Amid two decades of debate on the nature and promise of the digital humanities, one term has recurred with notable frequency: performance. For the authors in question—I am thinking of essays published by a number of prominent figures in the field between 2001 and 2015—the use of the term does not pertain to theater or music, as if the digital humanities ought to be understood as some kind of staging or recitation. Rather, the use of the term pertains to various senses of action. In orienting ourselves toward performance qua acting, doing, and effecting in the digital humanities, these authors variously contend, we will find our way toward enhanced means of cultivating what matters in digital scholarship: novel concepts, rigorous presentations, productive collaborations, enabling tools. We thus see, for instance, arguments that machine-aided, algorithmic manipulation of texts can yield new insights (McGann and Samuels; Ramsay) or that designers of humanities interfaces ought to double down on their inherent status as “event-spaces” of conditioned interpretive activity (Drucker, “Performative Materiality”). We also see more encompassing propositions: DH practitioners should recognize their work as always a performative struggle between competing agencies (Presner), or they should embrace a vision of the digital humanities as a productive “deformance” of the cultural landscape (Sample, “Scholarly Lies”). In any event, no matter the specific prescription, it is, in the end, the apprehension and activation of digitally enabled doing, effecting, and intervening for which these authors argue.
In the discussion that follows, I join these authors in exactly this conceit. At the same time, I diverge on one key count. I argue that it is indispensable for debates around performance, deformance, and what I am here calling “enactment” in the digital humanities to actively and explicitly draw on ideas from within the rich, multidecade, multifield history of performative theory. This is a history of inquiry that has touched and sometimes transformed numerous topics, including most famously language, gender, and sexuality; but also race, economics, science, art, indigeneity, and code, among others. Although I advocate a wide-ranging encounter between performativity and the digital humanities, I see special promise in a turn to concepts and commitments that have emerged in queer and feminist contexts. There questions of performance are necessarily bound up with questions of social and political conditions and effects. Indeed, as Judith Butler puts it, “One position within that increasingly productive field [of performance studies] argues that performance emerges from shared social worlds, that no matter how individual and fleeting any given performance might be, it still relies upon, and reproduces, a set of social relations, practices, and institutions that turn out to be part of the very performance itself” (Butler, “Performativity”). This is the kind of fundamentally relational and therefore political conception of social action that queer and feminist performative theories make available and essential. It is in the creative adaptation of such thinking—that is, in that thinking’s translation to digital research, curation, librarianship, archiving, coding, publishing, and pedagogy—that I see particular promise for the digital humanities, broadly construed.
This chapter’s specific contribution revolves around a close synonym of performance: enactment. A term of increasing importance in performative theory, enactment places the idea of making active at the center of our attention; it thus provides an ideal locus for this chapter’s work of prescriptive reconceptualization. My overarching argument relies on a fundamental shift in premises. Where we have tended to assume that digital scholarly projects and practices matter for what they build, discover, say, or convey, we must also embrace an idea that projects and practices can be understood, engaged, valued, critiqued, and conceived for what they enact, which is to say for what they variously do alongside or in tandem with whatever is explicitly said, shown, or enabled—whether that means acting out, embodying, reproducing, occasioning, or effecting. What is distinctive about the category of enactment; what attention to enactment should look like around digital scholarship in general and data visualization in particular; what enactment can enable us to better think, do, and perform—these are the chief concerns of this chapter. Among other things, I contend that attention to enactment can enable us to more effectively and expansively interpret, critique, and act on what digital scholarship does, to what ends, and for whom; it can also help us address how computationally and network-enabled epistemic endeavors, as well as the labors on which those endeavors depend, already do and might still affect who and what gets to matter. I further argue that active attention to enactment can translate into particular, powerful enactment-driven practices. With such practices—which include what I here call “enactive” or “performative” data visualization—dynamics of performance and enactment are not addressed after the fact, as if they represented side effects of digital knowledge production. Rather, those dynamics are essential to how projects develop, what they end up doing, and why they matter.
For this first section, which focuses on possibilities for enactment-centered interpretation and critique (as opposed to production and presentation), I develop these arguments through a single example, rather than several. Mapping the Republic of Letters is a highly influential endeavor based at Stanford University, active from 2007 through to the time of writing in 2017. Working with more than 55,000 letters from the historical “Republic of Letters,” composed by 6,400 correspondents and now annotated with metadata on origin and destination, the many participants in the project have produced and published maps of thinkers’ correspondence networks during the Enlightenment. As is reflective of the general orientation I am calling into question, when we begin to frame and interpret what kind of project Mapping is, as well as what the project makes possible, it is unlikely that we will invoke terms like performance and enactment, and it is even less likely we will look to performative theory for resources. Instead, as seen across several contexts, from the project website to the New York Times to the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the keywords are terms like “see,” “discover,” and “reveal.” And indeed, as is the case for many projects in the digital humanities, these are the dimensions of the project that receive attention and discussion. For instance, Patricia Cohen, a journalist, sums up the endeavor this way: “With their software, you can see the larger pattern of intellectual exchange among Enlightenment thinkers at a glance” (“Digitally Mapping”). Echoing this account, a key project leader, historian Dan Edelstein, is quoted by Cohen as saying that although many colleagues view the project as “whimsical, the result of playing with technological toys,” nevertheless that play can “lead to discoveries” (“Digital Keys”). And the project’s summation on its homepage, as of 2017, goes further, suggesting that Mapping provides altered pictures of what the networks “actually look like”; that it can help determine whether the newly visualized extent of the Republic matches existing interpretations; and that it affords new insights into how the Republic evolved over time. In sum, across various sites, we see commonly held premises: these visualizations matter for the work of picturing and illustrating they perform, and they generally enable the discovery of new questions and interpretations in established fields, whether European history, intellectual history, or other areas.
