Purple Ink: Aesthetics as a Mode of Historical Thinking

Purple Ink: Aesthetics as a Mode of Historical Thinking

I do my best work in purple ink. The type of paper, the notebook, or the location don’t matter to me in the slightest; however, my purple pen is required.

People choose a particular medium for their work for a variety of reasons, but in academia there tends to be just three: creativity (for artists), productivity, or eccentricity. Yet, my purple pen carries a deeper connection to my work. When I see purple words, as opposed to blue or black or even red, I see my mind, my synthesis, and my hand. This purple ink is how I translate data, information, and knowledge into my own system. Somehow this shift in color shifts my perspective. My aesthetic mode facilitates my historical thinking and, in turn, my thinking reinforces my aesthetic decisions.

The relationship between digital humanities and the scholars who study them is one of translation, as Jacqueline Wernimont described in yesterday’s CDH discussion at UCR, “Think DH: Professionalization in the Digital Humanities.” The most interesting of these projects (from my perspective)–like Stanford’s Republic of Letters or London Lives–are “visual artifacts” which translate data and information into knowledge in a way previously unappreciated.

In my recent Ph.D exam, I argued that the origins and trajectory of print in early modern Europe were not dependent on one event or even a set of local conditions, but a positive feedback loop, one which included quotidian local conditions and global shifts. These cycle back upon each other, reinforcing and constructing early modern print.

Digital humanities, too, as Wernimont compellingly suggested, is the result of a feedback loop between scholars and digital technologies. As scholars create new technologies for their work, their work becomes the foundation for another technological development, which supports new work, and on and on. To this cycle I want to add the aesthetic. All of the attributes used to describe the purpose of digital humanities–reframing, envisioning, seeing, juxtaposing, and perceiving–are necessarily visual. Although we tend to discuss digital as the (new) methodology, really digital is the medium through which we practice the aesthetic.

As a method, I do not think it is any less valid than statistical inference or oral history, and it is beautiful. Now, I am not suggesting a sort of ideal beauty, a culturally dependent moniker of aesthetic perfection. Instead, successful projects in the digital humanities share an important characteristic: the centrality of perceptional experience.

At the beginning of her talk, Wernimont argued that digital humanities and digital pedagogy have too often been conflated. The former is better understood as the methods employed by researchers; the latter as the digital tools used in education, like clicker questions, class blogs, or digital syllabuses. And, yet, these two digital efforts intersect at the aesthetic, potentially blurring the lines between scholarship and pedagogy. Take, for example, the iPad app, Notes on the State of Virginiawhich is a loving digitization and annotation of several different versions of Jefferson’s book, his notes, and all of the marginalia therein. It is beautiful, especially on long plane rides, and is clearly designed with the student in mind. However, I think this material speaks just as well to the researcher. By putting these different editions literally in conversation with each other by layering the materials, I see the benefit for an Americanist who could use these techniques to understand the spaciality of this text, the ways which the readers’ interacted with the space of the book, and physically manipulated it.

And it is beautiful.

Though the demands these two groups of people make on digital media differ, their result is the same: to rethink historical convergences and disjunctures, unity and discord in an aesthetic medium. Much like my purple ink, digital technologies help students and researchers practice the aesthetic, applying this skill to data, information, maps, and anything else the mind can imagine.

Many thanks to Jacqueline Wernimont for such an informative discussion! I feel reinvigorated about digital humanities after a few stumbling blocks over the past few months. Also, thanks to UCR’s Critical Digital Humanities group for bringing such important topics into the public discourse! 

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