DH and Practice-Based Media Research
by Aaron Kashtan — Georgia Institute of Technology
May 03, 2013 – 16:08
Definitions of DH frequently emphasize that DH is about making stuff, producing artifacts, rather than simply theorizing in an abstract sense. For example, in an earlier response to this survey, Pamela Ingleton observes that “ at stake in the ‘digital humanities’ is this question of ‘making:’ producing, building, coding, programming, engineering—in other words, practical interaction with technology as opposed to theoretical analysis of it.”
However, there is also a current in media studies that emphasizes the importance of making media objects as well as studying them. Geert Lovink writes “No more vapor theory anymore!” (10). Accordingly, scholars like Alexander Galloway, Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have called for a practice-based form of scholarship that involves the actual production of media artifacts. In his proposal for an MLA special session on “Critical Making in Digital Humanities,” Roger Whitson lists several notable examples of such scholarship; others that come immediately to mind are Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s art games, or Nick Montfort’s interactive fiction and constrained poetry generators.
I feel that this sort of creativity-based research ought to count as digital humanities, and that we need to avoid what David Golumbia calls the “narrow” definition of DH, by which DH is limited to the creation of scholarly tools for working with large archives.
Let me discuss this in terms of my own creative practice. I originally became interested in media studies largely because of my existing interest in comic books and graphic novels. There is a longstanding tradition of using the comics medium to theorize itself. The two most influential English-language books about comics, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, are both by professional cartoonists rather than academics, and the former actually is a comic, while the latter includes numerous example comics drawn from the author’s previous body of work. Using comics to theorize comics is a good idea because first, in comics, you can state an argument verbally and illustrate it visually at the same time. And second, when you theorize comics by making comics, a feedback loop is created in which the practical insights you learn while making comics can then be applied to your theoretical practice.
For example, while learning to use Bitstrips for a project I’m working on for Digital Humanities Quarterly, I created several comic strips that experimented with various aspects of comic page structure – panel borders, order of reading, word balloons, etc. None of these comics have much artistic merit, but they all represent practice-based attempts to think through how comics work. Similarly, this past semester I had my students write a paper in which they analyzed a comics page, then illustrated their analysis by redrawing the page in a different way and explaining how their redrawn version of the page was more or less effective than the original. (One of the most effective responses to this assignment is shown in this Prezi, with the student’s permission.)
I don’t know if this sort of thing counts as digital humanities or as practice-based media research or as both or neither. (I would note, however, that my artistic talent is very limited and that without tools such as Bitstrips and Comic Life, it would be prohibitively difficult for me to engage in this sort of theoretical exploitation; similarly, my students were able to use such tools to produce more sophisticated comics than they could have otherwise.) But maybe that’s precisely the question. Does there need to be a distinction between one specific type of practice-based research that falls into the privileged category of digital humanities, and other types of practice-based research that are just media studies?
Lovink, Geert. Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. MIT Press, 2003. Print