A Carrier Bag Theory for Digital Humanities

Thank you for inviting me here! And thank you, to each of you for being here, for choosing to spend some time and attention with me. I try not to take that for granted.

The title for this presentation, and everything else in it, is inspired by an essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin was 88 years old when passed away on Tuesday. If you’ve not read any of her work, I encourage you to go to the library or book store and find it. Perhaps right after we’re done here, but if you feel the need to go now, I absolutely would not hold it against you. I hesitate to say much here; I’m simply a fanboy. Others have written descriptions and obituaries in recent days, some good, some that could be better. But none of them are better, I think, than China Miéville, who kindly corrected one of those obituaries by adding to it: “An unflinching radical has died. A literary colossus has died. A comrade, a giant of modern letters has died.”

Carrier Bag Theory

Le Guin was a master storyteller, and her stories were about, and in support of, the marginalized, the oppressed, the disposessed. In her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Le Guin finds a way to describe her fiction, in a therory proposed by anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher:

The first cultural device was probably a recipient….Many theorizers feel the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.

Not a weapon, not a thing to hunt or break or bash. It was a container, a thing to put the oats and berries and other forms of energy early humans lived on. Le Guin explains:

Before–once you think about it, surely long before–the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger– for what’s the use of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug ones you can’t eat home in–with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.

A tool that helps gather and bring energy home. But Le Guin says its hard to write compelling stories about gathering oats and seeds and berries; Much more exciting to write a story about slaying a mammoth, defeating an enemy, conquering another world and its people. Conflict, resolution, progress. She says its hard to write, but not impossible, and if you read her entire body of work you’ll come to realize that all of her stories are carrier bags: collections of things gathered and told in an effort to understand what is going on, what is in process, and who is affected.

Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.

Le Guin is after something much bigger than writing stories that focus on embodying a carrier bag theory. It’s not just a rejection of narrative driven by conflict, punctuated by weapons and violence; Le Guin doen’t expect those things to disappear entirely, but rather wants them to be elements contained in the story. Stories needn’t be reduced to conflict and resolution; they should be about continuing process.

Le Guin reminds us that “it is the story that matters.” Whether we realize it or not, much Digital Humanities work involves making and sharing these containers of things that are, and can be used, to tell stories. What I’d like to spend more time thinking about, and talking with you now, is how we make and use those carrier bags in our own work.

Telling Stories

In Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway looks to Le Guin (and Octavia Butler) in her effort to imagine how we might make kin with the rest of the planet before it’s too late. Haraway speculates about “seed bags” we might use to rebuild our world in the face of self-destruction. To help with this, Haraway explains that “It matters what stories we use, to tell other stories with.” At the risk of being overindulgent, I’d like to share a story of my own with you:

In the Fall of 2014 the Rolling Stone published an article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, and the university’s handling of that alleged assault. the article has since been discredited, the author and the publication dealing with the consequence of that, and the young woman who entrusted people with her story, as far as the public and the univeristy is concerned, abandoned.

I read this article in my living room. I had heard others talking about it, and given their reactions I opted to wait for a moment that felt appropriate given its impact. So, I read it, and it was awful, and I felt this mess of sadness, frustration, shame, anger, guilt, and fear overwhelm me, and I looked immediately at my daughter and said to here “There is no way you will attend the University of Virginia.” And I walked over and hugged her for what seemed like a long time.

My daughter, Ari Beth, was two years old at the time, and of course had no idea what I was talking about and had other things she wanted to do. She pointed to a book and say “Dada, read Elmo,” so I laughed and cried and we read books.

My response migth be understandable, but looking back on it shortly thereafter, I realize it wasn’t the right one, for a number of reasons.

I share this story because it always comes to mind whenever I’m workign with students, faculty, all colleagues. I’m here, at this university, and I’d like my time and my effort here to do some good, for those collaborators, and for me. And it situates my work on a digital collection we host: Take Back The Archive.

It was Lisa Goff, an American Studies professor at UVA, who planted the idea for Take Back the Archive, to respond to what she saw as chonic amnesia, a institutional forgetting of past assaults and abuses going back as far as the 1850s. Take Back has nearly 2000 records that relate to the presence of sexual violence and abuse at UVA and the Charlottesville community. In some ways, Take Back is a container, a collection of stuff gathered and described by bright, energetic, hopeful people. Everything in it was scanned by someone, entered and corrected and updated by someone, each of whom was full of their own stories and perspectives and hopes. It uses Omeka, a web publishing platform developed by CHNM to make it easier to share collections of records. Of course, Omeka itself is a container for other software packages: Cascading Style Sheets, HTML, PHP, JavaScript, and a host of librraries and frameworks boult with those things.

Containers within containers within containers. Containers all the way down.

Projects and Intentions

Words mean things, and if words are, as Le Guin reminds us, containers or carriers of meaning, then it matter what words we use in the stories we tell to tell other stories. And if there’s one word I hear frequently in Digital Humanities discourse, it’s project. People are starting projects, collaborating on projects, getting grant funding for projects, sustaining and preserving (or talking about the need to sustain and preserve) projects. Projects, projects, projects.

But if the word project is a container, a carrier bag, then the digital humanities as a community of practice has essentially cast a Undetectable Extension Charm on the word, making it as bottomless as Hermoine Granger’s delightful beaded handbag. (Or, if you’d prefer, making it bigger on the inside like the TARDIS. Or, a bag of holding if you play Dungeons and Dragons or just like Stranger Things. We seem to love containers that carry more than they would seem….There might be a project in that.)

