Monday, June 3, 2013

Identity Crisis

As I've alluded to in the past couple of posts, what I will be doing with this blog is delving into the purpose and usefulness of the digital humanities as I see it. This isn't an easy question to answer -- it's not really an easy question to ask either.

To broach the topic and provide a sounding board, I think it's necessary to reference the essay by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff entitled "Fear of Being Useful." The essay is an attempt to dispel the attitudes many have about the achieving a humanities degree in a world run by corporations and an overarching business-oriented mindset. As published on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog, "Who cares if you can recite the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English when we’re in the middle of a recession?" In the same article, Staff actually offers a very good summary of Jay and Graff's essay. You can find it here.

Jay and Graff begin by dividing the defenders of the humanities into two broad categories:
"Traditionalists argue that emphasizing professional skills would betray the humanities' responsibility to honor the great monuments of culture for their own sake. Revisionists, on the other hand, argue that emphasizing the practical skills of analysis and communication that the humanities develop would represent a sellout, making the humanities complicit with dominant social values and ideologies."
So, there are the lines. They argue, however, that one of the few things each camp agrees upon is that, "... the humanities should resist our culture's increasing fixation on a practical, utilitarian education. Both complain that the purpose of higher education has been reduced to credentialing students for the marketplace."

After giving several examples, they call out the digital humanities specifically:
The emergence of this field calls attention to how old 20th-century divisions between science and the humanities are breaking down and gives those of us committed to defending the practical value of the humanities a tremendous opportunity. The digital humanities represent the cutting-edge intersection of the humanities and computer science, the merging of skills and points of view from two formerly very different fields that are leading to a host of exciting innovations..."
In closing, Jay and Graff call for the end of lamentation and the beginning of relevance for the humanities:
"We believe it is time to stop the ritualized lamentation over the crisis in the humanities and get on with the task of making them relevant in the 21st century. Such lamentation only reveals the inability of many humanists to break free of a 19th-century vision of education that sees the humanities as an escape from the world of business and science. As Cathy Davidson has forcefully argued in her new book, Now You See It, this outmoded way of thinking about the humanities as a realm of high-minded cultivation and pleasure in which students contemplate the meaning of life is a relic of the industrial revolution with its crude dualism of lofty spiritual art vs. mechanized smoking factories, a way of thinking that will serve students poorly in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
And then, the kicker:
Humanities graduates are trained to consider the ethical dimensions of experience, linking the humanities with the sciences as well as with business and looking at both these realms from diverse perspectives.To those who worry that what we urge would blunt the humanities' critical power, we would reply that it would actually figure to increase that power, for power after all is the ability to act in the world."
I completely agree with Jay and Graff. One of the biggest struggles the humanities are facing deals with the fact that most of the other disciplines look upon them with outdated disdain. Sure, you're knowledge of Shakespeare's sonnets may not come in handy during your interview with a large marketing firm. But if those sonnets shaped your perspective in a way that is unique and valuable -- if you have taken apart the words, studied the historical context, developed arguments, and performed in-depth analysis -- have you not benefited?

I wish that Jay and Graff would have discussed more of the digital humanities. I understand that the purpose of the piece was a defense of the humanities overall, but I feel like the topic was glossed over. The "exciting innovations" they observe are indeed exciting, but they seem short-sighted. They observe the digital humanities are for:
students who want to enter fields related to everything from writing computer programs to text encoding and text editing, electronic publishing, interface design, and archive construction. Students in the digital humanities are trained to deal with concrete issues related to intellectual property and privacy, and with questions related to public access and methods of text preservation."
Is that all? Don't get me wrong: those fields didn't exist until fairly recently, and they are just now becoming involved with the humanities. But the digital humanities encompass much more. What about graphic design, photography, and film? What about digital education, online marketing, and the music business industry? What about international relations? It may be that Jay and Graff didn't need to mention all of that, and so they didn't. It occurs to me, however, that mentioning something so specific as "methods of text preservation" isn't an accident. Are the digital humanities really confined to coding, interfaces, and archives?

