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 Å½iÅ¾ek 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?