But the word project and its related forms has an interesting history, that David Alff seeks out in his book Wreckage of Intentions. Alff’s goal is to represence projects, to salvage them from “the hollowness” of modern usage, “their significantion of everything and thus nothing.” (19) In the late seventeenth century Alff finds in project a rich discourse of speculation for future improvement. Projects were a new genre of writing, that makes promises and often fails to live up to them.

The word “project” marks a historical attempt at becoming, an arrival of potential distinct from the stage at which an ambition ultimately suceeds or fails.

I don’t want to say we shouldn’t use project to describe what we’re doing; I actually think it works pretty well, especially given how we tend to start projects, and especially given our acceptance that a lot of digital humanities projects are never finished. They’re inquisitive, aspiration, and uncertain about implementation and lifecycle. I just want to remember that that the word is a container—it contains origins, histories, myths, assumptions, expectations, hopes and dreams. And if going to use that word, it would make sense to think about, and continue to articulate, our intentions, lest they become wreckage for others to discard. If anything, we might want wreckage others can salvage, if they’re inclined. Miriam Posner’s wonderful “How Did They Make That?” series is a excercise in remote salvage, of digital work with features and affordances she admires and wants to recreate herself.

The wreckage of intention. I can’t think of a better way to describe my own existence.

But, wreckage (a word, a container) is also a matter of perspective: One person’s wreckage is another’s treasure. A significant part of my job now is trying to understand how the projects we host and maintain work, why they’re not working, how we might migrate them to some other form or system, or whether we should not bother at all. Abandon in place. My team and I are dealing with these very issues now, with work we still host that was built by our predecesors.

Then I think about a project like Take Back The Archive, a project I work on actively and which uses tools and platforms I have contributed to in the past, and I worry about others will see its wreckage in five, ten, twenty years, whether it could be salvaged in those moments, and would anyone want to salvage it in the first place?

True Journey is Return

One of my favorite lines from Le Guin is the phrase “true journey is return,” which was written by the revolutionary named Odo. Odo was the founder of the Odonians, in the novel The Disposessed, but she doesn’t appear in that novel. Le Guin described the end of Odo’s life in the short story “The Day Before The Revolution,” in which Odo is elderly, recovering from a stroke, and is seeing the benefits of her lifetime of political struggle beginning to grow in the city around her.

There’s a project/container I’ve returned to, and share with students, that’s almost 20 years old now, called The Geography of Slavery in Virginia by my undergraduate mentor Tom Costa. It’s an online collection of runaway slave advertisements from Virginia newspapers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This was one of the first digital history projects developed at the University of Virginia, and one of the first to transcribe and share materials. And its still there, and still working. I hope Take Back the Archive still looks and works as well as The Geography of Slavery does in 15 or so years.

But in making this return, we can understand that an important aspect of the project/process that is Digital Humanities has been to create and share these carrier bags of stuff, for others to find and use. To bring energy into our home, to hopefully tell stories that help us tell other stories. One student last year used the Geography of Slavery to attempt ot the tell the stories of four women he had found in that archive, women who were pregnant or who had just given birth, and decided to run away into the Virginia wilderness with their child. He discovered these advertisements by, browsing through the records in that archive until he came across something that struck him, somethign that compelled him to think, reflect, and share what he had found.

Potential Energy

Perhaps its useful to remember that these containers may be salvaged, by you or by someone else, someday, maybe. Or maybe they’re full of potential energy, for others to find and use when they need them. I want to think that of Take Back the Archive. I see that possibility in the students and faculty who visit, in the real and the virtual, and we share our origins and processes and struggles and aspirations.

Haraway finds inspiration in Hanna Arendt’s suggestion “to go visiting”, to cultivate a sincere interest in others and to talk with them about things they find interesting. To care about the time they’re spend with you and they things they’re sharing. In this way, we’re exchanging the gift of attention, a gift that designer Frank Chimero reminds us is precious:

The publication of each design project initiates an exchange of gifts. On the one side, the designer and client offer their work; while on the other, the audience gives their attention, contributes through platforms, and offers their financial support. We value all these contributions, but the gift of attention is perhaps the most valuable. Attention may seem like an easy gift to give, but it is not; it is the scarcest resource available because its quantities are limited and nonrenewable.

I’m interested, so very much, in this exchange of gifts. In what we gather, as individuals and as communities, and give back. I’m interested in what we might do to encourage storytelling with what we gather, gifts of imagined adjacent possibilites through an appreciation of the people and processes we’ve gathered. The stories you want others to be able to tell, with the things you’ve found and shared. It does matter what stories we tell, and it matters that we help with the storytelling.

I’m interested in fostering an awareness of digital humanities work that would intentially, thoughtfully welcome salvage/mending/reseeding, taking care of the carrier bags we’ve always already been making, and making new carrier bags with the intent that their contents be used. I don’t think we really yet know what that looks like yet.

The purpoe of this talk is continuing process, not resolution nor stasis. This is the result of the hermeneutics of my own messing around, rambling about. It’s a carrier bag, of things I’ve gathered and processed, and I’ve share a bit of it with you. I hope we can talk more, and I can continue gathering things.