To me, the digital humanities represent a broad field that embraces, engages, and utilizes a variety of disciplines and other fields of study. Linguistics, graphic design, coding, e-publishing, and videography are just a few I can name. It's not that these fields fall under the umbrella of the digital humanities, rather, by studying the digital humanities, all of these fields (and more) are utilized.

Perhaps, I am wrong. Hopefully, I'll find out.

Next time: thoughts on digital literacy.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Data Mining for Emotions

So I took a hiatus after my last post because it was massive, and because I've acquired a new job doing social media marketing for a couple of local businesses. I'm sure some digital humanities content will stem from what I'm doing with these new jobs.

But you don't care about that right now, so let's get started.

In my last post, I took a look at Stanley Fish's half-hearted argument sort-of against the digital humanities. The first sentence in this paragraph is intentionally wishy-washy to reflect Fish's attitude toward the DH. His conclusion (after three gruelling posts) was that he basically has no need for it, nor it for him. I don't want to spend the majority of my time writing on this blog with attacks on Stanley Fish. I do, however, want to open up with a real example of something that he discusses in one of his posts.

In "Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation", Fish talks about data mining using the digital humanities. Data mining is essentially using a logarithm to scan digitized texts to look for patterns. These patterns can, some digital humanists argue, lead to some kind of meaning. It is placing the computer slightly above the interpretive capacities of the human mind, for a moment, in order to process vast quantities of information. The example given in the post is from a researcher who mined through mid-nineteenth century literature and found an increase in the names of foreign countries, cities, etc. mention, and was thus lead to hypothesize that literature during that time was more "diversely outward-looking" than had been noticed before. Fish argues that the data itself can not lead us to that conclusion; to understand the contextual framework, we need legitimate textual analysis of the text itself -- to put it simply, we need to read it.

The researcher, Matthew Wilkens, argues no, we don't have to read every single text. That would take forever. Not to mention, we keep reading the same texts over and over again to prove slightly different points. He argues that by scanning a multitude of other texts, we may be able to find many more meanings and interpretations that would have taken years to find. Then, once the patterns are detected, more close reading can be done.

Something that seems to bother Fish and upset his form of literary criticism is the way that digital humanists go about their research. Whereas Fish follows the traditional path of reading, developing a hypothesis, and then using the text to defend his hypothesis, digital humanists -- particularly data miners -- fire logarithms at the text, seemingly at random. Then, once the dust has settled and the numbers come out, they look for trends and patterns and then formulate a hypothesis. This is why Fish finally comes to the conclusion that the digital humanities have no use for him and his superior literary theory.

Difference between -scores of Joy and Sadness for years from 1900 to 2000 (raw data and smoothed trend). Values above zero indicate generally ‘happy’ periods, and values below the zero indicate generally ‘sad’ periods.
A perfect example of data mining and the style of analysis Fish has a problem with comes from a story on NPR published in early April entitled, "Mining Books to Map Emotions Through a Century." Perfect title, huh? Several years ago, a team of researchers went mining through millions of texts digitized by Google. They started at the beginning of the 20th century and went until 2008. They started, "with lists of 'emotion' words: 146 different words that connote anger; 92 words for fear; 224 for joy; 115 for sadness; 30 for disgust; and 41 words for surprise. All were from standardized word lists used in linguistic research." They were looking for the usage of these words over time to see if any of them increased in popularity across the English language. Click here to read the whole report.

