digital humanities

An Intellectual History of Their Own?

by guest contributor John Pollack

‘Tis the season. Not that season—but rather, the curious period in the United States between the holidays of “Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving” when, at least on occasion, the issues confronting America’s Native peoples receive a measure of public attention. Among this year’s brutal political battles has been the standoff at Standing Rock Reservation, where indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from the entire continent have gathered to support the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which would threaten sacred lands. Although this conflict will not be a subject of discussion at every Thanksgiving table, at the very least the resistance at Standing Rock serves as a reminder of the very real environmental and political battles that continue to play out in “Indian Country.”

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Standing Rock Protestors. Image courtesy of The Lakota People’s Law Project.

On October 13, 2016, I attended a lecture given by Winona LaDuke to open the conference “Translating Across Time and Space,” organized by the American Philosophical Society and co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum. I was in an auditorium at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, but Ms. LaDuke did not attend the conference in person. She spoke instead from an office at Standing Rock, where she is leading resistance to the pipeline. Ms. LaDuke’s remarks at a conference focused upon the study and revival of endangered Native languages were a reminder to me and other audience members that being a “Native American Intellectual” means being a political figure, a public voice speaking and writing in contexts of imperial expansion and ongoing legal, military, and economic conflicts over territory. We may date the creation of the term “intellectual” to the late 1890s, with Emile Zola’s public attack upon the French military for covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus—but it is arguably the case that Native American public leaders, whatever labels we assign them, have been speaking truth to power since 1492.

Over the past year, a team at Amherst College, in conjunction with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums; the Mukurtu project; and the Digital Public Library of America, has been planning a framework for a “Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions.” This exciting initiative promises to develop a new set of lenses through which we may observe and connect the intellectual histories of America’s indigenous peoples, across time and across territories. All students of the “history of ideas” should welcome this extension of the boundaries of the field in new directions.  

From Collection(s) to Project

Collectors of books and documents can play surprising roles in shifting scholarly attention in new directions, and this project is a case in point. In 2013, Amherst College Library’s Archives and Special Collections acquired the Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. Known now as the The Younghee Kim-Wait (AC 1982) Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, after its collector and the donor whose gift enabled the purchase, the collection, Amherst suggests, is “one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American authors ever assembled by a private collector.” (I would add that this is really a collection of mainly Native North American authors.) Few of the titles in the Eisenberg Collection are unknown or unique exemplars—but their assembly by one collector into one collection motivated Mike Kelly, Kelcy Shepherd, and their Amherst colleagues to investigate how such a collection might help reshape discourses about Native Americans and their intellectual histories.

 

Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection

Click to view Amherst’s Flickr gallery of images from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.

 

Working outward from this impressive body of material, their project will create a framework drawing together “Native-authored” materials held in widely scattered repositories. They seek a digital solution to one of the problems researchers working in digital environments regularly confront: the difficulty of connecting related items across institutions. The authors note:

Search and retrieval of individual items allows for only limited connections between related materials, erasing relevant context. Tools for visualizing and representing these networks can ultimately provide even greater access and understanding, challenging dominant interpretations that misrepresent Native American history and obscure or de-emphasize Native American intellectual traditions.

Digital projects, I would add, can often exacerbate rather than reduce this effect of disaggregation and de-contextualization. Working online, we can easily fail to comprehend a collection of documents or printed materials as a collection, in which the meaning of individual items may be shaped by the collection as a larger whole. Some online projects select out particular items, extracting and featuring them—much as an old-style museum might present an artifact in a display with a rudimentary label, disconnected from its cultural origins. Others provide digital results in an undifferentiated mass. The immediate benefit of finding new materials online can feel impressive, but the tools for interpreting what we access can feel strangely limited.

The Digital Atlas, the authors argue, will fill a void, the current “absence of a national digital network for Native-authored library and archival collections.” Here they invoke that recurring librarians’ dream—the search for the perfect search tool. This can take the form of “union” catalogs that gather information from many places into one data source and make them easily searchable; or of “federated” searching, the creation of tools that straddle multiple data platforms and present results for researchers in a single, coherent view; or of the “portal,” an organized launching point that gathers disparate research materials together. Still to be negotiated, I imagine, is how this “national digital platform” will connect with other such “national” platforms, including the Digital Public Library of America.

