This is the second part of a two-part essay about the humanities. Part 1 discusses some current ideas about the role of the humanities in the university and the world. Part 2 addresses the trend of the "digital humanities" in light of these observations.

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.

published August 25, 2011


  1. Mark N.

    It’s interesting to think about this vision in relation to that set forth in Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines. He seems to be acting a bit as your proposed spy: the technologically savvy non-technologist, with a simultaneously critical and constructive eye, investigating what’s going on in technology and reporting back on it, along with the reasons and implications, and making changes or interventions where possible.

    Perhaps a main difference is that Nelson has more of a temporary vanguard-of-the-masses role in mind for such spies, hoping to empower ordinary people to themselves take control of understanding and changing technology. You seem to have in mind a much more permanent, university-based set of spies-of-the-public, working on behalf of the public but focused less on empowering them to do that work themselves. Is that a fair characterization?

  2. Ian Bogost

    Mark, Computer Lib/Dream Machines certainly comes to mind here. I suspect Nelson saw himself more as counter-culture anarchist than as spy–that is, he wasn’t motivated by the “lower faculties” sort of logic, which is fine of course. But there’s some relationship between the two. Of course, the main problem with sharing Nelson as a common framework is that his seminal book is still out of print.

  3. Brett Boessen

    I’ve been thinking similar thoughts about Digital Humanities as well, though I haven’t been able to articulate them as deftly or forcefully as you do here. Thanks for this.

    Why _have_ humanists waited so long to embrace digital networked tools, whether for better dissemination or as means for deeper thinking? I’m always surprised when a colleague anywhere doesn’t know how to start a blog or what Twitter is useful for. The response I get is usually “well, not everyone is an early adopter like you.” But surely that term doesn’t apply to bloggers any more.

    So there must be something more going on there. I imagine it relates to several things at once: the nature of academia as ivory tower, the importance of existing print resources and their uneven arrival on the network, perhaps even an inertia born of a desire to allocate more time to reading and reflecting than learning to code (or just the stereotypical math anxiety).

    And this makes me think what’s going on with Digital Humanities as a … movement? … may be significantly generational in the sense that it seems to be driven by younger faculty for whom familiarity with digital tools, or at least an acknowledgement that they exist and a ready willingness to Google their basic use, needn’t be learned/trained but already obtains. I’m not talking digital natives, but rather a cultural context in which use of digital networked tools to do stuff just feels comfortable and/or appropriate.

    Speaking of which, Rebecca Davis’ post on the NITLE blog on practice, active learning, and “doing stuff” in higher ed is relevant to this conversation, I think:

    Doing stuff with your knowledge, whether its an application or a creation, is an important aspect of human endeavor, as you’re arguing. If maintaining Digital Humanities provides an opportunity for more people to see that generally and imagine how they can achieve that concretely, I’d say in sum it’s beneficial.

  4. Ian Bogost


    It does seem somewhat generational, I agree. Which is a blessing and a curse I guess. On the one hand, it’s great that they are grabbing the bull by the horns. But on the other hand, the bar has been set low for them. Is that a mixed metaphor?

    I’m totally down with the “doing stuff” argument, and there’s a chapter in my next book (early 2012) about philosophical craft practice, which I call “carpentry.”

  5. Robert Jackson

    At this rate, it seems that the closest the digital humanities can reach to invention is marvelling at the speed of transferring draft papers on Dropbox.

    I applaud your two posts Ian. Of course, the situation is quite similar in the UK, and clearly the humanities at large have failed to adopt the configurable aspects of computation for their own uses: Even technology historians cannot fathom the basics of technology.

    However in the sub-branch of the arts, the situation is no so clear. As much as I detest the term of New Media Art, (like you I prefer to bag the discipline up as computational), art practitioners have continued to forge and configure contraptions and hybrids in an effort to push new forms of communication, or express a critical rebuttal of mainstream political efficacy. Whether one disagrees on such initiatives is not the point, but rather, there are important initiatives going on.

  6. Ian Bogost

    Robert, it’s funny, the humanities is often if not always grouped under “the arts,” but the arts themselves, the fine and performing arts and so forth, seem to have very different attitudes indeed.