From the perspective for which I am arguing, while such accounts of Mapping (or any comparable project) are generally accurate, it is also the case that they are neither neutral nor exhaustive. How, for instance, do we make sense of the particular concepts of knowledge and inquiry implicitly embodied and to some degree therefore endorsed by these contemporary maps of correspondence networks? Alternatively, what can we say about the various institutional relationships that Mapping has both depended on and also reproduces in the midst of scholarly and digital archival production? In posing questions like these, which require us to expand our interpretive frame beyond showing and saying, I am arguing for a specific practice of analysis and critique, what I call “reading for enactment.” I do not mean some exercise of critical legal interpretation, as though the key were to discern the ways Mapping and other projects make things into active law. Instead, I mean an interpretive practice—a kind of intellectual and creative habit—of attending to processes of enactment, with enactment understood in the senses of acting and being acted on, and thus of variously putting into practice, establishing, embodying, or occasioning. By “reading for enactment,” I also mean a habit or practice that, as it were, cares for enactment. Such reading—which can easily become writing, coding, or acting—calls attention to and actively negotiates actual relations, practices, and institutions; it attends to questions of who, under given social, cultural, and political conditions, is allowed to live, to speak, and to act—questions, in other words, of who and what gets to matter.
As I have indicated, I see it as indispensable that approaches to performance and enactment in digital scholarship and data visualization are developed in dialogue with queer and feminist performative theory. There, too, we see a commitment, albeit implicit, to the kind of interpretive practice I am advocating. Of particular relevance for present purposes is the work of Judith Butler and Karen Barad. From Butler’s performative theory of political assembly, we gain, among other insights, an idea that enactment can name a certain “mode of signification” (Notes toward a Performative Theory, 8). In other words, to enact something is to put into practice a distinctive but underacknowledged form of communicating ideas, meanings, affects, and arguments. That form of communication consists in actual expressive action (e.g., the communal, risky enactment that is thousands gathering for a protest), rather than explicit verbal utterance (e.g., the specific words spoken at such an event). In a slightly different vein, by adapting Barad’s performative theory of science, materiality, and “agential realism”—Barad is a physicist—we gain a general idea that any act or process of knowledge production is necessarily and variously performative, which is to say, in Barad’s terms, that research and interpretation are necessarily active, material, and multimodal “entanglements” with the world in its persistent and pervasive “intra-activity.” We also find in Barad’s work something of specific import for analyzing visualization practices. For Barad, visual representations are “not (more or less faithful) pictures of what is.” Rather, they are “productive evocations, provocations, and generative material articulations or reconfigurings of what is and what is possible” (389). Put another way, to say visual representations—whether drawings, photographs, or data visualizations—reflect the world is insufficient; we must further recognize that they are active, material configurations and reconfigurations—sometimes reshapings, sometimes reinforcements—of how the world already is or might still be arranged. Adapting Butler and Barad’s concepts, reading for enactment in the context of digital scholarship involves cultivating habits and capacities around enactment-driven interpretations of the field’s concrete and variously signifying media artifacts, whether charts, timelines, or 3D renderings. Reading for enactment also involves interpreting the processes (or Baradian “intra-actions”) that enter into those artifacts’ production, presentation, and analysis. This interpretive practice can and should extend to other activities as well, whether teaching, presenting, or tweeting. It should also involve—and this is crucial—a general commitment to what Barad characterizes as the deep ethical responsibility to strive to reconfigure or, as she puts it, to “contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering” (178).
The actual import of these ideas becomes tangible when we devote ourselves to close reading of projects like Mapping. Performing such reading does not mean ignoring or downplaying the actual thinking, saying, or showing this project has enabled and will continue to enable. Rather, it means recognizing that various, consequential processes of enactment took place and still take place in the midst of its manifest contributions and affordances. The homepage provides a useful first locus for reinterpretation. If we were not attuned to enactment, we would characterize the homepage’s functions as a portal and introduction: indicating who was involved, what this is all about, and serving as a means of navigation. Once we are attuned to enactment, however, a range of other features become perceptible and important. In the simplest sense, we find there is enactment in the very title of the project. This is a collaborative endeavor based around a collectively and iteratively performed gesture of mapping. That is, given a historical phenomenon, the Republic of Letters, this project performs acts of spatial and temporal figuration that do not hide away in the office, library, or lab, but that can be repeatedly sketched, modeled, and publicly displayed. Such public acts seek to effect equally archival, historiographic, and imaginative deformations and reformations; that is, they seek to perform contingent, cartographic reconfigurations of commonly held pictures of the Republic and of collective inquiry during the Enlightenment.