What they found was that the usage of certain emotion words were highly correlated to major historical economic, social, and political trends. The 1920s, they reported, was the happiest decade, in terms of positive emotion words. The time during WWII (particularly 1941) was the saddest. What's more is that they have found a steady decline in emotion words being used in general.
"'Generally speaking, the usage of these commonly known emotion words has been in decline over the 20th century,' [Alex] Bentley says. We used words that expressed our emotions less in the year 2000 than we did 100 years earlier — words about sadness and joy and anger and disgust and surprise."
Difference between -scores of the six emotions and of a random sample of stems (see Methods) for years from 1900 to 2000 (raw data and smoothed trend). Red: the trend for Fear (raw data and smoothed trend), the emotion with the highest final value. Blue: the trend for Disgust (raw data and smoothed trend), the emotion with the lowest final value.
This is surprising, the reporter writes, in a world that seems to be teeming with feelings from blogs, Facebook, advertisements, and the like. James Pennebaker, a psychologist at University of Texas, Austin, thinks it is a little "too soon" to come to any hard conclusions about the decline in emotion words, but he also thinks that the data is extremely interesting and could yield some interesting results in the field of psychology and history. Using language analysis, Pennebaker thinks it's possible to tap into the emotional consciousness and cultural attitudes of bygone eras.
"That's why this language analysis seems so promising to him — as a new window that might offer a different, maybe even more objective, view into our culture. Because, he says, it's difficult for people today to guess the emotions of people of different times."
What really interested me about this story was the content that the researchers skimmed through.
"...the books the computers searched in the Google database included an incredibly wide range of topics. They weren't just novels or books about current events, Bentley says. Many were books without clear emotional content — technical manuals about plants and animals, for example, or automotive repair guides."
The field of technical writing is generally supposed to be void of bias and of emotion -- generally, it seems hard to put emotion into technical journals and user manuals. But this is exactly why it interests me in the wake of Fish's analysis of the digital humanities. If we were to take this same study and, instead of data mining with a computer, do a close reading of texts in an effort to come to some similar conclusion, it makes sense that a researcher would stick (primarily) to literature. Great literature, at that. Who would have the time, energy, sanity, and, most importantly, forethought to research the language in the technical manual for a 1950s refrigerator, or the introduction from an Audubon collection from 1926?

These are, of course, examples, but it makes a strong argument for the use of data mining in certain contexts. It would be interesting to know how much the data would change if all of the technical material were left out -- presumably as they would be if close reading was performed by a literary researcher. Data mining in this context can allow us to observe certain trends across a myriad of different media that we might ignore if doing traditional research.

Another reason this story is particularly interesting to me is that it allows me to segway into more of what I want to focus on in posts to come: the application and purpose of the digital humanities. What I think Fish missed (or ignored, at least) was the interdisciplinary nature of the digital humanities. He presented it in a relatively 2D format where text / (x + y) = a result or something like it, and he only vaguely mentioned its application in scenarios outside of data-crunching. The author of the NPR article mentions that Pennebaker wants to use data mining and distant reading in an effort to practice language analysis. The practice employs various aspects of literature, literary theory linguistics, psychology, sociology, history, computer information, coding, and statistics, just to get started. The digital humanities, when viewed through this lens, all of a sudden seem very necessary -- a way to tie everything together to embrace many fields of study in varying, limitless combinations.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Okay. Once more. With feeling.

That was the most anticlimactic resurrection ever (see previous post).

I have had a great deal of trouble figuring out how to approach the final stages of this project. I'm still not sure I have come to any conclusions, but I am just going to dive right in with an analysis of Stanley Fish's opinion articles on the digital humanities, as featured in The New York Times.

For someone as active and giant in the field of literary criticism and interpretation, I searched Fish's column archives expecting a great deal of content on the digital humanities. I wasn't sure what his take on them would be, but I thought that the man who gave the world interpretive communities would have quite a bit to say about a huge blending of (potentially) global communities.

What I found were three columns from a little over a year ago, and that is all. They are as follows:

"The Old Order Changeth"

"The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality"

"Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation"

The articles were all published from December to January 2011-2012. I'll try to do a short summary of all three and then go in to an assessment.

They begin with "The Old Order Changeth," as Fish is perusing the 2012 MLA Convention program. He finds that "if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years," which is something he says he observed a long time ago. No surprise there: I've been recently struggling with the fact that I have read a painful few contemporary authors, and even fewer emerging ones, during college. In a field that celebrates the "greats" and is still plagued by the shadow of the Canon, it seems literature will always try to hold on to all of the old guys. And rightfully so, in my opinion.

