Cousins Post 1: Do You Speak Digital?

Apologies for the length – I’m not quite to the “effective synthesis” stage of this subject yet – still sort of splashing around and making a bit of a mess! 


C.P. Snow’s christening of the sciences and humanities as “two cultures” defines the gap between the two fields as one of communication and comprehension, a sort of language barrier that is both answered by and problematized by the development of the “digital humanities” concepts across the rest of the articles.

Snow comments on a “lack of understanding” between the two fields despite their proximity, “as though the scientists spoke nothing but Tibetan” (3). The mutual incomprehension is a sort of “tone-deafness”, an inability to bridge the gap predicated not just on disinterest, but also on lack of training (15).

The dual nature of the digital humanities field seems apt for cultivating that understanding ear. There is a “closing of the gap” in each of the articles—though the terms surrounding the field / practice change as we move from Selfe’s focus on computers (she says the word so much that it started to take on a sort of overly-magical quality; by repetition the importance of the object itself started to seem anachronistic) to Unsworth’s more technical “humanities computing” to Moretti’s “abstract models” (which I am seeing as one example of what digital humanities can do rather than an encompassing model of its technique). Still, each article repeats Snow’s emphasis on the social and his communication-oriented language. Selfe mentions the potential “social impact” of new technologies and looks toward English departments as “social collectives” and “intellectual discourse communities” while acknowledging the current “segmentation of information and communication” (63). Unsworth, too, emphasizes “the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other” and considers “Knowledge representations…a medium of expression and communication”(1).

At the end of the readings, then, I had formed a picture in my mind of digital humanities as something like a new language or tool as opposed to a particular interest or form of content. The merging of computation and communication also defines the digital humanities as a language / tool that contains its own inherent problems of expression and that can be used for both cooperative and divisive purposes, depending on how one wields it.

In each article, the simultaneously quantitative-practical and interpretive-theoretical natures of ‘computers in English departments’, of humanities computing, and of ‘abstract models for literary history’ create internal questions about the results of digital humanities practices in the larger humanities milieu. For Selfe, it can bring out the best or worst of English scholarship, creating opportunity or reifying problematic hierarchies and power dynamics. For Moretti, “the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem—and no idea of a solution” (86). Unsworth mentions the possibility that “any efficiency stands opposed in some way to the fullness of expression” (7). The differing natures of the science and humanities that cause cultural barriers in Snow’s article seem to be present in their amalgamation as well.

Discussions of efficiency, then, put a new emphasis on purpose. If digital humanities practices are tools, what are we using them for? Is it as simple as serving Humanities oriented purposes through scientific methods? Or do the purposes change with the adoption of the methods – it seems like the goals themselves are becoming larger in scale, more collaborative, less inwardly oriented (towards both the text and the scholar). Is this symptomatic of using new tools, or is it only that we are only now able to tackle these types of projects because of new resources? Does it matter?

For now, Kirschenbaum’s definition of the digital humanities as “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies” resonates with me the most—and each of the articles seems to emphasize his further statement that “digital humanities is also a social undertaking.” Because of this, in addition to speaking the language of Digital Humanities, it seems we are tasked with learning to speak about the language itself, write its rules and its uses as if binding it up in a grammar textbook. Is this possible? Useful? Is it only through full immersive practice that we can first become fluent, and then learn to re-articulate what we’ve created?

One thought on “Cousins Post 1: Do You Speak Digital?

  1. rjones2155 says:

    When I was reading The Two Cultures, the image that you’ve included in your post was on my mind. I also think it pulls up many of the problematic themes of the reading and current perceptions of both disciplines. This idea is prevalent in movies (especially movies), books, and in general discussions about the importance of the humanities. I think it’s interesting that this image has survived because there still exists the question of “why the humanities?”. What I also think is really interesting about images like this and movies where brilliant scientists clone dinosaurs without thinking about the repercussion, is that these are created by writers and artists.

    I like your idea that digital humanities are bridging the gap and creating a broader language of communication that can reach “across the aisle.” It seems from these articles that digital humanities is the practice of a similar academic rigor and a practice that may not be fully acknowledged yet. I also like the focus on computing as a language and also that you raise the question “do we need to learn this language, is it possible?”. I also raised a similar question and I think that the language of computing needs to be decoupled from belonging solely to the sciences. It’s so prevalent in today’s society that I think that i can become the domain of any who can learn it. Not knowing this language can create those social hierarchies that Selfie and you mention, and to break down those barriers, I believe the language of computing needs to become more accessible to all. This would require re-working the educational system, but it almost seems like it’s becoming too important to ignore.


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