If we accept the premise that the humanities should orient toward the world and not toward a private, scholarly sanctuary, then what trends are already facilitating that process? One candidate is the “digital humanities,” a topic about which I have remained silent for too long, despite the fact that I direct a digital media graduate program and teach in a computational media undergraduate program, both housed solely or partly in a liberal arts college at a technical institute.
Digital humanities is a category that defies both definition and description. The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 calls it “an array of convergent practices” surrounding both the transition from print to “multimedia” and the use of new digital tools in the arts and humanities. Such a moment implies novelty. But as both Patrick Svensson and Matthew G. Kirschembaum observe, digital humanities also has roots in humanities computing, a decades-old name for applying computational tools to humanities research and teaching.
I have no desire to offer a new definition of digital humanities—after all, the eclectic set of definitions proffered by those who participate in the annual Day of Digital Humanities shows that we already have too many. Instead, let’s revisit Svensson’s condensation of such perspectives into a few categories: tool, object of study, expressive medium, laboratory, and activist venue.
Some of these categories seem more central than others. Svensson’s idea of an “exploratory lab”, for example, is largely speculative, and his examples of digital humanities as an “activist venue” seem more like subspecies of the “objects of study” or “expressive medium” categories. The digital humanities have an encroachment problem. After all, using computational media as expressive tools is a common practice in art and design, whereas their digital humanistic applications mostly involve new methods of scholarly creation and dissemination. And as for objects of study, one can’t help but note that scholars studying forms of digital media from a humanistic perspective—including the web, social media, videogames, interaction design, interactive narrative, and so forth—don’t tend to call themselves “digital humanists.” I certainly don’t.
One of Svensson’s categories thus stands out above the others: tools. Tools still occupy a wide berth in the digital humanities, including everything from open-access journals, scholarly collaboration tools, media digitization and archival efforts, and the creation of new digital approaches to studying traditional artifacts. While self-styled digital humanists seem eager to include anything that touches both the humanities and computers under their umbrella, I find such an approach aspirational and rhetorical. Instead, it is far more useful to identify digital humanities more modestly, as the spiritual successor to humanities computing, a practice intended to advance the existing practice of humanism through computational methods.
As far as things go, there’s nothing terribly surprising or upsetting about the idea, save that it would have taken the humanities so long to embrace it thoroughly. After all, many other disciplines have experienced considerable change at the hands of the computer over the last half-century, and many have articulated that change in the same terms. We have computational linguistics, computational biology, computational physics, computational neuroscience, computational chemistry, computational finance, and so many others.
Note that most of these fields use the prefix “computational” rather than “digital.” That difference is more than just semantics. Computational methods tend to emphasize information processing and analysis over the creation and dissemination of information assets. But even so, other fields have also pursued new digital collaboration and distribution tools. In fact, one of the earliest “open access” initiatives is arXiv, begun in 1991 as a preprint repository for articles in physics, later expanded to include mathematics, computer science, and other fields. The National Science Digital Library, a free education resource, was also created that year. Digital humanists eschew the label “computational” because it draws an uneasy connection to computer science, whereas scientists embrace it because, hey, who doesn’t use computation?
This desire to separate things digital from things computational is both intellectual and political. But it’s also tactical: by creating a new domain within the humanities, digital humanists reset expectations. Some will bristle at my characterization of digital humanities as mere tool use, arguing that their work involves a different or greater engagement with digital matter than I’m allowing. I agree, but with the addition of a very important codicil: for them. That is to say, if we zero the scales for the humanities, given full knowledge of its penchant for hermeticism and stasis, then digital tools for creation, collaboration, and dissemination do indeed represent a significant change. But it’s embarrassing that they do.
When it comes to working as public spies among the lower faculties, there’s certainly something to be gained from such adoption. After all, if the humanities are meant to orient toward the world, then they need adequate tools with which to do so, tools compatible with the present moment. Speaking directly to and with the public is an important way to overcome the isolationism and self-reflexivity of humanistic practice. In that respect, the digital humanists are making strides in rescuing the humanities from their vampiric roost. As Kirschenbaum puts it, “the digital humanities today … is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed.”
Fair enough, but let’s not be too satisfied just yet. The very fact that we are unaccustomed to it is tragic. Making it customary should not be mistaken for taming a new wilderness. Instead, it must be seen as just the tiniest baby step in reclaiming of a lost worldly responsibility.
Can’t we just face it: it’s mortifying how far behind the times the humanities really are, computationally speaking. Remember the 1980s, when everyone (save the humanists, apparently) got personal computers, modems, BBS’s, and online services? Remember the 1990s, When everyone (save the humanists, apparently) got gopher and the web? When humanities computing really took off, when mainstream digitization first became commercialized? Really, it’s idiotic to pat ourselves on the back for installing blogs and signing up for Twitter.
