You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebel DH

In the introduction to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold touches on a recurrent undertone in many discussions surrounding the digital humanities: DH’s inherent potential to transform, reform, or disrupt traditional humanities processes and values systems. As he points out, “the digital humanities, more than most fields, seems positioned to address many of those changes” (Gold 1). This “potential” is taken up directly or indirectly by authors in this volume with some range – for some, DH is simply another avenue for traditional scholarship, for others, it contains the same problems of hierarchy and homogeneity that the humanities in general contains, for still others it is a revolutionary force that should be harnessed not just within the academy but outside of it. Whether we consider DH to be a “Big Tent” or a meeting place, a category or a method, it’s clear that DH has the potential to transform. With that potential, I think, comes a certain amount of power. But – and yes, I’m going Spiderman on this one – does it also imply a certain amount of responsibility?


To put it another way: Does DH’s revolutionary potential within academia mean that DHers have a subsequent responsibility to practice the kind of projects that push directly against traditional peer-reviewed publishing, devaluation of collaboration, the monograph, etc.? Do the “fault lines” that Gold says have “emerged within the DH community between those who use new digital tools to aid relatively traditional scholarly projects and those who believe that DH is most powerful as a disruptive political force that has the potential to reshape fundamental aspects of academic practice” imply that some are taking up this revolutionary cause, and others are shirking their DH obligations toward creating a greater good?

If there is a responsibility tied to DH’s transformative potential, is it limited to transformation within the academy, to “practices (or “sacred cows”) such as tenure, publication, and peer review” (Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities” 1)? Is that responsibility toward the larger humanities community in general, to “assist humanities advocacy,” as Alan Liu and 4Humanities state (Liu, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities”)? Or, as Elizabeth Losh suggests, is it not only about “hacking the academy” but “hacking the world” – does the responsibility to reshape also extend outside humanities and the academy in general, into public forums and social justice (Losh, “Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University”)?

To me, it seems that the transformative potential should at least be taken advantage of with respect to academia’s traditional value systems, or “sacred cows” – and this internal transformation could perhaps lead to a renovation of the humanities in general, over time. But do we have time?

Charlie Edwards points out that “The analogy DH’s critics like to make is with Big Theory, and this is the implication: that one day we will look back on DH as just another wave that broke over the academy, eroded its formations perhaps in some small places, and then receded, leaving a few tranquil rock pools behind” (Edwards, “The Digital Humanities and Its Users”). William Pannapacker implies something similar, that the revolutionary potential of DH may have an expiration date as its recognition as a discipline grows:

There’s justice in this turn of events: well-earned success for a community that has long regarded itself as facing uncomprehending resistance. At the same time, the tendency to become like Big Theory may change the attractive ethics of the field, described by one panelist “as community, collaboration, and goodwill.” The grassroots days seem to be ending. (PannaPacker, “Digital Humanities Triumphant?”)

There may be a danger, it seems, as the once novel becomes the new normal, as we drop either the D or the H in service of the other letter, that DH will be subsumed into the traditional values systems of academia and leave “humanities education, in general…unchanged” (PannaPacker). Will DHers, feeling the pressure to stay afloat and reach success in a system that isn’t suited to evaluating their work, push to adapt to that system? Or alternatively, as the system does begin to see the value of DH, which seems to be happening more and more, will DH lose the edges that give it its initial revolutionary potential? How does DH keep from morphing, over time, into Big Theory?

Lastly, does transformation need to take place first within the digital humanities in order to have any outward effect? Do internal mirroring of larger issues in the humanities (hierarchies, elitism, a lack of attention to gender, race, class, and able-bodied biases, etc.) detract from DH’s transformative potential?

If DH is, as it is sometimes framed, a sort of new superpower subgenre of the humanities that can either remake the system or bolster it, be subsumed into it or shape the world outside it, how does the community decide that power’s orientation? Is DH a traditional, strong but silent superhero in service of the status-quo, a la Captain America? Or is it a socially conscious vigilante like the Green Arrow? Or maybe the messianic narrative is a little more than DH can handle at this point – perhaps DH (as a whole) is more analogous to an adolescent who finds themselves in a position of power and is torn between disrupting the system, doing the right thing, and just doing cool stuff?


One DH lab / center that has definitive stance on the transformative power of the digital is the Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University in the UK. The Centre focuses both on the study of “disruptive technologies” as an object as well as experimentation with disruptive technologies as a tool (“Our Take on Disruption”, Center for Disruptive Media). Their projects range from the creation of archives (see the digitization of British Telecom’s Archive) to collaborative, open access publications like Living Books About Life or Performative Publications that “align more closely the material form of a publication with its content). Their main interest with these projects, however, is:

“the future of university teaching, learning, research and publication in the age of disruptive media. We view the emergence of media technologies such as smart phones, tablets, p2p networks and the mobile web as providing us with an opportunity to rethink the university – fundamentally, yet also creatively and affirmatively. In other words, our concern is with how digital media technologies can help us to disrupt some of the university’s core foundational concepts, values, practices and genres, both theoretically and performatively. These include the idea of the subject as a static, stable, unitary identity, the indivisible and individualized proprietorial author, the linear argument and text, originality, the finished object, ‘fixity’, intellectual property, copyright and even the human.”

One project, Liquid Theory TV, looks at alternative methods of being an intellectual / communicating intellectual ideas through new technologies. This first episode, for example, focuses on “Liquid Books” by Gary Hall and Clare Birchall: (Is there a way to embed videos on here? Couldn’t figure it out!)
Their project not only seems oriented toward collaboration between scholars, but also broadening access to the public – and the decision to “demystify” is also something of a collapse of a typical informational hierarchy. “Open access” seems to be big at the Centre for Disruptive Media – I wonder how much of the transformation of academia – “Hacking the Academy” – is an opening of the academy to the outside world?

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