Milestone

On July 13, 2016 by Michelle Warren

Toward the end of May 2016, Bay and I submitted an article assessing our work on Remix so far. While we wait for the results, here’s a snippet of the draft that builds on the theory of mixology that I set out when we first started last year. 


“Remix the Medieval Manuscript: Experiments with Digital Infrastructure”

Michelle R. Warren, Bay Lauris ByrneSim, and Laura Braunstein, with the collaboration of Qingyu Wang, Emily Ulrich, Scott Millspaugh, Deborah Howe, Jennifer Zhong, Benjamin Patrick, Logan Henderson, and Divya Kalidindi

Digital manuscripts are part of the infrastructure of medieval studies in the twenty-first century. Given this fact of contemporary scholarship, we need nuanced and detailed understandings of how digital ecologies are shaping new epistemologies for historical research. As people invent new tools and interfaces–and earlier ones become obsolete–the very nature of our historical information changes. Every time something is visualized, something is also left out, even erased from the record. In this environment, we need to know as much as possible about how exactly software and hardware determine what we can see and what we can’t. Remix the Manuscript: A Chronicle of Digital Experiments addresses this critical need by applying multiple tools to one set of data and also by considering the mechanisms that produce the data themselves.

How is today’s code configuring tomorrow’s historical knowledge? How do digital technologies affect our access to and understanding of material culture? To address these questions, we are pursuing “close readings” of digital infrastructure. We are using a limited yet expandable “data set”—one digitized manuscript—to experiment with as many methods of data analysis as possible. With an approach based on sampling and prototyping, We aim to develop insight into how digital culture is reshaping medieval manuscript studies. In the long run, we hope that this research will identify sites of innovation in digital manuscript culture as well as zones of continuity with material culture (what is usually called the manuscript “itself”). In this project, remix is a theory, a method, and an aesthetic philosophy.

Conceptually, Remix the Manuscript grows out of Michelle Warren’s previous work in philology, where she has considered the epistemological impact of metaphor: the way we talk about our objects of study frames the way that we conduct research. In the case of digital medieval manuscript culture, the dominant metaphor has been the surrogate. The concept of surrogacy, however, implies a kind of substitution that users are invited to judge as either adequate or inadequate. Our experiments have shown the digital manuscript to be more of an avatar for the medieval manuscript that sits in a box on a shelf. An avatar is a specifically digital representation that operates in an independent virtual world while remaining tied to its material inspiration. In the digital ecology, the avatar has its own agency to create meaning in a space that the material object cannot inhabit. The term avatar reminds us of the differences that entangle with resemblance when we work with media files derived from physical books. It enables us to conceptualize a “made-digital” culture (rather than “born-digital”), where making itself is an action with epistemological implications (as it has perhaps always been).

[to be continued]

 

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