Experimental Humanities

Maria Sachiko Cecire (mcecire@bard.edu), Bard College and Dennis Yi Tenen (dt2406@columbia.edu), Columbia University and Wai Chee Dimock (wai.chee.dimock@yale.edu), Yale University and Nicholas Bauch (nbbauch@ou.edu), University of Oklahoma and Kimon Keramidas (kimon.keramidas@nyu.edu), New York University and Freya Harrison (f.harrison@warwick.ac.uk), University of Warwick and Erin Connelly (erincon@upenn.edu), University of Pennsylvania

Panel Abstract

Recent years have seen humanities scholars from different fields and types of institutions begin to call for an “experimental humanities,” typically as a replacement for or an extension of digital humanities frameworks. Most recently, Wai Chee Dimock suggests drawing upon scientific understandings of “experimental” in the methodologies and aims of literary study – an approach that “test[s] the extent of isomorphism among different fields of knowledge” and that she argues can drive more original, collaborative, resilient, and publicly engaged humanities scholarship. While the term “experimental” was most closely associated with the rise of scientific methodologies and cultural power in the first half of the twentieth century, its adoption by artists over the past century means that the word now evokes the play and emotional investment of the artist’s studio as much as it does the precision and rationalism of the scientist’s lab.

` This panel draws on the work and experiences of a range of scholars who conceive of their research and pedagogy in experimental terms. Looking beyond the digital, these academics work at the boundary between the university and the world, engaging in issues of social justice and advocacy, bringing traditionally disparate fields and approaches to bear on one another, or using empirical methods—such as map-making, microbiology techniques, or field work—in the study of history, literature, and culture. The papers in this panel explore how “experimental humanities” can be a useful paradigm for extending or reframing work in DH, addressing experimentation both in the sense of methods associated with scientific inquiry and in the sense of a radical, process-based practice, the outcome of which remains highly subjective, speculative, and unknown.

The papers in this panel represent work from diverse institutional settings, from the small liberal arts college to the big state school to the Ivy league. They theorize the experimental humanities as they appear in specific projects, undergraduate and graduate curricular initiatives, lab settings, and in partnerships with non-academic actors. Taken together, our panelists represent a new experimental turn in DH and humanities work more broadly, which is being institutionalized in named centers, groups, and labs across the United States and Europe. Each of the six presentations will take 10-12 minutes, grouped to frame the field (Dimock; Tenen), delve into experimental research methods (Harrison and Connelly; Bauch), and discuss the institutionalization of Experimental Humanities (Cecire and Keramidas), leaving 20-30 minutes for discussion and Q&A at the end.

Individual Abstracts

1. Wai Chee Dimock

William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies

Yale University

«DH and EH: A Symbiosis»

Taking a close look at two interlocking entities at the University of Pennsylvania — the Price Lab for Digital Humanities and the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities — this paper argues for data and computation as a key partner in reshaping the humanities for the 21st century: as a science-informed, experiment-driven, and practice-rich discipline.

2. Dennis Yi Tenen

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Co-founder, Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities

Columbia University

“The Experimental Turn”

My goal in this talk will be to situate a variety of “experimental” approaches to the study of literature in culture within a wider experimental turn, steering the academy toward critical practice, especially in fields long-dominated by speculative thought.

The experimental turn represents a generation’s dissatisfaction with armchair philosophizing. Recall the burning armchair, the symbol of the experimental philosophy movement. Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols, some of the early proponents of the movement, explain that «many of the deepest questions of philosophy can only be properly addressed by immersing oneself in the messy, contingent, highly variable truths about how human beings really are.» The emergence of spaces where research in the humanities is done exemplifies a similar trend. In naming the locations of their practice «laboratories,» «studios,» and «workshops,» humanists reach for new metaphors of labor. These metaphors aim to reorganize the relationship between body, space, artifact, knowledge, and inscription.

As another example from the field of early modern history consider the preface to a recent volume on Ways of Making and Knowing, edited by Pamela Smith, Amy Meyers, and Harold Cook. They write that the «history of science is not a history of concepts, or at least not that alone, but a history of the making and using of objects to understand the world.» Smith translates that insight in the laboratory, where, together with her students, she bakes bread and smelts iron to recreate long-lost artisanal techniques. For those who experiment, «book knowledge,» «artifactual knowledge,» and “knowledge at hand” connect in practice.

Somewhere between a lab experiment and experimental art, I join experimentalists like Smith to imagine a space for process-based scholarship, “to be judged not on its success or failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is unknown.”

