Ontologizing the Taxonomy

During her talk on Friday, FSU Digital Humanities Librarian Sarah Stanley put forward several challenging questions about (and responses to) the ontological assumptions and infrastructural formations that underlie taxonomic methodology. As humanists tasked with the preservation, publication, and evaluation of artifacts in an increasingly heterogeneous environment, can we—in good conscience—continue to work within traditional academic architectures? Are these systems capable of repair or must they be rebuilt entirely? Joining other thinkers and practitioners in the field, Stanley proposes renewed interrogation of prevailing methods with an eye toward new and more complex descriptive practice.

Early in her talk, Stanley acknowledged that any attempt at analysis necessarily entails a degree of reduction, particularly when large amounts of data are involved. This “flattening” can be (and has been) productively employed toward the recovery of erased narratives and population of archival silence. However, some have asserted that the taxonomic impulse is fundamentally colonial, thus tainting even the most well-intentioned of projects. By this logic, many of the current channels of academic communication—libraries, conferences, journals—are compromised.

A core principle of many data-driven efforts in DH is scalability, the capacity for stable interchange between units of analysis across a given research frame. In theory, a scalable system can accommodate indefinite growth without loss of semantic functionality. While this sort of framework can be useful for macroscopic research, the lack of granularity poses serious issues for qualitative, humanistic endeavors. According to Tsing, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, scalability “disguises such divisions by blocking our ability to notice the heterogeneity of the world; by its design, scalability allows us to see only uniform blocks, ready for further expansion.”

Similarly, data cleaning—a common practice in the “hard” sciences—facilitates manipulation of information on a large scale. But once again, important differences are lost in the process of sanitizing datasets, differences which distinguish, and perhaps even define, our discipline: “the humanities cannot import paradigms and practices whole from other fields, whether from ‘technoscience’ or the nearer ‘social’ sciences, without risking the foreclosure of specific and valuable humanistic modes of producing knowledge” (Rawson and Munoz).

Beneath these various critiques of the taxonomic impulse lies a recognition of subjectivity as essential to and inherent in all methodology. Subjectivity is not simply, according to Drucker, “individual inflection or mere idiosyncracy,” but rather “codependent relations of observer and phenomena,” relations which shape and inform even our descriptions thereof. The taxonomy, then, is a not a neutral apparatus; we must “stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning, and understand that these structures themselves constitute data” (Posner).

Charting a path forward, Stanley pointed to three DH projects—TaDiRAH, the Orlando Project, and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive—that have successfully resisted (or at least attempted to resist) the allure of hierarchical models in favor of data ontologies, which are better suited to the representation of “awkward, fuzzy translations and disjunctures” (Tsing). Several practices have been proposed and applied in the effort to “ontologize” digital taxonomies. In place of scalable nesting, for instance, we can embrace the principles of nonscalability theory. Rather than cleaning data, we might use indexing as an alternate information structure “designed to serve as a system of pointers between two bodies of information” (Rawson and Munoz). It will take time to imagine and implement a robust, ontology-driven infrastructure, but through continued critique of old knowledge architectures and iterative engagement with new methodologies, we can hope to improve our collective effectiveness as humanists in a digital age.

Works Cited

  • Drucker, Johanna. “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” 5.1 (2011): Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ).
  • Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” 27 July 2015 Post on Posner Blog.
  • Rawson, Katie, and Trevor Muñoz. “Against Cleaning.” 6 July 2016 Post on Curating Menus.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge3 (2012): 505-24.

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