Alongside this titular evocation of enactment, there are other, less directly evident embodiments of enactment on the homepage. Not about action and intervention as such, these enactments instead pertain to the “relations, practices, and institutions” that the performances of Mapping both rely on and reproduce. Between the bottom and top of the homepage, for instance, there is the presentation of the project as developed within the context of—and receiving the sanction and material resources of—a prominent and wealthy university, Stanford, and there is the performative conveyance, in the form of a line of text, of that university’s possession of copyright. In addition, an array of expressive logos indicates that an international collaboration has been constituted and elaborated. We also encounter further sanctioning by the two noted sources of funding: the NEH and the Stanford Fund for Humanities Innovation. And most instructive for present purposes, between the titular and the institutional signifiers of enactment, there is an unexpected image of overriding visual interest: a “narrative panorama” of the project, published in 2013. The panorama melds several features: a timeline of events in the project’s life; a network map of project participants, some of whom are pictured; and an overlaid collage of portraits, scenes, and objects related to the Republic. Numerous enactive processes overlap and crisscross here. From the broadest perspective, the panorama is an illuminating visual-verbal figuration: it helps us recognize that the project is, like any other, an unfolding enactment involving numerous relations, practices, identities, and institutions. The image also serves to shift attention from the specific final products to the actors, actions, events, correspondences, and networks that brought those products into being. It is as though this project, and by implication any digital scholarly project, were also significant for the occasions it produced, the people it connected, and the signs, histories, and ideas it rearranged and reconfigured. What is missing, of course, are the substance and the effects of these numerous occasions: what, for instance, it meant to hold an “Uncertainty Workshop” or why certain presentations to certain people should count as key moments in the project’s history. And what is open to question from the perspectives of enactment and of performative theory are the specific values that such a panorama embodies and establishes. This pertains in part to what aspects of the endeavor matter and should be highlighted. But it also pertains to who among the categories of people and the various labors and images of these histories of travel, communication, and inquiry—histories that are, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s project of “decolonizing methodologies” emphasizes, so deeply bound up with colonialism and imperialism—end up coming to the fore. In short, the panorama is, like the other things to which I have pointed, not a bystander to but an actual participant in consequential constellations of signifying enactment.
Were I to stop at analyzing the homepage, I might leave the impression that reading for enactment generally means emphasizing the reality of projects as social processes: that they are ongoing, collective, material, and contingent practices, the effects of which extend well beyond their specific subject matter or approach, and that they are therefore open to critique along these lines. But this is only part of the story. It is crucial to read for enactment in the actual products published, such as “Locke’s Letters Project” or “An Intellectual Map of Science in the Spanish Empire, 1600–1810.” As it stands, a prevailing habit in interpreting projects of data visualization is to emphasize saying and showing (as well as innovation and visual pleasure); thus here, for instance, we would tend to invoke the insights, questions, and apprehensions that we gain when we see lines and clusters of correspondence within this or that time period or for this or that person. By paying attention to the links among signification, enactment, and knowledge production, however—and also with the encouragement of emerging critical humanistic approaches to data visualization—other possibilities for interpretation open up. The crucial, enabling premise shift, adapted out of queer and feminist performative theory, is this: visualizations do not only say or show, nor do they strictly support reading, imagining, knowing, or interpreting. Visualizations also act. They do things. They are visual-verbal-numerical enactments. In other words, they cause things to happen; they are gesturally and performatively expressive; and they are not only dependent on but also reproductive of relations, practices, and institutions. As a consequence of these various features, it becomes essential to analyze and critique projects that involve visualization along these lines: to read them for their constitutive and consequential enactments.
In the case of Mapping, two lines of critique are especially important. The first is largely positive: as much as these visualizations support and communicate inquiry, they also performatively assert—as meaningful, as mattering, as worthy of repetition—specific concepts of inquiry and communication. In particular, they collectively point toward a general notion of intellectual discourse as inherently in process and collective. Such an approach accords with scholarly methods and critical commitments built around attention to networks and practices, as we see in the history and philosophy of science. Indeed, what is resisted in those fields is a premise that intellectual histories, in the end, consist of great minds exchanging great ideas. Instead, it is argued, knowledge production necessarily depends on labor, context, place, material things, and relationships—a whole array of historically contingent phenomena. To take one particularly pertinent example from these vast fields, Bruno Latour puts forward a concept of what he calls “immutable mobiles.” By this concept, which is fundamentally performative, Latour means efficiently structured, travel-ready, wear-resistant media artifacts, things like maps of distant colonies or research papers. These artifacts effectively preserve information in spite of transit, and they eventually release their constituent words, images, and data in material argumentation. Immutable mobiles thus force persuasion by a kind of informational committee, and in some cases this work of persuasion aids in maintaining power at a virtual remove. What I am suggesting is that although Mapping literally foregrounds great minds (including a thumbnail assembly of portraits of celebrated European and European-American men), at the same time, through its work of visualizing transits of correspondence over space and time, it also serves to endorse the sort of network thinking mobilized by Latour and others. That is, the visualizations are a putting into practice, albeit not necessarily with intention or full success, of fruitful sociological concepts. They thus tangibly affirm network thinking. Graphic modifications or new framing language could amplify these dimensions of the project; they could even explicitly link the Republic with the idea of immutable mobiles (or, in a different vein, shed light on that concept’s limitations).
In now presenting a second line of critique, which is largely negative, I may appear to contradict myself—but reading for enactment is also, frequently, reading for contradiction. The line of critique is partly anticipated by Johanna Drucker, who reads the visualizations in Mapping as reifying; portrayed as “perfect lines of light,” the graphic trails of transit put forward a deceptive picture of the Republic’s correspondence as smooth and seamless—akin to flows of air traffic—while the borderless maps effectively forestall imagination of knowledge producers negotiating physical and cultural borders (Drucker, “Humanistic Theory”). I share Drucker’s concern, and I appreciate her corollary prescription that those working with visualization ought to renegotiate the “armature of preexisting graphical conventions” in favor of strategies for indicating constructedness and partiality. At the same time, I would insist on several other points, all centered on enactment. In one sense, there is, importantly, productive displacement of attention, along the lines just mentioned, from individuals to rhetorical transit. In another sense, however, there are costs and risks to the overall approach taken by this project. Certainly, as Drucker suggests, deceptive notions become thinkable: seemingly direct lines of transit, seemingly instantaneous, seemingly akin to contemporary communication. Furthermore, a deceptive social and political picture begins to form: not only does communication not confront borders or barriers, but inquiry also grows through discrete contribution, rather than through interdependent idea formation. Moreover, through this abstracted, flattened, and distanced view of discursive exchange, there looms an implicit fantasy of what Donna Haraway calls the “God trick”; in charismatically laying focus on the movement of correspondence, the actual sites of contingent, local, culturally inflected, and therefore “situated” knowledge production and rhetorical interaction fall to the side (“Situated Knowledges”). Such a critique might seem relatively inconsequential, were it not for the importance of “salons” to the life of the Republic. As one can glean from a project in Mapping, “The Salon Project,” an essential component of the Republic was embodied gathering, discoursing, and indeed performing in salons. It mattered to be together, and it mattered that habits of society, locally specific and often gendered, were observed (Goodman). Thus, while these visualizations tend to enact a concept of the Republic as a kind of collective neural network, emerging out of the transit of paper and ink, the Republic was in fact—to rework ideas put forward by Butler and Barad—also necessarily embodied, collectively brought into being in iterative fashion by vulnerable persons needing extensive material, economic, cultural, human, and nonhuman supports. For these reasons and others, Mapping illustrates a paradox likely to confront many projects of visualization in the humanities: the same gestures that prove highly enabling and that put into practice generative concepts of culture and society can also serve to reproduce limiting or problematic optics.
