Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blogging my Digital Humanities 2011 Talk

I was all prepped to give a nice conversational version of my paper at Digital Humanties 2001 when my plane was delayed, so I had to spend an extra night in Boston, meaning my arrival in Palo Alto was bumped to after my allotted time. Oh, well. Here's a summary that presents some of what I was going to say.

The title was The Digital Materiality of Early Christian Visual Culture: Building on John 20:24-29 and the abstract is here.

My first "real" slide was a long-ish quote from the article Leonardi, P. 2010. "Digital materiality? How artifacts without matter, matter" in the online journal First Monday. It's online at Here's the quote:

I argue that treating materiality as the practical instantiation of theoretical ideas (like policies that allow women to vote help make material the idea that sexes are equal) or as what is significant in the explanation of a given context (like material evidence in a courtroom trial) provides a more useful framework for understanding how digital artifacts affect the process of organizing. I contend that moving away from linking materiality to notions of physical substance or matter may help scholars of technology integrate their work more centrally with studies of discourse, routine, institutions and other phenomena that lie at the core of organization theory, specifically, and social theory more broadly.
I've highlighted the bits I was going to focus on. "[M]ateriality as the practical instantiation of theoretical ideas" has useful overlap with how archaeologists think materiality. We often try to "back port" from the objects we find to what people were thinking, but Leonardi's explicit connection between ideas/thought and material is enough to prime the pump within the context of a 20 minute paper.

The "moving away" idea gave me something to play off of. It's not that I disagree with Leonardi, it's that I like to think about the continuum of interplay between thought and matter that is enabled by digital surrogates of material culture. Here are two snippets from what I said:
Just as the creation of the surviving material record should be recognized as the cumulative action of many individuals, it is likely that exploration of that record will be enabled by many projects and institutions working within their own areas of expertise and with content specific to their domain (Heath 2010, Terras 2010). It is the interactions of a series of self-digitizing and independent communities – here Early Christian textual studies and Numismatics – that can recover relationships between physical object and human thought that is a primary goal of materiality as a methodological approach .... Digital materiality is therefore an act of transmission (Liu 2004) so that its deficiencies leave it open to criticism.
I'm being selective in quoting myself so you may want to read the above in context. It has a slightly different twist there.

More briefly, my point is that transmission of digital surrogates for material culture will provide opportunities for a new/re-emphasis on the relation between object and thought - that is, "materiality" - in the ancient world and in the study of the ancient world. It will probably do so elsewhere but I'm an Ancient Med. person so that's where I focus. If we think of digitization as de-materialization, it will enable new appreciation of the material.

But what leads me to say that?

My specific example is the relationship between the text of John 20:19-29 and physical manifestations of it. That's basically the story of "Doubting Thomas", a phrase meaning someone who requires physical, unambiguous proof before believing something.

Those verses from the the Gospel of John chapter 20 are readily accessible online. Here's the KJV version. Or the New International Version. Do you read Macedonian? Go for it. Maybe you prefer Arabic?

The story culminates in Jesus saying, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." You can get commentary on that phrase here (scroll to the bottom).

I threw in those links to show that the accessibility of the text doesn't come from the academy, that is, from the traditional home of Digital Humanities. Sure, the New Testament is both studied within universities and is available through DH stalwarts such as Perseus. But much of the digital action around this text comes out of the self-digitizing community that is the Christian web. I think that's cool and something we should be paying attention to. I discussed that more in the blog post "Digital Epistemology as Mediated through Tessellated Self-Digitizing Communities"over at Posterous.

But these links are not materiality. They're virtual all the way.

It's easy to materialize the text of 20 John:19-24 in a modern context. Here's a low-res image of the text (minus the beginning of verse 19) from the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament GNT.

If we look more closely at verse 21 -  which in translation is "Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'" - we see:

The top image is the text in the GNT and the bottom is the critical apparatus or app. crit. If you look after the // in the ap. crit., you see the Greek word παλιν followed by the Hebrew letter aleph. That's the symbol for a 4th century manuscript known as the Codex Sinaiticus. I've linked to the Wikipedia article for the codex but it's important for my talk that a digital facsimile of the manuscript is available at Go take a look, it's a cool site.

And just by way of introduction, the Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth century manuscript that is one of our earliest complete versions of the New Testament. Much of it is now in the British Museum but came there indirectly from Saint Catharine's monastery on the Sinai Peninsula.

Here's a screen shot of the site's version of John 20:21.

Counting down seven lines from the top of the middle column brings you to the greek "εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς πάλιν" or "He said to them again...". Note that in the GNT version the text is "εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς [ὁ Ἰησοῦς] πάλιν" or "Jesus said to them again..." . The brackets around "ὁ Ἰησοῦς"are an indication of some uncertainty about the reading of the "original" text. The Codex Sinaiticus delivers one component of the material basis of that uncertainty. That's digital materiality.

Here's another CS screenshot:

You can see the extent of correction as a second scribe addressed both basic mistakes and subtle issues of reading in the original product.

We can expand the digital materiality of this text by linking to a gold roundel - "small round disk" - in the collection of the American Numismatic Society: . Here's the screen shot of that page:

To the left of the central Jesus you see Thomas reaching out to touch Jesus' wounds. There's also a slightly irregular transcription of the Greek for Thomas' declaration "My Lord, My God" and of Jesus response to the effect that those who have not required such proof are blessed.

Without going into too much detail, disks of this sort are believed to have been produced in Egypt. This piece doesn't come with a findspot but it is reasonable to invoke it next to the Codex Sinaiticus.

It is another materialization of John 19-29. One that combines text and image. It is a projection into physical space and across time of the message that Christian believers who did not have the opportunity to see Christ can be blessed.

These two objects - the Codex and the ANS disk - show that materiality does not remove the reader or viewer from our understanding of how texts worked. These materializations remind us that texts are physical objects that are responded to by people, and that one response is to change the materiality, as in editing the Codex. Certainly, one response is to debate the meaning of a text. The story of the Doubting Thomas is understood by many modern scholars as a statement against those who denied the humanity of Christ, among whom were the Gnostics, active in Egypt. The ANS disk is therefore part of an ongoing debate about Christ's nature.

The point of this post is not to go into great depth about what the pairing of these objects tells us about the role of materiality in the Late Roman/Byzantine Egypt. Instead, I want to stress that the opportunity to think about that issue with such relative ease arises from acts of independent self-digitization that exist within wider contexts of topically related efforts also engaging in self-digitization. That leads to an environment in which intellectual risk taking is rewarded.

I don't want the series of inferences above to be pigeon-holed into either saying something about the past or about the present. I think we're at a stage of Digital Humanities where we can recognize that we are doing both. We do not know what questions about the past that modern Digital Materiality will allow us to ask, but I bet we're about to find out.