Searching protocols represent only one of the challenges; the work of classification itself must be subjected to scrutiny. One of the project’s partners is Mukurtu, an open source Content Management System (CMS) that has been designed to encourage the cooperative description of indigenous cultural materials using categories designed by Native peoples themselves. Mukurtu, which describes itself as “an open source community archive platform,” provides tools allowing repositories to rethink the ways in which materials by or about Native peoples are categorized, cataloged, and accessed.

This new methodology will make “Native knowledge” more visible in collections held by libraries, archives, and museums:

The project will develop methods for incorporating Native knowledge, greatly enriching public understanding of Native culture and history. It will identify approaches for enhancing metadata standards and vocabularies that currently exclude or marginalize Native names and concepts. We will share this work with the digital library community and with Native librarians, archivists, and museum curators.

The project will “include both tribal and non-Native collecting institutions, building relationships between the two.” This promise to create new partnerships between academic and institutional collections and Native communities is a welcome vision of sharing and exchange. A number of institutions are redefining what the “stewardship” of Native documents or artifacts means and reconsidering the thorny question of who “owns” the cultural productions of Native peoples. At the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for example, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research has embraced a community-based methodology that actively shares indigenous linguistic collections with Native peoples and invites Native researchers to take intellectual if not physical ownership of these collections, wherever they reside.

This proposal’s creators have, for now, chosen to avoid a discussion of what is, and what is not, “Native-authored.” Authorship and authority are always contested domains, and Native authorship has been a subject of debate since the eighteenth century. Like African American writers, Natives have had to work with or against non-Native editors, printers, publishers, and of course readers. I hope that the Digital Atlas will give us new tools for studying these tensions and new ways to chart the impacts of Native author-intellectuals over time, in printed books, in periodicals and newspapers, at public events, and in letters.

Mapping an “atlas”

Another argument behind the Digital Atlas is that Native writing must be understood in its relationship to place: to location, to land, to social memory, and to the environment. At the same time, the authors insist that we cannot adopt a static spatial view but instead must focus on mobility—that is, on the connections between authors, texts, and routes.

The proposal poses this question: “What tools, methodologies, and data would be required to visualize and represent the networks through which Native people and authors traveled and maintained/produced Native space?” Data “visualization,” the use of mapping software to show nodes of activity and networked connections, has become a standard tool in the field of digital humanities and a frequent complement to scholarship in fields including book history, medieval and renaissance studies, and American literary studies. Indeed, Martin Brückner has recently argued that literary studies is in the midst of a widespread “cartographic turn,” noting the pervasive language of cartography—the map as tool and the map as metaphor—throughout the field.  

Given the project’s focus upon geography, visualization, and mobility, though, I confess that I find the Atlas’s emphasis that it will be a “national” product disappointing, if understandable—with its suggestion of a continuing focus upon the old familiar geography of the nation-state. I suspect that the project’s authors are well aware of this tension. Scholars like Lisa Brooks (an advisor to the Digital Atlas) and others have pushed us to think about the many routes along which Natives and their words have circulated: through territories shaped by geographic features and personal connections; along riverine networks; and over trading and migration paths that long antedate and overlap the national, state, or territorial borderlines drawn by European surveyors and colonial agents. Will the Atlas help us follow the movements of ideas along non-national paths and across networks other than those circumscribed by nations? I hope so.

Intellectual traditions, Intellectual histories

With its focus on assembling and mapping intellectual traditions, the Atlas proposal also makes the implicit argument that it is time to move beyond the old debate about the influence of the “oral tradition” and the impact of “written culture” upon Native peoples.

As Brooks and others have persuasively argued, anthropologists in the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries often ignored the ways in which Native peoples used various forms of writing, including European ones, for their own purposes (cultural, literary, and legal), preferring instead to search for presumably older oral traditions that were somehow isolated from and uncontaminated by writing. Historians of Native America now question the dichotomy between oral and written. We must be particularly cautious about identifying the former as essentially Native and the latter as essentially Western or European.