3. Nicholas Bauch

Assistant Professor of GeoHumanities

Director, Experimental Geography Studio

University of Oklahoma

“Versioning and Visioning Geographic Language with Digital Design”

The Experimental Geography Studio <
http://geographystudio.org> is a research collective that focuses on a specific question: what happens when techniques from the creative arts are used to advance theoretical discourse in human geography? Despite the increasing ubiquity of digital/web mapping platforms in academic research, journalism, and popular usage, human geography ironically enough remains an overwhelmingly textual-theoretical enterprise. Categories like space, place, landscape, region, and territory are all fine-tuned in geographical discourse with rich and evocative metaphors, including “verticality,” “hybridity,” “oceanic,” “phase,” “bending,” and “topology,” among many others (see references below). As part of the formal minting of the Geo-Humanities subfield by the American Association of Geographers in 2011, there is a growing institutionalization and recognition of the art-geography nexus, involving media practices ranging from video, to sculpture, photography, performance, and not least digital/web design. What happens when the metaphors used to understand spatial mechanisms become re-versioned into graphic forms? In this paper I present an ongoing project in the Studio—Versioning Geographic Language—that aims to crystalize some of these metaphors in visualization. By creating a catalog of possibilities, the purpose is to clarify the textual slippage that inevitably occurs as metaphors accrue layers of intention by different authors. Far from obscure, these guiding concepts have great power in framing how students, scholars, and writers imagine the inner workings of—as Henri Lefebvre might have put it—the ways in which different spaces are produced. Pausing and seeing analytical concepts like “verticality,” etc. allows us to sharpen them and return them back into empirical research about topics such as citizenship, urban environments, biotechnologies, and statecraft. The ‘digital,’ in this case, is not the same tool as it often has been in Digital Humanities, i.e. one that takes as its starting point a big data paradigm. Rather, it draws cues from graphic design and visual art to forge patterns and symbolizations.

4. Freya Harrison

Assistant Professor

School of Life Sciences Life Sciences

University of Warwick


Erin Connelly

CLIR-Mellon Fellow for Data Curation in Medieval Studies

Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies

University of Pennsylvania

“Datamining Medieval Medical Texts for Antimicrobial Drug Discovery”

Most antimicrobials are derived from natural products. Thus, ethnopharmacology (the study of traditional pharmacopeias) can help us find new antimicrobials to fight the rising scourge of multi-drug resistant infections. However, the standard approach of purifying individual compounds from natural materia medica rarely produces clinically-useful products. Historical medicinal remedies, in contrast, often involve complex preparations of several ingredients. Medieval European manuscripts describe numerous intricate remedies for infections: their efficacy may rely on creating a “cocktail” of natural products, each of which has little or no antimicrobial potential when used alone. Modern science rarely investigates the activities of entire remedies, or explores how combinations of natural products work together. Further, while the folk medicines of other continents have long been mined for potential drugs, pre-modern European medicine has been dismissed as superstition or placebo. The remedies in these understudied manuscripts could be the products of rational drug design on the part of the physicians who created them, and if this is the case they could contain long-forgotten treatments for infectious diseases.

Our team (the Ancientbiotics consortium) investigated a 10th-century remedy for eye infections. This quadripartite cure is highly bactericidal against Staphylococcus aureus and other important pathogens. Crucially, its efficacy depends on combining ingredients exactly as specified by the text. Statistical analysis of the original manuscript revealed that this remedy’s ingredients were combined in other remedies more often than would be expected if the author simply selected ingredients randomly. Tests of other common ingredients in medieval infection treatments also showed that combining ingredients can generate preparations with unexpectedly strong antibacterial activity. This has led us on a quest to turn collections of medieval remedies into databases amenable to statistical analysis to find the patterns and processes that underlay their construction. We will present our team’s key findings so far, and place them in the context of an interdisciplinary, quantitative analysis of how medieval doctors chose, combined and used the materia medica available to them.

