Promises and Paradoxes of a Lab

On June 18, 2020 by Michelle Warren

[The Remix Lab has been closed as a physical space since November 2019 for building renovations. The last visitors were graduate students from Patty Ingham’s course on the “Humanities Lab” (English, Indiana University-Bloomington). They got a virtual tour via Skype on October 24, 2019. In this guest post, they reflect on connections between Remix Lab and the collaborative work they have produced so far.]

Authors: Tess J Given, Milo Hicks, Tyler Kniess, Sarah Schmitt, Denise Weisz

Additional Collaborators: Maggie Gilchrist, Joshua Harris, Gregory Tolliver

In the Fall of 2019, ten graduate students from Indiana University – Bloomington took a class led by Dr. Patricia Clare Ingham which considered the role of contemporary humanities labs. Our intervention presupposed that, as young humanities scholars, we must consider our academic work in an economic and social climate which seems to be asking us for “new” ways to do “old” things. We drew largely on three bodies of scholarship: 1) theories and practices of contemporary digital humanities labs; 2) the legacy of the humanities lab through the early twentieth century example of the University of Chicago’s Chaucer Lab; 3) the incredible resources of IU’s own Lilly Library with its extensive but under-catalogued collection of manuscript fragments and medieval Books of Hours.

We did not set out to recreate a humanities lab, or even to collaborate intensively, but rather to pursue our own interests within this tripartite structure. However, in the process of developing individual projects, we found ourselves inevitably drawn into conversation with one another: referring one another to quirky marginalia; following each other down rabbit holes of manuscript provenance; feeling for the life histories of the materials; investigating inconsistencies in the materials’ vertical files; and sharing our personal impressions of the sometimes haunting texts before us. Seemingly spontaneously, we generated ourselves as a lab.

Our lab was particularly indebted to the theoretical framework of Remix the Manuscript, which foregrounds transition, transformation, and process as its critical object. This framing required a good deal of experimentation and not-knowing. We had to learn to work intentionally in the foggy space of transitive states, acknowledging that our research may fail, or that the results might be useless, however successfully obtained. This ambiguity raises anxiety about the efficacy of a humanities lab—an anxiety which has only worsened now as the normal university model collapses inward and looks to “hybrid solutions” to the health protocols of COVID-19.

In our lab, though, we tried to turn anxiety into a productive plaything. While we do not necessarily apply this optimism toward the imminent challenges of “hybrid” humanities research and pedagogy, we remain confident that we shouldn’t dismiss logistical and ideological anxieties as issues that will magically dissolve in an utopic academic space, whether digital or analog. Our task has become all the more urgent in the context COVID-19, and frankly much more difficult. We are grateful, though, that from the beginning of the lab we were asked to cradle discomfort and nurture incoherency. Our openness to working with myriad frameworks and migrating forms has been key to our ability to construct unified scholarly objects.

During our time in the Lilly Library, we were struck by the simultaneously fragile and durable link between the past and present. Each carefully illuminated manuscript we handled was a material link between those who made the book, those who read, kept, bought, sold, and held it, and now those who studied it. In retrospect, our work in the Lilly Library anticipated the project that came after: a collaborative essay that took shape primarily in digital space (currently in revision for publication). The group of students who had huddled over a shared folio became a flurry of cursors in a Google Doc. Readers who had interpreted oily smudges in a medieval manuscript later puzzled over the implications of a question mark in a group email. Our humanities lab depended on these moments when someone was both absent and present, both in the room and physically not. Such bridges across time and space left room for misinterpretation—both frustrating and productive—with our dead and living collaborators.

Our lab was immersed in delightful misinterpretation from the start. The phrase digital humanities lab is ambiguous and we felt its tension from the beginning. What’s curious about this tension was its interaction with physical space: we never had a designated workspace other than a classroom. This constraint pushed us into novel spaces—some marginal, such as university break rooms and each other’s living rooms, others central, like the reading room of the Lilly library; we met digitally, collaborating over Zoom, and we met in person, sharing in roundtable discussion. We have even blended the digital and physical in writing synchronously in a Google Doc while sitting together to discuss the text emerging.

