The Digital Humanities and the Humanities: An Integrated Force?

With the accumulating significance of the digital humanities, comes the potential for an integrated, more effective approach to critical text analysis. The potential process arising from this rapidly developing field may be viewed as the following: traditional closed reading will provide the question, and the digital humanities will provide the answer, which may then be formed into a conclusion, following critical qualitative analysis to ensure the credibility of quantitative values. In other words, so long as human intellect is applied to evaluating  the validity of data, the quantitative approaches and results inherent to the digital humanities demonstrate the potential to illustrate new conclusions and questions regarding a text, through identifying patterns and trends which may not have been considered before. Throughout the duration of this account, it is my intent to convey how the implements of the digital humanities may be considered an equal part of the humanities, as opposed to simply an instrument to the broader field—so long as data and quantitative results are applied properly (with sufficient awareness of the potential sources of error in what is being represented). I will demonstrate this level of potential linkage, through first discussing a case study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and how quantitative and qualitative text analysis may integrate with one another, before proceeding, in the second section, to convey the potential of the digital tool word seer to collectivize subjective and objective material into one unit, before later exploring the question posed by Michael J. Kramer in the blog post Reinventing the Wheel(which may be accessed using this link:http://www.michaeljkramer.net/issuesindigitalhistory/blog/?p=377 ) that I have based my argument on, which is: to what
extent are the digital humanities one with the traditional humanities?
I will then proceed to highlight my reflections, in the final section, on
engaging with the digital humanities throughout the English 203 research-based course, commenting on what I have learned throughout the process.

Hamlet case study- A demonstration of how quantitative and qualitative approaches to a critical question may be applied in cohesion to form a conclusion

Upon evaluating the iconic text of Hamlet, two approaches may be pursued—an application of knowledge acquired through critically reading the text, or an alternative approach, in the case, being the use of a digital humanities tool to suggest trends and patterns that could serve as indications of plot, motifs, and character distinctions through speech patterns. In considering these two potential avenues for evaluating Hamlet, I have considered a question that is often debated, regarding the text: Can Hamlet’s perplexing behaviour be attributed to insanity(or “madness”) or to calculated deliberation? Qualitatively, Hamlet himself offers insight into his motivations for his later behaviour earlier on in the text in stating to Horatio, “Here as before: never—so help you mercy,/ How strange or odd some’er I bear myself/(As I perchance here after
shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on)…”(Hamlet.1.5.166-70) before instructing his friend not to concern over his behaviour. Additionally, Hamlet also offers another indication that he is well aware of what he is engaging in, and how is conducting himself, when he subtly implies to Rozencrantz and Guildenstern: “I am but mad north-north west. When the/ wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw”(Hamlet.2.2.315-16). How does this information relate to the question I posed? Critically analyzing Hamlet’s remarks for indications of deliberation exemplifies the qualitative approach to answering the question. The quantitative approach, which well supplements the qualitative
approach, may be conducted with a variety of digital tools—I am most familiar with Berkeley’s word seer(http://wordseer.berkeley.edu/shakespeare/), and have therefore implemented it in my investigation.

While it is relatively simple to superficially label Hamlet’s term disposition as a façade or contrived attitude, there is little that can be verified about the statement, in the absence of knowing how the word is applied throughout the text. In order to find out exactly what “disposition” refers to, I found it suited to input the word into word seer’s word frequency heat map function(http://www.youtube.com/watch feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=DPhQQExQjZ4) which enables one to visualize the frequency of a word throughout a text, and identify when exactly it occurred(I will elaborate further on the potential of this feature in the next section) in order to observe the different meanings it represents, and how often it is used. In conducting this assessment with the entire text, I received the following results:

Incidentally, the word “disposition” sparsely occurs throughout the text.  However, in the usage of the word pictured in the above heat map, it appears once again to represent either personality traits, or characteristic tendencies—aspects that could feasibly be manipulated, or otherwise “forced”, as Hamlet is described as doing. This is an effective example of how quantitative figures may reinforce or reaffirm hypotheses or qualitative speculations. While this data is intriguing, I decided to consult another feature of word seer, the word tree function, to see if I could identify the context surrounding the word “disposition”, each time it is used throughout the text. The results I received are as follows:

What I found interesting was that the word truant appeared in the context of one of the uses of “disposition”, another apparent indicator of disposition derived from a tendency. Therefore, a potential answer to the question I posed, harnessing ammunition from both qualitative speculation and quantitative results, could be that Hamlet is well aware of the way in which he is prepared to conduct himself, and is thus entirely sane, and is concocting a ruse to mislead his uncle from his intentions—a deliberative, conscious act. While this assertion is open to re-evaluation, and is not necessarily correct, it provides an optimal example of how the qualitative and quantitative can intermingle to produce new conclusions, or otherwise reaffirm them—a product of the digital humanities and the larger field of humanities integrating.

