1. Introduction (1)
Digital Humanities (hereafter DH) is surely a field in rapid evolution, where open questions (2) are numerous and self-reflexivity is not new. This paper aims to contribute to the discussion around general and somehow obvious questions - debated globally, often daily, by scholars - by reformulating the issues at stake in the following terms: other scholarship in the humanities and techno-sciences (McCarty 2013b1) has passed/passes via the experimental and the formal; in what way is the experimental and the formal done in DH different and similar? To address this question the argument will circle around two interrelated concepts:
that of ‘text’, intended in its processuality (Meister 20072) and in a wide sense from linear to discontinuous narrative, from manuscripts to printed editions, encompassing hybrid modalities such as maps (Eide 2013a3) and ‘narrative drawings’ (Groensteen 20124);
that of 'modelling', intended as DH-specific research and teaching activity (modelling rather than models; see McCarty 2005, Jannidis and Flanders 20136), but also connected to multifaceted conceptualisations of modelling (in particular Kralemann and Lattmann 20137) as used and seen by other disciplines and practices.
Firstly, ways in which new technologies and languages influence approaches to texts and the consequences for research will be discussed by recalling the results of some research projects (e.g. AGORA8, Marras and Lamarra 20139, Marras 2013b10) and by referring to the literature that reflected at large on the influence the creation and use of, for example, standard markup languages have on the relation between scholars and texts (e.g. Buzzetti 200211).
This has an important epistemological consequence that in the paper will connect directly the reflection on one of, or possibly the privileged object/s of humanities research - text – to the second focus of the argument: by modelling knowledge we somehow provide for an abstract way of looking at the world. Is DH research prone to privilege a symbolic analysis of texts in opposition to a pragmatic one?
Despite being informed by modelling as rooted in computing and therefore in mathematical reasoning, modelling in DH is directly interconnected to the work on texts, but is not only a way to see patterns of similarity across texts (e.g. Eide 2013b12). Beyond what is branded as DH research, other imaginative practices of assembling 'toolkits' to find patterns in human production exist (e.g. Hockney 200613). Can we sustain the unicity of the lens of computing, of modelling through computing? While being a rather theoretical exercise, a comparative perspective on modelling would need to be experimental in its nature: is modelling in computing going to lift our way of seeing and therefore thinking to another level of analysis?
While keeping these questions in mind, we note that significant things are happening. DH or humanities computing in its former vest (Schreibman et al. 200414) is being institutionalized and is an example of how cross-border fertilisation, namely interdisciplinarity, is possible (e.g. McCarty 2013a15, Marras 201216, Ciula 201317). We acknowledge that DH scholars and professionals are making use of a ‘blended’ style (intended as in McCarty 200918) reflected both in their language, by adopting expressions to account for a new scenario, and in their research and teaching approaches, often integrating computational methods and terminologies with modes of discourse associated to more established scholarship in the humanities (Marras 2013a19, Flanders 200920).
DH opened the stage to doing and talking about research recurring to innovative and diverse knowledge as well as to an innovative and diverse way of organising and conceptualising it. Software has also been developed to explore and represent current networked knowledge configurations (e.g. Lima's 'Knowledge Atlas', Quagiotto’s ‘Knowledge Cartography’21).
However, a (cultural) change to inform the sharing of practices and results is possibly still lacking behind (Ciula 201322). Specific modelling practices in DH could be lead to combine theoria cum praxis, anchoring innovative approaches to a solid theoretical framework.