This reading of Mapping the Republic of Letters for enactment could continue into still other areas. (For instance, in the vein of critical code and software studies, one could analyze the enactments embedded and disseminated in the project’s data, metadata, software, and algorithms.) But I conclude this section with a clarification. In putting forward an idea of reading for enactment, and in invoking the theories of Butler and Barad for support, it might seem as though, underneath it all, I am suggesting that projects ought to be cautious, lest they enact something. Alternatively, it might seem as though I am, in the end, deceived by an unrealistic picture of possibility, as though I am proposing that projects like Mapping do not confront limits of time, technology, policy, or labor; in other words, that they have infinite capacities for choosing what they enact, show, or say. Neither of these extremes is the case. What I am arguing for is active and informed negotiation of enactment, not its zealous policing or impossible perfection. The negotiation of enactment demands that we variously acknowledge, forestall, contest, rework, or appropriate the enactments that we can, with effort, observe or anticipate. And it is in this sense that one dimension of digital scholarship becomes especially important. Unlike most traditional scholarly endeavors, digital projects can in many cases undergo significant changes in substance, format, and framing well after they have apparently concluded. In the case of Mapping, although there would be many limiting factors, nevertheless a number of modifications are conceivable; these modifications could countervail some of the more reductive or deceptive enactments posited earlier. A team of collaborators could, for instance, add an array of supplementary visual resources aimed at emphasizing materiality and contingency; these could be galleries of close-up images of the specific papers and inks that made the Republic possible. Alternatively, participants could produce visualizations that center on specific historical ideas or problems rather than people or nations. There could also be a page of critical reflection. Among other things, such a page might invoke feminist accounts of the Republic, including one that puts forward a performative notion of “engendering” the Republic (Dalton). In any case, no matter the ultimate prescriptions, were participants in the project to explore these adjustments—no doubt facing many material, social, and economic barriers—it would be essential that they actively assess the new constellations of enactment they induce, and that they therefore address themselves to what takes place beyond what is explicitly shown or said. As could be the case with any project, the same techniques and technologies that have generated problems of reduction would thus also afford novel occasions for resistance, redirection, and critical invention.
Enactive/Performative Data Visualization
Concern with enactment need not only pertain to interpretation, critique, and post hoc modification. It can also pertain to the conception, production, and presentation of projects. More than that, enactment can become a defining commitment: practitioners can explicitly conceive of their undertakings as, in a fundamental sense, events of enactment. In such cases, as much as practitioners would aim to variously discover, say, show, or make available, they would also aim to variously intervene, effect, put into practice, reproduce, or provoke. Although I can imagine seizing on enactment in many contexts, small or large, momentary or sustained, I see special promise in the realm of data visualization. In particular, I argue for the existence and importance of a specific practice, what I call “enactive” or “performative” data visualization.
Three examples can support that practice’s elaboration. One of these emerged in the contexts of art and curation. With A Sort of Joy: Thousands of Exhausted Things (2015), the Office for Creative Research staged multiple performances of the Museum of Modern Art’s collections database, which encompasses more than 120,000 items, in both spoken word and projected visualization. A second enactive project took shape in the contexts of history and literature. With “The Image of Absence,” Lauren Klein performed a “critically informed deformation” of an electronic database of letters, the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, shifting emphasis from the life of the second president of the United States to explicitly imperfect, data-driven pictures of the largely silenced life of James Hemings, the master chef, brother of Sally Hemings, and a formerly enslaved laborer at Jefferson’s plantation (672). A third example came together in the contexts of history, geography, and LGBT studies. Albeit without using a specific title, in 2013 Jen-Jack Gieseking published a series of blog posts centered on a database of records of lesbian-queer organizations in New York City at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Gieseking presented provisional visualizations of those records while also reflecting on quantitative approaches to lesbian and queer history.