In the European context too, the dichotomy has been questioned. Scholars including Roger Chartier and Fernando Bouza have pointed out the permeability of oral and written discourses within the European context and shown that these categories were both unstable and contested in the early modern period. Texts and images circulated through the social orders in complex ways, and oral, written, and visual forms maintained overlapping kinds of authority.

To be sure, European colonists, missionaries, and political leaders sought to create colonial regimes in which the written and the printed word would be dominant, even as orality continued to occupy an important place within their own cultures. Yet Native peoples in many regions, from Peru, to Mexico, to Northeastern North America often successfully retained their own highly developed cultures of oratory. And rather than classifying indigenous populations as peoples “without writing,” we have come to understand that the definitions of communication must be broadened to include the range of semiotic systems Native peoples used to share and exchange goods and information, and to preserve narratives and historical memory. Native peoples also adopted, adapted to, appropriated, or resisted European writing and print culture in a wide variety of ways.

But why, I wonder, will this be an atlas of intellectual traditions and not of intellectual histories? With this title, the project softens its potential impact upon the field known as intellectual history or the history of ideas. It seems to locate the project in an anthropological and not a historical mode. Native peoples, like peasants, workers, lower class women and other so-called “peoples without history” (to borrow Eric Wolf’s ironically charged phrase), are still too often relegated to the realm of tradition, and locked into a static past.

In 2003, Robert Warrior pointed out that the field of American Studies had only just begun to include the voices of Native American Studies scholars. We might now extend his point to encompass the field of the “history of ideas” or intellectual history. A search across the content of the Journal of the History of Ideas turns up not a single reference to Warrior or his work, and I am hard pressed to find a discussion in its pages of the “history of ideas” in Indian Country. Rather than assuming that the field’s concepts are too Euro-centric and have no bearing upon an equally complex but distinctly different realm of Native ideas and philosophies, I would prefer to work toward more common ground. We can expand the history of ideas to encompass Native American intellectual histories—while respecting Warrior’s call to maintain the “intellectual sovereignty” of Native America (Secrets 124).

I eagerly await the results of the Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions. I look forward to studying its reimagined maps of American intellectual history, and to hearing more voices of the public intellectuals of Native America, past and present.

John H. Pollack is Library Specialist for Public Services at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn; he has published on colonial writings from New France and edited a volume of essays on Benjamin Franklin and colonial education. He is currently working on a monograph about the circulation of Native words in early European texts on the Americas.

Of Nuance and Algorithms: What Conceptual History Can Learn from Topic Modeling

by contributing editor Daniel London

Intellectual historians may be familiar with two general approaches toward the study of conceptual meaning and transformation. The first, developed by J.G.A. Pocock and elaborated upon by Reinhart Koselleck, infers the meaning of a concept from the larger connotative framework in which it is embedded. This method entails analyzing the functional near-equivalents, competitors, and antonyms of a given term. This “internalist” approach contrasts with Quentin Skinner’s “contextualist” method, which lodges the meaning of a term in the broader intentions of that text’s author and audience. Both of these methods tend to entail close, “slow” reading of a few key texts: in a representative prelude to his conceptual history of English and American progressives, Marc Stears writes, “It is necessary… to read the texts these thinkers produced closely, carefully, and logically, to examine the complex ways in which their arguments unfolded, to see how their conceptual definitions related to one another: to employ, in short, the strategies of analytical political theory.”

