The Dialectic of Digital Humanities: A Methodological Reflection

This post examines an ongoing methodological project in the form of two examples: a research article, “Digital Humanities as Translation: Visualizing Franz Rosenzweig’s Archive,” and the results of a semester-long, in-class digital project, “‘The Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets.’” As the focus of this post, however, “method” signifies not just the specific technological tools and processes involved in each instance, but also the general theoretical contention that “digital humanities” means as much the potential enhancement of our study and teaching of German history, culture, and literature through digital tools as it does bringing the conceptual tools of German Studies to bear on the very transformation to our discipline signified by the digital. Such sentiments seek to expand on David Kim’s call for “hybrid methods” in pedagogy that mix digital and tradition techniques and participate in the foundational methodological discussions proposed in articles and led at conferences by Wendy Chun and Lisa Maria Rhody. In presenting the following examples, I contend that the methodical contribution of DH to teaching, learning, and research and its potential inclusivity in classrooms and scholarly communities lies in the dialectical movements between new, digital techniques and those already central to German Studies in particular and the humanities in general. In other words, I want to purpose a methodological vision of DH in which methods such as data visualization, mapping, and algorithmic text analysis can and must draw on, return us to, and allow for iterative revision by their interaction with the methods of our field, such as philology, hermeneutics, and critical theory.

Digital Humanities as Translation” employs and describes for other scholars how to employ a set of digital tools (e.g. Tabula, OpenRefine, Palladio) to visualize the network of correspondences contained in the collection of Rosenzweig’s papers held in the University of Kassel archive (see the archive’s finding aid). Using DH tools to copy, cut, paste, and scrub the archival data (see the final dataset) and plot them (see diagrams), “DH as Translation” serves, on the one hand, as an initial step towards a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of Rosenzweig’s intellectual biography and network, published editions and historiographies of which have come under scrutiny (see Graf and Pollock).

Palladio generated timeline of document dates in Rosenzweig’s archive.
Full network visualization, with Rosenzweig in the middle.

On the other hand, Rosenzweig also theorizes in his theological and philosophical writings the practice of the transformation of texts from one form to another, which, so is my contention, allows us to reflect critically on the acts of “copying, cutting, and pasting,” “scrubbing” and “plotting” required to create the visualizations themselves. If translation means for Rosenzweig radical formal fidelity to literary and religious texts, then, so I take as one potential guide, we should “translate” the data of his archive in such a fashion to retain as much of the structure and nuance of the original as possible. Yet, in practice, my attempt at a faithful rendition does not simply posit a “direct” translation that preserves each and every data point, but rather, by virtue of translation, reveals marginal, non-Rosenzweig voices in his archive that call into question the ideological underpinnings of his theory of translation, as well as our own. What translation theory, recalled in the visualization process, reveals is how the choices we make in the process of visualization are not arbitrary, but carry significant historical and ideological weight.

Twelve undergraduate and graduate students researched, designed, and built the online collection, the “’Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’” in the digital humanities seminar I led at Michigan State University last spring. Starting with introductory readings in DH, our semester-long goal was to create an Omeka ‘archive’ of the so-called “Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets” (Armsünderblätter) held in the Criminology Collection in MSU Libraries’ Special Collections – a loose genre, consisting primarily of broadsheets sold at public executions mostly in the German-speaking lands during the eighteenth and nineteenth century (see van Dülmen), “programs” of a sort that described for the public what it was witnessing and what spiritual lessons it should draw from it.

Description of the sentence and execution of Caspar Rhain, accompanied by a “moral poem” (1771)

The course (with help from the DH specialists at MSU) taught students how to use a wide range of DH tools: spreadsheets and OpenRefine to normalize the Library’s MARC data (see the data for the 100 documents in our archive or the data for the 1421 documents in MSU’s Criminology Collection), cameras and Photoshop to digitize and color correct the pamphlet images, Omeka to host the collection, and tools such as Palladio, Voyant, RAW, and CartoDB to analyze our data. With each new DH tool, however, a class period was dedicated to a theoretical reading (Burton, Foucault, Derrida, Drucker, etc.) which framed our work within less technical and more critical and humanistic frames of inquiry: the technological manipulation of the body (both physical and textual), epistemology and exhibition, and techniques (and pitfalls) of translation. As much as DH allowed us to broaden access to a very public, but often forgotten moment of cultural history in Germany, so too the use of these DH tools thus returned students (and, for some, introduced them to) to salient questions in the humanities in order to understand better the processes that the use of these tools presupposes but often renders invisible.

Both of these projects raised a number of pressing technological questions concerning German Studies and DH – such as how these digital tools, often designed by English speakers for other purposes, systematically breakdown when they encounter untidy data and formatting, something as simple as diacritical marks and special characters. At this point, I am unsure what direction this larger methodological project will take. For our discussion at the GSA, however, I hope to lay the groundwork for a conversation on how we can establish robust yet also theoretically savvy foundations for the use of DH in German Studies that takes advantage of what the digital offers us interpretively and analytically, without losing sight of the interpretive, critical, and historiographical bedrock that constitutes our discipline.