Then Fish weaves in another observation about the program line-up: there are very few of the "topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general." He recalls when postmodernism was the biggest topic at the MLA convention and how so many refuted the tradition-devouring, textual-shaking, Canonical-demolishing philosophy:
"old questions were revealed to be based on a mistaken belief in the stability of texts and the self-identity of authors; rock-solid procedures and methodologies were shown to rest on the shifting sands of history; canonical authors were dislodged from their pedestals and exposed as racists, misogynists and apologists for empire; the canon itself was condemned as an artifact of patriarchal politics; and the practitioners of traditional criticism (yesterday’s stars, today’s relics) were denounced for being complicit with every evil known to humankind."
Now there's a new kid in town, a "new insurgency," he says, called the digital humanities. He defines it as:
"an umbrella term for new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything."
It is here that Fish sets up the tone and a metaphor he carries through the rest of this column and the others. The overarching tone in the columns ("blogs", he is forced to admit in the second one) is one of faint cynicism rooted in a vast amount of knowledge that he is not ashamed to flaunt, and riddled thick with theoretical rhetoric. My harsh criticism should not indicate that I entirely disagree with Fish, nor should it say that his opinion is devalued to me (I'm not a literary theorist, after all). However, the tone is the strongest indicator of his opinion of the digital humanities, and it sounds like he doesn't like them. Why doesn't he like them? Read on.

The metaphor Fish sets up relates the digital humanities to a religious phenomenon. "Religion," he writes, "is the location of, and for many the source of, renewal, aspiration, redemption and hope... there must be a redeemer. Who or what shall it be? Again, according to the program, it can only be one thing — the digital humanities... The digital humanities is the name of the new dispensation and its prophets tell us that if we put our faith in it, we shall be saved."

Describing digital humanists as prophets and using the world "shall" make the passage drip with his patronizing. His tone continues with his metaphor into the next article. He begins with a bashing of blogs calling them "...provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation, and not meant to last." His complaint stems from his own career: "...whereas in a professional life now going into its 50th year I have been building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive and, most important, all mine."

In his field, he has always had "a desire for pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power" on a subject or theory, and that "is what blogs and the digital humanities stand against." Here, Fish sets up an "Us or Them" attitude. At the core, digital writing stands against that "authority and disciplinary power" because digital text is always malleable and editable. A writer doesn't have to get everything "right" the first time, because the writer can always go back and change it. More than that, in a collaborative atmosphere, there are many other people who can make additions, subtractions, edits, and rewrites to a "text." He quotes Kathleen Fitzpatrick from her book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, as saying:
“we need to think less about completed products and more about text in process; less about individual authorship and more about collaboration; less about originality and more about remix; less about ownership and more about sharing.”

Fitzpatrick's statement seems to harbor one of the the biggest problems Fish has with the digital humanities: "text in process." He calls the idea an "oxymoron," and he is right. After all, how could a text -- something traditionally considered finite and solid -- ever be in process? The fact that a digital text is in a state of constant flux completely removes the linearity of text, and thereby the notion of what textness is. In addition, the fact that there is a possibility of multiple people collaborating in, as Fitzpatrick says, "a fertile community composed of multiple intelligences, each of which is always working in relationship with others," Fish says that the concept of the author disappears as well.

The new text and the new author are now, in Fish's assessment, "...everywhere and nowhere, produced not by anyone but by everyone in concert, meaning not waiting for us at the end of a linear chain of authored thought in the form of a sentence or an essay or a book, but immediately and multiply present in a cornucopia of ever-expanding significances."

Fish's main argument is that this vision of what the digital humanities means to authorship, communication, and, therefore, meaning, is both theological and political:
"The vision is theological because it promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated...and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in a full and immediate presence to which everyone has access as a node or relay in the meaning-producing system."
What he is basically saying is that the digital vision of the humanities is an information afterlife (be it Heaven, Nirvana, Jannah, Elysium, or whatever you'd like). There is no separation from the All-Knowing because everyone is connected to -- and the purveyors of -- any and all knowledge that ever was. To me, this sounds like a grand idea, but I can't fully understand how Fish feels about it. "What it does, he says, is take away the linearity from meaning and communication and create "steady yet dynamic state where there is movement and change, but no center, no beginning and end, just all middle... a new era of expanding, borderless collaboration in which all the infirmities of linearity will be removed."