If my proposition is accurate—if it is productively evocative or generative—then these three projects can be understood as examples of a characteristically “enactive” or “performative” modality of work with data through visual and also sonic means. As is evident, that modality is not defined by subject matter or disciplinary context. Rather, it is defined by a shared approach. Each of these projects can be understood as approaching the work of data visualization as a multifaceted epistemic and social enactment; invoking Barad’s notion of representation as “reconfiguring,” they are set apart by how they purposely, publicly put something consequential and revisionary into practice through interaction (or “intra-action”) with objects of knowledge and interpretation. Although this can mean, as in A Sort of Joy, that an actual public gathering has been staged and assembled, the status of visualization as self-conscious enactment does not depend on the use of such a format. Instead, the quality of epistemic enactment pertains to the broader umbrella notion of effecting something through critical, responsive interaction with particular sets of data, metadata, or other collected materials. That is, some kind of epistemic interruption or redirection is being performed through calculation and picturing, and it is precisely as an epistemic enactment that this performance will end up appearing for audiences or “users,” alongside whatever other postures of knowledge production—saying, showing, revealing—the performance involves. In other words, for the practitioners who undertake enactive data visualization, it is deemed important, when engaging specific terrains of knowledge production and specific datasets, to reshape those terrains through manifestly enactive methods. Crucially, that means there is more than conventional visualization work going on: more than using the materials to discover, pronounce, or display something in the vein of traditional scholarly argumentation. There are also self-conscious acts of gesturing, performing, embodying, and intervening. Moreover, for whatever public appearance those acts end up enabling, it will matter that the audience, whether reader, viewer, user, or otherwise, is invited to recognize the project as, at least in part, a kind of event of enactment: one that is provisional and imperfect, but that is an enactment all the same. And thus, from its inception forward, a project of enactive or performative data visualization acts out a notion that whatever data-dependent pictures it works toward are not more or less accurate representations of what is, but, as Barad puts it, are “productive evocations, provocations, and generative material articulations or reconfigurings of what is and what is possible.” And in this sense such projects echo and adapt Barad’s dictate to “contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering” for the context of computationally and network-enabled art and scholarship.
Specific instances of enactive data visualization will demonstrate variations on these core features. Returning first to A Sort of Joy, for instance, we can see an enactive, process-driven quality in the most ready-at-hand sense of preparing and then staging the performance of a dataset that otherwise supports management, curation, and research. As Jer Thorpe, one of the project’s designers puts it, spoken voice and unfolding display become self-consciously unconventional ways to “engage with the collections database,” and this proves important in, among other things, compelling audiences to view the database as a “cultural artifact,” and in having them confront “a new paradigm in which data are not as much operated on as they are allowed to operate on us.” With “The Image of Absence,” the core quality of enactment is not a finite set of flesh-and-blood performances. Instead, it is effecting a reflexive intervention into an existing, structured database of materials, as well as into broader histories of misrepresentation, silencing, violence, and also resourcefulness and resilience. By visualizing the relations between people discernible in letters that mention James Hemings, for instance, Klein endeavors to demonstrate, as she puts it, “some of the possibilities of recognition that the Papers of Thomas Jefferson itself resists”—including Jefferson’s “dependence . . . on the men and women he enslaved” (674)—while also exposing and enacting “the impossibilities of recognition—and of cognition—that remain essential to our understanding of the archive of slavery today” (682). Finally, with Gieseking’s project, the series of inquiries does not only take place at a private remove. The inquiries instead appear sequentially and publicly, and they are actively framed as multimotivated acts of putting an alternative, partly quantitative, and not necessarily immediately welcome research mode into public practice. Indeed, Gieseking expresses the hope that the “ways of seeing our histories and spaces” enabled by the visualizations will prove revelatory and connective and that their being publicly posted will not only help “share our stories through more varied methods” but also “provide for a more encompassing analysis” while further serving to provoke conversation. And thus for Gieseking, as for Klein and the Office for Creative Research, the motivating features of visualization are as much what those visualizations embody, demonstrate, and facilitate—what they enact—as what they specifically end up helping us newly perceive or understand about certain historical phenomena.
Were we to zoom out to a wider array of examples of enactive or performative data visualization, we would see still further variations on this basic feature of approaching data visualizations as events of performing, negotiating, and activating epistemic enactment. We would also see a number of what Carole L. Palmer calls “variable characteristics,” which are features that do not necessarily appear across all instances or not always to the same degree. Although a more comprehensive analysis of the variable characteristics of enactive data visualizations is beyond the scope of this chapter, I can identify a few examples. One is what I call archival contestation. In performing this kind of work, certain enactive data visualizations can, to use Barad’s language, interfere with the order of a specific archive. Although in very different ways, both “The Image of Absence” and A Sort of Joy embody this guiding ambition. The former deforms Jefferson’s archive of papers so that it reveals and reworks a history of absence against itself. The latter exposes the operation and ordering of an otherwise invisible repository; it also makes manifest, through the reading of the most common first names in the database, the first forty-one of which are (typically) men’s names, disproportionately male representation in a dominant cultural institution. A second observable characteristic is what I call conditional revelation. First and foremost, this refers to, as Drucker analyzes in depth, ways of working with data visualization that maintain emphasis on the constructed nature of their outputs. All three of the projects in questions do this work, either through action or words or some combination of the two; they perform an act of revelation, but one that is presented as only partly, conditionally revelatory. This notion of conditional revelation can carry a second, related meaning. It can indicate that the process of revealing makes conditions of inquiry visible, whether those are local conditions of research, as at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, or broader conditions of representation, as with Klein’s supporting critical discussion of the archive of slavery. The last characteristic I point to is what I call, borrowing a phrase from Thorpe’s account, fluid interpretation. The key measure of such an effect is an audience’s capacity to generate novel linkages while encountering or interacting with a project. In A Sort of Joy, this ability is amply in evidence: as Thorpe writes, “The skilled actors of Elevator Repair Service turn a dry algorithmic output into a wry dialogue of one-upmanship, allowing the artworks themselves to become pieces in an imagined language game” in which “possibilities for interpretation are magnified as the relationship moves from data => viewer to data => performer => viewer.” With Gieseking’s blog posts, another kind of possibility for “fluid interpretation” emerges. That interpretation does not depend on a staging of a performance as such, but on a willingness to make public a sequenced, reflexive research process. In a fundamentally enactive way, the research that Gieseking performs does seek to investigate and to hypothesize, but it also invites and occasions yet further iterations of thought and critique. In other words, sequenced, nascent thinking becomes enacted provocation toward subsequent fluid, emergent interpretation.