Word seer- An efficient companion to my research

Berkeley’s word seer, a relatively simple to use instrument, is most useful in its capacity to transform raw data into new questions. What I mean by this is that the tool demonstrates  the potential to reinforce or generate qualitative hypotheses, based on quantitative data returned—as, when one employs word seer in their research, they are often not sure as to what they will find. In a previous blog post(http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/03/01/birth-of-a-salesman-how-word-seer-and-its-supplemented-images-may-sell-us-new-interpretations/) I discussed how word seer is both interesting(through its visual qualities) and insightful(in its potential to produce new interpretations, or disregard obsolete preconceptions), and how superficial suppositions(such as Hamlet being considered about “death” or “revenge” alone) may be discredited based on the actual word frequencies of such words, as revealed by word seer. For instance, in regards to the qualitative value of the tool, my initial observation(expanded upon in my blog post cited above) was that “…a constantly recurring word can be inferred to represent a central theme within a text, as a word such as ‘lust’—one carrying thematic implications—may recur in one of Shakespeare’s other texts…”. However, the perils of accepting these words as themes without critical analysis and the application of human
intellect is illuminated in Michael J. Kramer’s admonishment that “…even as we find ourselves experiencing the new, it’s just as worthwhile to locate Digital Humanities in relation to the old.” In this case, the “old” is traditional text analysis, which must not be neglected, even though word seer and its aesthetic visual qualities(such as heat maps and word trees) offer an intriguing alternative. This is yet another example of how the quantitative and qualitative must work in cohesion—in this case, mutually offering insights towards one another, as data may prompt new questions, which may then be viewed through a closed reading lens, considering specific thematic and plot aspects of a text.

In responding to my assertions of the methods that must underlie the tool word seer, one might contemplate this question: What evidence is there that word seer can aid in disregarding obsolete or superficial qualitative conclusions or hypotheses, surrounding a text? My rebuttal is illustrated in this search of the frequency of the words “revenge”, “murder”, “death” and “kill” in Hamlet, using word seer’s heat map function, with the results depicted below:


Needless to say, Hamlet’s earned legacy, coined by popular culture, as the revenge tragedy is supported by the frequency of the words I selected, as they appear abundantly throughout the text. However, perhaps Hamlet isn’t exclusive to the characterization of “revenge”, as a conducted search of the same words in Coriolanus uncovers somewhat similar results:


These word frequency similarities may serve as a prompt for a qualitative investigation, based on this quantitative data, into what plot elements of each text establish Hamlet and Coriolanus as similar—another testament to what kinds of questions and approaches can be provoked by synergy between quantitative and qualitative methods.

In another of my previous blog posts(http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/03/21/defining-hamlet-as-a-tragedy-or-lack-of-one-a-quantitative-and-qualitative-endeavourphase-two-blog-post-three/), I evaluated, in great detail, the extent to which word seer may aid in determining whether or not Hamlet as a character fits the profile of a tragic hero(compared with the flawed characters of Shakespeare’s other texts, such as the ambitious Macbeth)through the use of its described as function, which enables one to view the words used to describe certain characters by those around them. In inputting Hamlet described as “blank” I received support for my hypothesis that Hamlet is not as well
defined as other tragic heroes featured in Shakespearean texts
—if a tragic hero at all. Qualitatively, he lacks the tragic flaw that causes him to pay with his life for a mistaken act(while Hamlet dies, it is not directly the result of something he has done based on a flawed character trait, as opposed to say, Othello, who commits the mistaken act of murdering his wife Desdemona as a result of his tragic flaw of envy, and then ends up taking his own life as a consequence), while quantitatively, the data of word seer reveals that he is described as the following(which are hardly terms indicative of a tragic flaw, or character weakness):


In essence, these correlations between a character and how they are described are valuable in indicating not only how they are perceived, but perhaps how they act as well. Therefore, in light of word seer’s ability to perform such searches, along with heat map and word tree visual representations of word frequencies throughout entire plays(or even more compact fragments of acts and scenes),   deems it a formidable and useful implement of the digital humanities. Not only has this tool allowed me to engage substantively with the text of Hamlet , examining details that are often largely overlooked or obscured in the process of traditional closed reading, but also, it has provided me with a medium to blend critical qualitative text analysis with valuable trends and patterns identified by quantitative data. Thus, not only is word seer an effective tool for viewing word frequencies and conducting word comparisons using the simple search feature, it is also an agent of blending the subjective with the objective, in order to aid in establishing new avenues for research. It supports the claim that the digital humanities and the humanities can, and should be(with careful attention being directed towards the quality of data received) a unified force, as opposed to one “serving” the other.