  7. dmf

    Ian, pardon my ignorance but do you know if has anyone followed up on Mark C Taylor’s hope that digital media could enact the kinds of insights/experiences that he found innovative/useful in post-modern philosophy?

    In terms of performing and plastic arts maybe humanities need to be rethought in terms of rhetoric?

  8. Trevor Owens

    I like your points about both the need for humanists to build their own tools, and your question about orienting toward the world.

    On the tools point, I would just underscore that it is not just tools as software but also a need for far more conversation about the methodological implications of those tools (ether built or borrowed). It seems like we still need to articulate a hermunitics of data, or for that matter hermunitic articulations of statistical tools that come with their own epistemic assumptions.

    On the orienting to the public point. The connections between the digital humanities and humanities computing are clear. However, in my experience, the humanities computing conversation was primarily a literature, classics, and linguistics conversation. At some point, people in history picked up the digital humanities moniker and in doing so brought in a perspective that is 1) deeply connected to Public History (which became its own discipline in the 70s) and 2) a significant aversion to anything statistical tied up in a backlash to cliometrics that was part of the cultural turn in historical research. This is to say, that when someone says digital humanities to historians the idea that it has to do with public outreach and things like libraries, historical societies, and museums as much of the digital work in history has been tied up in public history.

  9. Ian Bogost


    I riff off Taylor in the last chapter of Unit Operations. My sense is that everyone stopped paying attention to him after his “End the University” op-ed and follow-up book. He never really tried to carry out the vision in his earlier works, beyond crude for-profit efforts. I don’t know what he’s working on now.

    @Trevor Owens

    Your point about focusing on *why* we would want tools of a particular kind is important. There’s a kind of data gold-rush, which reminds me of the way silicon valley start-ups race to do what everyone is doing because everyone is doing it.

  10. JayChen

    The failure to settle on open-source publishing standards; the over-reliance on tools out-of-the-box; the necessity of dealing with and paying for multiple e-publishers and vendors who call the shots on access to and architecture of data, and who as business rivals generally won’t coordinate their efforts; the ‘Google and/or scanning can do it’ attitude prevalent among academic and library administrators as regards digital access and reference tools (abstract-and-indexing is slowly disappearing in the humanities as is bibliographic entry by human catalogers); these are some of the ‘converging’ forces causing digital humanities gridlock, as well as a stubborn unwillingness by too many humanists to move forward and take responsibility for the future of their fields. That’s my two cents as someone who spent a decade in the field and trenches.

  11. Matt Kirschenbaum

    Says one Robert Jackson:

    “At this rate, it seems that the closest the digital humanities can reach to invention is marvelling at the speed of transferring draft papers on Dropbox.”

    Puh-leeze. That’s either rank ignorance (you should be embarrassed) or troll-bait (I should be embarrassed for taking it). Do us both a favor then, and go inform yourself.

  12. Ian Bogost


    Robert’s definitely not a troll; I think he was trying to be playful. It might have come across wrong.

  13. Nathan Kelber

    Thanks for this piece Ian. I find the refocusing of digital humanities to tools to be helpful. I believe that the digital humanities has reoriented humanities study to the human as a (computer) tool user. Humanists have found it impossible to continue to ignore the role of the machine in the study of human activity.

    Still, it is not entirely fair to say the humanities are “behind” other fields in technological adoption. For one, it assumes a type of technological progressivism where the humanities are inferior because their technology adoption is inferior. One reason the humanities have slowly adapted to technological innovation is that the humanities have been skeptical of technology in ways that other fields have not been (and often have not needed to be).

    Computation is a powerful tool although it has not always been clear to humanists how to relate computation to humanism. Digital humanists might groan at a question like, “What can computers tell us about love or politics?,” but the historical and current challenges concerning the mainstream adoption of the “humanities computing” strain of digital humanities suggests that the answers to such questions still have substantial rhetorical weight in humanities departments. (For my part, I think they can teach us a lot.)

    Of course, the technological skepticism of the humanities has led to slow adoption, but it is also a major asset to the digital humanities. Good digital humanities work is skeptical of computation and technology in ways that other fields have not always been. While it is wrong to think of digital humanities as a savior of the humanities, I do think it is a much-needed antidote to the technologically progressive stance of other fields.