2. Pragmatic Modelling
In this paper we claim that language as mediation in designing and contextualising models is crucial. We do so by focusing on the concept of pragmatic modeling (4) intended as research strategy, framed within the complex cognitive, social, and cultural functioning of DH practices affected by cross-linguistic and interdisciplinary dimensions. Pragmatic modelling is understood as being anchored to theory and language, while at the same time claiming some freedom from both (e.g. in digital textual editing one might adopt the OHCO model while at the same time questioning it deeply). It operates within the relational and dynamic aspects of modeling.(5)
Middle out method and metaphoric reasoning/language
Metaphors as meta-models (Kralemann and Lattmann 201323) and linguistic tools are called to explore the creative power of pragmatic modelling (Getachew 200624 and Mazzocchi-Fedeli 201325) and to move forward the theoretical reflection as framed so far. With this respect, metaphorical reasoning exemplifies a specific strategy to guide modelling in DH: pragmatic modelling can be understood as facilitating a middle-out approach based on metaphorical language. In general terms, this translates into a move away from the dichotomy at interplay between bottom-up (models emerging from particulars or 'artifacts of study') and top-down (models imposed on particulars) approaches to what we propose to call a middle-out method; a method that acts at the crossing point of data and models adapting itself to specific “textual contexts”. Three interrelated properties (adapted from Verschueren, 1995) can be associated with this method:
Variability - the range of choices in the use of language cannot be seen as static in any respect.
Negotiability - such choices are not made mechanically or according to strict rules or fixed form-function relationships, but on the basis of highly flexible principles and strategies, thus also implying the indeterminacy and unexclusiveness of the choices made.
Adaptability - such negotiable choices can be adapted based on specific needs and contexts according to the variable range of possibilities.
We will narrow down our approach with selected case studies that show how in DH (in comparison to other contexts) choices are not made mechanically or according to fixed theories, but on the basis of flexible principles and strategies potentially open to creative reasoning. Indeed, with respect to modelling theorised in computer sciences, the challenge in DH is to shift the lens of computing up the scale, to embrace the experimental nature of modelling at the lower level of the scale (e.g. in computing coding) and see indeed how it can scale up (e.g. to do critical scholarship with/via it).
The opportunities enabled by modelling (e.g. emergence of patterns of relation, behaviour, and shape) are rooted not only in a ‘demonstrative’ and ‘literal language’ but also in the metaphorical one (Marras 201327, McCarty 200628). Some modelling attempts in DH and cultural heritage formalisations more in general have embarked in dedicated efforts to problematise terminology (e.g. CIDOC-CRM29; Pundit30); some prominent DH scholarship is reflecting on the limits of adopting uncritically the language of computer sciences (e.g. Eide et al. 201331 on spatio-temporal concepts in humanities and arts; Simpson et al. 201332 on what a ‘person’ is in ontological models for the humanities; Renear 201333 on what ‘datasets’ are for libraries, publishing, data curation, and DH); some other DH scholarship has ventured in creative attempts at establishing neologisms (e.g. “factoid” as described in Short and Bradley 200534): is there a trade-off in projecting historical lexicons in new contexts of use?
In conclusion, departing from open and interdisciplinary conceptualisations of objects of analysis – such as texts – and of certain explorative and epistemological strategies of analysis – such as modelling – the authors will show how the spectrum of research in DH is indeed expanding our boundaries of knowledge. However, modelling practices are more than often constrained by the language they are embedded in, either because terminology is not problematised enough or because language is not used imaginatively.
(1) This paper is the result of an intense discussion carried out between the two authors in the last years on the nature of DH research practices and strategies. This discussion took place in different contexts, in particular during the work on DH infrastructures carried out at ESF (Moulin et al. 201135), but also as part of informal exchanges stemming from diverse teaching experiences and works within collaborative research projects in the broad area of DH. Recently a discussion focused on modelling within the forum of Humanist (see references36) triggered some further reflections partially formalised in this paper.
(2) “Is there such thing as DH? Is DH unique in its practice and research strategy?” See Gold 201237 for a rich overview on this discussion.
(4) We subscribe to a functional perspective on the study of language. By focusing on use, a pragmatic perspective is also integrative in that it aims at encompassing the full complexity of the cognitive, social, and cultural functioning of language (Verschueren 199538).
(5) We mean both the interplay between the object of analysis and the model (usually referred as mapping; e.g. Kralemann and Lattmann 2013, 341739), as well as across different levels of the interpretative process (e.g. close and distant reading, symbolic/sintagmatic and semantic/paradigmatic levels of text analysis).
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