While both I—and many others—would argue that those who work in DH agree that they do not agree on what DH means, as I have encountered more and more digital tools and projects, I have begun to think of DH work in a provocative way: DH work should be considered a form of narrative-making or storytelling. For fields such as digital storytelling or tools such as story mapping, this argument may not be that surprising. But what about other types of DH projects and tools? If we think of archival or curated sites, such as those created with Omeka, or book or network conglomerations, such as those made in Scalar, I propose that these forays are equally forms of narrative or story: we pick and choose what to include and exclude, we form paths and groupings and connections to guide or suggest methods of understanding; in other words, we give shape to a narrative. Here I will advance an initial iteration of this argument, which, I believe, ultimately provides another perspective on how DH is truly a part of the humanities.
DH and Narrative
If we take Hayden White’s description of narrative, in conversation with Barthes, in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, which argues that “[a]rising, as Barthes says, between our experience of the world and our efforts to describe that experience in language, narrative ‘ceaselessly substitutes meaning for the straightforward copy of the events recounted’” (1–2), as one of the basic definitions of this concept, we can see how this term could easily be used in reference to various methodologies and tools used in DH. More particularly, however, we must expand the definition by including not just language, but also image and sound. It is worth a look, for instance, at DH projects that create digital archives, such as The Digital Public Library of America or the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica, in which digital tools are used to create digitized versions of (an) actual archive(s). Or other such projects, like The Internet Archive, The Sonic Dictionary, or The Story of the Beautiful, in which a digital archive is created. Or we might think of digital editions of texts, such as the Folger Digital Texts or digitized resources such as The ARTFL Project. Or, in a slightly different direction, there are tools one can use to compare versions of texts, like Juxta or JuxtaCommons, or to annotate a text (collaboratively or not), like Annotation Studio. In these varying cases, the digital approach and tools used are the methods through which meaning is provided, whether that meaning be the coherency of an archive, the evolution or development of a text, or the preservation of narratives that themselves might otherwise be lost.
DH as Narrative
A DH approach is not limited, of course, to archival or editorial projects, however. In many cases, DH projects are clearly narrative in form. The case of digital storytelling is, perhaps, the most obvious such example. StoryCenter, previously known as the Center for Digital Storytelling, is a well-known entity whose basic elements of digital storytelling are often cited. And digital storytelling is also being used in a slightly different manner by teachers and students in the field of education in order to teach and learn about topics beyond those of telling personal stories, as can be seen on the University of Houston’s Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling site. Digital storytelling approaches have been expanded in other directions as well, for instance in
- tying stories to location, with the use of tools like StoryMapJS, Esri Story Maps, or Odyssey, in which specific events and places are linked,
- tying stories to timing, with the use of tools like TimeLineJS, TimeGlider, or Timetoast, in which specific events and times are linked,
- or tying stories to time and location, with the use of tools like Neatline or TimeMapper, in which specific events, places, and times are linked so that a user can follow a story both geographically and/or chronologically.
In all of these cases, the digital approach is one that is explicitly used to shape a narrative or story. In other words, here DH is again a form of narrative or narrative-making.
Big data projects, such as those of the Stanford Literary Lab or approaches, such as that of Matthew L. Jockers in his Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, may present an exception to my argument in comparison to other DH projects and approaches mentioned thus far; nonetheless, I suggest that even projects or approaches such as these also create narratives or stories, in that they provide meaning to observations, calculations, or data that otherwise would not be comprehensible, given their size. How could they not?
This brief overview brings us to a final point to ponder: in their Digital_Humanities, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp argue that the design of DH tools and projects are themselves essential aspects of the arguments they create:
The parsing of the cultural record in terms of questions of authenticity, origin, transmission, or production is one of the foundation stones of humanistic scholarship upon which all other interpretive work depends. But editing is also productive and generative, and it is the suite of rhetorical devices that make a work. Editing is the creative, imaginative activity of making, and as such, design can be also seen as a kind of editing: It is the means by which an argument takes shape and is given form. (18)
In other words, a narrative-making approach is literally embedded in form, in design. Like these authors, I wonder whether this perspective cannot be extended. They write:
DESIGN EMERGES AS THE NEW FOUNDATION FOR THE CONCEPTUALIZATION AND PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE.
DESIGN METHODS INFORM ALL ASPECTS OF HUMANISTIC PRACTICE, JUST AS RHETORIC ONCE SERVED AS BOTH ITS GLUE AND COMPOSITIONAL TECHNIQUE.
CONTEMPORARY ELOQUENCE, POWER, AND PERSUASION MERGE TRADITIONAL VERBAL AND ARGUMENTATIVE SKILLS WITH THE PRACTICE OF MULTIMEDIA LITERACY SHAPED BY AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIGN. (117–118)
If we apply these points to the entire field of DH, this provides insight into significant food for thought: if
design is the foundation of DH, then isn’t the result of this design necessarily a narrative or a story? And might not this be one further aspect that confirms that DH is indeed a part of the traditional humanities?
These questions invite others: are DH narratives and their design different or new or innovative in comparison to traditional narratives, and if so how? What can DH narratives tell us about ourselves and our world? To circle back to White and Barthes’ view of narrative, if we accept that DH is narrative, what new meanings can be distilled from the events DH recounts?
Elisabeth Herbst Buzay is a doctoral student in French and Francophone Studies and in the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests include medieval romances, contemporary fantasy, digital humanities, video games, the intersection of text and images, and translation. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.