    The computational uses in other fields have often sought to eliminate the human element, deprecating humans as slow and illogical. Digital humanism often reasserts the human, both as a tool user and a tool maker, asking what machines can do, both for us and to us.

  14. Ian Bogost

    @Nathan Kelber

    I see your point about technology adoption having built-in values. Certainly I’ve criticized silicon valley-style technofetishism again and again. But I don’t think its informed skepticism and careful consideration that’s motivating humanism’s behindness. I think it’s mostly a lack of knowledge and expertise, mixed with an equal part of unaware inner-focus.

    As for DH reasserting the human, I think you’re way off base. As I’ve argued here, DH is all about the university and the humanist. There are much better examples of computational media oriented toward human interest. It’s just that “human interest” tends to mean “critique” for humanists.

  15. Nathan Kelber


    Thanks for the response. I concede that the view that DH reasserts the human may have more to do with how I view the field than others might. I also agree that the slow adoption of technology by humanists is more complicated than mere skepticism and is deeply related to the humanist and the university. Many of the barriers to technology adoption are institutional. Traditional forms of humanities scholarship have not kept up with changes in technological communication. Receiving credit for making software or writing a blog is still an uphill battle for many humanists. Why is an academic book with a print run of a few hundred copies more institutionally respected than an academic blog with a million hits?

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

  16. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    The structure of this argument bothers me. It seems to depend on defining “digital humanities” as only that work that is the continuation of “humanities computing” — thereby leaving aside digital media work like that of Vectors (though this is explicitly positioned within DH), leaving aside software studies and media archaeology work like Matt Kirschenbaum’s (though this is explicitly positioned within DH), and so on.

    Having shaved off everything new about DH (everything that isn’t a continuation of HC) the argument then goes on to say we should be embarrassed to discuss DH as something new.

    Am I missing something?

  17. Ian Bogost

    Noah, you’re perhaps missing the first part of the essay.

  18. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    @ian — is that meant to be deliberately cryptic?

  19. Ian Bogost

    Noah, no, it seemed as though maybe you’d missed the first part of the argument. I like Matt K’s work and Vectors, but I think the extent to which they associate with DH is a mistake, given that their worldly orientation is the interesting part, and their humanistic institutional orientation is a liability not a feature. Matt’s essay on tactics isn’t yet published, but I found it very circumspect… my interpretation is that he sees DH as a lever of convenience rather than a visionary directive. Sure, you could have both. But I don’t believe there’s enough discussion of how that both would look, thus the intervention you read here.

    It’s possible you just disagree with me, which would be fine.

  20. Michael Mateas

    But if I read Noah’s comment correctly, he’s saying that things like Software Studies and Vectors are the interesting new directions for digital humanists. And that if you take that away, it’s not clear there’s anything for digital humanists to do, other than to start participating in the 21st century like everybody else. I like the argument that the humanities should be about worldly engagement, but in part 2 here it feels like you’re conflating worldly engagement with DH, by arguing that technology is part of the world, and therefore if humanists start engaging the world more, they will automatically become digital humanists. But there are more concrete agendas, like software studies, that digital humanists can engage. And without engaging these more concrete agendas, it’s unclear there’s any there there for DH.

  21. Ian Bogost

    Michael, I’m rejecting the digital humanities as the kind of engagement with computation that only involves institution-building. And I’m saying that those efforts that do more than that would do well to shed their connection to DH in favor of other orientations, and that efforts like Software Studies, for example, (a) don’t tend to call themselves DH anyway and (b) if they do, they’re doing themselves a disservice. If you somehow read me to be saying that DH = worldly engagement, I’m confused indeed. I’m saying the opposite.

  22. Michael Mateas

    I am confused now by the argument. Why should Software Studies not put itself under the digital humanities framework? And what should DH people do instead? Should they just build tools to help them do their traditional humanities work? The tool orientation feels like the boring traditional model of digital humanities that’s been present forever at venues like ACH/ALLC. Or are you saying that DH is already dead on arrival, and that’s why anything with a future, like Software Studies, shouldn’t attach to it? And how does your pessimistic view of DH jive with you being grad director of a digital media Ph.D. program within a humanities department?

