Digital Origin Stories

What follows are the remarks that I delivered at the 2012 ASA annual meeting, as part of a roundtable I helped to convene, “What can the Digital Humanities Bring to American Studies, and Vice Versa?” The roundtable also featured remarks by Natalia Cecire, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Susan GarfinkelAlex Gil, Matt Gold, and Miriam Posner. Abridged versions of their remarks can be found on the ASA’s Digital Humanities Caucus page.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, All-Star Superman #1 (DC Comics, 2006).

It’s true of superheroes. It’s also true of scholarly fields. Each one has its origin story. So in my short time today, I want to present two such tales: one about the origin of the digital, and one about the origin of the digital humanities. And then I’ll suggest a few ways in which we might, through the lens of American Studies, refract both of these stories into something more complex—and consequently, more meaningful—for understanding today’s digital world.

An American Studies (ca. 2000) origin story.

The first origin story begins in June, 1945, at the height of the war in the Pacific. Allied forces in Germany had only just assumed control of the recently defeated nation, and in the United States, citizens continued to mourn the loss of FDR, their wartime commander in chief. In this midst of this global tumult, six women were summoned to the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were assigned to the top-secret “Project X.” As the women would soon discover, Project X was the code name for the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer project—also called ENIAC—an enterprise that would culminate in the world’s first electronic, digital, and programmable computer. Upon its completion, in 1946, the ENIAC machine was immediately deployed to calculate the firing tables required for targeting the Army’s long-range ballistic weapons. However, the “ENIAC girls,” as the women who operated the machine were known, would be acknowledged for their pioneering role in the history of computing—for as it turns out, they were the world’s first computer programmers—only fifty years after the fact.

“Two Women Operating ENIAC”

The surprise in this story is not only how strongly it resonates with many of the issues engaged by American studies today—such as the gendering and valuation of labor (or lack thereof) and the rise of the U.S. military-industrial complex—but also that it has only recently begun to be mined for its significance as the starting point of today’s digital culture. Moreover, it suggests how the fields of American studies and the digital humanities, so often viewed as disciplinarily, methodologically, and ontologically distinct, are in fact deeply intertwined. For decades, the creation of digital tools and the application of digital methods was the purview of “humanities computing,” a close-knit field of dedicated practitioners. Renamed the digital humanities in the early 2000s, the field has since been extended to encompass what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in her contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities (edited by Matt Gold) as the array of “changes that digital technologies are producing across the many fields of humanistic inquiry.” But if the digital humanities is to become an umbrella term for a generalized epistemology of the digital, it is of the utmost importance that we understand the origins and implications of the digital itself.

Father Roberto Busa

Which leads me to origin story number two. DH. The origins of the digital humanities are most often traced to 1949, three years after ENIAC, when an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, approached IBM with an idea to employ a computer to compile an index verborum of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas—nearly eleven million words of medieval Latin. This story, replete with anecdotes about punch-cards trucked through narrow, sixteenth-century streets, and a meeting between Busa and the CEO of IBM himself, establishes intellectual ambition, technological resourcefulness, and a not insignificant amount of whimsy as the foundational values in the field.

Taken together, these stories reveal a more complex prehistory, one that is shot through with contradiction. And what I want to suggest today is that the history of the digital humanities, in both its original and its expanded meanings, is also, necessarily, a history of gender, labor, and empire. By the same token, the ideological and conceptual systems that underpin each of these terms are, in ways that have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged, informed by our ideas about and experience with the digital.

Looking at the landscape of American Studies today, there remains an uncharted space for scholarship that can engage the history illuminated by the women of ENIAC, Father Busa, and digital culture more generally conceived. This includes more targeted media history, of course, but also digital mapping projects, oral histories, archeological approaches to those old machines, visual essays, intermedia art—even hastily cobbled together comic book ripoffs. I say this jokingly, but I don’t want to diminish the stakes: if American Studies is to incorporate an understanding of the transformation of cultural life in the twenty-first century, we must fully engage in the study of the implications of the digital, its structure and its scope. We must display an increased willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries and to bring together diverse forms of scholarly work. We must embrace technical rigor with the same ease that we embrace ambiguity. We must continue to insist on the relation between scholarship and public life. In this way, we can begin to model an American Studies that does not merely deploy the digital, but rather, employs the digital in order to facilitate new modes of inquiry, new forms of scholarship, and new pathways for exchange.

Archival Silence, Digital Humanities, and James Hemings

The slides from my November 7th talk at the University of Alabama’s Digital Humanities Center:


Below: A chord diagram of people mentioned in letters concerning James Hemings, as mined from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition.


University of Alabama Talk

On Wednesday, November 8th, I’ll be giving a talk at the University of Alabama’s Digital Scholarship Center.

I’ll be posting the slides from my talk upon my return, but as a preview, here’s John Melish‘s 1822 “Diagram of the United States.” (The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has a larger version).

I’ll also be leading a brown bag the next day, where I’ll discuss the following projects:


CFP: The History and Future of Data Visualization (ASECS 2013)

I’m chairing a panel at the 2013 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference. The official call is posted below. Please contact me if you have any questions, or to submit a proposal.

American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS)
April 4-7, 2013
Cleveland, OH

CFP: “The History and Future of Data Visualization” (Digital Humanities Caucus)

Panel Organizer: Lauren Klein, Georgia Tech

According to the New York Times, the “next big thing” for the humanities is data. But scholars of the eighteenth century have long recognized that era as the one in which taxonomical representation of data, and related forms of visual display, rose to the fore. This panel seeks papers that address the history and future of data visualization, broadly conceived. Topics may include: data-mining and visualization techniques applied to eighteenth-century texts; eighteenth-century ideas about and approaches to data, and related forms of display; creative uses and/or theorizations of digital tools for teaching and research.

Please send 250 word abstract and 1-page CV to Lauren Klein, before Saturday, September 15th, 2012.

Two Recent Talks

I gave two talks in April, both of which have now been archived online. Click here to watch the video of my talk at Georgia Tech’s GVU Center, “Digital Humanities, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.”

I gave a related (but distinct) talk at Emory’s Digital Scholarship Commons, “Archival Silence, Digital Humanities, and James Hemings.” You can see an archive of the Tweets here, and a video of the talk here.

“A Report Has Come Here”

What follows is the full text of the paper that I presented at the 2012 MLA, “‘A Report Has Come Here’: Social Network Analysis in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” slightly reformatted for the web. The panel, “Networks, Maps, and Words: Digital-Humanities Approaches to the Archive of American Slavery,” also featured talks by Cameron Blevins, of Stanford University, and Aditi Muralidharan, of the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a response from Amy Earhart, of Texas A&M.

I convened this panel out of a desire to address the unique set of challenges posed to the literary scholar by the archive of American slavery—for instance, how does one account for absences in the archival record, both those inscribed in the archive’s contents, and those introduced at the time of the archive’s construction? How does one account for the power relations at work in the relationships between the enslaved men and women who committed their narratives to paper, and the group of (mostly white) reformers who edited and published their works? How does one identify and extract meaning from the unique set of documents that do remain—letters, inventories, ledger books, and personal narratives—documents that, in the words of Susan Scott Parrish, we must struggle to make “mean something more?” And how does one do so without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation—not just in the archival record, but the voices themselves, are silent, and irretrievably lost?

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