My Day(s) of DH (Revisited): For Monadic Digital Humanities

Screen shot of my Day of DH 2012 blog, including customised banner, About Page, etc.
Screen shot of my Day of DH 2012 blog, including three blog posts, one before the day, one on the day and one the day after,  customised banner, About Page, Sidebar widgets,  etc.

Today is 2013’s edition of  “Day of DH”. The organisers have done a great job this year at promoting it actively on Twitter, perhaps reaching an audience that previous editions didn’t. The ‘swag’ looked very cool as well. It will also surely benefit from a new generation of scholars joining the field, and from the ongoing interest in defining, redefining, defining and redefining again. It’s all very meta, yes.

I did not sign up this year to blog from the multi-blog WordPress platform set up for Day of DH, though. I already have too many blogs. I know it’s not what the organisers want, but this blog (not only this blog post) is my contribution to Day of DH.

The idea of every year of Day of DH becoming a cemetery of semi-customised blogs suffering from an infestation of spam depresses me no end. To date, I still receive spam comment notifications from my 2012 blog. It’s the only kind of comments I ever received. The fact it is very openly a way to centrally aggregrate content (prominently definitions of “digital humanities”) for future analysis irks me a little if I’m honest, and Dan Cohen’s ‘uncharitable view’ from last year (see below) seems to me even more accurate this year.

I apologise if I sound too negative, and I would like to emphasise I do not mean to be ‘negative’ in a non-constructive kind of way. I know that a lot of good work (and money) has gone into this initiative, and what is often called ‘the DH community’ is one of the most open, innovative, self-reflective scholarly communities I have had the honour and pleasure to interact with, even if with (my own) limitations.

So I have copied and pasted some bits of my post from last year (Day of DH 2012). I have edited some typos and removed the specific references to what tasks I did that year. If you are interested in the complete 2012 original version, it’s here.

The text of my post below still represents my views on Day of DH. I am not a fan of centrality, above all because it works very well to sustain top-bottom structures that do not reflect my personal views on what digital platforms should be doing.

I am sure many other members of the community will find different good reasons to participate in the present set-up, and that’s great. It just does not represent how I would like to do things anymore… (I first became aware of Day of DH in 2009, and participated in 2010, 2011 and 2012).

With so much time and effort employed in discussing what’s what I’m not even sure if I’m a ‘DHer’ or if I’m entitled to call myself one anymore. The more it is definied and redefined, the more ‘othered’ I feel. It’s not Day of DH, it’s me, if you will.

Yesterday I was a bit overwhelmed with the pressure to make sense of my “Day of Digital Humanities” synchronically, which is to say, on the very same day. I find this to be at odds with the way I perceive blogging. What is Day of DH? Without previous warning, when we registered we were asked to provide our definition (which still means to impose clear limits) of the term “digital humanities”, but perhaps the question that is more pressing is how “Day of DH” conceives itself, and this means how it conceives blogging.


What is Day of DH? We all participated using the WordPress platform. But is Day of DH a multi-authored blog or a collection of blogs? More importantly, can a blog be a blog when most authors only post one single entry, or when the focus is the posting of content referring to one single day?

I see blogging as a continuous activity; though its minimal technical unit is the single individual permalinked post, a blog makes time in its ongoingness. Of course that blogging platforms like WordPress are so relatively easy to work with that they have many other uses than entries posted periodically and published in inverse chronological order. Nevertheless, I find the question pertinent: what is Day of DH, what does it expect to do, and what does it expect its participants to provide? In my view, as a collective project, it unavoidably should inspire people to blog. But, is this the best way of doing it, by providing each participant an account and giving them a preset time limit to post content about a single day of their lives?

If the focus is still to be one day of blogging as opposed to a more extended period of reflection and sharing of content, it seems to me it perhaps should be better to do something like Blog Action Day, where registered participants add a banner to their already-existing blogs, and these blogs are aggregated on the main project’s web site blog. This way the event would theoretically encourage networked blogging under a single theme (in our case, what people do as digital humanists) and not only as a once-a-year activity.

A “Digital Humanities Blog Action Day” would enhance the visibility of already-existing blogs and hopefully would encourage those who only blog when everything has been set up for them to finally create their own blog and keep on blogging more or less periodically (their very busy schedules permitting) as part of their scholarly activities. This may mean more work in terms of data aggregation and analysis, but that’s a small price to pay in comparison to the current unified centrality and spatiotemporal singularity. A move to Day of DH as a badge on already-existing participating blogs would entail the embracing of networked heterogeneity and continuity, both well-known features of blogging.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that as it stands Day of DH remains a very valuable event in the DH community (in my case an event I was looking forward to with great anticipation). Its current configuration has had the effect on me of making me think about its essence (including its possible assumptions and horizons of expectations) and goals as an online academic initiative, particularly in the context of a still-generalised disregard or lack of factual official recognition of the value, relevance and impact of scholarly blogging, including within the digital humanities, and of an also generalised funding crisis in the humanities around the world.