Further exploring the question: Are the digital humanities and the humanities one?

An integral consideration has been articulated throughout this account: that the digital humanities and the traditional humanities are an integrated force—not a superior and subordinate. However, I have also advocated that there are potential hazards to relying too much on data, without stopping to consider its implications, or its possible errors or misleading aspects. I have based this argument largely off of Michael J. Kramer’s Reinventing the Wheel, in which he effectively conveys the responsibilities that are inherent on behalf of the searcher when consulting data results, in his admonishment that “The danger here is that we are not thinking carefully about the framework in which Digital Humanities
might thrive and contribute to society beyond assumptions about technology solving all problems…” This is a highly impactful statement, as it highlights the tendencies, when the digital humanities and their associated tools are enlisted, for users to either uncritically accept data as the truth, or otherwise, dismiss the value of data to the humanities, altogether. An excessive faith in technology, as in other fields, such as science and environmental politics, may often lead to overconfidence in its ability, causing critical concerns and issues requiring intellect to be largely
overlooked. An example, in terms of the English 203 research course, would be accepting the data of word seer and its word frequencies extracted from Hamlet to represent the theme of the text, and the overall message, without closed reading to identify the integral context of the play. While word seer, in revealing words such as “death” to be frequently occurring throughout the text, may allow one to develop the opinion that the play largely circulates around death and murder, without the context achieved through reading the play, these artificial suppositions are virtually meaningless, as these words could conceivably occur frequently in a comedy about love, as well. In other words, data without a context is merely an assumption, even if it closely represents details that are consistent with the theme of a literary work.

“We can be critically self-reflective and move forward,” are Michael J. Kramer’s optimistic words, regarding the digital humanities. This belief conforms to the idea expressed throughout this post, that, with a sufficient amount of critical guidance and thought, data and context or qualitative textual elements can be intimately joined with one another. Kramer consistently articulates the importance of retaining the methods
of critical thinking in traditional textual analysis, well exemplified through his observation that “…there’s nothing wrong with being excited about the fresh, unprecedented, and surprising places that the digital takes us, so long as those are not placed in direct opposition to the rich past of humanities scholarship that we can draw upon…”. In other words, the digital humanities and the broader spectrum of the humanities may be joined, and data has inherent value, so long as it is evaluated through the critical lens of traditional textual analysis methods, such as careful and
rigorous rereading of texts.

Reflection on the English 203 Course and Conclusion

The fundamental concept that I learned throughout the English 203 course was that nothing is complete at face value—different interpretations exist, and new approaches, such as the use of digital tools, are necessary to furthering understandings of texts, in this case, Hamlet. Critical thinking has been a staple aspect to this course, as, when one is consulting data, they must be aware of what it implies, and how it can be applied to form conclusions. This course has also been instrumental in improving my digital literacy, as I am now able to more readily apply word seer to my research, for near instant results. Additionally, the course has encouraged me to consider the impact of qualitative details within texts more
carefully—ironically, the incorporation of data into my studies of textual analysis has helped me to better understand the importance of words, and how they are dispersed throughout a text(such as the potential significance of the word “disposition” to Hamlet’s behaviour, discussed earlier.) I am now more open-minded in regards to the potential for digital tools and data to supplement closed reading, so long as the two approaches are applied in unison with one another.

To briefly reiterate my argument, based upon the blog post of Michael J. Kramer, and my experiences and work throughout the course, I have concluded that the digital humanities and the humanities, and the quantitative and the qualitative  may blend with one another
to form a cohesive unit, so long as critical thinking is applied to addressing quantitative data that is retrieved using digital humanities approaches.
I then aimed to reaffirm this assertion with a Hamlet case study, a description of word seer’s  potential as a digital tool and its capacity to join the quantitative and the qualitative, and the prospects of the digital humanities and the traditional humanities being
considered as one—similar to the view of Michael J. Kramer, who effectively depicts the relationship as “…not a revolution away from the humanities, but a turn more fully into the humanities.”

 

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.  Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor: London, 2006. Print. The Arden Shakespeare Third Series.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Digital Humanities and the Humanities: An Integrated Force?

  1. Great initiation to the Phase 3 posts, here. Could you just edit it to include the link to Kramer’s DH Now post?

    • Sure thing, Dr. Ullyot. The original link to the comments page of the blog post which was mistakenly included has now been replaced with the actual link to the blog post. Thankyou for indicating to me that it was the wrong one, as I probably wouldn’t have noticed, otherwise.

      -Dane

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