Those "infirmities" are "institutions that operate to keep scholar separated from scholar, readers separate from the creation as well as the consumption of meaning, and ordinary men and women separate from the knowledge-making machinery from which they are excluded by the gate-keeping mechanisms of departments, colleges, universities, university presses and other engines dedicated to the maintaining of the status quo."

Okay. There it is, but read on.

This is where the political portion of his assessment comes to play. By abolishing the status quo and giving the opportunity of knowledge to all (a buffet from the tree in Eden, if you will), Fish firmly plants the digital humanities as far left on the political spectrum -- though, he admits, there are no real politics involved here. But, they are, in a sense, a revolution in the way we think about the humanities and how we address the situations that have been looming over them for years. Fish equates the rhetoric used by digital humanists as revolutionary:
"The project is insurgent in relation, first, to the present exclusionary structures of access and accreditation and, second, to the hegemony of global capitalism of which those structures are an extension. Digital humanities, declares the Manifesto, “have a utopian core shaped by its genealogical descent from the counterculture-cyberculture of the ’60s and ’70s. This is why it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive [and] the democratization of culture and scholarship.”
We see this more and more everyday. There are many free online institutions. Berkeley is one of many colleges that publishes podcasts of professors' lectures online for free. There is the on-going debate about the on-line badge system relating to the academic and professional world. And even outside of the academic world, knowledge is only a Google search away. Fish is right is his assessment that the digital humanities will crumble some of the institutional walls that have been standing too long (tenure, for instance). It is in the nature of the digital humanities to be subversive in the same way every new generation is somehow subversive to the one that came before. However, I believe the power and effect that the digital humanities have -- not to mention the massiveness of the scope -- has an unprecedented effect on the way we think about everything.

Here is where Fish is hung up. It seems that Fish is one of those he mentioned in the first column who put up a fight against postmodernism. The difference is that Fish says that postmodernism became "domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream," which indicates that it came from outside of the mainstream -- namely academia. The digital humanities, however, have arisen from the mainstream, for the mainstream, and one of the many things they do -- as Fish has pointed out -- is make knowledge that was once exclusive to the academy available for all. Not only that, they provide an infinite stage -- infinite in both space and time -- from which anyone at all can flaunt their potentially limitless knowledge. Power to the people, indeed. 

And that is what, it seems to me, Fish is hung up on. He ends the column by pointing out the digital humanities claims that they can, first, pull more support from a society that has recently rejected the traditional humanities, and, second, "confer on students skills that will be attractive to employers inside and outside the academy." He quotes Paul Jay and Gerald Graff as saying that, because of the nature of what the digital humanities teach, students will be equipped “to enter fields related to everything from writing computer programs to text encoding and text editing, electronic publishing, interface design, and archive construction.”

I'll speak more on what Jay and Graff said in a different post. What I'll say now is that Fish leaves it hanging. No analysis of this at all. He then simply asks the questions, "Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?" Valid questions, to be sure, but it is almost as if Fish didn't want to address the fact that Jay and Graff are right (again, more on that later). Fish then ends with a subtle quip against blogs that only make the chains that he has fastened to the wall of his academy more visible.

I'll end by saying just a very few words on his final column, because this post is huge, and his last column is pointless.

Fish sets up the answer he concluded with in the previous column by offering an example of literary analysis. His analysis is centered around John Milton's "Areopagitica" (yes, that is a link to an ebook, a product of the digital humanities). In order to spare any of the thick details, Milton was writing about Presbyterians being censored by Episcopal bishops. Fish states that in one of the passages, there is a huge proliferation of the p and b sounds. It is obvious that the amount of alliteration in the passage means something, but to fully come to any specific conclusions, " I would have to demonstrate that Milton self-consciously put the pattern there and made it the formal bearer of his argument. I would have to build a chain of inference that led from the undoubted, countable presence of the “b’s” and “p’s” in the passage to Milton’s intention and back again."