Yacking as Hacking

If, as Dan Cohen suggested in what he called his “uncharitable view”, Day of DH “is 24 hours of navel-gazing and obsessive self-recording by members of a relatively young, slightly insecure field that already spends too much time defining itself or arguing over the definition of digital humanities, even though they basically agree,” then the project is definitely failing to embrace blogging as a means to transmit the relevance of both the discipline and the method for transmitting it, in this case collective blogging.

Is discussing what would be the best way to encourage the documentation of what a day in the life of many digital humanists around the world is like “navel-gazing”? I am sure some would say so. If I thought this is the case, though, I would not be doing it, even if I concede that much of humanistic activity implies a great degree of thought about thought. As in the case of the history of philosophy, the history of blogging is also the history of the ways in which said activity has thought itself. At least in blogging about digital publishing, praxis and theoria are blended.  In blogging, “yacking” is “hacking”. More importantly, “yacking” is “hacking” because it is meant to happen in a network: a blog, in my view, should not aspire to be the centre of anything, but to be a node in a larger constellation of nodes.

Which takes me to the difference between blogging and microblogging. Unlike the latter, blogging allows for long form, and this long form takes shape as well over time. This is why this year I found it so hard to make sense of “my day” on the very day, because the immediacy of the experience, better suited in 21st century terms to the short form of the tweet, required some distance to be elaborated into a proper blog post. Moreover, it would require a series of posts.

A Day in the Life

The simplified list of things [which I did last year and which I shared on the original Day of DH 2012 post] is the result of the wish to participate in Day of DH as requested, but fails to offer, I am aware, a truly informative, reflective or even useful notion of what I did yesterday, or of what “a Day of DH” would be like for me. The immediacy and extra-close correlation between activity and testimony of it precludes my ability to present a more complex picture.

I suspect a more complex view of Day of DH’s contribution to the research/scholarly/academic community will only come with time, but this one should be contrasted with the singularity of the event as it took place, perhaps something our current data analysis techniques cannot fully do, at least not in an automated fashion.  Terry Eagleton (I know he’s apparently unfashionable now) reminds us of a passage in Benjamin’s One Way Street, where he contrasts the aerial view of a terrain “with the same prospect seen on foot” (Eagleton 49). The view on foot gives us a glimpse of the irregularities that the aerial view makes deceptively homogeneous. I often like to think that blogging, as a still-emergent scholarly practice, can offer this view from the ground, that could potentially “shock” the  “bland continuum” of traditional academia.

Monadic DH

Walter Benjamin wrote that “where thinking suddenly stops in a constellation pregnant with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad” (cited by Eagleton 96). A “monad”, meant by Benjamin as a point that works as a conjecture, interrogated the comfortable historicist view of causality and seriality. To go back and edit my post from yesterday (Day of DH proper) would be for me a kind of historical fraud where I pretend it was possible for me to make sense of the present or immediately-past moment in the present of writing. I write this post with today’s dateline, because it is only The Morning After the Day of DH in which I can add something to this “constellation pregnant with tensions” which is the blog network hosted by Day of DH.   [Hyperlink and italics added in this 2013 edit.]

A “monad” has various related meanings. These meanings coincide in the notions of the unit, the category, the function, and the potential for interconnection or articulation. I see blogs and blog posts, in different but related levels, as units in larger constellations of time and space.

Events become historical only posthumously. The present day, as in what we called, yesterday, “Day of DH”, was the time of the now. A different way of understanding the current “digital dialectic”, at least when it comes to our ability to reflect, publicly and online, on our daily experience, has something to do with the tensions between our human, spatiotemporal lives and digital technologies, pregnant as they are with ‘presentness’ and ‘nowness’.

Perhaps it is also the role of the digital humanities to map this territory, hopefully from the humble awareness of our own human limitations, from the air as well, if you will, but as long as we keep contrasting the view with the one we have on foot, from below.  Like Spring, perhaps our collective Day of DH blogging may  “change everything carefully”, arranging a window, into which people look.

3 thoughts on “My Day(s) of DH (Revisited): For Monadic Digital Humanities

  1. Calm, critical words as ever. You are of course right on blogging: having to sign up to blog is not only a pain but also centralises for the sake for centralising rather than considering the impact of that centralisation.

    I am concerned by your feeling ‘othered’ though, for this seems totally at odds with how I perceive you and with how I perceive the ‘boundaries’ of DH – ergo, it is purely a matter of self-definition as opposed to discussions of ‘what’s what’ at any given moment. I’d like to hear more on the subject if you have some time.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, James. I have now read your post at the the British Library blog (I tried to leave a comment there but the Typepad script froze) and I now understand better what you meant in the second paragraph of your comment here. I am still thinking about it…

      I can definitely identify with your understanding of DH: “to work on the fringes of libraries and academia, to enable digital research, to be part of a community, to promote openness of both research and data, to collaborate without borders.”

    2. Oh dear, sorry the Typepad froze. May explain why we lack comments… I look witto the result of your thoughts. I’m pretty sure by my ‘definition’ that you fit nicely within DH.

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