Definitions – and the complexity of maintaining them

The complexity inherent in using digital media never seems to cease, but only gets deeper.  This week’s readings have given me (yet another) insight into the depth and dimension of multi-layered conversation we’ve been having all semester.

Definitions are always tricky.  I empathize completely with Kate Theimer’s perspective on the definition of “archives”, its multiple and often incorrect uses.   In the military, we can hardly keep ourselves straight.  We do not know if IOC means “Initial Operating Capability” or “Infantry Officer’s Course”.  Or whether LOC means “line of control”, “limited operating capability”, “letter of commendation” or “line of communication”.  Can’t we all just get along?

Please also understand, that “limited operating capability” absolutely positively does not mean the same thing to all military personnel.  So I applaud Theimer’s attempt to defend the meaning of the word “archive”.  I also applaud her ability to concede defeat even as she writes the article.  Digital humanists are unlikely to change what they call their work, for, as Kenneth Price so aptly points out, nothing else seems to fit as well.

Kenneth Price also makes a valiant effort to define terms and to understand what we really mean when we create digital humanities work/project/collection/edition/archives.  His article addresses the differences amongst these terms, why they are attractive to digital humanists and why (ultimately) they fail to clearly define the work being done.  I openly laughed at his proposal of the term “arsenal”, I admit.  However, I rethought my disdain when he made the comparison to the term “magazine”.  Truly, if such a word as magazine can make the transition it has from a place to store ammunition to a popular culture mode of writing, then anything is possible.

I agree wholeheartedly that the digital humanities needs an entirely new term.  Using  old terms appears easiest at first, since we are familiar with the traditional terminology (although as we have already seen in Theimer’s articles, we are not always correct even in those).  Like Price and Theimer, these old terms fail to satisfy.  I think there is a key reason that they fail to satisfy, and will continue to do so.   Every project/archive/collection is different.  Every website/digital humanities project has a different purpose, approach, content (sometimes evolving and growing) and meaning.

For example, I do not think it would be at all fair for us to lump all of our NEH grant proposal projects under one definitional term.  There is no way to properly do it, and to grant each project its individual value.  I think instead of a word, we are trying to invent an entirely new lexicon.  This will be challenging, as the world of digital humanities is young and still “struggling to find its national identity” (Theimer).  Defining terms and creating them simultaneously will be difficult and confusing, but I feel that it must be done to give credence to the work being done in the digital humanities.

Another thought came to me as I was reading about the Hurricane Katrina project, and the differences between collecting materials from Pearl Harbor and from September 11.  Perhaps here we could actually use the term “archive”.  The Hurricane Katrina project especially seemed like it might fit the traditional definition of “archive”, taking into account “provenance, original order and collective control”. (Theimer)  There were efforts to include context, with maps and pictures adding to the personal, written accounts.  True, the project included newspaper articles (violating the “no published works” rule of an archive).  However, it seemed to mostly include things that might never be published, and could be very valuable to future research – personal reflections, power point presentations from National Guard units.  This mention was especially close to my heart.  Every day, military planners and operators craft a variety of different documents that get lost to history because there is no effort or method to keep them.  They are part of a larger labyrinth of paper that gets pushed up and down the chain of command, around the office and off their desks to make room for the next round of paper.  A historian could have a field day with the briefs and information papers lost to time.

As with most things, there exists no one individual or organization that will define these terms for us.  We will need to “advance the conversation” as they say in the humanities and make this new lexicon our own over time.  Class discussion this week should be good!

One comment

  1. Good point re: creating a new lexicon. I wonder, though, how we (the collective we) will go about creating a new vocabulary. Since academics can’t agree on anything, I assume it will be an uphill battle…

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