DTC 560 Blog 2/2

As humanists seem to be aware, our world is shifting toward the visual just as surely as it is everting the virtual; while critical visual literacies must be given more attention in education, colloquial and functional visual understandings of common interface patterns guide even young children through much of what they experience as the world in 2018. The linguistic mode having been privileged for so long in a western academic tradition, we should not be surprised that images are greeted with suspicion in both the humanities and sciences when it comes to making arguments-as-we-know-them.


unsplash-logoKelly Sikkema

But if anything over the past several weeks has been an important, stand-out point when it comes to the digital humanities, it is that arguments-as-we-know-them are fallible and past due for a challenge. When I wrote last week about a need for evidence in MOBILE FIGURES, it became apparent that I was wrestling with the very research questions–or even the notion of a research question–which form humanistic inquiry itself. That is a tall order, and also exactly what people like Gallon, Posner, Honma, Cushman, Christen, and other author we have read are pleading with DH to do, if not in its infancy then in its emerging adolescence. Ultimately, the tool and medium of Vector, through the methods and practice of the digital humanities as a movement, brought me to this place of wrestling with conventions of the humanities and humanism writ large. Our work should find itself in the midst of Sample’s assertions, “Now is not the time to hem in our own possibilities. Now is not the time to base the future on the past” and Gallon’s vision of black digital humanities as “a mechanism for deregulating the tendency of technological tools, when employed in the digital humanities, to deemphasize questions about humanity itself.” MOBILE FIGURES gave me pause to consider how evidence works, what it does, and how it is culturally situated within systems of power: it turns out that the project was doing its job–even if, perhaps, not the job it thought it was doing.

Data visualization, then, is another way of challenging our understanding of how things “work” in the humanities, though it too has a history. Jessop kindly illustrates that such visuals are “nothing new”:

The preceding discussion shows that the principles behind digital visualization are not new and that there is a precedent for the use of visual sources and visual tools in humanities scholarship. Digital visualization can be placed in context with established methodology and, in common with the digital humanities as a whole; it forms part of a continuum of scholarly method not a revolutionary
upheaval of it. Despite its location in the spectrum of accepted praxis digital visualization, and perhaps all digital humanities methodology, does face significant problems because of its youthfulness. (288)

Two complications of this statement which I’m sure that Jessop would ratify are the resistance of some disciplines over other to incorporating visualization in published scholarship, as well as the problem that visual arguments are often referred to as “visual aids,” peripheral elements of a more standard, written argument (this is what I am doing with the images in this post).

We can synthesize Jessop with Gallon in order to see a further goal for visualization than this: the decentralization of the word as one part of the dominant paradigm of humanities scholarship.

Accordingly, the black digital humanities promotes a system of change; it is a mechanism for deregulating the tendency of technological tools, when employed in the digital humanities, to deemphasize questions about humanity itself. (Gallon)

We might pair this idea from Gallon with the tools and practice of data visualization in the same way that we paired Gallon’s work with Posner and Drucker’s elaboration of a humanities theory of interface. How does visualization take us “back to the drawing board” with regard to humanities scholarship? How can it humanize the humanities? One way that visualization projects might do this is by decentralizing the written word. The written word has been at the center of humanism since its inception in the renaissance, and was only reinforced by iconoclasm and iconophobia in the wake of the reformation. A deep suspicion of images (tied in part to affect, as we briefly discussed in class) has permeated the academy for hundreds of years, and as many folks in Rhetoric and Composition will tell you, this tradition is deeply problematic–it has included myths of a standard English, a punitive focus on grammar, and has contributed significantly to a banking model of education. A new appreciation for visualizations as multimodal arguments, standing by themselves alongside written arguments on equal or even better footing, if we take Sample’s point above, would open much of what we know as humanities scholarship to significant change.

Into that gap, I say, let’s bring the full force of scholarship which does not shy away from bringing affect to bear in visual arguments, like The Mapping of Massacres, which make a point to concern themselves with the humanity, as Gallon puts it, of critical work.

