Digital Humanities as an Alternative to Textocentrism?

Lately in my performance theory class we’ve been talking about what Dwight Conquergood calls “textocentrism” or “scriptocentrism” – essentially, the priority of text in our methods for recording/ analyzing/ discussing/ responding to/ etc. objects of analysis. Our conversations have been interesting, but difficult, as we attempt to articulate ways to perform these actions in response to art or other objects of analysis without relying on writing. In fact, there have been several times throughout our conversations when I’m been tempted to just exclaim, “There is no way to do this…let’s just move on in our comfortable text bubble!” But, fortunately, I’ve fought that urge and, obviously, there are incredibly good reasons for finding alternatives to break away from the textocentrism of academia (not least of which is challenging ourselves to find new ways of constructing and recording knowledge).

In our most recent class, we talked briefly about video or photography as mediums that allow for a more effective “embodied” experience of an object of analysis. But the problem remains that these are often clunky or, as someone suggested, less accessible ways to present knowledge and analysis. The EVIA project was brought up as one of these methods that is bringing us closer to being able to utilize (more?) productive alternative methods of analysis. EVIA seems like a really phenomenal endeavor, and one that could be extremely useful and productive for anthropologists and ethnographers. And, perhaps, with more streamlined developments, it actually can allow these records to be more accessible for non-academic communities. But, this technology has been specifically made for ethnographers (categorized as such in its name – “Ethnographic Video for Instruction and Analysis”) and, because it’s so targeted, it doesn’t present much of a possibility for other fields. Naturally I’m concerned with the Humanities, specifically English, because that’s my home field. And I was wondering whether or not Digital Humanities might mark the beginning of something like this for the study of literature.

Yes, this is coming from my recent obsession with the field of Digital Humanities and might be a more indulgent answer to these questions than is useful. But it does seem prudent to explore the possibility, although it may require a very particular definition of “digital.” The main counter to this possibility is that the Digital Humanities do rely on text. In fact, the main purpose of the field at this point is to digitally archive early manuscripts and other texts to make special library collections more widely accessible. But I’m thinking about “digital” as “interactive.” Many of the Digital Humanities projects that have emerged thus far are extremely interactive. Sure, at their core, they rely on texts as the foundation for their interactivity, but these sites utilize texts in ways that don’t necessarily equate with Conquergood’s notion of “textocentrism.” For instance, “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” project created right at IU includes an entire page devoted to a “multimedia lab” in which viewers can watch experiments that have been performed based on Isaac Newton’s texts. This link will take you to a video that shows you how to “transmute” silver into gold. So even if you can’t actually read Isaac Newton’s papers, you could learn about any of these experiments through visual means – enough, in fact, to actually reproduce the experiment yourself, a result that comes very close to the kind of “embodied” analytical experience Conquergood calls for. As another example, the Brown University Women Writers Project has set up similar multimedia interactions for its viewers. This link presents a visualization of the correspondences between characters in The History of Emily Montague, an epistolary novel by Frances Brooke.

While I don’t know if it’s possible for these digital interactive interactions to record any kind of emotional or kinesthetic reaction to these texts in the way we’ve been specifically thinking about in class, I wonder if Digital Humanities could at least provide alternative ways of collecting and analyzing knowledge. It’s not a solution that completely breaks us of our textocentristic practices, but it is maybe a solution that can present a viable alternative for recording and analysis of literature.

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