“It seems kind of absurd to expect a 30 year old to be able to produce a monograph,” one of the attendees of the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Research at UVA said after our dinner in the stunning Dome Room. We were chatting as a group, and the topic moved to how the dissertation as a project has changed over time. Robert Scholes, one person pointed out, catalogued the Cornell Joyce collection to earn his PhD. So no less a luminary than Scholes, whose Textual Power I had to read twice by the end of my second year of undergrad, did not write a monograph for his dissertation.
Then another person at the table mentioned the frustration that emerged over getting little appreciation for the amount of extra-analytical work that went into the dissertation project… databases, webpages, etc. None of it counted, presumably since none of it would go into the monograph.1
Personally, I had never really considered these issues. I always figured the non-monograph dissertation was a sort of fluky thing that happened after the fact, like how Tractatus became Wittgenstein’s dissertation as a formality. Similarly, I had never expected that extra-monograph-y work, like a database, would (or even should) count toward a PhD. In framing my project in the formal document of the proposal, I knew I would need to build a database. And since the proposal is a contract to do certain amount of work, I knew that building a database would be part of the labor, which can include reading (novels, theory, archival material), writing (the dissertation) and other things, like learning a foreign language or programming language or acquiring some other skill. So if I didn’t want to spend time with a db, I should’ve invented a project that didn’t require one.2
The Scholes example, though, messes my preconceived notions up a bit. And during the course of the Institute, precisely during Todd Presner‘s great presentation on the work he has done with HyperCities, the tension in my preconceived notions was framed in a tidy grudge match: curating vs. analyzing.3
HyperCities calls itself a “collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.” Pulling from various online repositories, the HyperCities project creates something like what “The Arcades Project would have looked like if Benjamin had Google Earth,” according to my notes. Layer atop layer of feature-rich historical data spatializes various narratives of the city that is being “hyperized” (my term). I instantly saw in it lots of potential for projects that friends of mine are working on (and duly let them know about it), but it left me cold regarding the very narrow silliness that is the argument of the/my dissertation.
Presner anticipated this response, if I recall correctly, by saying that the HyperCities project is “not an argument, but a curation.” He later added that curation can be its own argument, and I’ll get to that, but I want to spend a bit more time on the coarse opposition on the table. As a curated project, HyperCities allows the visitor to “explore” a city and a history as one object made up of a staggering number of embedded, spatialized narratives, with no real argument to be found.
And there’s a weird word in that description of HyperCities: “visitor.” I can’t imagine a dissertation having a “visitor.” It has, at best, “readers,” and one can usually count those readers on one hand. Further, the monograph dissertation makes an argument. It’s not a curation. Curation is more like Scholes’s dissertation, the kind of dissertation that, to me, at this time, sounds totally inconceivable as a dissertation.
Most of the participants, or so it seemed, at the Institute were faculty, so they were not, obviously, dissertating anymore. But wouldn’t their projects, which were often similarly more aligned along the curatorial side than the arguing (I’m going to use “analyzing” from now on) side, surely have to be eventually converted into the coin of the academic realm, the monograph that posits a thesis and engages in analysis to reach a conclusion? Generating these curatorial projects seem to be great for pedagogy and for “visitors,” but I’m surprised that they get folded into promotion.
In fact, a feature-rich website offered to the public sounds a whole lot like “service,” which, one presenter remarked, doesn’t count for much when it comes to promotion. I certainly think that’s a crummy state of affairs, and I’ve written before that I think that if the humanities wants to get its “we matter” mojo back, a great way to do it is precisely via service-oriented projects, especially those with a collaborative element. But those are wishes, and, as Steve Sanders famously remarked, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
So as I wrote above, I was left cold by the presentation. I analyze, I said to myself. I don’t curate. And I still think that’s true, for what it’s worth, but Presner’s saying that “curation can be its own argument” requires a bit of expansion, since I think it muddies things up for me rather seriously.
