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Elyse Graham

Digital Humanities
Stony Brook University

Curriculum Vitae


I plan to develop a book manuscript that explores the early history of the digital humanities with a focus on the discipline’s first great romance, which addressed the modernist author James Joyce. This project explores the uses that textual scholars, working in the early decades of what would become known as the digital humanities, made of the works of James Joyce. I argue that Joyce served as a trellis for hypermedia theory during the “golden age of hypertext”—a history that provides new insights into the intellectual history of the discipline, following Joyce’s works as they were converted from modernist literary monuments into aesthetic intuitions of the technological applications of cyberspace, and from there into editorial challenges with which to put new forms of textual theory to the test. In my current position, I have developed my research on Joyce into an honors course that I co-taught in 2016, “Joyce and Digital Media.” I have presented work on the subject in invited talks at Harvard University and the Zürich James Joyce Foundation, and plan to continue developing this work next summer during a two-month invited fellowship at the Zürich James Joyce Foundation.

Over the past decade, issues of corruption, loss, and sustainability have been a rapidly growing area of interest in the digital humanities. Scholars such as Alan Galey, Marlene Manoff, and Paul Fyfe have reflected on such issues as they relate to scholarly labor in the digital environment: corrupt and missing data can actively damage databases; the web disturbs the structures that underwrote bibliographic preservation; and traditional labors of upkeep risk vanishing as publication cultures change. Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes the unusual difficulty of preserving digital resources: “projects move, server structures change, and software upgrades or platform migrations produce entirely new URL models.” Especially important in recent thinking on sustainability and digital artifacts is a growing emphasis on the role of agents around the digital artifact; the unattended webpage is subject to corruption through server issues, aging standards, and “link rot,” a pervasive problem on the web in which links to specific URLs stop working, making it difficult to locate texts.

At the same time, an understanding of the digital medium in terms of multiple histories has attracted growing interest among historians, drawing for example on the groundbreaking work of Michael Mahoney, or Jonathan Zittrain’s discussion of the “digital ecosystem” as an arena for many different fields of activity. The question is how we handle histories that left few records or seem irrelevant to the histories of our current (though perhaps not future) practice. Where the digital humanities practitioners cited above discuss corruption in terms of maintaining clean and accessible data, these historical sensibilities approach corruption more in terms of communities of practice that devise computational systems that support certain values (e.g., the open sharing of data; the protection of traditional copyright; the creation of avant-garde webworks) or reject them as less crucial for development and preservation.

The focus of my proposed research during the residency period is histories of corruption, failure, and memory loss in the digital humanities. I will focus on theory and project design surrounding Joyce, who loomed large in the theoretical formulations of scholars working in the early decades of the digital humanities. Ulysses, in particular, was seen as an example of hypertext avant la lettre, and Joyce’s works were made the focus of many pioneering digital humanities projects. For media scholars as different as Marshall McLuhan, Ted Nelson, George Landow, and Michael Groden, Joyce’s work could seem to present a program for new and daring media structures, and the design of a hypermedia edition could seem to be the ultimate challenge of media scholarship. Not all of these projects came to fruition or sustained themselves; in fact, Ulysses has become something of a graveyard of empires for digital humanities projects, in the sense that the novel’s history with the digital humanities between 1970 and 2000 is more notable for the ambitious ventures that faltered and failed than for projects that survived. I will use the failures of sustainability that these projects represent, and the challenges of access they present today, to model historical approaches to digital scholarship that incorporate (apparent) diversions and dead ends. What can we learn from the fate of these projects—particularly, their failure to thrive—in the changing technological and social environments that defined the late age of print and the early age of the Web? What methods can best enable scholars to recover or reconstruct digital artifacts that are no longer available for access? And how can we model histories of corruption, failure, and forgetfulness that can help to inform the genealogy of a discipline still in formation?

The general approach of this project, that is, circling a single author in order to develop a comprehensive view of a media ecosystem, is a familiar framework for research in the discipline of book history. The example of Shakespeare, for example, has loomed large in the discipline of book history in English, largely because Shakespeare’s plays present specific problems—the “bad” quartos; the absence of manuscripts; and so on—that book historians have found useful in working out their theories. His plays are “good to think with.” My interest is in a similar dynamic that shaped the early decades of new media theory—for the example of Joyce profoundly influenced the theory and practice of scholars working in the early decades of the digital humanities. Few of their ambitious projects were sustained for later readers to consult. But still; for many scholars working, in these decades, to convert the theoretical concepts of new media into principles for scholarly work, Joyce proved good to think with. Studying Joyce can help us to understand a surprising amount about the history of the digital humanities; more, in fact, than digital humanities methods alone could teach us about Joyce. This project investigates representative artifacts from this history as a way of inquiring into the thinking and conceptual models of literary scholars who, in a critical wave that peaked in the nineties and early oughts, pioneered early research in the digital humanities, and in the failures of memory and sustainability that have become consistent issues for the discipline.

The fact that parts of this history are difficult to recover—that many editorial projects from the hypertext era have vanished, like castles built from sand—is an important part of this project, for it reflects distinctive characteristics of the discipline of the digital humanities: it is subject to rapid intellectual changes as technologies change; records and artifacts are prone to decay through abandonment and obsolescence; the history of computing entails multiple histories based on different communities of practitioners, which may move from the center to the periphery and versa. By exploring the uses that historians can make of historical pathways that seem, in retrospect, to represent detours or dead ends, this project offers one template for writing histories of this young discipline. Moreover, the project shows how the lessons of the golden age of hypertext remain relevant to our efforts to design sustainable projects in the digital humanities.

Ultimately, Joyce’s role as the conceptual end of these projects tells us as much as their concluding states. It reflects a conception of Joyce as the ultimate editorial challenge of the electronic era: when we have restored Joyce to his proper form as hypertext; when we have freed his multisensory effects as hypermedia; when we have mastered his superabundant verbal and informational reserves; when we have fully theorized his concepts of reading, authoring, and annotation, and reified those concepts as usable tools—then we will have fully realized the possibilities and indeed the aesthetics of the electronic era’s novel media forms. Some of the guiding principles of these ventures—McLuhan’s pursuit of the logos of electronic technology; Landow’s notion of hypertext theory as the master narrative of new media—no longer seem like the keys to the kingdom they once did. In this sense, Joyce remains as distant as ever. Yet the pursuit of Joyce may be remembered as the first great romance of a discipline still in formation.

Elyse Graham is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at Stony Brook University and a research affiliate at MIT. She studies early modern literature, print and information systems, and the history and theory of technology.