But what about the seemingly antithetical approach of topic modeling? Topic modeling is, in the words of David Mimno, “a probabilistic, statistical technique that uncovers themes and topics within a text, and which can reveal patterns in otherwise unwieldy amounts of material.” In this framework, a “topic” is a probability distribution of words: a group of words that often co-occur with each other in the same set of documents. Generally, these groups of words are semantically related and interpretable; in other words, a theme, issue, or genre can often be identified simply by examining the most common words pertaining to a topic. Here is an example of a sample topic drawn from Cameron Blevins’ study of Martha Ballard’s diary, a massive corpus of 10,000 entries written between 1785 and 1812:

gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds

At first glance, this list of words might appear random and nonsensical—but here is where a contextual and humanistic reading comes into play. Statistically, these words did co-occur with one another: what could the hidden relation between them be? Blevins labeled this set “gardening.” Her next step was to chart this topic’s occurrence in Ballard’s diary over time:

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Clearly, this topic’s frequency tends to aligns with harvesting seasons. This is somewhat unsurprising, but note the significance: through mere statistical inference, a pattern of words was uncovered in a corpus far too large to be easily close-read, whose relation to one another seems to bear out both logically and in relation to real-time events.

Another topic produced by Blevins’ algorithm, which Blevins provisionally labelled “emotion,” looked like this:

feel husband unwel warm feeble felt god great fatagud fatagued thro life time year dear rose famely bu good

This might appear even more of a stretch, but Blevins quickly discovered that occurrences of this topic matched particularly “emotional” periods in Ballard’s life, such as the imprisonment of her husband and the indictment of her son.

These two examples encapsulate the three major features of topic-modeling techniques. First, they enable us to “distantly read” a massive body of texts. Second, they reveal statistically significant distributions of words, forcing us to attend humanistically to the historical relations between them. Finally, and most importantly, these topics emerge not from our a priori assumptions and preoccupations, but from “bottom-up” algorithms. While not necessarily accurate or reflective of the actual “contents” of a given corpus—these algorithms, after all, are endlessly flexible—they are valuable, potentially counterintuitive humanistic objects of inquiry that can prompt greater understanding and generate new questions. Practitioners of topic-modeling techniques have studied coverage of runaway slaves, traced convergences and divergences in how climate change is discussed by major nonprofits, and tracked the changing contents of academic journals. They have scanned the content of entire newspapers, and charted changes in how major public issues are framed within them.

While these applications only hint at the possibilities for topic-modeling for historians in a variety of fields, a growing number of practitioners are considering the implications of this technique for historians of ideas—with results that are already surprising. Ted Underwood examined the literary journal PLMA for insights into transformations in critical theory over the twentieth century, finding that articles associated with the “structuralist” turn were appearing earlier, and were associated with different sets of concepts (“symmetry” rather than “myth” or “archetype”), than has been assumed. Michael Gavin has brilliantly compared “rights” discourse in 18,000 documents published between 1640 and 1699, detailing the frequency with which different concepts (“freedom,” “authority”) and institutions (“church,” “state”) occur within this discourse. Topic-modeling enables him to distinguish what made 1640s “rights talk” different from 1680s talk, as well as the overlap between discourses of “power” with those of “rights”:

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Topic-modeling does not find the “best” way to analyze text. The algorithms are malleable. It does not take word-order or emphasis into account. It does not care about motive, audience, interest, or any of those pesky “external” contexts that Skinnerians see as essential to understanding conceptual meaning. On the other hand, “internalists” will nod appreciatively at the concerns that structured Gavin’s study of “rights” discourses. Which terms co-occur when a particular keyword is invoked? Which points of connections are made between keywords? Which words and concepts appear to be central, and which are more peripheral? Which words tend to be shared across keywords, and which remain site specific? They can also agree with a more general premise behind Gavin’s study: that concepts are defined by the “distribution of the vocabulary of their contexts.” The next step is to agree that these distributions can be compared mathematically. Once you agree there, we’re in business.

Topic-modeling is, like the field of digital humanities more generally, in the phase of development which Kuhn would have called “normal science”: developing and testing methodologies that derive from established disciplinary questions and paradigms, shoring up the tool’s reliability for more adventurous work to come. For this reason, much of topic-modelers’ current work could fall into the “so-what” category. Yes, we know people gardened more in the summer, and that a king would appear frequently in the same texts as “rights” and “power.” However, conceptual historians should not be so quick to dismiss topic-modeling as a gimmick. If letting go of conceptual blinkers and generating new theories and findings is important to us, we should be willing to let go of some of our own.