Blake and the Digital Humanities
My course for the next semester is heavily involved in the “digital humanities.” Recently, Alex Reid wrote a fascinating post on his blog “Digital Digs” about what he called the “strong” and the “weak” versions of the digital humanities. The weak definition, Reid says “is one that draws some fuzzy and arbitrary line among digital technologies and says if you use these technologies to study humanistic content then you are a digital humanist.” The strong version, on the other hand, “has two main components. There are makers, who build various digital tools for use in humanistic research and teaching. Then there are researchers, who study humanistic aspects of digital media and culture.” Reid admits that this second definition might be too limiting, since the digital humanities are becoming more inclusive, and suggests a third category “adapters, who are taking emerging technologies and developing new scholarly and pedagogical methods. The difference being that adapters would be see disseminating knowledge about new digital methods and adapted tools as part of their scholarly work rather than simply using the tools to create familiar scholarly products.”
Reid’s third category is particularly interesting to me, since I feel that Blake held an “adapter” role in the development of a mass print culture during the Romantic period. In Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2003), Janine Barchas cites Blake as an author whose combination of verbal and visual elements shows the need to move beyond the traditional bibliographic vocabulary used to describe “illustrations” and “design.” In fact, along with writers like Alexander Pope and Laurence Sterne, Blake “include[s] a far wider variety of graphic designs (for example ornamentation and punctuation) which the scholarly community is just beginning to recognize as textual phenomena with interpretive impact” (9). Blake, Pope, and Sterne inhabit a transitionary period between manuscript and mass print culture in the eighteenth century, one that was slowly giving way to the woodcuts and the novelistic illustrations that would become more central as the novel emerged as the dominant middle-class form of narrative in the nineteenth century. Blake’s designs, however, also allude to medieval forms of illumination, and in this capacity, they inhabit an adaptive role for both the visual and the textual aspects of modern print culture.
I want to use my course to see if Blake can be used in a similar adaptive capability for digital and participatory culture. My thesis isn’t very new. Marcel O’ Gorman, for example, uses Blake as a “pictoral schema for organizing and generating knowledge,” specifically for what he calls a “hypericonomy:” a series of icons used to “encapsulate an argument and present it pictorially.” My course would push O’ Gorman’s hypericonomic project into the realm of social and collaborative media.
With this in mind, I consulted the extremely useful DH Questions and Answers message board hosted by the Association for Computers and the Humanities. You can find a record of my conversation with the digital humanities community here. To summarize, I mentioned my desire to have my students create a DH tool over the course of the semester – and that I’d like the tool to rearrange William Blake’s textual corpus according to specific tags. The responses were wide and varied. Patrick Murray John, for example, suggested that I have the students build the project three times: in WordPress, in Drupal, and in Omeka. WordPress and Drupal are both content management systems (CMS) that build websites around blog-based designs. Users can upload plugins and modules to expand the basic functionality of the site. Omeka is also a CMS, but it is built specifically for publishing online exhibitions.
I got many great suggestions for the class, including one from Dorethea Salo that suggested I look specifically at how different media platforms use different forms of programming, but I felt by the end of the discussion that I was getting away from my core-interest in applying William Blake and Romanticism to concerns in the digital humanities. That being said, I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the digital humanities or digital pedagogy visit DH Questions and Answers. It’s an invaluable tool for learning about and experiencing the breadth of knowledge and experience held by the digital humanities community.
I’d like to turn my question it to the RC community. What are some suggestions for tools that will help scholars, students, even non-academic admirers of Blake to understand his work? I’m not looking for the programming-specific advice I got on the digital humanities board. Rather, I’d like something akin to a wish list. What do you want, as a scholar or a teacher, that could help you explore the world of William Blake?
Barchas, Janine. Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
O’Gorman, Marcel. “The Fourfold Visions of William Blake and Martin Heidegger.” Romantic Circles Praxis Series. (2005). Web. 07 November 2010.
Reid, Alex. “Weak and Strong Defintions of Digital Humanities.” Digital Digs. 03 November 2010. Web. 07 November 2010.