This is formal analysis: "the noting of formal properties to the drawing of interpretive conclusions." The point he wants to make is that the digital humanities do the opposite. They take a hypothesis or an idea and simply, as he puts it, "run the numbers." The issue boils down to the idea of "close reading." Could a computer or program that could look up all of the p and b sounds actually come to some conclusion with the data? Or would we need some close reading with historical, political, social context (a contextual framework) to really delve deep into meaning? Do we need formal analysis? Or do we need algorithmic criticism?

The rest of the column is focused on this issue, and it is clear that Fish is for his own style of literary theory. All of the digital humanists and theorists he quotes are undermined in some way, and his whole view of what the digital humanities has to do with literary theory seems to be hung up on this idea of running the numbers to get meaning. His whole take on the subject, to me, is incredibly flawed. The digital humanities seem to be so much more than that, and that is something I will address in later posts.

Finally, after three columns I'm assuming that he was paid for, Fish cops out, still looking down his nose:
"But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for."
Somewhere in history, Pontius Pilate washes his hands. With that finale, Fish never wrote another column/blog for The New York Times on the digital humanities again (that I have been able to find). After all of the words spoken, the conclusion is that he doesn't need it.

My argument is not so much that he needs it, but rather that -- in my scope of understand as to what the digital humanities are -- his kind of criticism is just as relevant to the digital humanities as many other kinds of theories are. And he should hope that I'm right, because the way things are shaping out in the digital world, Fish's criticism might already be old hat.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Re-Opened for Business

Something like this...
Hello there, all.

It's been over a full year since I last posted. I'm not sure what the protocol is for a proper resurrection, so I'm just going to skip past that.

I started this blog a year ago to explore how society and language (sort of) has changed with the shift from a primarily oral culture to primarily literate culture to a now digital community. The assignment was for a Literary Criticism class for the University of North Alabama. I relied heavily on Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong, as well as my own random findings and insights from the interwebs.

I'm starting this blog back up for a couple of reasons: 1. I need to do more work on it to receive full credit for the course (from a year ago--yeah, I know) and 2. I've started to take a strong interest in linguistic studies and feel that this might be a good practice to help me research and follow thought traces running through the literary communities.

For the assignment's purposes, and per the instructor's request, I will be responding to numerous articles in the New York Times written by Stanley Fish over the past year. Fish is a loud voice in the humanities and literary criticism world. He developed the idea of interpretive communities, which I will also be exploring in the re-opening of this blog.

I hope to make this interesting and insightful for you, dear reader, and I welcome all comments, shares, and collaborations.

See you next post.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Temporary Closure

Okay, I'm going to make an attempt to wrap this whole thing up for the moment.

I have to say, first of all, that I have enjoyed this method of research and response. This is my first blog and, as I have always been fairly ignorant of the whole blogosphere that has existed for well over a decade, the thought of maintaining one unnerved me at first. However, I have actually grown pretty fond of it and could definitely see myself utilizing this in my personal life as well as my professional life (whatever that will be). The educational opportunities here are great and I think the network that can be created is extremely beneficial.

I would also like to keep posting on this blog as I find more information on the subject. There has been a lot I've skipped over or left out that would be very beneficial for my argument, but maybe I can revisit those soon. There's also more that I haven't discovered yet. For instance, tomorrow evening I am putting on a poetry and short story reading in my hometown that I'm planning on recording and uploading on Facebook and on here. I think it would be a great addition to my topic, especially with the talks about spoken word poetry. This is our third event, and it is really great to experience something that is based in oral tradition. Hopefully there will many more events, each unique, that I can upload.

So down to business.