Accordingly we are a digital humanities lab in the two senses illustrated in this diagram:

“lab for the digital humanities”                                         “humanities lab which is digital”

Sense (a) describes a lab which has “digital humanities” as its object or method of study. This is the typical sense implied by the phrase “digital humanities lab.” Sense (b), however, is a humanities lab modified by the adjective “digital,” contrasting the “digital humanities lab” with the “physical humanities lab.” In sense (a) we shared many hours alone and in twos and threes, poring religiously over the cryptic blackletter and ambiguous marginalia of manuscripts in the Lilly Library, a kind of targeted meandering toward accurate description of individual manuscripts through a comprehensive understanding of the mosaic of the collection. On the other hand, we embraced sense (b), often working synchronously across cyberspace whether we were physically together or apart. This sense has taken on a new meaning since the university began remote work on March 13th, 2020. We now work from homes and offices scattered across the state of Indiana. Indeed, in the face of this pandemic we have continued our labors as a humanities lab wholly digitally. When we were still meeting as a class, we shared our scanned and photographed manuscripts for digital preservation and stretched these pixels into presentable slides and prints. Now, these digital artifacts—and not the manuscripts themselves—constitute our archive, in which a digital cognate is now the primary object of analysis. The tensions between (a) and (b) cannot be resolved in any linear way, only navigated, negotiated, and mediated. As we move forward as a digital humanities lab, we circumvent perceived semantic tension by embracing (mis)interpretative space.

The diverse approaches, interests, and expertise of our lab members meant that there were many moments of friction and frustration at every stage of the project. These tensions became essential for thinking through the lab as a space for embracing (mis)interpretation. As our lab coalesced our individual projects into a collaborative paper, the (mis)interpretive space of our digital humanities lab became its own critical object. Our attention to the prefaces written by and about those involved in the Chaucer Lab cued us to the value of the paratext. Like the margins of the medieval manuscript, these paratextual spaces allow for conversations across time. In many ways, we have come to think of the digital humanities lab itself as a kind of paratext, something that faces simultaneously outward and inward. What does it mean to occupy such a paratextual position? What is made available at the margins? These paratexts are sites of productive conflict and we turned to them to reflect on our own collaborative process. We noticed that the question of how we occupy space as a lab (within a department, discipline, and institution) and the difficulty of acknowledging the work done by individual lab members was under constant negotiation, yet these conversations often felt marginal to the primary goals of our lab. Our research on the Chaucer Lab exposed the difficulties of archiving collaborative work, a challenge that must be addressed if we want to adopt the lab model for humanistic inquiry. Our essay became one possible solution to this problem by archiving our collaboration in the very form of our project.

The paradoxical joy of our project, ultimately, came from playing with the ways that the materials of our study presented themselves so readily and yet were so elusive. Writing a collaborative essay was one way to crosshatch the powerful immanence of the lab—its electricity and urgency—and the transcendence that we felt was represented in the historical marginalia we studied. Our methodological emphasis on collaboration mimicked the way that we saw (and might still continue to see) ourselves as fundamentally operating within a networked archive.

The sprawling work done by the Chaucer Lab—the attempt to construct a definitive edition of the Canterbury Tales, the development of the Chaucer Life Records project and, in turn, the production of their own archival materials about the (un)archivists themselves—connected for us to ideas about how the archive represents a legacy, a kind of queer reproduction outside of its normal constraints. We developed the idea of the de-vocational as a way to merge the delicate balance of devotion and obligation. But now it seems that the (re)productive—the weekly coming together, the re-meeting, the re-visiting and re-vising—has simply become the productive, the linear without network. It’s hard to find the transcendent devotional in the (computer) terminal. The immanence of the digital as an extension of the biweekly meeting we had for our lab now only intensifies the way our lives are accessed through the six-foot margins of “social distancing.” The dictates of COVID-19 have only intensified the paradoxical coexistence and separation of the immanent and the transcendent that we probe in our collaborative essay. We created our own immanent archive of a transcendent experience, and it feels so important to hang onto that, to play in it—even to reproduce it—right now.

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