Spinning with the Digital: EMDA Reflections

I’ve spent the last two weeks at the Folger Shakespeare Library‘s Early Modern Digital Agendas, this summer’s NEH-funded institute on advanced digital humanities topics. With only a few days left, I’m trying to start the process of reflecting on this amazing opportunity and more thoroughly processing the huge amounts of information we’ve been introduced to on a daily basis. Funnily enough, one thing I keep returning to as I think back over the seminar thus far is my choice behind the name for this blog.

This is, perhaps, partly because, when I started this blog (that’s three years flown by) for Ellen MacKay and Amy Cook‘s awesome performance theory seminar at IU, both Ellen and Amy encouraged us to use this space beyond our classroom as a way of “enhancing our digital presence” as academics. And thus began my first foray into digital humanities. Yes, at the time I thought a blog put me in the category of “interested party in digital humanities.”

When I sat down to choose the name for my blog, it came easily. Cavendish’s idea of writing as “spinning with the braine” has, since my first reading it, struck me as an incredibly astute and compelling way of thinking about a lot of what we do as academics. Then, as now, the most important component of this phrase for me is her recourse to material. Conflating writing with the hand and craft work that is spinning (and, especially in the early modern period, a craft relegated to “women’s work”), pulls the bodily and material components of the writing process to the fore, even as the metaphor aims to articulate mental – and, therefore, much less material – activity.

Cavendish’s expression resonates for my EMDA experience in several ways. First, because my brain literally hurts after our sessions everyday – my fellow participants have expressed similar levels of mental overload (how fitting then that we started with Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know during our first days of seminar). We have spent 6-8 hour days: being introduced to Python coding and the IPython interface, learning how to use Python for network analysis, learning how to conceptualize various mathematical expressions to measure relations in network analysis, thinking about how to visualize 100+ dimensions of a data set in digital space, how to summarize and reduce our 100+ dimensions using principal component analysis, being introduced to Docuscope‘s tagging system for rhetorical structures, discussing how to use Docuscope’s tags as proxies for a wide range of humanistic inquiries (and that was all one day – our schedule last Friday). Spinning with the braine indeed.

But in fact, I started thinking about Cavendish’s expression on our very first day of seminar work, when Lisa Gitelman visited to lead a discussion on data and asked us to think about the tiny units of information that work as building blocks to our digital practices. We grounded our discussion in several readings that, like Blair’s, provide useful examples of how massive amounts of knowledge have been managed and processed over time – the “too much to know” phenomenon and how we as humans deal with it. In the case studies of knowledge management we read and then throughout our discussion, I was struck by the emphasis on time and bodily labor. Conrad Gesner‘s process of cutting and pasting slips of excerpts from other books to make his bibliography. Niklas Luhmann‘s meticulous index card system. That day, it seemed as if we were starting to draw a dichotomy between the time/labor involved in such systems and the potential for more immediate results with digital methods. But our conversations since then have, in part, called attention to the immense time and labor behind digital work – making us hyper-conscientious of the aggregation of each tiny motion behind the digital methods we use.

Cavendish’s expression too draws attention to the body behind mental work, to the materials involved in intellectual labor, and the tiny motions necessary for the final object’s production. Thinking about “spinning with the braine” in relation to our conversations that first day, I want to know how we measure the bodily and material work involved in the creative/intellectual process when we’re dealing in the digital. How do we account for the bodies behind the work and the tiny motions they must perform in order for the work to happen? These questions of course resonate with current debates on collaboration and co-authorship in DH and how we account for the work done on all levels of the process. As interesting and important as those conversations are, that’s not my point here though. I want to think about the bodies of the people involved – whether it’s a single-scholar project or many, many bodies have contributed time and labor to the finished project.

In many ways I’m reminded of the Petrarchan trope, used by so many early modern poets, of calling attention to the physical toll that love (and, particularly, the writing of sonnets to a lover) takes on the poet’s body. The lover causes the poet so much pain – the poet can’t eat or sleep or even write anything other than the sonnets. There’s a great example of this in Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti, when the poet references The Faerie Queene and blames his lover for not being able to work on it. His “proud love” “spoyle[s]” his spirit and, the poet claims, “till she vouchsafe to grawnt [him] rest,” he cannot write his “Queene of faëry” (Amoretti 33).

This bodily toll is, perhaps, part of what Cavendish had in mind when she tried to articulate the material density of the writing process – spinning with the braine. But the most important point Cavendish tries to make, I think, is that our minds can never be separate from the material processes we use them for. So even if we’re destined to forever articulate the mind in purely metaphorical terms (something one of my fellow EMDA participants, Brad Pasanek has much experience with) there is always some resonance of the material in the creative process that we can in fact grasp. And it’s this that I want to think more about as we spend our last few days in seminar this coming week. How do we measure and render the material weight behind our digital practice – the immense amount of time it takes to clean data for processing and analysis (80% of the work according to Ruth Ahnert and Sebastian Ahnert), the countless hours poking around digital archives and libraries, the forty-seven attempts at the proper command line entry before the algorithm finally runs properly, and, finally, the blog post that goes out into the digital ether, or the article in DHQ that gets published digitally?

I read a blog post by Craig Mod that helped me think a bit more about this – I especially like his concept of “digital thinness.” But I’m not entirely convinced that, for literary scholars, the answer to digital thinness is print publication (which is, ultimately, Mod’s solution for his own project). If the digital is meant to be our move away from that traditional concrete marker of academic labor, what do we turn to? And where/how do we find the body of the scholar and the materials of labor behind the work?

And, finally, because it’s related – check out the people behind a literal digital spinning project:

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