If Presner described what he meant by the above, I didn’t jot it down. But to me, it reminds me of the role of the cartographer in making a map. Curation isn’t about collecting every little datapoint about every little thing. That would be a task for Arthur Danto’s “Ideal Chronicler,” and, as Danto shows, the Ideal Chronicler cannot exist. Curators, like cartographers, make choices. They have biases. A curation can’t have everything just like a map can’t show everything. Cue Monmonier’s axiom that not only is it “easy to lie with maps… it’s essential.” The map and the curation both reflect the choices of the person behind the product—and that person’s omissions, agenda, and so on.
But, amazingly, this sort of known incompleteness, even if it cannot be totally grasped, resonated with a second theme from the first day of the Institute, which was the conflict between reflexivity and positivism. Martyn Jessop, who presented on issues facing geospatial research in the humanities (a presentation similar to his article from 2008 in Literary and Linguistic Computing), closes a section of his article by asserting, “Ultimately, the most significant contribution of GIS to humanities scholarship may not be as a positivist tool but as a reflexive one.” In his talk, he repeated this sentiment, and both times I did not understand what he meant by “reflexive.” Seeing GIS as “positivist” is pretty easy (and a possibly wrong… or, at least, conclusion-jumping… move), but I had no idea what the “reflexive” side would look like.
So I asked. Jessop answered that it involved collecting the data and looking at it, thinking about it. Reflecting on it. As I understood it, this meant a strategy of collecting data and not considering the day done once R^2 is calculated. This reflexive move then returned in Presner’s presentation. HyperCities invites the visitor to explore (or, perhaps, better, “play with”) the data, setting up playful situations that generate aleatory encounters that lead to future arguments.4 This idea persisted through to the final day, when Bethany Nowviskie presented on “graphesis,” a term I don’t know, but that I’ve described in my notes as a sort of “sketching” or “iterative graphical ideation/expression/inquiry” that generates, through the play of iteration, previously unseen strategies of argument.5
So “curation can be its own argument” incorporates reflexivity, play, the aleatory, graphesis. It’s iterative and unpredictable. Exciting. Oh, and it’s service-oriented and open to the public. All this against “analytical,” which is closed, limited, deliberate. A precision strike. Maybe I should reconsider my earlier pride from declaring that “I analyze” instead of “I curate”?
And maybe, then, the dissertation that is only a monograph might begin to seem antiquated, selfish, and, perhaps, even, problematically élitist?
- These memories are intentionally a bit fuzzy and uncertain, since nothing was on the record, but I don’t think that, if the people involved were to recognize themselves in what I’ve produced here, they would complain. The details aren’t terribly important, but what is important is to show that this discussion stretched beyond just the presentations I describe below. [↩]
- “Waste” would be the currently appropriate verb, as the mess sits as an .mdb, waiting desperately to get converted to a real format with a web interface, but that’s a project for another time. [↩]
- I think that all of my Geoinst-related posts should be presented in this combative style. We had human (language) vs. machine (language), now this, and next will be, um… fieldwork vs. armchairwork? Yeah! [↩]
- I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest, which is what’s implied by setting up this “reflexive” or “play” mode against the “positivist” one, that there isn’t a certain amount of play and experimentation with data in the positivist social sciences, but that’s not a terribly crucial point here. [↩]
- The role of the random in project planning, inspiration, and execution is way outside of my expertise, but it seems like any and all projects involve a certain amount of randomness in the form of contingency: the agents are at a certain place at a certain time, and the like. As such, there is no dissertation in the world that does not have some stage of spaghetti being thrown against a wall that then moves forward from the contingent circumstances surrounding which spaghetti it was that, finally, stuck. The issue here is whether the play gets suffocated—straightened out—in the sclerotizing effort of the PhD candidate to make something Serious that can get the candidate Hired. [↩]
Tags: 90210, Arthur C. Danto, Bethany Nowviskie, digital humanities, Geoinst, graphesis, HyperCities, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Mark Monmonier, Martyn Jessop, positivism, Robert Scholes, service, Steve Sanders, stochasticity, Todd Presner, Walter Benjamin