So What & Digital History

While there are an increasing number of Digital History projects out there, I'm constantly caught by the larger 'So What?' question that always seems to come up. I don't mean 'so what' in terms of specific content of a given project or field, or area of study. Rather, 'so what?' for history itself. Literary scholars have had much more success in wrestling with this question it seems. In part I suspect it has to do with the very fundamental epistemological and hermeneutic conditions of their interests, as opposed to historians. Both disciplines prioritize the position of the text as the basis of their work - albeit there are literary scholars and historians alike who use other media, but primarily the thing that gets 'used' are texts. We read them, we interpret them.

But I'm an historian, and not a literary scholar. My approach to textuality is inherently different, despite the obvious cross-overs. The way I see it is this (pace literature friends): literary scholars object of study is the text itself. It's production, authorship, and all of the bits and pieces surrounding its contexts hinge on the text itself in a very crucial way. Even new historicist approaches to literature still position the text as the primary object of scrutiny, or seek to do so, even when a literary scholar might be interested in authorship networks, for instance.

Historians are interested in similar things, but their object of study is fundamentally different. Historical evidence, texts included, are just that - evidence. They are witnesses (to use a textual studies term) of the past, but they are not the past themselves. And history is written in the present. We know this as historians. Where we differ from literary scholars is that our object of inquiry is actually removed from the text itself. We're interested in historical interactions, how they arise, and how / what conditions (cultural, economic, political, social, religious, what have you) shape them. And so we use texts, but texts are windows into something different, something beyond them. Carolyn Steedman called historical evidence 'dust' years ago, and as scholars we're trying to use this dust to see something we can't quite grasp.

And so - 'so what?' comes back to this real difference in how we look at digitized textuality as historians. Great, the sources are there, we have access to new materials, to resources and archives which were difficult to obtain or see even a few years ago. But unlike text-mining or corpus analytics of texts - the distant reading coined by Moretti - it's not clear what kinds of practices we as historians can engage in that are distinct to our analytical interests. We can study the texts, but doing so is not about the texts themselves, it's about something beyond them. Because it is beyond, the nature of the tools used to parse, count, or 'screw around with' these texts aren't really conducive to historical scholarship in the way that they might be for a literary scholar. In short, we can't really ask our questions in the ways we'd like.

If we're going to grapple with the 'so what' question, it has to be historiographical in nature. We have to know what our object of study is, what we can accomplish with digital tools as historians, and how the two relate. It's not enough to simply create datasets and tools. We must be aware of what it is we do as historians, what we're after, and how we can create and employ digital media and technologies to carry out those tasks. We're not there yet. If the historian's object of study is historical interactions and their conditions, we need an effective tool for mapping those in some way. This kind of tool is different than a tool that sees texts as its object of operation.

I'm about to open up a draft prototype of Nano-History. It's a new tool that sees the network as the fundamental model for what we could well see as distant reading of historical interactivity over time. Its core component is a named graph (quad) that tracks the interactions of an agent on an object. With it historians can create complex networks of interactions that are closer to what we're used to thinking of in terms of our object of study. Texts are not the primary object of operation. Rather, it's people and what they're doing in the past as documented and evidenced by texts, and other artifacts.

This distinction, I hope, will serve an historiographical purpose. Nano-history, is, in many ways, a writing tool - not for assembling arguments in prose, or for analysizing networks themselves, but for documenting the objects which preoccupy historians - events. It's my hope that a networking tool which prioritizes historical interactions will help scholars get at the 'so what' question, and how we can really start to think about what distinguishes digital history from other related digital humanities fields. We use texts, but they are not the primary focus of our research. We need tools that allow us to zero in on what it is we as historians do. Let's talk to other disciplines and draw on what they do, as we always have. But let's build our own as well, and think about how the digital can act as a heuristic for our craft, as much as provide us to new ways of organizing and thinking about our work. The answer to the 'so what' must be construed historiographically, and we need effective tools that position the historiographic in order to think through the wider impact of digital media and technologies on our writing of the past.