Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship

Nowviskie, Bethany, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGann, Jerome, Department of English, University of Virginia

Like many modern humanities computing projects, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, a system ofinscripted, manipulable wheels dating to the thirteenth century, asserts that interpretation can be aided by mechanism without being generated mathematically or mechanically. That this assertion is sometimes lost on the larger academic community is not simply a failure of the devices scholar-technologists produce (although, as the work outlined here seeks to demonstrate, we could do a better job of anticipating and incorporating patently interpretive or subjective forms of interaction on the part of our users into the systems we create for them). Instead, it betrays our failure to articulate the humanistic and hermeneutic value of algorithmic work to a lay audience.

This dissertation uses Llull’s Ars Magna to introduce the relationships of algorithm, ars combinatoria, aesthetic provocation, diagrammatic reasoning, and ludic practice to the work of humanities scholarship and then presents two major case studies in the design of digital instruments and environments that open themselves to performance and intervention on the part of interpretive agents. The first is the Temporal Modelling PlaySpace, a composition tool for sketching subjective and inflected timelines that (like temporal relations in humanities data generally) are not necessarily unidirectional, homogenous, or continuous. Temporal Modelling’s innovation lies in its extraction for re-purposing of well-formed XML from users’ intuitively-designed and even deliberately ambiguous diagrammatic models. The second case study deals with computational and interface or visualization strategies for turning problems in representing subjectivity and deixis into opportunities for critical engagement in the Ivanhoe Game, a ludic subset of the larger IVANHOE project, an interpretive role- playing environment conceived by Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker.

Both of these projects stem from work in progress at the University of Virginia’s Speculative Computing Laboratory. The goals and methods of SpecLab are demonstrated (and tested in performance) in a trio of creative design exercises or “imaginary solutions” which make use of ideas developed in chapters on Llull, Temporal Modelling, and the Ivanhoe Game — and “speculative computing” is introduced as a new paradigm for exploratory digital work in the humanities.

digital humanities, humanities computing, speculative computing, interpretation, subjectivity, play
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