Conferences Modern Language Association ACH Sessions


The Association for Computers and the Humanities will be sponsoring two sessions at the 2012 convention of the Modern Language Association, in Seattle from 5 through 8 January.

We also offer a guide to all digital humanities sessions at the convention.

Similar information for many other years is available via the main page on ACH MLA sessions.


215. Digital South, Digital Futures

Friday, 6 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 606, WSCC

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Southern Literature and the Association for Computers and the Humanities

Presiding: Vincent J. Brewton, Univ. of North Alabama

1. "Documenting the American South," Natalia Smith, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2. "Space, Place, and Image: Mapping Farm Securities Administration (FSA) Photographs and the Photogrammar Project," Lauren Tilton, Yale Univ.

3. "Southern Spaces: The Development of a Digital Southern Studies Journal," Frances Abbott, Emory Univ.

4. "Mapping a New Deal for New Orleans Artists," Michael Mizell-Nelson, Univ. of New Orleans

410. Reconfiguring the Literary: Narratives, Methods, Theories

Saturday, 7 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 608, WSCC
Presiding: Susan Schreibman, Trinity Coll., Dublin

Speakers: Alison Booth, Univ. of Virginia; Mark Stephen Byron, Univ. of Sydney; Øyvind Eide, Univ. of Oslo; Alexander Gil, Univ. of Virginia; Rita Raley, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Session Description:

This roundtable will include projects that show how notions of the literary (narrative, method, and theory) can be fundamentally reconfigured by digital (con)texts.


Digital South, Digital Futures

Documenting the American South

Natasha Smith, Carolina Digital Library and Archives (Digital Publishing Group and Documenting the American South)

When the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Library debuted Documenting the American South (DocSouth) in 1996, it was envisioned as a modest effort to digitize a few fragile and frequently consulted slave narratives.  DocSouth has since grown into a comprehensive digital publishing initiative that provides free access to an increasing record of southern history, literature, and culture.  More than a decade after its initial appearance, it comprises thousands of books, manuscript materials, images, maps, posters, artifacts, oral history interviews, recorded songs, and scholarly essays. DocSouth digitized materials are arranged as sixteen thematic collections, with new collections currently being developed. The emphasis is on social history, primary sources, and first-hand accounts that elucidate southern history and culture from approximately the mid-eighteenth century onward. From the very beginning, the Library established the DocSouth Editorial Board, composed of faculty, librarians, and publishers, and charged that body with the overall responsibility for policies on the selection of texts and images and the presentation of interpretative and educational information. We succeeded in gaining the full trust from users of all ages and levels of educations. Our collections draw a wide range of readers including scholars, teachers, students from the elementary to the doctoral level, genealogists, novelists, and members of the general public.

Documenting the American South is a digital library laboratory that creates, develops, and maintains online digital collections by using open source technology and protocols. Librarians and scholars join forces in using digital technologies in a variety of innovative ways.  This close partnership between librarians and faculty forges its path in the frontier of digital humanities.  Moreover, the collaboration permits us to expand on traditional “analog” research practices while taking advantage of current technology and best practices in digital humanities. With each digital collection, we explore ways to create an online scholarly resource that would offer a treasure trove of resources for both research and pedagogical purposes.


Southern Spaces: The Development of a Digital Southern Studies Journal

Frances Abbott, Emory University

 In 2004, librarians and other academics at Emory University built Southern Spaces, an interdisciplinary journal about space, place, and the U.S. South, in consultation with an editorial board of southern studies scholars from a variety of disciplines. This presentation will discuss some of the specific concerns and opportunities that the journal has confronted working in digital scholarship with southern studies authors since its inception.

Southern Spaces capitalizes on specific opportunities afforded by digital publishing. As an open access journal, Southern Spaces circulates to a broad audience of internet users with a rolling publication schedule that allows the journal to highlight timely, topical issues through new publication types. With more traditional academic articles, digital publication enables authors to incorporate primary sources and other research materials through multiple media. Because of the newness of digital publishing, Southern Spaces often offers an introductory training to authors in issues in digital humanities and open access. Since southern studies is an interdiscipline intersecting with many humanities and social science disciplines, the journal advances multi-disciplinary approaches to space and place that dovetail with a larger digital humanities interest in geospatial studies. This diversity allows Southern Spaces’ collection to contest narratives of a single “South.”

The journal faces also several important challenges related to southern studies and digital presentation.  The first of these is a pervasive uncertainty within academic worlds about the prestige of publishing online and familiarity with technological possibilities. Because of scholarly wariness about digital journals, Southern Spaces has struggled to find meaningful ways to stage scholarly debate online.  Finally, because scholars who study the U.S. South have varying relationships to the idea of “southern studies” it can be difficult to effectively market the journal’s approach to digital southern studies to all of its potential authors and audiences. 