Let’s imagine the best scenario. If the humanities are an agency of espionage, then the digital humanities would be its Q Division, the R&D arm that invents and deploys new methods in support of its mission. But we’re not there. We’re not close. How come?
For starters, the digital humanities more frequently adopt rather than invent their tools. This is a complicated issue, related to the lack product development and deployment experience in general among humanists, and their lack of computational and design abilities in particular. (By contrast, most scholars of physics or biology learn to program computers, whether in FORTRAN or MatLab or with even more advanced and flexible tools.) As a result, digital humanities projects risk letting existing technologies dictate the terms of their work. In some cases, adopting existing technology is appropriate. But in other cases, the technologies themselves make tacit, low-level assumptions that can’t be seen in the light of day. While humanists can collaborate or hire staff or otherwise accomplish technical novelty, it’s often at a remove, not completely understood by its proponents. The results risk reversing the intended purpose of the humanities as public spies: taking whatever works from the outside world un- or under-questioned.
Furthermore, this process of development creates a vicious circle of conflict and loathing. As lower faculties, humanists often see their work outside the logic of technological improvement or efficiency. As I argued in part 1 of this essay, usefulness should not be anathema to the humanities. But since predictable usefulness is still commonly held in disregard, creating and deploying digital humanities tools explicitly involves servicing an instrumental end. This creates cognitive dissonance, as it causes the lower faculties appear to be act according to the logic of the higher faculties. And that dissonance results in anxiety and conflict.
These two factors combine in a surprising and perverse way. In his Day of Digital Humanities definition, Kirschenbaum calls digital humanities simply, “A term of tactical convenience.” In the context of the Day of DH wiki, it sounds like just a quip. But Kirschenbaum develops the idea in an essay forthcoming in Matthew K. Gold’s collection Debates in the Digital Humanities. Kirschenbaum’s point is that “digital humanities” is a concept that helps get things done. Things like getting a faculty line or funding a staff position, or revising a curriculum:
At a moment when the academy in general and the humanities in particular are the object of massive and wrenching changes, digital humanities emerges as a rare vector for jujitsu, simultaneously serving to position the humanities at the very forefront of certain value-laden agendas–entrepreneurship, openness and public engagement, future-oriented thinking, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, big data, industry tie-ins, and distance or distributed education–while at the same time allowing for various forms of intra-institutional mobility as new courses are approved, new colleagues are hired, new resources are allotted, and old resources are reallocated.
Despite the apparent enthusiasm in this passage, Kirschenbaum is circumspect about such tactics. On the one hand, they allow humanities programs to pivot. But on the other hand, because of the nature of the academy, those pivots immediately ossify into long-term institutional structures that become difficult to change.
This is a bittersweet pill. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that the digital humanities look to the outside for inspiration and influence—it’s one example of a re-orientation of humanistic practice toward the world and its interests. But on the other hand, the rationale for that orientation is somewhat perverted; it is motivated primarily by an inward-looking reformational interest. This is why so much of the talk in digital humanities is about digital humanities. This is institution-building, not world-building.
If the internal Q Division is the best case scenario for the digital humanities, its worst case is a kind of techno-liberalism, a weird inversion of silicon valley’s techno-libertarianism. In this scenario, the digital humanities becomes an organizational-political lever to advance arguments for the reformation of the humanities, but whose means of reformation is primarily self-reflexive, and whose manner of executing on that self-reflexive reformation relies largely on imported materials and methods to bulk up the ramparts that would protect humanism from the world it might otherwise enter. Recalling Stephen Palmquist’s quip on half-witted thinkers, it seeks to make a sullied haven safe again for comfortable living. Novels and computers.
In a recent New York Times editorial, USC Annenberg fellow Neal Gabler laments a world in which “big, thought-provoking ideas” without obvious purpose are in decline. Among the factors Gabler cites is “the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring—for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.”
There’s a place for potted plants. Every practice has to spend time reflecting on itself and reorienting. There’s nothing wrong with importing solutions from the outside, from which there is always much to be learned. But the lower faculties must resist the temptation to partake of daily life only just enough to mine convenient resources into makeshift parapets. It’s not a cowardly move nor a treacherous one, but it’s not a courageous nor a righteous one either. The digital humanities must decide if they are potting their digital plants in order to prettify the office, or to nurture saplings for later transfer into the great outdoors. Out there, in the messy, humid world of people and machines, it’s better to cast off elbow patches for shirt-sleeves.