Archival contestation, conditional revelation, fluid interpretation—these are just three of numerous conceivable variable characteristics of enactment-intensive data visualization. Indeed, as was the case with reading for enactment, many more lines of inquiry could be followed around this practice. Such inquiry (and any attendant experimentation) would need to confront various other issues and dynamics, including the possible violence that can take place through visual display, as Klein emphasizes (678). (On this topic, Barad’s notions of enacted “boundaries” and “cuts” could be helpful.) One critical question would be the actual force and consequence of enactive approaches to data visualization. With Klein’s project, for instance, it is important to ask for whom this archival deformation has taken place. Relatedly, it is important to ask whether and by what means such a project—which addresses deep histories of misrepresentation and violence and which responds through complicated visualizations and critical scholarly prose—could have equal interpretive and affective force when taken out of the confines of the scholarly journal or reconfigured for different audiences. As these different concerns indicate, methods from a number of fields, such as critical race theory and disability studies, will be essential for elaborating and critiquing performative approaches to data visualization and to digital scholarship, broadly construed. It will also be essential to link up with what Catherine D’Ignazio and Klein label “feminist data visualization.” For them, as has been the case in this chapter, questions of relations, practices, and institutions are essential, as are questions around who and what gets to matter. How, they ask, can visualization be “adapted to emphasize the situated nature of knowledge and its perception” (1)? By what means can visual design make labor, embodiment, and affect not only visible but also legitimized dimensions of visualization work (2–3)? As I hope this discussion has shown, in answering such questions, direct encounters with propositions and provocations in queer and feminist performative theory should prove enabling and encouraging—and the category of enactment should provide an especially fruitful guiding orientation.
Coda: Iterate, Deviate, Elaborate
I have argued that debates around performance, deformance, and enactment in the digital humanities must engage performative theory. One further claim is necessary: these debates should also engage aesthetic investigations of enactment, whether within performance art, conceptual art, digital art, internet art, activist art, or still-other domains. Although an adequate elaboration of this claim is beyond the scope of this chapter, I can show some of its potential by way of one especially suggestive project, Crochet Coral Reef.
Led by Christine and Margaret Wertheim, who together direct the Institute for Figuring, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics,” Crochet Coral Reef began in 2005, when Christine Wertheim made the passing observation—apparently, while watching the television series Xena: Warrior Princess—“We could crochet a coral reef” (Wertheim and Wertheim, 17). What first manifested as a small reef on the siblings’ coffee table eventually grew into a massive, multiyear undertaking that eventually drew some 8,000 collaborators. At the heart of this undertaking is the practice of crochet, which is the handicraft of producing fabric through interlocking loops, using thread or yarn or other materials. In crafting the main reef as well as “sub-reefs” and “satellite reefs,” the Wertheims and their collaborators rely on a special technique. That technique, known as “hyperbolic crochet,” was discovered by a mathematician interested in materializing distinctive hyperbolic geometries that have long been thought of as impossible to physically model, but which reefs and other forms of life have produced for millennia. In the hands of the “Reefers,” hyperbolic crochet blossoms into an iterative method defined by repetition, accident, and redirection; it thus plays a role in the production of a wide variety of forms that imitate, celebrate, and reimagine actual coral reefs. Constituting a kind of globally distributed whole, the disparate crocheted reefs come to form what the Wertheims characterize as “an ever-evolving archipelago,” the various components of which appear in art galleries, science museums, and other cultural centers (18). Crucial to the project’s impetus and impact, the vast, visible life of this archipelago is the inverse of that of actual coral reefs. That is, with each passing year, while the bleaching of coral reefs increases in scale and violence, caused by warming oceans and other factors, actual reefs’ newly emergent, land-based cousins grow and grow, in mass and in audience. Crucially, then, the crochet coral reef does not just live within the contexts of art, science, and mathematics. Rather, as Donna Haraway puts it, the crochet reef also “lives enfolded in the materialities of global warming and toxic pollution; and the makers of the reef practice multispecies becoming-with to cultivate the capacity to respond, response-ability” (Staying with the Trouble, 78).
That Crochet Coral Reef is deeply and variously enactive is immediately evident, as is the potential for a number of crisscrossing interpretations of the project across art, biology, mathematics, feminism, curation, and activism. Less evident is the project’s potential import for performative approaches to digital scholarship and data visualization. To this end, I look to an evocative passage from the Wertheims’ book. They write,
Along with their living analogs, crochet reef “organisms” are guided by a code that can be written out symbolically in patterns . . . Yet most Crochet Reefers eschew formal patterns and base their explorations on a kind of material play, constructing organically with their hands while drawing on a library of algorithms they come to know in their fingers as well as in their brains. Such digital intelligence mediates a process of figuring in which knowledge resides in both body and mind . . . Iterate, deviate, elaborate—this is the process we have used. Begin with an algorithm, let it loose for playful experimentation, and open up the process to others. The strategy is threefold: While a code provides a starting point, open-ended improvisation practiced by a community generates the dynamism essential to the project’s flourishing. As other crafters joined in, the realm of possibility compounded exponentially, with each new contributor adding skill, imagination, labor and time to the ever-evolving wonder of the whole. (21)
There is much to gain from this passage. I derive two key points by way of conclusion. On the one hand, we see another way of construing the supposed digital–analog divide. Where alternative responses to the bleaching of coral reefs might have taken the form of data visualizations or of interactive maps—audiences would click or swipe through the virtual saying and conveying of ecological violence—the Wertheims opted to emphasize an older order of the “digital,” the finger, while at the same time depending on an array of digital technologies to generate the project’s events and correspondence networks. On the other hand, we find in this passage a fruitful, divergent approach to the production and preservation of knowledge. In opting to emphasize this older order of the digital, the Wertheims built the conditions in which enactive hands could inquire into, actively perform, and publicly reconfigure numerous, intersecting dimensions of coral reefs, as well as of human’s destructive and productive interactions with them: these dimensions range from the material, virtual, social, political, ludic, and ecological to the performative, aesthetic, poetic, cultural, and mathematical. Moreover, put on display and virtually disseminated, the material legacies of those contributors’ labors can indefinitely serve as productive evocations and reconfigurations of these unruly dimensional entanglements. In other words, the proliferative contesting and reworking that took place in the flesh through communal performance can continue to perform for communities, both in person and at a virtual remove.
