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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! 

“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture, my Reflections

“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture, my Reflections

"On Behalf of All"--Liturgy PosterI should not be surprised; really, it is to be expected. The UCLA campus sits beautifully in the hills of north LA, but the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures sits in the ugliest building on campus–the ugliest building with the best view. To stretch this metaphor to its breaking point, I think this summarizes the conference held there last month–a coarse topic with an outward-looking eye.

“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture took a diachronic approach to liturgy’s overt and, more interestingly, tacit role in Russian cultural production. The concession here is that liturgy in Russian culture was/is so profuse as to make its use, its language, and its imagery, if not omnipresent, then at least a lingua franca with which cultural historians and literary scholars can address the mentalities of the people they study. I do not know enough about the field of liturgy to understand whether or not this is a common position, but I do know that in the Russian context very little rivals orthodoxy for its cultural, social, and political importance.

Although the purpose of this conference was to question the historiographical treatment of religion as a knowable, traceable object of truth and focus more on the mentality of liturgical practice as an ever-present, inescapable part of cultural life, the truly profound revelations for me were more methodological than conceptual… more flipped out. By literally approaching a topic from the opposite direction, the conference participants were breathing new life into well-examined texts.

I think Sean Griffin’s (Ph.D candidate, UCLA) paper on “The Liturgical Subtext of Ol’ga’s Baptism in the Povest’ vremennykh let’” does just that. Rather than reading Ol’ga as a Janus-faced figure, who was simultaneously the most pious and most vengeful, Griffin suggests that the text of her story be seen as part of a preexisting and continuing negotiation between liturgical tropes of the early authors and the hands of a new, emerging historical voice. The authors of the Primary Chronicle were creating something new–a text whose purpose was to record the historical development of the Rus’. The only language they had to work with was that of the liturgical texts themselves, the only other written account with which the scholarly world was familiar. In the telling of Ol’ga’s story, they employed this methodology alongside this new voice. He flips the work of previous scholars by starting, not with the Chronicle itself and then tracing backwards, but with the liturgical texts and tracing them forwards towards the Chronicle.

Prof. Nadieszda Kizenko (University of Albany) does something similar in her paper “The Personal is Liturgical:  Govenie in Russian Culture.” Using liturgical exegesis on literary representations of communion throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, she has found that there are certain patterns to its representation–new clothes, for example, fear and trepidation in girls, and an experience with the sublime. This lends credit to the conclusion that there was a sort of expectation, an assumed, experience of this particular liturgical practice. The flip here occurs in seeing the field of these representations across both time and genera, something literary scholars seem hesitant to do.

With all of this conceptual switching or flipping–reading liturgy in literature, literature in liturgy, history everywhere–where does this leave our interpretation of importance? By this I mean are we not diminishing authorial intent in doing so? Is intent even something we need to take into account when dealing with medieval liturgy or modern Pussy Riot protesting? A second, unresolved question regards space. What does the difference in space, both literally and conceptually, of the text mean for this flipped perspective? It all seems a bit messy to me, but I can see how this process allows us to reorganize outr understanding in order to see the bigger, cultural picture with more subtle shades.

The nice part about being in the ugliest building around is that all you can see is beautiful (which is sometimes a blessing in LA). Though I think this stepping back from orthodoxy-as-object and seeing its multifaceted influence on Russian cultural production is a noble goal–something which absolutely needs to continue–the current state of research remains thin. We all know it is there, that there is something beautiful to be seen in this work; however, for now we are still just sitting in an ugly building.