Since last week’s class I’ve found myself thinking about two topics that we touch on in our discussion. Both are very general, but it seems to me they go to the heart of some of the issues that we need to deal with as we think about how the digital turn shapes our work in the humanities (in my case, in history).

Proof. How do you prove things in history-writing? It seems a central question, but I’ve never really thought about it in such blatant terms. You make a rhetorical case, you show your evidence, you explain why the evidence makes your argument more likely than another, you give explanations for evidence that suggests otherwise, you describe alternate explanations fairly and show where they don’t fit the evidence, or work as well as your explanation…  Then, you explain why this is is important, why it answers questions that historians are interested in.

But it’s not quite proof. Not what passes for proof in a positivist view of science, where being able to prove something wrong is key.

Digital evidence and digital manipulation seems more scientific, and therefore might lure us into positivist ideas about our work. It seems to me that that’s a false promise; we can still be just as contextual, hermeneutical, and historicist, and just as little positivist, with a new kind of evidence.

Intuition. As a historian, I pride myself on historical intuition. I think I can tell when, say, something seems out of its right time; when something seems odd for its period; when an argument seems unlikely. I’ve read a good bit, looked at many artifacts, and have a feeling – an intuition – for this.

Object ID: 18312467 Accession Number: 1926-22-491 Acquired: 1926 Short URL: http://cprhw.tt/o/2BREc/ Side Chair, ca. 1840. Mahogany veneered oak and ash (frame), solid mahogany (legs, arms, and back), brass (coasters). Bequest of Mrs. John Innes Kane. 1926-22-491.

In the material culture world, we call people with an expert intuition for things connoisseurs, and a good connoisseur can date and locate for a piece of furniture, say, with remarkable precision.  Language works the same way; that’s what makes anachronism in movies and TV so much fun. (See Hillary’s post for more on this.)

But I know that sometimes I’m completely wrong. That’s how history-writing works; revisionism is important!

And so, when we look at the results of a digital history project, and say, yes, that fits my intuition, that’s not a bad thing – most historical projects fit within our sense of how things were. The project does what we might call normal history – it provides more evidence for our existing model.

Every so often, though, we see major changes, important revisions in our work. The last major experiment with the digital in history, the cliometric revolution of the 1980s, when economists brought their theory to history, claimed major changes in interpretation. It made many historians nervous, and indeed, sometimes, those historians’ intuitions proved correct. But not always.

New kinds of data, new kinds of interpretation, new approaches; they hold out the promise that we might see exciting new revisions not only in how we think about history, how we make arguments, and how we understand change in the past; but also about particular historical stories we tell. And that would be good.

Advertisements