To move forward with the Digital Humanities it is important to look back at history. In regards to collections and the presentation of them in a digital space it might be useful to think of the discourse on epistemology of the 17th century whilst also keeping in mind the impetus for describing and organizing data. The impetus seems tied to a sense of responsibility that those who have a large amount of knowledge need to share it with others. The mode by which this knowledge is shared however is one of contention throughout history. Even today the codes of law that denote rights of use, public property, intellectual property and open source must be thought of as a part of the creation of visualizations and not a structure that should prevent or precede the development of technologies. 


In The Order of Things, Foucault’s  introduces the Cartesian origin of epistemology as a field of study. Epistemology is the formalization for a guiding principle on which to base other sciences on. Descartes looked to the fulcrum of Archemedes as a metaphor for his own explorations. Descartes proceeded in thinking that if he found a single proposition which was absolutely irrefutable he could thereafter comfortably base all of his thoughts on this new perspective. Are the Public Humanities searching for that same lever on which they can comfortably rotate the world and should our tools be the epistemes used to interpret it?


Foucault also introduces Francis Bacon and the Novum Organum where Bacon presented inductive reasoning to be used as a method for interpreting nature. Bacon added nuance to Descarte’s  system of making irrefutable claims. One cannot get from point A to point B without intermediary syllogistic stopping points. In Bacon’s case getting to point B requires the accumulation of empirical observation and the use of inductive reasoning to infer in an ascending order axioms that would eventually lead to a general claim. ( “Axiom” finds its origin in the late 15th century french axiom which can be traced to the Greek axiōma–what is thought fitting, and axios–worthy.)


The axios, or worthyness of an index in a taxonomical system is exactly the thing we must try to measure when presented with a large set of data. What markers are important here, what qualities of objects make them most similar, most disparate? Carl Linnaeus whose system for plant classification Foucault mentions,  concedes that the nuances of ‘data points’ are subservient to the structure of the taxonomical system itself. There must be careful consideration and effort put into the selection of what the system structure should include as its matrixes. This can be a laborious process and as we have seen in previous readings, there is a moment at which the historian or researcher must trust himself.  


Once a decision on which genus to use has been made representation of the system comes into light. Anthony Grafton in his essay on the men of the Republic of Letters points us to Athanasius Kircher whose collaboration with artists allowed his work on Egypt and linguistic studies to be shared with the public.


(from Athanasius Kircher’s “Prodromus Coptus”<>)


Grafton says:


Kircher and Lipsus… both collaborated, to spectacular effect, with artists who gave their books a radically new visual form and, in Kircher’s case, realized his vision of ancient Egypt in the piazzas of modern Rome. They still, I now believe, have much to tech us about the forgotten premodern intellectual worlds that they inhabited and explored, and also, perhaps, about how modern intellectuals could and should serve the public good in our own poisoned public sphere.


Grafton’s pessimism could be taken as a call to action for the public humanities. Responsibility to the public is key.



In Lev Manovich’s “Database as Symbolic Form,”  the case is made that the web as a medium is a collection and not a narrative because information can always be added on in the form of new code or html pages. But how would this statement necessarily be in opposition to the idea of narrative?   


Lev cites Frederic Jameson to illustrate his ideas on narrative vs database; 


Radical breaks between periods do not generally involve complete changes but rather the restructuration of a certain number of elements already given: features that in an earlier period of system were subordinate became dominant, and features that had been dominant again became secondary.


A shuffling of priorities happens with each and every new technology. The nuanced syllogism of Francis Bacon seems to mark the role of the humanist time and time again. Can we understand narrative linguistically? Saussure could be helpful: there are the syntagmatic parts of utterances that strand together in a linear sequence. These parts of utterances, if they have enough in common become paradigmatic; “those units which have something in common are associated in theory and thus form groups within which various relationships can be found.”  Lev takes that last quote directly from Saussure. I would like to know why Saussure said they are associated, in the active tense, as opposed to they became associated. There was a decision made by someone that this sentence looks past.


For Lev, it is cinema which marks a radical shift in the presentation of information and he focuses his essay on the way cinema affects linearity and narrative structure. 


One image must follow the other whereas previously all information could be found placed together, as in the illuminated manuscript. John Witney’s film Catalog placed together the visual effects he was able to produce with his modified computer made from a WWII anti-aircraft gun sight. (<>)


Lev mentions Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, which is similary ambiguous in narrative structure but Lev argues that “Vertov is able to achieve something which new media designers still have to learn– how to merge database and narrative into a new form.”


(Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technnologies, 1999 Volume 5 Number 2

SAGE publications. <>)


I would like to argue that the precedent of narrative should not hold us back from exploring new ways to present information and that cinema without a seeming narrative can in itself much like the illuminated narrative of many things happening at once produce meaning.




 In her blog post for the Cooper Hewitt labs Mia Ridge gives a report on the current status of the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection records. She goes over many of the problems that we have discussed in class  in regards to labeling inconsistencies and object retrieval. She mentions that she herself has used programs like google-refine to clean up the data. The Cooper-Hewitt museum has made 60% of its collection available online. A visit to museum webpage reveals the self-consciousness with which they discuss how they have presented information. In many ways the following quote seems to be reflective of the same concerns of Francis Bacon; that syllogisms should be nuanced and that small steps should be taken before large claims are made. 


“Is it complete?

No. The data is only tombstone information. Tombstone information is the raw data that is created by museum staff at the time of acquisition for recording the basic ‘facts’ about an object. As such, it is unedited. Historically, museum staff have used this data only for identifying the object, tracking its whereabouts in storage or exhibition, and for internal report and label creation. Like most museums, Cooper-Hewitt had never predicted that the public might use technologies, such as the web, to explore museum collections in the way that they do now. As such, this data has not been created with a “public audience” in mind. Not every field is complete for each record, nor is there any consistency in the way in which data has been entered over the many years of its accumulation. Considerable additional information is available in research files that have not yet been digitized and, as the research work of the museum is ongoing, the records will continue to be updated and change over time.”

There is a note on the Cooper-Hewitt site that mentions legal use and states that the information on items that is presented via git-hub on their site can be used in accordance to the Creative Commons 0 “No Rights Reserved” which will allow anyone to take the data from their available collection and create their own visualizations/ studies.  However the Cooper-Hewitt suggests some actions of “politesse” to the user  a lá  Europeonea’s model such as; attribution to the Cooper-Hewitt; contribute back modifications or improvements to the data; do not mislead others or misrepresent the Metadata or its sources; be responsible; understand that they use the data at their own risk.(

Certainly, the colloquial manner of these suggestions and the almost deliberately ambiguous. “Do not mislead others or misrepresent the Metadata or its resources,” is something that would be a fear for all humanists sharing data freely. I would like to ask if it is at all possible to escape the system of thinking that there is only one right path into examining data, that we can escape narrative if only to see what happens if information is presented this way to us again (to return to the pre-cinematic with the understanding of a contemporary mind). Then we might be able to  go back to Archemedes and find a new lever, spin the world around again and understand it once more anew. 

I find the emphasis Lev Manovich places on the cinematic telling of a possible new revolution in epistemology. Could it not be that this facet of philosophy–the theory of knowledge– has regained its strength with questions of visual representation for the Public Humanities? 


Tim Wray in describing his project, “A Place for Art,” mentions Janet Murray’s concept of the container, a media theory term meaning the aggregation of objects in a category. The physicality of a container is a particularly apt term for data visualization; the html pages that come from other pages, a cabinet with drawers. However, again I sense that the digital humanist has found him/herself in the rut of having to see everything in terms of collections or containers. 

Do you remember Russell’s Paradox? Call the set of all sets that are not members of themselves “R.” If R is a member of itself, then by definition it must not be a member of itself. Similarly, if R is not a member of itself, then by definition it must be a member of itself.  Why should this be important to the humanist who wishes to address collections?  As Russell explains in 1910;

” An analysis of the paradoxes to be avoided shows that they all result from a kind of vicious circle. The vicious circles in question arise from  supposing that a collection of objects may contain members which can only be defined by means of the collection as a whole.”

In light of this, is it possible to avoid Russells paradox of collections? To avoid falling into the pit of questioning and then immediately doubting taxonomies that we think can assist in the complete comprehension of a set of data? Wray says, “Collection websites are purported to provide opportunities for browsing and exploring: links and buttons entice us to ‘Explore Archives’ and ‘Browse Collections’, yet more often than not, we’re presented with a list of categories – a series of stuffy filing cabinets, the objects locked away in containers.”

Is there a way to escape the seeming arbitrariness of taxonomical categories? Does the user-friendly data modeling interface in some way make it so that the careful user will do justice to Francis Bacon’s syllogism? Or will it be the opposite; that the ease of use will make it so that there will be a grave “misuse” of this data. On this last point, to refer back to the essay by Anthony Grafton; who will become the arbiters of how data is presented, who can claim positions as the new members of our contemporary Republic of Letters? And should such a thing exist?