We started with a talk on language and the meaning we assign to words as being completely arbitrary to the words themselves. This is embodied in the ideas of Saussure's signified and signifier, and it ties in later on with the discussion of orality and literacy. The meaning of words being assigned by us as humans plays a role in Steve Pinker's lecture on human nature and social relations that I discussed earlier.  Since we, as humans, have assigned-- and continue to assign--meanings to words, it only makes sense that, by taking a closer look at language, we can understand aspects of human nature. Pinker does this by looking at implied meanings such as what lies behind the old phrase, "Would you like to come up and take a look at my etchings."

I also looked at the video itself that was being presented. The video is a great representation of the potential offered in the digital humanities. It combines aural with visual stimulus to create a thoroughly engaging, educational tool. This visual and aural combo goes right along with Walter Ong's idea that we are a visual culture: the idea that we think of words in terms of the words actually being spelled out visible on the page as opposed to words as sounds. When a word is a sound only, as it is in oral cultures, it becomes an experience (or an event or occurrence, as Ong says) in space and time. The audible sound, unlike text, is not locked into space and time, however, because it then become subject to the memory of the listener.

Memory then is one of the biggest aspects that separates oral and literate culture for a few different reasons. The first is that oral cultures have to rely much more heavily on memory because that is their only mode of transfer of history, ritual, and, ultimately, culture. Literate cultures don't need to put such a strong emphasis on memory because their information is all written down and stored. All they (we) have to do is pick up a book and "look-up" the information we need. Since oral cultures have "nowhere" to look, they store it all internally so that they can reproduce it later. They do this by using mnemonic devices, something familiar to the literate world, but not used in the same ways (i.e. the using of mnemonic devices in the learning of musical intervals as opposed to memorizing a poem, which is almost a type of muscle memory).

Another difference is the community that memory creates. While memory is an individual process,  oral cultures relied heavily on communities to help remember stories. A really good example of this is at the end of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury where some of the characters have memorized entire books in order to preserve the books history and message. In oral cultures, the stories were meant to be told and retold to communities to keep them fresh and to pass them on. In the tellings, the speaker would hone his own craft with the practice while the listeners (and future storytellers) would build their own stocks of mnemonic devices and figure out how to use them effectively. The entire process of storytelling and preserving history was entirely based on the concept of a strong community.

According to Ong, individuals in literate cultures are more separated. Not necessarily isolated, but separated because of the words themselves. The word, once written down, has been given a feeling of finality and "closure." The word becomes something separate from the author and is then read by the reader, who is also separated from it. The author assigned his own meaning to the word, but the reader is then propelled into an internal dialogue with the word and himself on trying to understand it. As I said in one post, "writing... internalizes the experience of giving and receiving information." This, Ong says, is why literacy raises consciousness. It forces the individual to ponder all the different aspects of meaning and being in words and self.

(Taking a breath.)(Drinking some water.)

Still awake?

Ong also introduces the idea of the secondary orality. Since he wrote his book in 1982, his ideas of technology were the television, radio, and telephone. High tech for almost 30 years ago. But now we have the internet. Now we have iPads. Now we have social networking. His view has not changed too much, but it definitely has a whole new arsenal of toys to play with.

The second orality, to Ong, borrowed from the primary oral cultures, but applied the technology of the literate cultures. I agree with that idea. Primary orality in a literate society is simply not possible. The frames of thought are completely different and one finds it hard, if not impossible, to relate to the other. With secondary orality, the technology is able to capture some parts of the primary orality and make it available to the literate culture. My example of this is pretty much every video I posted, but with special attention to the Grateful Dead concert and Taylor Mali's spoken word performance. While these things are not the same, despite their aural characteristics, as information in an oral culture, that is what we have to use in order to maintain our own tendencies toward orality.

That is also, in effect, my main argument. By rediscovering the concept of community found in oral cultures and by utilizing the introspection that raises consciousness made prevalent in literate cultures, the digital humanities are putting us on the threshold of a new consciousness. We are an increasingly socially based culture. With new so many ways to connect to people like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, smartphones, Skype, etc. and all sorts of new technology to access them, the world has gotten smaller and we have gotten closer. People who have the same or opposing thoughts and ideas can interact with each other and have discourse in order to grow in their own consciousnesses. The presentation of information itself is changing and becoming more interactive. The last video of that new eBook for the iPad is a good example. It combines oral aspects, documentary footage, and access to other information outside of the book itself. That sort of interaction with information has never been available before and has only come out in the extremely recent past. What can we do with it in the future? While it is still too early to tell, rest assured we are in for serious changes in the way we obtain, process, and broadcast information.

