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Visualizing Impossibility: Thoughts on Lauren Klein

In Lauren Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” we search alongside her for ghosts, silences, and absences in the archive. Over the course of the article, she seeks to illuminate the life and contributions of James Hemings within the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, a digital archive made available through ROTUNDA, University of Virginia Press, and in doing so, discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of data visualization in this process. For Klein, digital technology has the capacity to render visible the invisibilities of archival gaps, and at the same time expose the limits of our knowledge as productive space with which to think.

Recalling last week’s conversation about narrative and database, Klein suggests that archival silences can be produced, in part, by metadata and data structuring decisions (663). This claim dovetails with Lisa Brundage’s suggestion that the most essential word in database theory is the “you,” or human agency responsible for decisions regarding information. In the context of Klein, the locus of “you” as human interacting with or producing an archive becomes a space for determining the nature of archival imbalances, power, and structure—particularly when Klein asks, “How does one account for the power relations at work in the relationships between the enslaved men and women who committed their thoughts to paper, and the group of (mostly white) reformers who edited and published their works?” (664)

This same question of the “you” that must be accounted for appears in the data visualists’ role in rendering information visually, and is part of Klein’s call for a greater theorization of the digital humanities. She states, “the critic’s involvement in the design and implementation—or at the least, the selection and application—of digital tools demands an acknowledgment of his or her critical agency” (668). In Klein’s scholarship, qualifying and elucidating the role of “you” is paramount to understanding the archive, the visualization, and the data collected.

Critique without suggesting an alternative is all too easy, and I admire the way in which Klein posits data visualization as antidote to archival silences and also deeply engages the fraught history of its practice (665). She engages visualization’s vexed history through the figure of Thomas Jefferson himself, who underwent training in early forms of data visualization with William Small at the College of William and Mary. In this section of the article, we gain a sense of how complex it is to engage these forms: can the same tool that Jefferson was so fond of also be a tool for scholars to resurrect the memories and presence of the slaves he owned, centuries later?

Klein also explores the ways in which Jefferson’s note-taking and records use representation in diagrams, charts, and tables to suggest that he was engaged in using data visualization as a “form of subjugation and control—that is, the reduction of persons to objects, and stories to names,” which points at the reductiveness and potential for violence in types of visual display (679). Klein’s portrayal of Jefferson here, as an unthinking white man who recorded Hemings as empirical evidence, to be charted and claimed as thus, is emblematic of the central question of her piece: how can we visualize without appropriation, acknowledge incompleteness, and in a paraphrase of Marcus and Best, let ghosts be ghosts without claiming them for our own purposes or meanings?

Evoking Stephen Ramsay’s idea of “deformance,” or the creative manipulation and interpretation of textual materials, Klein ultimately suggests that rendering Hemings in an act of visual deformance makes legible “possibilities of recognition” that the actual textual content of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson resist, while “expos[ing] the impossibilities of recognition—and of cognition—that remain essential to our understanding of the archive of slavery” in contemporary studies (682).

Provocations

When confronted with archival ghosts, Klein seems to suggest that the best policy is: illuminate, not explicate. How do you negotiate the difference between these two words, and can you share with us the ways it influences your pedagogy and scholarship?

Is there ever truly a safe way to visualize data, particularly regarding people and especially those who have been silenced, ghosted, or violated, in a way that rhetorically privileges stories and narrative over names and numbers?

To what extent does digital technology provide solutions of access for archival materials, but at the same time reproduce power structures that perpetuate silences? Can digital technology increasingly address this question through innovation, or is this a question of institutional change?

Klein’s argument regarding silences in digital archives seems to address the question of mark-up and encoding, whose granularity is often determined by institutional funding. In a recent conversation, Erin Glass (of Social Paper, an amazing platform for student-centered writing that you should check out!) and I noted that the first invisible document of any archive, institution, or project is often a grant. This document lays out the rationale, timeline, and required resources that shape the development of the project, but it is rarely discussed once secured for an institution, and is often invisible except in gestures towards sponsorship or funding. ROTUNDA is an organization that is part of University of Virginia Press, but whose digitization work is funded through grants. It is likely that decisions of encoding granularity were built into the grant itself and the time requirements of the project.

So, at the roots of the process of creating digital archives, how might we conceive of the entire process–from grant onwards–as a new space to intervene in inclusive, even collaborative, editing processes that produce richer metadata? Does this help address archival silences, or instead offer more opportunities to reproduce them?

Because I am Trying to Conceptualize Leaves of Grass as a Database…

Ed Folsom’s semi-anecdotal opening to “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” took me back to the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. My parents, in an attempt to find economic solutions to grocery shopping for a family of 9, frequented the generic detergent, cold cereal, hot cereal, and toiletries sections of the grocery store. I was conditioned to avoid the bright colorful pictures, and I instead turned my gaze to the black background with the white Times New Roman printing of “Toasted Oats.”

Folsom’s start—an opening frustration with the abundance of lifelessness in the realm of the generic—is a smart preface to his discussion of Walt Whitman and genre. Whitman, even in his labeling, defied the laws of genre as he teased the boundaries of poetry, prose, and everything near or in between. This is no surprise when one considers how Whitman’s writing, if not his very existence, tore at the seams of the very fabric of sexual identity and philosophical thought. He was somewhere between transcendentalism and realism, somewhere between fifty shades of sexual orientation, and somewhere between anti-slavery and white supremacy. Whitman was not one to easily follow a prescribed agenda, and Folsom speaks to how this plays out in Whitman’s description of genre: “peculiar to that person, period, or place—not universal” (1572). Whitman was frustrated with the narrowness, the lack of transport-friendly-interconnectedness that comes along with genre. He did not want to be placed in a box, and Folsom is suggesting that the reason behind his refusal was a lack of options.

Recognizing this “ongoing battle with genre,” (1572) Folsom offers up the database as the best description of Whitman’s work. He credits Lev Manovich for introducing this conceptualization of the database as genre, and he adds to the conversation by asserting that for Whitman, “the world was a kind of preelectronic database” (1574). Moreover, he supports this claim by referring to Whitman’s multiple edits, last minute edits, antebellum and post-bellum coverage, and strategic posting of lines from poetry as markers or code within the text. This problematizing of Whitman as database then leads to a conversation of archive vs. database. Seeking to separate Derrida’s concept of “archive fever” from database, Folsom contends that archive has much more of an association with the physical space, the actual housing of artifacts, whereas database is more of a digital linking of information concerning a particular subject or combination of subjects. He establishes database as a new genre, one that can make the fitting genre home for Whitman’s works.

Provocation:
To be completely honest, I struggled with this piece. At times I jumped in, ready to find a place for Whitman, willing to re-embrace him as low-tech visionary and genius. And then there were times when my spidey senses tingled: How dare he box the unboxed Whitman? Why must “archive” exist in such limited terms? Being mindful of these tensions, I pose three questions. Like my previous provocation, feel free to respond to one or none of the following questions:

1) How do you think Whitman would respond to Folsom’s reading of his work?
2) Given our readings this week and last week, what do you think of Ed Folsom’s description of “archive” and “database”? Would you reframe them?
3) What does Folsom’s act of naming database as a genre do for the field of the humanities? What is its effect?

Citation:
Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA: 1571-579. Print.