Aesthetics of History

What should history look like?

As the longstanding and fundamental currency of historical scholarship, books and articles (even digital analogues) aren’t going away anytime soon. But this should not stop us from embracing, or at least experimenting with, some new formal possibilities. Doing so will not undermine contemporary notions of authority and legitimacy, but in fact will help situate and solidify them in the shifting sands of contemporary media culture. In short, we can continue to value the authority and legitimacy of traditional scholarship while we also begin to value some of the advantages that new media provide over traditional print media–even while they serve the same professional function.

There is little question that the historical narrative (in book and article form) has been a dominant form of historical scholarship, even after a flurry of criticism of it in the last third of the twentieth century. I want to suggest very briefly here how new professional practices central to the digital humanities can offer a solution for some long-standing theoretical criticisms of the narrative. I also suggest why we might make more room for non-narrative forms as a legitimate vehicle for scholarship. In particular, I want to suggest a theoretical framework for 1) why we should encourage the creation of reconfigurable primary sources over fixed narratives; and 2) how we can get closer to the first goal through a focus on more carefully designed interfaces for scholarly engagement.

If poetics are the rules that determine production of a literary work, there can be no question that the poetics of most humanities scholarship, especially history, rarely strays far from the narrative. This was true even before historical work was explicitly considered as “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse” (White, 1973). Needless to say, it persists through convention, professional identity, and personal preference. As part of our tribal indoctrination into scholarly culture we are at least implicitly trained to favor the narrative. As a result, humanists hover dangerously near a “trained incapacity” (Veblen, 1914) to value other forms of scholarly work: blogs are not serious scholarship; hyperlinks are too distracting; online publications lack the authority of their printed counterparts.

Of course arguments against narrative are not new, perhaps most famously challenged by post-structualist and deconstructionist notions that our narrative interpretations are mere fiction–that we are not really accessing any truth, but merely creating one of many possible representations of it (e.g. Derrida, 1976). Many, if not most, scholars have navigated the linguistic turn by adopting a practical realist view of the standard empiricist position–that is, recognizing the limits of objectivity, but clinging dearly to the notion of the narrative as a useful medium for interpretive work (as described in Appleby et al, 1994).

As central tennets of new media, reconfigurability, malleability, and modularity can be such abstract utopian fantasies that they don’t much advance the conversation. I think that one web technology that has gained some traction in recent years, semantic mark-up, has a very real and practical future. In terms of narrative, the combination of semantic mark-up of primary sources and stronger tools for scholarly interaction offers a counter to the deconstructionist critique. I am not suggesting that we follow the path of narrative nilhism and abandon the narrative altogether. Rather, I suggest that we should place a higher value on reconfigurability through mark-up, which will strengthen the utility and value of our interpretive work, even if that means that historical scholarship becomes a bit less individualistic. [This does NOT mean that we cannot get credit for our work!]

Although a variety of encoding initiatives, such as TEI, have been in development and in use for some time, the practical value of such methodologies remains uncertain even to those gaze wistfully at their utopian pastures. One of the great values, of course, is that it allows for more interoperable texts. But before I say more about that, let me first say that I contend that postmodern efforts to decenter the narrative have failed in part because there has been no seriously viable alternative. And I argue that one of the great advantages of mark-up like TEI and the semantic web it creates, is that it gives us exactly such an alternative–a way that our sources and interpretations can be easily viewed and re-viewed through new theoretical and cultural lenses and be developed in situ on a widely accessible platform (something like a wiki, perhaps, but i’m not thinking of a particular form at the moment) that puts primary and secondary sources side by side. More importantly, it allows scholarship concerned with a particular set of sources to grow and develop in an open way. The form of scholarship looks much more like a conversation–the analogy we all use to describe what’s going on in our fields, even though our static and isolated forms (books and articles) are a rather closed form of conversation. Not that change is easy, but why limit ourselves to outdated technologies any longer simply to avoid the difficult work of establishing cultural norms for accepting scholarly value of non-traditional forms of scholarship?

One advantage of using mark-up is that the primary and secondary source become merged, creating a new kind of cybertext–a text without a strong narrative thread–as a site of impurity and struggle between author, reader, and sign (Aarseth, 1997). This is true, however, only if one sees the ideal mode of communication as a one way street, with a text at odds to communicate something, even if not a predetermined idea. I would like to suggest that a cybertext should be seen not as a site of contamination, but rather as a potential space for a new model of scholarship. Perhaps a more useful model would be something like a reader-author (Landow, 1992), in which we employ the combination of mark-up and interface to measure our scholarly output not by fixed texts, but the creation of sources of influence and creating sites of discussion.

Furthermore, semantically described primary sources integrated with our interpretation allows for greater visibility of the data and voices we strive to make known. Semantic descriptions of resources keep visible the tremendous amount of perusing, sorting, and categorizing that gets rendered unforgivably invisible by typical publishing constraints. Why should a future scholar studying the same sources as I have spend time looking for or processing primary sources in the same way I already have?

Though semantic technologies, by design, privilege content over form, I argue that, even when they can be separated, that the form is every bit as important–but woefully neglected in current implementations of semantic processors. The value of the mark-up can be best realized through more careful attention to interfaces that exploit their advantages. Although a constantly increasing number of digital tools, especially recent ones in text mining and visualization, have made new digital research methodologies easier than ever, less work has gone into the end-user design and experience. Yet both of these are essential to take full advantage of presentation technologies that can vastly improve how we communicate and collaborate–the goal of mark-up in the first place.

As a way promoting adopting of mark-up standards, I propose that we must emphasize the production of an online annotation mechanism that allows users to mark-up primary sources with their own metadata and interpretation. This does not pretend to be any kind of archival solution, but rather a new mode of scholarship. With the right interface (theoretically), we can replace the “model reader” (Eco, 1994) with a model collaborator–a scholar who builds immediately and inseparably from the foundation of both primary and secondary sources presented in unison. As new sources and analysis come to light, they should be incorporated into scholarship in a collaborative working space–one that does not necessarily facilitate multiple authorship (as professional knowledge producers, we still need credit for our work), but one that allows scholars to engage in a discussion that makes clear individual contributions.

Furthermore, scholarship will no longer hinge on recouping publication costs and waiting long after an idea is “published” to respond. It allows our historical narratives to take on a new dynamic that renders them less fictitious by allowing users to see our sources in new ways via the mark-up language that describes it. Instead of mostly reinventing the wheel with every monograph, the mark-up and interface together can facilitate scholarly rigor, analysis, and interpretation at dramatically higher efficiencies. Of course I’m describing a perfect world that will never materialize–but even partial success in these goals will improve both efficiency and transparency of the profession.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that we dilute sites of scholarship with our half-baked ideas that we normally share with our closest colleagues after a few drinks. Rather, I’m arguing that we don’t necessarily need slavishly polished prose inside formal printed matter to advance scholarship. And there is no reason that semantic technologies cannot create scholarship as ever bit as useful as the traditional narrative, even if they are not as aesthetically pleasing at the moment.