I haven't given any answers or predictions with regard to my argument, and I don't think I will be able to anytime soon. There's a lot more research to be done-- a lot more exploring to experience. I have only scratched the surface (if that) and have already missed a lot and excluded more. I want to keep this up though, and fully document where we are going as a culture and as a consciousness. It will be interesting and I'm glad that I'm along for the ride. Maybe I'll take one of the wheels one day. That's a scary thought.

For now though, goodbye and goodnight.


So I don't get thoroughly impressed easily. Technology is usually what does it for me, but since there has been such a huge explosion in just my lifetime I tend to expect technology to impress me. But this thing is just really really cool.

Okay so a question for book-nerds: Is that not the coolest thing you've ever seen? While I'm still a strong proponent for a traditional book and all the nostalgia and emotion that comes with one, the eBooks really are taking over. And technology like this makes me think that it might not be so bad.

While there is, what appears to be, a substantial oral component to this technology (over an hour of documentary footage!), I don't think this applies as directly to my study on orality as the spoken word poetry. This seems to be more pertaining to digital humanities today. Even if it doesn't apply anywhere at all I just wanted to show it because it's bad ass.

It could pertain to the orality study in a certain way though. Ong talks about the finality of the word. Once the word is on print it becomes separate, and acts as a separation, from author and reader. It becomes a "thing" instead of an event. Technology like this could totally change that viewpoint or, at least, modify its dimensions. Now the word is interactive with information available to the reader immediately. The possibilities are incredible.

Spoken Words

Dig this.

I've just recently been getting into Spoken Word poetry, and I think that nothing better exemplifies the continuance of orality. In spoken word, the piece is usually memorized and performed for a crowd. It usually has some kind of rhythm, but to put any sort of definite limitations on it is to go against the freedom that spoken word embodies.

Since the piece is memorized, it is subject to memory (DUH). This is a factor that can change the performance. Not only that, it is subject-- to a degree-- to the audience. Differently levels of audience participation can change the way a poet delivers a line or puts inflection on a certain word. This added influence from the audience goes back to what Ong was saying about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While they were speaking to a crowd of around 15,000, the audience was loudly voicing their approval or disgust. There was an interplay between audience and speaker, which Ong says is important for orality. Listen to these two performances of the same piece by Taylor Mali. Listen to differences in his voice, but also listen to differences in his audience. Notice the difference in his wardrobe and what that could entail. But, most importantly, listen to his poetry.
Quite a few changes taking place here. The first video is much more subdued. His dress is classier. His delivery is calmer until the end. In the second video, he starts out almost screaming. Sweat is dripping off of him, or rolling down to what looks like sweat pants. The audience is very clearly different here. They are loud and responsive with laughter and expressions of shock and joy. In the first one, there is some laughing, but, until the end, they are generally quiet.

This shows how Ong's secondary orality differs from primary orality and literacy. It differs from literacy in that it is a completely aural experience. It differs from primary orality because it is recorded, which is one way that it is actually similar to literacy. Another similarity to literacy, and departure from primary orality, is the visual aspect. That, in effect, is my argument: the way we learn and process information as a visual culture has to be accounted for through digital means in order to preserve and recreate any aspect of the oral culture.

While this is a big departure from the oral culture, it is the way that we have to come to terms with. The days of oral storytelling to preserve history in the way Native American, or Greeks, or other primarily oral cultures understood it, are over. But we can still celebrate it and learn from it and define our own knowledge by turning toward our digital technology.

I think these videos are really good representations of how the digital humanities can perpetuate orality. The spoken word artists are the modern storytellers, and now their stories can be told and retold by anyone in the world.