and the authors of MOBILE FIGURES to create complex networks of association? It seems to me that born-digital projects are well-equipped to place sources and artifacts within a context which is unique to them, perhaps a provenance, not privileging a colonial definition of worth or value while still providing readers with information that they need to evaluate the project.

2 thoughts on “DTC 560 Blog 1/26

  1. kachristen

    I like where you take this in the end, Richard. I too, find it disconcerting that *no citations were given, I would have expected either a critique of citations practices (which could have been embedded) or a nod to a different citational method that explores the multiplicity of authority and its exceptions. Certainly the archives notion of provenance is helpful to a point, it also, however, has roots in imperial understandings of “objects” apart from them grounded in lived experience– but this too can be complicated certainly as Trevor did.


  2. Hi Richard!
    Thank you for your amazing posts. They always make me discover new insights about DH.
    I was really intrigued by “the reader being invited to add citations and commentary”. I had a look at the project and peer-response section. Most of the respondents seem to be intrigued by this feature too. Do you think this is done to break the traditional scholarly format? I also wonder who are these readers and how the credibility of their citations will be judged? You have already answered part of these questions. But I would like to hear more.


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