  23. Mark N.

    I could be missing something, but as a bit of an outsider to DH, judging by something like the DH 2011 program, it is almost entirely some mixture of tools, institution-building, and statistical data-mining (the latter part growing exponentially, perhaps to compete with Google-style “culturenomics”). I just read through the DH11 program, and at least 90% of it is one of those categories, so that’s what I take to be the “digital humanities agenda” (though I do see one session with Noah in it, and a scattering of other heterodox sessions making up the remaining 10%). I personally associate Software Studies with more of a separate agenda, growing out of New Media and ELO type work that predates the recent DH flurry. The DAC type people also don’t seem to be culturally central in the current DH push (does Simon Penny call what he does “digital humanities”?). But maybe my lay of the land is wrong.

  24. Michael Mateas

    Mark, I agree that those categories do constitute the majority of DH. But DH is a contested term. It’s not settled what DH is yet. Therefore, arguing for a broader and higher impact definition of what DH could/should be is what we’re doing here (and, when I first read Ian’s post, is where I though he was going). But answers like “more tools” (though tools will certainly be built) or “become as technologically literate as the average teenager” (though digital humanists should be procedurally literature) are not the only (or even best) ways for humanists to become better spies or to get their hands dirty engaging broader (digital) culture.

  25. Mark N.

    Well, I can’t disagree with that. 🙂 I might just have a cynic’s aversion to newness; I mean, it’s certainly good for the humanities to be engaged with technology in a deep way, including close readings, procedural literacy, software studies etc., and as only a sort-of-plugged-into-humanities researcher I do hope to read and learn from what they publish (I like the books Wardrip-Fruin, Kirschenbaum, and Bogost have all published).

    Even as a high-school student in the 1990s, somehow that was my impression, that the 1990s were the decade when humanists started deeply engaging with technology. Of course, they had done so somewhat earlier as well (Kittler, Nelson, McLuhan, and even earlier, all the cyberneticists). But in the 1990s it really exploded: you had all sorts of conferences on humanities and computers, Project Perseus got big, DAC was founded, Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth had their breakout books, ELO was founded, multimedia came on the scene, people started talking about the ‘future of the book’, etc. So to learn in the 2010s about how humanists have now started deeply engaging with technology, and discussing all that list of items, feels like a glitch in the Matrix!

  26. Ian Bogost

    Michael, I’m sort of gobstopped that we’re talking past one another here. Let me try a list of points:

    – Digital humanities has a place, to an extent, as every field should look toward its internal practices and operation;

    – but DH is too internally-focused, oriented toward field-building, not world-building;

    – Humanistic practices/programs that involve computing are not automatically DH (thus Software Studies and my programs are not necessarily DH);

    What’s so confusing about this is that the “objections” in your comments seem to agree with me, but you seem to think that you’re objecting to me.

  27. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    Ian, I think the problem is that neither Michael nor I came away with those points when reading your essay, so we seem to be talking past each other. If those are the points that are central for you, I guess we do just have a case of disagreement. My experience of the digital humanities community has been the opposite: rather than focusing inward, the point of DH seems to be explicitly reaching out — both to wider modes of humanities engagement with computation (beyond the humanities computing tradition) and to the public.

    But the difference may be that I’m not in a humanities department, while you are. So the internally-facing field-building aspect may either be harder for me to perceive or simply something that people don’t talk with me about when discussing DH.

    In any case, to me DH looks like a contested term, but one that has a hopeful future, rather than a dispiriting one. In any case, I’m glad that we all think there’s some interesting work to be done here, no matter under which name.

  28. Ian Bogost

    Noah, I think you must have skipped whole paragraphs of the essay to reach the conclusions you do. I re-read it and feel confident that I address the points you raise very explicitly and reasonably generously, even, while also attempting to move beyond them.

  29. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    Surely your essay is not the only material available for thinking about DH 🙂

  30. Michael Mateas

    Ian, I do generally agree with your points. But I was trying to read your essay as a forward-looking prescription of what DH should do. And some of the practices that you explicitly want to separate from DH are the ones that I think provide DH with a bright and shining future. After reading your essay it wasn’t clear what you think DH should do (other than try not to be so inwardly focused), but perhaps description rather than prescription was what you really wanted to accomplish with your essay.

  31. Ian Bogost


    No. I’m not sure what we’re talking about anymore. I thought we were talking about what I wrote. This is a very strange conversation.


    You’re right. I did not attempt to make prescriptive claims in this essay.