Reconfiguring the Literary: Narratives, Methods, Theories

Call It a Global Strategic Formalism:New Literary Histories and Narrative Theories through Digital Humanities

Alison Booth, University of Virginia, Scholars’ Lab (Bethany Nowviskie, Joe Gilbert),  and IATH (Worthy Martin, Daniel Pitti)

Collective Biographies of Women (CBW) reaches beyond the boundaries of “literature” 1900-1980, with its small canon of authors of fiction, poetry or drama.  CBW instead focuses on a nonfiction genre that ignores authorship and portrays intersecting social types: prosopography, or personae-writing, the representation of lives in groups.  Based on an international bibliography of more than 1200 collections of women’s biographies published since 1830, CBW differs from digital editions as well as recent large-scale mining across the print era.  New as well as old interpretive methods—distant, close, ideological or symptomatic, and surface reading—are required for this corpus of life narratives, in which crowd-sourced social networking blurs authorship and definitive text while it registers social types and affiliations documented and quantifiable in our database. Biographical Elements and Structure Schema (BESS), a stand-off XML schema, analyzes TEI texts representing types of collection and persona (at this point, reformers or adventuresses).  BESS guides the editors with controlled vocabularies for stage of life (the “plot” of biography), events and agents, narration, and persona description.  BESS analyses of 20 versions of Sister Dora’s life, for example, compare with those of the 120 women in “one degree of separation” from her (in the same books) and with analyses of a different cohort of persona types. The BESS tool and approach will influence other digital studies of narrative, just as we will adapt others’ tools (word frequency, interactive timelines). We aim at a morphology of nonfiction narrative that benefits from advances in post-classical narratology as well as digital literary studies.

The Recursive Archive: Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt

Mark Byron, University of Sydney

This presentation will report on the digital transcription of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, a novel composed in exile during the Second World War and first published in 1953. The full digital transcription and facing representation of the six manuscript notebooks comprises an important early instalment of the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscripts Project, directed by Dirk van Hulle and Mark Nixon. It also comprises the representation of an extraordinarily complex and unruly manuscript that bears a range of direct, indirect, submerged and otherwise inscrutable relations to the published narrative: its text surface is replete with narrative games, extended permutative episodes, fragments, and various metanarrative levels that fold back into each other. The pronounced complexity of the manuscript archive material, added to the already fragmented surface of the published text, might suggest a transcription project to be limited to specific philological interest. However, as I will demonstrate by way of selected examples, a coherent, searchable transcription reveals much of hermeneutic significance about the published text that would otherwise remain obscure or submerged: the relation of Addenda fragments to larger narrative concerns; the fissures and fragments in the published text that are vestiges of larger narrative episodes; and the processes of narrative reticulation between manuscript and text that completely rearrange concepts of narrative composition. Further, careful study of the transcription indicates that Beckett radically challenged the conceptual limits of text structure, particularly the teleological assumptions of progression from draft to published text. The text-archive manifold presents a dynamic rethinking of text, and of the evolution of literary material at all stages of its production, brought about in a double process of aesthetic creativity and the force of historical circumstance.


Can We Say it as a Map? Re-presenting Textual Language Descriptions as Maps

Øyvinde Eide, University of Oslo

In this paper, landscape descriptions taken from a verbal non-fiction texts, namely, Major Peter Schnitlers grenseeksaminasjonsprotokoller 1742–1745, volume 1 (Oslo, 1962), will be presented. The text was written as background material for border negotiations in Scandinavia in the early 1740s.

The text has been analysed using a semi-automatic modelling process. The data included in the model consists of the results from a reading of a digital version of the text, with a special eye towards geographical information.

There is a significant reduction of complexity in the conversion from text to model. The model is event based, which means that facts are stored as statements about the world put forward in specific speech events. The model stores contradictory facts if and when they exist. Identifying contradictions is important, but that is done at a later stage.

The model is used to investigate how information taken from the text can be expressed as maps. Expressing information as a map is different from expressing information onto a pre-existing map, no matter if this pre-existing map is mental or exist as a document. Based on the problems uncovered through the modelling work, a typology is developed. This typology will be presented in some detail in the paper, together with the textual evidence on which it is based.

In the struggle every text creator go through, the restrictions of the media being used is there, to be obeyed or to be questioned. I will show how geographical maps and verbal texts are different media, and how these differences have consequences not only for how things are said, but also for what can be said at all using these two media.


The algorithmic core of criticism

Alex Gill, University of Virginia

Can a machine interpret literature? This is a question that has been posed in several ways in
recent debates in the digital humanities. On the one hand there are those who critique distant
reading methods that rely on data mining and natural language processing, arguing that by
themselves their results do not demonstrate anything. There are others who suggest we can profit

from a symbiotic relationship with these approaches, arguing the machines can open up new vistas for our critical inquiry. At the heart of the question is the very boundary between us and our computer overlords. In this presentation my answer will be "no, but it can represent interpretation." Inspired by the rise of critical code studies and the insights of contemporary argument theory, I will suggest that we can use code and algorithms as an expressive language that could help us map the methodological structures of existing literary criticism as it  historically engages with author, world and text. To argue my case I will adventure a reading of Derrida's reading of Joyce's Ulysses (which doubles as his tongue-in-cheek critique of formal logic) by using precisely the language of the machines. If at all feasible, this approach could help us describe the history of criticism as a set of related procedures, or what I would call an algorithmic phenomenology of interpretation. Computer scientist and literary scholar, Michael Fox, will provide a counterpoint to my argument, arguing that it is radically impossible to arrive at such a procedural phenomenology.


Transient Interfaces

Rita Raley, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

This paper will explore representative instances of ephemeral and transient interfaces, particularly in the context of interactive text installations and programmatic art, along with Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain and Obx Lab's P.o.E.M.M. project (the latter are both iPad/iPhone applications).  Emphasis will necessarily be placed on the different modalities of reader/user engagement, particularly gesture, tactility, and bodily movement.  It will explore the transient interface as an environment both for reading and for writing and consider the implications of transient interfaces for our understanding of digital textuality.  It will also ask what difference it makes when we ‘scale up’ from the mobile device or the singular reader/user to large-scale public displays.