Towards Critical Tool-building

Posted by Sara Morais at Jul 12, 2013 09:35 AM |
The last blogpost focused on the importance of design for digital humanities research and on the concept of universal design to make research work more inclusive as well as more accessible, the visual being something that digital humanities stress the importance of in their work. But research work has always been put into form, so aesthetics have played a role in traditional humanities work. What has changed and why is there a self-proclaimed shift towards design in the digital humanities?

In previous blog entries, I have thought about the digital humanities as a field, with its own set of values, which may or may not at times conflict with more traditional humanities research and perspectives. Blogposts preceding this one have explained the concept of the archive in digital humanities studies and how the importance of design has increased. Digital Humanities therefore have to begin theorizing aesthetics, one of the suggestions being the universal design proposal explained in the last blogpost. However, this assumes that design is only something which takes place with given knowledges, putting those into visual perspective. One must be clear that not only is the data itself something that is being produced and in a larger sense 'designed', even before the humanities took a turn to visualizations, textual work was being put together according to a perception of aesthetics.

The production of knowledge has always been intertwined with making it accessible, making it visible, so to say, so that it can actually be established as knowledge. So producing knowledge is always a matter of 'putting it out there', which happens through the organization of that knowledge in a certain format. As was established before, the organization of knowledge not only structures the format but actually influences the content of it as well, so that it is produced just as it is arranged to be consumed. Still, more often than not, design is seen as a kind of “accessorizing exercise, a dressing-up of information” (Drucker), after the 'real work' has been done. As Gary Hall has stated, it is difficult for digital humanists to “understand computing and the digital as much more than tools, techniques, and resources” (Hall 2012), which is why their work of building tools is often considered to be “naïve and lacking in meaningful critique (Liu; Higgen)” (Hall 2012). The circumstances under which tools are built and technologies implemented should be scrutinized closely, so as to see where and how they are building meaning and what knowledge production this leads to.

Arguing with Derrida, there is no real difference between language and the world, as all 'world' is perceived through a descriptive process and “there is nothing outside of the text”(Derrida 1976:163). This does not mean that there is nothing existential outside of language, however, it does mean that all perception happens with the help of the technology of text and therefore language. Using this argument, Spivak goes on to say that text is part of the world, just as media and technology are not separate things, but intertwined as technologies of language – and therefore productions of 'the world' (Spivak 1990: 129). Building tools can only happen within the terrain that has been defined by language. Technology, as it is grasped and developed with language, is therefore inherent to the conformities of language. Data, according to that statement, is a part of the technology of language as well, just as the code that inscribes or develops it. Within this statement lies the implication that data is not a given, but must be constructed and created as well, just as the codes that might be writing this data are a product of human technological and social development. What we take for granted in databases such as GPS mapping devices is actually not simply there as a representation of the world, but a complex translation and interpretation through language and code (Drucker 2011). Code itself therefore is considered more than just a tool of building, as digital humanities researchers urge to see not only the technical jargon of coding, but also its social impact on humanities agency (Donahue 2010). With code and computer interfaces come digital databases, and they have definitely taken their place in the digital humanities realm. Lev Manovich introduces the database to be the language of New Media, implying that this is what constructs digital media knowledges.

Knowledge design – even if only in a sense that the text is formatted – has always been a principle in humanities work, as it organizes knowledge, which only then can be incorporated into 'the world'. However, today's increased focus on design can probably be explained by the increased usage of the internet and the construction of databases that comes with it. According to Lev Manovich, a database represents a “cultural form of its own” (Manovich: 2001 ), as it is curated model, which undergoes selection and production of cultural knowledges. Just as the word 'curatorial' suggests, these dispositions have an underlying aesthetic, according to which they are organized. This aesthetic, however, is not an emotional aesthetic as it was perceived to be in romanticism, but has – and must have – a theoretical basis.

More importantly than that, they overcome the forced chronology of narrative, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. Not only are databases without beginning or end, they are “collections of individual items on which the user can perform various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience of such computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site. Similarly, literary or cinematic narrative, an architectural plan and database each present a different model of what a world is like” (Manovich: 2001). Within a database, the creation of meaning is interactive, as it is up to the user to develop relations between otherwise loosely arranged cultural objects. The database therefore is a deconstruction of the hierarchical position text and narrative are perceived to have over other knowledge production processes. According to Manovich a narrative always requires a narrator, while databases can be approached completely free of prior organization through an obscure other. However, database design always requires a certain framework, which Nigel Cross describes to be the “design problem” (Cross 2007). Design problems are the way of asserting the framework of a certain situation, while at the same time being vague and open to interpretation (Dorst 2010: 135). But how do these new ways of viewing knowledge creation really matter to humanities work, apart from being tools? While it has been suggested that digital humanities, still being in a developing phase, should not necessarily be all about answering questions of humanities agency and politics at this stage, the way of addressing technological problems through critical approaches implies that the technological and tool-building work itself is impacting those questions (Hall 2012). This proposal ignores the previously explained situation that language, meaning and technology are interwoven and can therefore not be seen as separate. Building tools always is building meaning, therefore it is and always should be political. To ignore these circumstances of representation of knowledge means ignoring its process of coming to being and therefore obscures the ideology behind knowledge production. Johanna Drucker (2011) tries to overcome the blur of visualizations by suggesting the linguistic transfer of data to capta, from something that is inherently there, that is a given, to something that is taken. The shift implies the acknowledgement of the

“constructed-ness of the categories according to the uses and expectations for which they are put in service. Nations, genders, populations and time spans are not self-evident stable entities that exist a priori. They are each subject to qualifications and reservations that bear directly on and arise from the reality of lived experience” (ibid.).

This constructed-ness of data does not only apply for simplifications (like for example excluding data that falls out of the normative range in statistics) but also for the categories itself upon which the data is built. While usual statistic data is confined into lines, curves, bars etc., traditional humanities have taught us, that categories are not rigid. Much rather they are processual, they overlap each other, or their borders are not entirely defined. It is essential for digital humanities work, to accept these parameters and apply them when designing, selecting or processing visual data.

In that sense, data as capta is a concept which tries to show the construction – and therefore ideology – behind all types of information, not only the information in social sciences. The digital humanities tools are lacking critique only because humanists refuse to see them as agents of change. Technology needs to be understood in the same constructed, non-objective way, as the knowledges it is producing. Once we start seeing even statistical data, visualizations and apparently objective tool-building with this concept, it should be possible to build tools which understand and work towards the agency of humanities work. Digital humanities can and should therefore be building tools as well as questioning the way in which they are being produced theoretically.





Cross 2007 Nigel Cross: “Designerly Ways of Knowing” Basel: Birkhauser

Donahue 2010 Evan Donahue: “A 'Hello World' Apart (why humanities students should NOT learn to program), accessed 12th July 2013,

Dorst 2010 Kees Dorst: “The Nature of Design Thinking”, accessed 12th July 2013

Drucker 2011 Johanna Drucker: “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display”, accessed 12th July 2013

Hall 2012 Gary Hall: “Has Critical Theory Run Out of Time for Data-Driven Scholarship?”, accessed 12th July

Manovich 2001 Lev Manovich: “The Language of New Media”, accessed 12th July 2013,

Scheinfeldt 2010 Tom Scheinfeldt: “Where's the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” accessed 12th July 2013,

Spivak 1990 Gayatri Spivak: “The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues”

Sarah Harasym (ed.), New York/London: Routledge.