  32. dmf

    a while back I was bemoaning the loss of the disciplines related to close readings of texts which has a variety of aspects but the most basic, for me, is an ethical commitment to try and get a grip on what the other person is saying before leaping to projecting one’s own ideas and or reflections, is there some place for such humanist concerns in your developing theory/designs?

  33. Matt Kirschenbaum

    A couple of comments here. I certainly think of my own work as software studies, platform studies, media archeology, etc. I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t identified with those constituencies, as they all speak to the materialist turn that I and others have been flogging for years now. But I also, absolutely, think of what I do as digital humanities.

    The thing is, there are many “digital humanities.” The term is either hopelessly vague or, as I’ve argued in the forthcoming piece Ian references, ineluctably tactical. Sometimes it is both at once, which is itself a tactical maneuver. None of that, though, is to detract from the earnestness or authenticity with which any number of people are advancing research or institution-building agendas under the banner of the (or “a”) digital humanities.

    Why do I hold on to digital humanities as a descriptor for what I do? For one thing, it’s convenient. My institution gets it, and if I were to argue that we need another hire in that area, well, I might or might not get my way, but I wouldn’t have to start from first principles of “what is DH.” If I were to advocate for a position in software studies, on the other hand, I have no doubt that would be dead in the water. No, I would argue for a digital humanities position with a “special focus on the history, design, and cultural impact of computer software.” Were I on the search committee, I would keep an extra eye out for students of Ian and Noah and Michael. I would have little interest in, say, someone who was working on text mining 19th century novels despite the position having been advertised as “DH.”

    I do think, Ian, that you are ungenerous with regard to the relationship between DH and worldliness. DH is introspective to be sure in so far as it actively promotes a reformist agenda that is invested in reprogramming key elements of academic or institutional infrastructure; but public engagement is an absolutely core component of precisely that reformist agenda. The mainstream press coverage DH has generated is encouraging in this regard, as is the impact individual scholars are able to make through their blogging and their tweeting, however much we might chafe at the idea that such interventions are profound. The growing “alt-ac” movement is equally relevant to this discussion.

    I find myself very resistant to cookie-cutter attempts to distinguish digital humanities from new media: that one is about making things the other about theory, or that one is about the past and the other is about the present. That seems facile and just plain wrong, as the company that’s being kept here easily demonstrates. This is the other reason I identify as a DH-er; the digital humanities I want is one that is self-reflexive about its platforms and tools in ways that the recent scholarship in these areas is able to provide. I’d be sorry if the annual DH conference wasn’t a venue where Noah, say, could present work on reading software and code, or if a games scholar couldn’t find an audience there. I think DH (the conference) has made reasonable strides in that direction, and I think the field itself is more, not less, receptive to work like Vectors.

  34. Ian Bogost


    Forgive this temporary reply, which I am writing from my iPhone.

    You’re right that I’m being ungenerous. I accept that critique. But I intend to be ungenerous, to some extent. As for the press, it’s a good sign, but I still say it’s primarily news about the academic humanities rather than news about the world.

    I’ll add more later; I’m sure we’re not done talking about this.

  35. Frodont

    First, can we please throw away the canard of “the real world” as somehow being polar to “academia”? Professors and students are no less real than cab drivers.

    As far as communing between the high and low goes, part of the problem is that within the political and nontechnical realms (in which most peopleâ??who are also “real”â??dwell), huge populations have rejected thoughtful discourse and intellectualism every bit as much as you accuse the humanities of having done so with “actual” people. There is little reward in gently reaching out to anti-intellectualism; similarly, game design’s objectives are only fruitful if someone plays the game, which usually requires willingness.

    But still, I agree with you that some back-and-forth could be worthwhile.

    A radical proposition: install physical games intrusively in the paths of people, demanding in architectural and temporal representation that of necessity they overcome the problems of willful ignorance. Make public art aggressively, nonconsentingly, confrontationally. If intellectual abstraction is an unavoidable part of public daily life through the sheer, radical will of its practitioners, then maybe, just maybe, a few more people will understand why “people still find insight in novels.”

    In exchange for screwing the quotidian, I am happy to relinquish the title of “humanist” for something more accurate. “Cultural instigator,” perhaps? How about “Teacher”?