Hist 696: Visual arguments and non-linear logic.

The readings for this week are very interesting to me, as spatial history and visualizations are two of the areas of scholarship that I am particularly excited about. Many of the reading focused on how visualization and spatial representations map onto humanities scholarship, and whether these are aids to textual arguments or stand on their own as self-contained arguments. I fear that, as long as this remains a question of debate, digital humanities scholars who engage in this sort of work will struggle to achieve academic “recognition” for their work.

I found Alan Liu’s article, “When was Linearity”, very interesting and provocative. I particularly liked his analogy of the uses of Scripture within the Christian tradition, which I thought made a very powerful point about the uses of written works. Linearity is not the only logic at play in the creation of the lectionary – instead, linearity is working with the cycles of the day, the calendar and liturgical year, creating a much more complex interaction with the text and what it seeks to describe. It is significant to note that this lack of linearity does not equate to a lack of logic or intentionality. Instead, the logic is larger than moving from A to B to C and incorporates more than the book alone. (I grew up in a reformed church that does not use a lectionary – the scriptures are chosen based on the minister’s choice or current series topic. These again follow a different logic than linear, a logic that is a bit more difficult to track than that of the lectionary, but a logic none the less.)

I think this is an important point for discussing the values and arguments at play in digital scholarship. I agree with Liu that linearity is not the long-standing universal virtue of intelligent argumentation, but is culturally constructed and dependent upon ideology. I appreciate his claim that we are not dealing with a question of linearity or not, but a question of how to organize the constituent parts of linearity. However, I am not as convinced discussing the changes in terms of different types of linearity is most helpful. Deductive and analytical arguments are what are often being referred to under the name “linear,” where the author moves from a set of givens and deduces the necessary conclusion using the proper logical steps. I would make the claim that arguments can be logical and persuasive without being linear. I am concerned that we are equating linear with logical, and while the later is necessary for scholarly productions – we have to following some form of logic – the former is not. The logic of the spatial representation or visualization may not be linear, but it must be logical (have a guiding and organizational logic) for it to be more than a conglomeration of points.

One thought that came mind both from the Jessop article(pdf) and from David’s post: I think we may have to think more along the lines of arguments in the sciences and social sciences than philosophical or literary arguments. Story telling on the web will look different than the novel – we in history cannot back ourselves into a corner by insisting on a novelistic style for presenting our arguments. Or at least, it will be very difficult to see visualizations as arguments if we do.

While Jessop is correct, I think, that the uses of technology are different between the humanities and the sciences, the elements that need to be in place for this type of digital scholarship, particularly transparency and documentation of method, have parallels in the scientific or social scientific realm.

Guldi’s essay present another way of thinking about spatial scholarship. She focuses on space as a category of investigation but the investigations she highlights are themselves textual. It is an interesting shift, and one that perhaps allows for a larger picture of the continuities with other forms of scholarship. However, the emphasis on text was disconcerting, and her analysis of spatial awareness in religion is oddly lacking. (At the very least she should have included discussions on how space and liturgy interact and inform each other.) White’s essay, which also argues for space as a category of analysis, provides a more accessible entry point into this larger conversation and one that combines some of the theoretical material on space with projects that seek to explore and understand that space through visualizations.

One final point that I found very interesting and agree with is the need for increased awareness of how to “read” the visualizations, images, and representations created in this sort of scholarship. Noted by both Jessop and in the Scholarly Communication Institute report, there is a disconnect in our education between our focus on proficiency with written material and the amount of visual material we encounter on a daily basis. I think further education in how to read images and distill the assumptions and arguments contained there in will go a long way toward answer the question of where the argument lies in visualizations and provide the tools for both creating and critiquing these types of arguments.