5. Maria Sachiko Cecire

Assistant Professor of Literature

Founder and Director, Experimental Humanities Program

Bard College

“Inclusive Practices in Experimental Humanities”

DH prides itself on its attempts to break down institutional hierarchies and embrace the “fun” of scholarly inquiry and discovery. And yet the power dynamics of insiders and outsiders remains – including the long-running debate about whether or not one needs to be able to code in order to “do” DH (Gold, 2012). This paper argues that an Experimental Humanities model invites partners and participants with a wide range of backgrounds and kinds of expertise. By encompassing both the scientific implications of the word “experiment” and the creativity and affective commitment of the artist’s studio, Experimental Humanities reorients the landscape of what may be prioritized as meaningful input and what constitutes technical skill in a humanities project. To theorize this approach I build on the work of medievalists Carolyn Dinshaw and Richard Utz, who argue for the importance of overcoming the barriers of professionalization that distinguish the “serious scholar” from the amateur in doing honest, self-aware humanities research. Dinshaw argues for recognizing the “radical love” of the amateur in scholarly production – in the case of medievalists, this manifests as the LARPers, Renaissance Faire attendees, and Tolkien enthusiasts whose activities academics tend to thrust away from themselves as unrelated to their work. Meanwhile, Utz uncovers medievalists’ own histories of amateur passions, and suggests that repressing these origins results in less rigorous and useful scholarship.

I will describe two ways in which “amateurs” to the DH world are integral to the Experimental Humanities (
http://eh.bard.edu) curricular initiative and center that has been running at Bard College since 2012. The first has to do with recruiting academics who study or use experimental technologies even if they do not see themselves as digital humanists, allowing us to build more robust, diverse teams. The second is our partnerships with people from outside of the academy who help us develop civically engaged experiments – both digital and non-digital – in the humanities. After a brief overview of Bard EH I will discuss a few specific ventures, such as our Digital History Lab which works alongside public servants, historical societies, and town libraries to create local projects that preserve and promote public history in the Hudson Valley. I suggest that drawing in, rather than distancing ourselves from, the passions and experiences of “amateurs” can help enrich our knowledge of the world and produce more interesting, useful experiments in the humanities.

6. Kimon Keramidas

Clinical Assistant Professor

Associate Director, Center for Experimental Humanities

New York University

“Experiment as Experience, Practice as Pedagogy: Another Way of Rethinking Humanities in a Digital Age”

In playing their part in assuaging the perceived crisis in the humanities, the experimental humanities do not center any one methodology or champion a particular augmentation of traditional humanistic approaches. Rather they engender a sense of adventure, encouraging new forms, promoting a creative mindset, and provoking scholars to apply the tenets of rigorous scholarship to a broader range of intellectual outputs. The experimental humanities encourage this work fully aware that digital technologies have a had a profound impact on our culture, but recognize their role as a defamiliarizing force and important part of our cultural context rather than as a motivator for epistemological change and forcible redefinition. This presentation will discuss three classes taught at NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities that combined traditional historical and theoretical humanities work with experiential learning and immersion in practical projects.

The first course, Telling the Sogdian Story, integrated students in a large-scale digital exhibition being organized by the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Asian Art Galleries. Along with traditional lectures from scholars specializing in the Sogdians, a medieval mercantile people from Central Asia, students participated in project planning discussions with Freer|Sackler staff, and consultations and critiques with professional web designers and developers. Students were involved not only in researching and writing about objects and themes for the exhibition, but studied interface design and worked in teams to prototype different interactive design options for the final exhibition.

The second course, Queering the Web, put students at the center of a redesign of the public history site OutHistory.org. Combining queer history and theory, performance theory, interface design, and design history, the course considered whether web design and computer science carry implicit heteronormative practices that inherently impinge on the ability to properly represent queer history. Students were asked to write essays on the history of LGBTQ people in the United State, critique the current state of the site, and propose design modifications that not only updated the sites look and usability, but queered users’ interaction with the materials.

The third course, Making Room for Youth, considered the Hardcore Punk movement of the late 1970s-1980s as a model of community-based cultural activism driven by DIY-practices and unique deployments of analog media. Students studied Hardcore both to understand the movement and to reflect on how digital technologies have changed our experience of culture, the capacity of cultural products to act as a force for initiating social change. For their culminating project, students organized an event that integrated analog and digital techniques to create a historical impression of Hardcore. This event highlighted how digital media have changed the music scene, and asked visitors to reflect on the role of cultural activism in a political era that shares many similarities with current conditions.

These three course, all co-taught, all involving project-based, process-oriented learning, and all using digital methodologies and technologies while actively interrogating them, represent how an experimental approach to the humanities can provide new perspectives and new experiences for humanities students.


Telling the Sogdian Story:

Queering the Web:

Making Room for Youth:

Appendix A

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  13. Steinberg, P., and K. Peters (2015). «Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking.»
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  14. Utz, R. J. (2017).
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