While many independent projects have come along since Vectors, publishing is one area in which we might seek an initial shake-up. The latest issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly only features one article which is making significant use of image as argument within the actual journal, instead of as token supplementation for an overwhelming amount of written language. That article is still dominantly written, though I give it some extra credit and call it a visual argument in this chart just for the sake of a little variety:

I couldn’t help but make a pie chart about this as a joke. Sorry.

To be fair, two or three projects did discuss mapping and other visual ideas–they just used language to make the entire argument. To quote Jessop:

A visualization departs from being an illustration when it becomes the principal medium of communication. The term ‘Illustration’ implies an image which serves only to support written language; thus the main carrier of information is the associated text not the image.

The reason for illustration emphasis in our publications is clear: as Jessop states, we are trained to write from kindergarten, but not trained in the composition of argument via images. I have only thrown in two images for this post because I am much more comfortable with working at a reasonable pace when I am making arguments in words–even though I identify as an artist and graphic designer as well as a humanities student. If DH is going to continue to push the development of digital literacies in order to challenge structural assumptions about knowledge creation–in turn part of a larger struggle to de-privilege western, colonial frameworks in the academy–then we have to take visual rhetoric seriously as a mode of argument in our major, mainstream publications and push for more critical visual literacy education in K-12. Until we do so, data visualization will continue to be seen primarily as an “alternative,” as Jessop shows that it has been in scholarship for some time already. In this case, digitally interactive visuals will remain a “cool” fringe idea as the newest iteration of that tradition, instead of a crucial part of a new and developing paradigm for the humanities which ultimately challenges dominant structures.

3 thoughts on “DTC 560 Blog 2/2

  1. Richard,

    Thanks for including the graph–that was funny and clever. I didn’t even think to use visuals in this blog…and, um… yeah.

    One thing I was thinking while reading your post and while I was writing mine was that I am a little suspicious about the tone of our conversations and the readings that we did this week because of the skepticism, distrust, or illiteracy when it comes to visual texts. In my post, I write about online humor and memes. It seems that there actually is a lot of visual literacy in our society, though we may not have the words to describe that literacy, per se. I’m sure by identifying a language and a system of classification, visual literacy could be increased, of course. Your quote of Jessop is appropriate, here.

    But also, I have to say I’m a little skeptical of de-centering the written word. Despite the fact that I prefer face-to-face or spoken discourse, there’s something comforting in the permanence of written discourse. I know, I know. It is not permanent, and we are talking, er, I mean writing, about visual texts, not verbal versus written. But I suppose I like the idea of a written word having authority… Maybe that’s because I’m an English major- a white, male, lingua franca-studying rhetor…but I doubt it. I’m sure there’s a better explanation 😉 I suppose if I was serious about valuing questions, critiques, and interpretations, I would embrace the subjectivity and risk represented in visualizations post-alphabet.

    At any rate, it’s great to read your posts– I learn a lot from them!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. As someone who loves writing, I completely understand. Despite my vigor in the post above, I really do struggle with the question of de-centralizing the word. The answer is likely something closer to both/and than it is to be “post-alphabet.” I am a devoted creative writer, grammar nerd, and stylophile, for better or worse, so I hope that we can hold on to the pendulum of word-image and keep it from swinging too hard away from words, too! Thanks for the great thoughts.


  2. kachristen

    Richard, your focus on de-centering the “word” is certainly something that scholars–outside DH and within–have been grappling with as a way to move the needle, if you will, from the expectations about evidence, theory, and practice and what and WHO count in those discussions and systems. Indeed, in Landon’s response, we can see the work it takes to let go of the familiar–but in doing so, think of Cushman’s description of the wampum belts, or the massacres map, how can we let go of yoking (quite literally in some cases) text to knowledge and then that knowledge to power? This is what these readings have been pushing us to see–outside our standard academic comfort zones.

    Liked by 2 people

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