Connecting the Disconnected

Our reading assignments have generally been grouped into a few themes for each week: web presence vs internet history. old vs new definitions of digital history, and practical vs theoretical digitization. This week seemed like a wider variety of material, though each piece falls along the axis of case study, practical tutorial, or theoretical essay. Lauren Klein’s article on James Hemings and his presence/silence in the letters of Thomas Jefferson encompasses all three categories.

The article provides a history via network analysis of someone who was virtually off the network. The history of slavery is filled with similar stories of reclaiming a voice that was silenced by that institution’s systemic repression, but this is a stark case emanating from the digital world. James Hemings’ world story was not the type of existence to be ignored by history. He had a skilled position with which he won his freedom, was literate, and made his way into the historic record. He was almost invisible within the “Papers of Thomas Jefferson.” Yet Klein finds his story. This is an interesting work of digital history theory because the important part of Klein’s work dismantles the structure of digital archive from the piece of correspondence, the letter or document, to the word, in this case James Hemings. We have gone from dismantling the archives in the first weeks to dismantling the document. While dismantling the archive with keyword searching could be dangerous with its false negatives/poor OCR, Klein uses the individual names in letters to provide a view of Jefferson’s slave/free black network in a rigorous, reproducible way.

The article provides a case study because finding the invisible in the archives, even digital archives, is a prototypical task of the historian. Especially when the “archive” is the papers of the writer of the Declaration of Independence and whose papers represent a classic American archive. A common historical task is bringing to the fore a silent historical actor: a slave, an oppressed political actor, or a common worker’s story. Traditionally, historians find these in the liminal spaces on the archives. Klein finds Hemings’ story in these same liminal spaces, but by a digital method. The article veers into a tutorial because she provides the exact steps she took (search for Heming papers > named entity recognition on 51 JH letters > network analysis). Presumably, the python code could easily be made available to be a reproducible case study.

I also appreciated that Klein’s network visualizations were more simple than Kaufman’s analysis of the Kissinger memcons. It takes maturity to only map what is necessary for your argument and no more. According to Scott Weingart, if the visualization is not advancing your argument, it is not appropriate. And here is where Klein succeeds. Her arc diagram does not include the entire Jefferson papers, but the subsets which promote her argument. Either the elites of Virginia or those who mention James Hemings. They effectively show the interaction in Jefferson’s world between the different classes that would be found more or less easily using traditional historical methods.

The other article which particularly interested me was Johanna Drucker’s essay on graphical display in the humanities. This resonated with me as it provides such an interesting antidote to the traditional view of digital data and instead argues that digital humanities embrace capta. Drucker feels that the often ambiguous nature of the humanities, problematizing by design, should be represented similarly in our graphical representations. This is a similar argument made against quantitative historians, so one we should bear in mind. Historians and digital humanists should never forget that one of our important disciplinary strengths is too keep the complexity of history at the forefront. The History Manifesto has encouraged me to compare our work to economists who are so present in the public discourse. An important distinction when considering the complexity of life is that economists work with data. Humanists work with capta.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *