A Transdisciplinary Ethics

Coincidentally (or maybe not-so-coincidentally), part of Lindsay’s post directly echoes the opening concerns of an article I’m reading for the EELS (Electronic Enabled Literary Studies) group led by Profs. Stauffer and Pasanek here at UVa. In “Learning to Read Data: Bringing out the Humanistic in the Digital Humanities,” Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac discuss the conflict between excitement and anxiety in DH work (sentiments I echoed in my last post and feel every time I approach my computer these days). The essay asks first whether we can use the quantitative methods employed in DH work while “respect[ing] the nuance and complexity we value in the humanities,” and then confronts the much deeper issue at-hand: “Under the flag of interdisciplinarity, are the digital humanities no more than the colonization of the humanities by the sciences?” (2).

Even more coincidentally (scholarly synchronicity at its finest), Jahan Ramazani, in his Modern Poetry course, just assigned us the second chapter of his game-changing book, A Transnational Poetics. Now, I’m making a theoretical leap, but I can’t help approaching Lindsay’s concerns with Ramazani’s words in mind. In the opening page of his second chapter, he explains that “humanistic disciplines must draw artificial boundaries to delimit their object of study – nation, language, period, genre, and such – and so must allow for anomalies” (23). The chapter goes on to debate the mononational narratives literary scholars build around modernist poets, and the solution Ramazani offers is one of expansive compromise: “to begin to explain how poetry helps newness enter the world,” he writes, scholars must investigate “complex intercultural relationships across boundaries … without erasing those boundaries” (47).

Now that I’ve sufficiently piggybacked off of other more experienced scholars’ work, I’ll attempt to address our group’s concerns about data-mining with Prism. Though I admit that this quantitative approach to literary work gives me the nervous-sweats because of its potential for producing data that ignores the “nuance and complexity” we worship as humanities scholars, the idea of  drawing “artificial boundaries” delimiting the scope of the project is something I’m even less comfortable with. I barely understand the potential implications of a tool like Prism at its most basic level, so I’m hesitant to demarcate how Prism should be used by other disciplines that could potentially do interesting things with it (Lindsay mentions the social sciences, for instance). That being said, I completely agree with Lindsay that the text-mining feature should be a second-tier priority until our Alpha version is running. We already have our work cut out for us.

What I hope I’ve made clear is that I support not a “colonization of the humanities by the sciences,” but instead a transdisciplinary ethics for our project and the DH field-at-large. By that I mean we must be conscious of our methodological differences while constantly questioning disciplinary boundaries (shout-out to Ed for his interdisciplinary show-and-tell idea). Ramazani quotes Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, and it bears repeating here: “The fact is we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment” (Ramazani 49, Said 331).

P.S.: Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, which I’m sure will be a mental breakdown à la Ruby.

Brooke is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow and MA candidate in the Department of English. She is currently working on a thesis which investigates Virginia Woolf's moment of being as a biographical, historical, and narrative phenomenon in Woolf's fiction and essays. Brooke is also a graduate research assistant in IATH, working on Alison Booth's Collective Biographies…


  1. Correction: EELS is “Electronically Enabled Literary Studies” – forgive my bad grammer!