Blog #2: Intent and Authenticity: Phenomenological practice in the Digital Humanities

In class today we discussed authorial intent and its place in the process of distant reading.  We threw around many ideas:  “Does distant reading tarnish the meaning of an author’s words?,” “How can a text be properly understood without its emotive and narrative contexts?”  I think these questions lead to a larger discussion of authenticity.  I understand authenticity through my study of archaeology and heritage management.  In the realm of heritage management, especially as conveyed through UNESCO World Heritage criteria, authenticity is written as palpable, as a value that can be measured.  I challenge this conception of authenticity in my practice of a holistic archaeology, not prioritizing or value a phase of occupation more than the other.  UNESCO criteria is not malleable, it can not bend and give to accommodate a multitude of site intricacies.  The criteria are absolutes, using words like “outstanding value,” “exceptional,” “significant,” and, “major.”  This framework is representative of the current authorized position on authenticity:  that it exists and can be measured.  This is questionable.

Phenomenological practice involves the recognition that being physically present in a space offers a different experience and comprehension of a site.  It does not attempt to understand an archaeological site in the past, but requires a present perception of a landscape, and a consideration of all features, natural and cultural.  Christopher Tilley in his book, “A Phenomenology of Landscape:  Places, Paths and Monuments” describes phenomenological perspective as, “…the understanding and description of things as they are experienced by a subject” (Tilley 1994, 12).  He elaborates on this concept Foremost, someone must visit a site in order to practice phenomenology.  New digital means have allowed for the three-dimensional modeling of sites and technologies that allows specialists to engage with a site in ways that were not possible before.  The Panther Cave is in Seminole Canyon National Park at the confluence of the Pecos and Colorado Rivers.  It is a rock shelter site, dated to ca. 7000 B.C. to A.D. 600, with elaborate rock art paintings in its interior characterized by faceless anthropomorphic figures, zoomorphs, and other intricate patterns.  Using three-dimensional modeling and photogrammetry, painted features on the rock surface that were not visible to the eye could be made visible, and it is the hope that through these technologies, the rock art can be preserved.  The product of this work can be viewed on Youtube (  Screenshots from this Youtube video below show the ways in which photogrammetry helps highlight and better visualize these ancient rock art designs.


Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.37.01 PM

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.37.10 PMFig. 1 and 2, respectively:  Images of rock art from Panther Cave.  Fig 1 is a photograph and Fig. 2 is an enhanced imaged that makes the painted images easier to see.

In a description of the project and its goals, it is written that:

“…laser mapping will create a 3D model, a virtual representation of the cave’s morphology. Then, stereo photography creates a 3D model of the color imagery at super-high resolution. This color photograph of the rock art is then ‘wrapped’ on the 3D model of the cave.”

The creation of this virtual space and the desire to preserve this site calls into question the need for a physical space at all.  Can the guidelines of phenomenology be replicated in a virtual realm?  Or is the act of “dwelling,” as Tilley describes it, and the fact that dwelling occurred in the space, somehow essential to the validity and understanding of the landscape as a viewer?  Can dwelling or, “The kinetic activities of human beings,” be conveyed in a virtual platform (Tilley 1994, 13)?  Much can be said on behalf of either side of this argument; however, in the context of authenticity, there is a point of contention.  Does a space maintain its authenticity if it is maintained to a certain phase of occupation by digital means?  Does the work done at the Panther Cave site undo the concepts of the phenomenological experience of this landscape?  

The technology of distant reading approaches literature as data.  Using the “Voyant” website helped me better understand the ways in which this approach can be useful for processing and understanding a text.  Returning to the issue of authorial intent, we still have these unanswered questions of whether an author’s intent can or should be considered when using distant reading technology.  Using a holistic perspective when approaching this issue, just as it is utilized in archaeology, can be beneficial.  The New York Times article, “What is Distant Reading,” by Kathryn Schulz, paraphrases Franco Moretti, founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, in saying that we should stop reading books all together.  Yes, this is an exaggeration, but it highlights the importance of using distant reading as supplemental to the initial reading of text.  This allows for a holistic use of available resources for further the comprehension of a text.  But, like authenticity, authorial intent is impossible to determine as a standard.  


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