Each year, the organizers of the Day of Digital Humanities ask participants the question, “How do you define the digital humanities?”

Recently I browsed the many responses scholars have offered over the years. They vary widely, from simple (“Humanities by digital means”) to definitive (“The application of information, computing, and communication technologies to humanities questions, problems, or data”) to vague (“It is public, dialogical, collaborative and made of collectives”) to wry (“With extreme reluctance”). Reading them all gives one a sense of just how much is still up for grabs in this area.

Fortunately, Alex Reid offers a response to the question that should be definitive.

The digital humanities are just the humanities of the present moment.

Everyone who does humanities today can’t avoid immersion in digital stuff. We read and write with computers, we communicate with them, we administer our lives and our programs with them.

That said, humanists have been among the least willing to admit that fact. Whether through age, ignorance, truculence, or idiocy, the humanities have tried desperately to pretend that the material world is the same as ever. Alex rightly notes that such a break is related to idealism.

For centuries (if not always), the humanities have dealt with objects: books, historical artificats, works of art, performances, films, etc. But … we have largely dealt with these objects in two ways. 1) We have addressed our human response, our ability to represent these objects to ourselves. 2) We have spoken of “culture” and “materiality” but in a vague, abstract way.

This turns out to be a startling revelation for the humanities: it forces its scholars to admit that they do not exist out of time and place, but in particular historical and material contexts that deeply influence their operation, their goals, their successes, and their failures. It also calls into question the vague and universalist values the humanities have called their primary product for so long. As Alex notes, we tend to roll things up into convenient packages, to which we attach definite articles (“the political,” “the digital,” etc.) that apologize for all the details we don’t bother with.

Yes, some threads run through the whole fabric of human civilizations. But also yes, all of them change and evolve in relation to the material conditions of a particular moment. Despite constant critical theoretical incantations about futurity and deferral and uncertainty and politics, the humanities are finally discovering that they ought to care about the present and the future.

When seen in that light, the “digital humanities” are not a movement within the humanities but, as Alex Reid suggests, a first reaction to the cold, harsh stare of reality. If Žižek were here, he’d call it the “stain of the Real,” the Hitchcockian blot that peers out from the normal fabric of things. Except the ordinary real is not like the Lacanian Real, ever inaccessible, slipping away as we grasp at it through the symbolic. Reality, it turns out, is just real in the ordinary sense. Everything is as real as the iPad, as Zotero, as WordPress, as all the silly trifles that so obsess the digital humanist. How could it possibly have taken so long to notice?

published March 9, 2011


  1. Robert Jackson

    Itâ??s taken so long to notice, because most scholars have been (and still are) trapped in a â??Stockholm Syndromeâ?? style of perpetual hatred and admiration for their rather beleaguered independence.

    Theory-as-practice has achieved enough predictability already.

    Rejuvenated pragmatism awaits…

  2. Ian Bogost


    Well put.

  3. Alex Reid

    Thanks Ian. I think you put it better than I did. And this is what makes the digital humanities interesting to me, far more so than whatever digital mechanisms humanists are able to build.

  4. Mark N.

    It’s not really my battle, but what continues to confuse me about the upsurge in “digital humanities” is that when I look at any specific thing claimed to be part of it, it’s something a bunch of humanists have already been doing for decades, whether it’s theorizing new media, or doing statistical analysis of text corpora.

    So it feels like actually selling the humanities short to position it as a new development, as if humanists just now noticed that computers exist, and spent the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s somehow completely oblivious. It even feels retro in a way; just rename “digital humanities” to “cyberhumanities”, and you’ve got a movement that could feel at home around the time Tron was released.

    Is it just that it’s become a bigger and more pervasive part of humanities culture?

  5. Mark N.

    A historian acquaintance offers the following combative explanation: “When they say ‘humanities’, they mean ‘Theory’. They see historians and classicists as old-fashioned dinosaurs, but the Perseus Digital Library is from 1985, I did n-gram analysis in the 70s, and we’ve always studied the role technologies play in history.”

  6. Ian Bogost

    Not combative Mark. I agree with him. But the fact that Perseus (which I have used often since 1995) is/was an outlier just underscores my point.

  7. Ian Bogost


    Just saw your first comment now too. I think we’re saying the same thing, aren’t we?

  8. Mark N.

    Hmm perhaps we are. I took “digital humanities are just the humanities of the present moment” to mean “the 21st century” or something similar, while I see digital humanities as just what humanities (in the parts that has been paying attention) has been for decades. But I can see your post (and Alex’s) as basically saying that also.

    The historian offers a comment on the point about realism: “I don’t think we’ve had the same objections to scientific realism, perhaps because we rely on it so much. Can you be a historian without believing radiocarbon dating and geology give us factual evidence about the real world? One can interrogate constructed discourses within historiography, but interrogating radiocarbon dating as a discourse would be unorthodox.”

  9. Mr. Seacrudge

    He is not REALLY speculative. He is not REALLY “weird”.

    In fact, he has returned from a voyage through the distant fringes of transcendental nihilism, bearing the Ultimate Truth: THE REAL IS THE ORDINARY! And all beings are on the same level of this Ordinary… They are completely transparent… They do not “withdraw” after all… The world IS flat after all!

    Pack it up philosophers, and go home. There’s no more scientific discoveries to be made. No new insights to be had. No mystery left to ponder.

    The universe is solved! Only instrumentality and optimization remain.

    You see, he has learned all the languages: human tongues, machine codes. He has plowed through Heidegger, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Harman, and on an on. But then he has distilled their essence and transcended them. There were certain Things they didn’t understand…

    For then, after so many years of study–then, finally, FINALLY–Dr. Bogost ARRIVED in the present moment: first the personal present moment, then the historical one, but ultimately even the ABSOLUTE PRESENT MOMENT…. A unit of time smaller than a quark or a zeptosecond, so small a trillion trillion present moments could die in the twinkling of an eye…

    And in that Present Moment, his soul standing atop the tip a pin and finding in it the horizon of an endless plateau, Dr. Bogost SAW what had been buried for millennia by unfathomable jargon and hidden from the most misanthropic philosophers: YES! The ORDINARY!! YES…

    Right then and there, still in the Absolute Present Moment, merged in the most equiprimordinary way as the Personal AND the Historical, the Historical AND the Absolute–

    Right then and there Dr. Bogost determined Things definitively, as Baudrillard would say– before giving up everything for a life of samba…

    Yes, now he hears but a single note, repeated over and over, and over and over and over. And over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. And over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. And over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over

    And that note is the single note of the present moment: the Ordinary. The life of rocks, the aspirations of ball bearings, the ambitions of dust.

    Presumably, at present Dr. Bogost leads a life on the same level as the sound waves themselves, the striking drums, the mallets, the plucks of strings, the pitter patter of dancing feet pummeling raw earth…

    For us, there is now nothing left but to thank him for bearing his soles–

    with our silence.

  10. Erik Champion

    I have to disagree with “The digital humanities are just the humanities of the present moment.”

    There is more happening in the present moment than the digital. Plato quoted cited or attacked via a blog does not make him a digital humanist, nor does the digital transmission and storage of the blog post make his critic a digital humanist.

  11. Ian Bogost


    You don’t have to disagree to hold your position. Of course there’s more going on than digital stuff. I’m not saying that humanities are exclusively defined digitally, but that to talk about the “digital humanities” is to talk about the present and the future, unusual gestures indeed.

    I don’t think calling anyone a “digital humanist” makes any sense, for the reasons Mark N. notes in his first comment at to.