Notes: Capta-ing Data

This week’s readings resonated with me because they addressed some of the issues I’ve been thinking about over the past year about the position of digital humanities and accusations against it. From the publication of Thomas Brennan’s digital humanities bust in the Chronicle of Higher Ed last year, I had been meaning to go back to read Johanna Drucker’s work. Reading Drucker’s article, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” reaffirmed my suspicions about Brennan’s accusation of DH being more concerned about how many times “whale” appeared in Moby Dick and less about the implications of that. Drucker explains that the humanities must consider data or what she calls capta and interpret them. It is not that DH is concerned with how many times “whale” appears, but it is an interpretation of the appearances of the number of “whale.” She says, “I am suggesting that we rethink the foundation of the way data are conceived as capta by shifting its terms from certainty to ambiguity and find graphical means of expressing interpretative complexity…Because interpretation is performative, bringing objects into view through a reading or other act of intervention, it forecloses the possibility that autonomous objects or phenomena exist within the horizon of human experience.” (50) Drucker’s work for me gets to the heart of the issue and implication of Brennan’s article: that there is some sort of phenomenological divide between humanities research and data based research. It is as if there is a perceived division between words and numbers, but in fact, both work in the realm of representing and mediating knowledge. It is the work of the interpreter to decipher the different forms of knowledge that can emerge from representation. 

The notion of data versus capta is also interesting in Drucker’s work. Data can indeed have a flawed sense of certainty, a givenness to them. She explains, “Data are capta, taken not given, constructed as an interpretation of the phenomenal world, not inherent in it” (8). Data itself is not a given set of numbers, but they are constructed by those who take the data. They are captures in certain temporalities that are inflected by various sets of social contexts and consequences. I find this argument extremely compelling, but at the same time, I am hesitant to call all data capta because of the rhetorical power of the term “data.” The word seems to be able to make people move, behave, and believe certain things. On the one hand, such rhetorical power may be what we need to move away from in that it can do harmful things, such as help with the spreading of pseudo-science. On the other hand, the term’s rhetorical power can be a point where arguments can open about why data seems so convincing to audiences.

 The discussion of audiences is what Nancy Baym takes up in her article. Baym’s work explores how social media and social media participation acts or is a measure of overall impact. These measures then become a mass audience to which the media caters. At times, social media participation on platforms like YouTube can illuminate certain issues and audience reactions. I had also initially thought of this as a measure of social and political climates. Going through different videos and reading the comments or looking at the number of likes on a Facebook post would seem to either reaffirm my conceptions of how others were like me in their thinking or make me angry at the world if they espoused racism, sexism, or other forms of hate thinking that there were mass audiences that weaponized hate. Baym, however, points out that these metrics cannot be taken as reflections of a society at face value, and we must examine the structures of such metrics. For example, one cannot dislike a post on Facebook. This missing element results in a skewed view, and such skewed information is precisely why we must look into how data (or capta) is collected rather than simply seeing them as objective forms of information.  

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