As Franco Moretti’s book Graphs, Maps, Trees and a vast selection of digital humanities work indicate, the field of digital humanities is often invested in large-scale statistical analysis and representation. However, this approach is not without its dissenters. One of these dissenters in Johanna Drucker. In her article, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” she contends that the methods that many digital humanists use are based in the empirical methods of the hard sciences and therefore unsuitable for humanistic pursuit. Instead, she proposes that, “it is essential if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital that we demonstrate that the methods and theory of the humanities have a critical purchase on the design of platforms that embody humanistic values. Humanistic methods are necessarily probabilistic rather than deterministic, performative rather than declarative.”
Drucker’s problem is not with visualizing data, but rather with applying the visualization strategies from the sciences to the ambiguous nature of humanistic pursuit. Conforming narrative details and structure to these visualization frameworks risks flattening out the texts, depriving them of their rich interpretive bounds. To deprive these works of that interpretive nature is to deprive them of being humanistic at all; the texts take on a nature similar to New Criticism’s resolved symbolic.
While I view Drucker’s concerns as valid, I believe there are several ways we can lessen these risks while still maintaining a valid use of visualization. Making readers aware of the limitations of visualization is a powerful first step. The moment that a reader realizes that a visualization is only a partial representation of what happens in the text, the visualization becomes a springboard for further discovery instead of a spoon-fed singular interpretation. Second, we can channel humanistic inquiry into discovering and developing more comprehensive and humanities friendly visualization methods. While Drucker devotes substantial time to pointing out how not to visualize the humanities, she offers no hint of a solution to the problem, merely a vindication of the current field. This attitude will do little to further the field of digital humanities.
Several things are worth considering based on Drucker’s argument. Firstly, is it inherently wrong to borrow statistical methods and models from the sciences and use them in humanistic pursuit? And in what ways could we achieve the more realistic, dynamic visualization environment that Drucker seems to envision?
Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Online.