Editing Modernism in Canada


June 10, 2010

Speaking in Metaphors

With my now mandatory cup of java in hand to fight the jet lag, I take my charmingly wobbly seat in the Henry Hickman Building eager to hear another great round of Graduate presentations.  I was particularly enthusiastic this morning, as two of the presentations included the terms “Visual Representation” and “Curating” in their titles respectively – could these be indexes to the topics of visual arts or the handling of images in digital humanities (something I haven’t heard much [enough] about yet this week and which is central to my interests)?

No dice.  Well… this isn’t entirely true.  At least the paper with the promising “Visual Representation” in its title was about visual art—the Graffiti Research Lab to be specific.  I won’t go into much discussion about that presentation here (although I would be pleased to hear what others thought of it), because I want to focus on the other presentation that had a sexy, but somewhat misleading, title:  “Curating as Research: Digital Humanities and the Study of Culture in Real-Time.”  The presentation had little to do with visual art, and little to do with art or archival curation.  The premise: social media as curation.

The metaphor of social media as curation, although intriguing, sat uneasy in my mind for a number of reasons.  I know the expression “digital curation” is a widely used phrase; but today the term “curator” was presented as a signifier for the ideas of “aggregating” and “presenting”—central activities of blogging, twittering, facebooking, etc., and which are supposedly related to art or archival curation.  I started to feel sympathetic for any possible curators in the room, whose professional expertise was (in my opinion) greatly scaled down to two tasks.  Ultimately, my discomfort with the metaphor really got me to thinking about metaphor.  Why have a number of digital humanists this week  felt compelled to “metaphorize” their roles, tasks, projects and what are the implications of analogizing the profession?

The question brings to mind Zailig and Emily’s paper on the Digital Page and “Respect des fonds,” which some of us read at TEMiC the other week.  If I recall correctly, the brilliant  authors caution against the metaphor of the “digital archive,” which “conceals the fact that rather than being a new and improved version for the postmodern age…[it] is conceptually no different than the pre-modern archive-as-collection. . . .” Digital collections are useful; but they are not the same as a fonds or archives.  In fact, it may be the differences between these two resources that merit consideration and emphasis, and not the similarities.

My biggest concern is that by analogizing the role of digital humanists, we may be delimiting a fictive and unsuitable space for ourselves in the realm of scholarship and research.  What I mean to ask, in this coffee-induced unsophisticated way, is:  when we graph the activities and contributions of digital scholarship and research onto other well-known models of scholarship and research, do we risk imposing limitations on the field and under-acknowledging the value of what we do, and what others do?  Or am I being overly critical?  Besides the obvious communicative function, what value is there in speaking in metaphors?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.