Iterate, deviate, elaborate—this is a fundamentally performative algorithm, one that practitioners of digital scholarship and data visualization stand poised to variously proclaim, encode, and enact. As they do so, the critical forces of art, theory, and play ought to shape and reshape what they variously effect, put into practice, and occasion—by what means, to what ends, and for whom.
1. We also see a proposal, based on the experimental events and networked interactions characteristic of the digital humanities, for the advent of the “performative humanities” (Scheinfeldt).
2. Both Drucker and Presner do invoke thinking from the history of performative theory in the essays just cited. In addition, while this chapter was in press, Drucker published an article on information visualization “and/as” enunciation; this article includes a call for attention to performative features of graphic communication (Drucker, “Information Visualization”). It is noteworthy, however, that these writers both forgo extensive and explicit engagement with queer and feminist approaches to performance. In Presner’s case, the lack of citation appears to correlate with his article’s emphasis on Andrew Pickering’s performative approach to science studies in The Mangle of Practice. As Karen Barad writes, “Significantly, Pickering, in his appropriation of the term [performative], does not acknowledge its politically important—arguably inherently queer—genealogy . . . or why it has been and continues to be important to contemporary critical theorists, especially feminist and queer studies scholars and activists. Indeed, he evacuates its important political history along with many of its crucial insights” (411).
3. I have offered a limited sampling of important works in the bibliography.
4. This quote appears in Butler’s contribution to the online “keywords anthology,” In Terms of Performance. The anthology, which was published at http://intermsofperformance.site, provides a rich and helpful archive of voices, issues, and debates in performance studies.
5. I partly discern the increasing importance of enactment in its centrality for the work cited here by Barad and Butler. But I also discern the term’s increasing importance in explicit calls to favor “enactment” over “performance.” The (performance) artist Andrea Fraser, for instance, writes of enactment as a lens that is more effective than performance: “[Enactment] allows us to step back from the opposition between doing, acting, or performing on the one hand, and saying or representing on the other, by framing a focus on what we are doing within or beyond—and often in contrast—to what we are saying . . . What the concept of enactment can bring into focus, in art as in psychoanalysis, are the structures of relationships that are produced and reproduced in all forms of activity.” For further arguments around the value of enactment, see works by Michel Callon and Annemarie Mol.
7. This phrase represents a reworking of a statement of Butler’s: “we have to read such scenes [i.e., assemblies and demonstrations] not only in terms of the version of the people they explicitly set forth, but the relations of power by which they are enacted” (Notes toward a Performative Theory, 7).
8. On questions of care in the digital humanities, see Bethany Nowviskie’s “On Capacity and Care.”
9. See, for instance, the work of Johanna Drucker, as well as Lauren Klein and Catherine D’Ignazio’s article, “Feminist Data Visualization,” and Heather Housers’s “The Aesthetics of Environmental Visualizations.”
10. On the ways in which “new and old medias are layered on top of each other” (2), see Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud, especially “The Shape of the Network.”
11. A Sort of Joy: Thousands of Exhausted Things, https://ocr.nyc/public-space-interventions/2015/03/30/a-sort-of-joy.
13. The posts were published to Gieseking’s blog. As of summer 2017, they were available at http://jgieseking.org/category/data-visualizations.
14. Documentation and discussion of Crochet Coral Reef can be found at http://crochetcoralreef.org; in the eponymous book, published by the Institute for Figuring; and in Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble.
15. The emphasis on “digital intelligence” is the authors’. The emphasis on “iterate, deviate, elaborate” is mine.
16. For an extended reconceptualization of the digital qua fingers and indices, see Benjamin Peters’s essay “Digital” in Digital Keywords.
17. It is striking that the word “dimension” frequently appears in performative accounts, not just in those I have cited from the digital humanities but also in the work of Barad, Butler, and many others, including J. L. Austin, who first introduced the theoretical term “performative” in the context of the philosophy of language. Indeed, the word “dimension” has an interesting history. It is derived from the Latin dimetri, or “to measure out,” and its uses have for many centuries orbited around concerns with space and measurement. One can “dimension” fabric in the sense of measuring out or cutting to particular specifications. One can, in the far more familiar sense, invoke some measurable physical extension, such as length, depth, or width. And one can also speak of “other” dimensions, as in the science fiction imagination of alternative universes. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, perhaps connected with public fascination with emerging research around time, relativity, and the “fourth dimension,” a dramatic semantic expansion took place, one that appears to have contributed to an increase in the word’s rate of spread, at least if we venture to extrapolate from what Google N-Gram visualizations show us. Now “dimension” could name two related things: the “component aspects of a particular situation” and especially those that are “newly discovered,” or “an attribute of, or way of viewing, an abstract entity” (OED Online, 2016). It would be interesting to theorize the metaphor of dimension, whether as a component of critical theory and philosophy or as a term within the digital humanities. Along these lines, Steven E. Jones has recently suggested that “dimensionality” is not just a name for the physical or virtual conditions in which we find ourselves or for the number of variables at work in a given statistical analysis (69). It is also a heuristic construct that can help us apprehend and make sense of the world—and that might even serve as a guiding conceit for digitally enabled scholarship. Jones’s point about dimensionality appears at the conclusion of a chapter called “Dimension.” Jones writes, “Dimensionality is a metaphor that allows us to think in meaningful ways about the layerings, and the degrees of invisibility, of the data and connections and objects that surround us. Such metaphors help us to grasp the process we are still undergoing in order to continue to work through what it means. We are still experiencing the eversion of cyberspace, and the ‘new’ dimensions of existence opened up by the eversion are still in the process of being revealed. One of the roles of the new digital humanities in our present moment might be to help us all learn new ways to see some of these hitherto unseen (but always-present) dimensions of mixed-reality existence, the people, places, and things opened up by the conjunctions of the digital and the physical” (69–70). Reading for enactment is, in a sense, a way of insisting on attention to often unseen but always present enactive dimensions of mediation, communication, and knowledge production.
Allington, Daniel, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 1, 2016.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Translated by John B. Thompson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Butler, Judith. Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Butler, Judith. “Performativity.” In In Terms of Performance, edited by Shannon Jackson and Paula Marincola. Berkeley: Arts Research Center, 2016. http://intermsofperformance.site/keywords/performativity/judith-butler.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Callon, Michel. “What Does It Mean to Say That Economics is Performative?” CSI Working Papers Series 005, 2006.
Cohen, Patricia. “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches.” New York Times, November 16, 2010.
Cohen, Patricia. “Digitally Mapping the Republic of Letters.” New York Times Blog, November 16, 2010, https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/digitally-mapping-the-republic-of-letters.
Dalton, Susan. Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” In Limited Inc, translated by Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, 1–24. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988.
D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren F. Klein. “Feminist Data Visualization.” Conference Proceedings of IEEE VIS Workshop on Visualization for the Digital Humanities. Baltimore, 2016.
“dimension, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016.
Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 85–95. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Drucker, Johanna. “Information Visualization and/as Enunciation.” Journal of Documentation 73, no. 5 (2017), 903–16.
Drucker, Johanna. “Performative Materiality and Theoretical Approaches to Interface.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2013), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000143/000143.html.
Fraser, Andrea. “Performance or Enactment?” In Performing the Sentence: Views on Research and Teaching in Performance Art, edited by Carola Dertnig and Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein, 122–27. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014.
Gieseking, Jen-Jack. “(Data)Visualizing Lesbian-Queer Space & Time.” July 1, 2013, http://jgieseking.org/datavisualizing-lesbian-queer-space-time.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.
Gold, Matthew K., and Lauren F. Klein, “Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, ix–xv. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Graham, Laura R., and H. Glenn Penny, eds. Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988), 575–99.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
Healy, Kieran. “The Performativity of Networks.” European Journal of Sociology 56 (2015): 175–205.
Hindley, Meredith. “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities 34, no. 6 (November/December 2013): 20–53.
Houser, Heather. “The Aesthetics of Environmental Visualizations: More than Information Ecstasy?” Public Culture 26, no. 2 (2014): 319–37.
Hu, Tung-Hui. A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015.
Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Klein, Lauren F. “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.” American Literature 85, no. 4 (December 2013): 661–88.
Latour, Bruno. “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together.” In Representation in Scientific Activity, edited by Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar, 19–68. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.
Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 490–509. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Mackenzie, Adrian. “The Performativity of Code: Software and Cultures of Circulation.” Theory, Culture & Society 22, no. 1 (2005): 71–92.
McGann, Jerome. “Marking Texts of Many Dimensions.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 198–217. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
McGann, Jerome. “Texts in N-Dimensions and Interpretation in a New Key.” Text Technology 12 (2003): 1–18.
McGann, Jerome, and Lisa Samuels. 2001. “Deformance and Interpretation.” In Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web, 105–35. New York: Palgrave.
Moati, Raoul. Derrida/Searle: Deconstruction and Ordinary Language. Translated by Timothy Attanucci and Maureen Chun. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Nowviskie, Bethany. “On Capacity and Care.” October 4, 2015, http://nowviskie.org/2015/on-capacity-and-care.
Nowviskie, Bethany. “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene.” July 10, 2014, http://nowviskie.org/2014/anthropocene.
Palmer, Carole L. “Thematic Research Collections.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, 348–65. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
Peters, Benjamin. “Digital.” In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture, edited by Benjamin Peters, 93–108. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Presner, Todd. “Critical Theory and the Mangle of the Digital Humanities.” In Between Humanities and the Digital, edited by Patrick Svensson and David Theo Goldberg, 55–68. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015.
Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Sample, Mark. “Notes Toward a Deformed Humanities.” May 2, 2012, http://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities.
Sample, Mark. “Scholarly Lies and the Deformative Humanities.” May 17, 2012, http://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/17/scholarly-lies-and-the-deformative-humanities.
Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Game Change: Digital Technology and Performative Humanities.” February 15, 2012, http://foundhistory.org/2012/02/game-change-digital-technology-and-performative-humanities.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Thorpe, Jer. “On Data and Performance.” March 5, 2014, http://blog.blprnt.com/blog/blprnt/on-data-and-performance.
Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 2012.
Wertheim, Margaret, and Christine Wertheim. Crochet Coral Reef. Los Angeles: Institute for Figuring, 2015.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.