20 September 2015
Week 5 Blog Post
Interrogating the Digital Humanities: Institutional Politics and the Polemics of Practice
Given the heated controversy and highly contested uses of the term perhaps we should instead refer to DH as digital inhumanities . . . sheesh. Moving forward: I’d like to highlight some of the overarching themes, issues, and recurring questions that emerged across this week’s collection of essays that I noticed in an effort to trace, what I perceive to be, some threads of continuity (and discontinuity) within ongoing debates surrounding the Digital Humanities (w/r/t their definition, purpose, and role in relation to other fields within the humanities). Although, admittedly, I didn’t make it through the entire book, I did manage to read several essays from each section and here’s what I gleaned:
- The importance of drawing a distinction between digital humanities as an academic field (or subfield) and its subsequent methodologies versus treating it as an abstraction: a concept, idea, or even ideology.
- The question of inclusion and exclusion: how inclusive? (i.e. Stephen Ramsay’s controversial “Who’s in and Who’s Out”) which prompts us to ask: what counts as ‘doing’ DH? In other words, in their attempt to address the question of authenticity several of these essays pose the question of inclusion and, at least to me, this essentially becomes a question of scale and scope.
- The problematics of applying a Procrustean, homogenizing term to, what is inherently, a heterogeneous array of practices that occur along a spectrum (or, as Hall would phrase it: a “continuum”).
As you might surmise, these topics are obviously interrelated and there is a substantial degree of overlap between and among them; which, I think, is indicative of the variegated perspectives represented in this volume and only further testifies to the ambiguous (if not vertiginous) lack of consensus as to what, exactly, digital humanities is, does, and should be.
Here’s a thought experiment by way of hypothetical example– premise: the digital humanities have been and continue to be the subject of scrutiny within the academy. Yet, if we relegate DH to just another academic fad or trend, are we at risk of committing a hypocritical dismissal of an entire and polyvalent approach to literary studies? To put it another way: it seems perfectly acceptable to critique a theoretical or philosophical apparatus (such as Marxism, Feminism, or Psychoanalysis, etc.) but who would ever dare direct their critical gaze at an entire field of specialization (such as Romanticism, Early Modernism, or Victorianism)? Is DH a movement, a field, a theoretical framework or, perhaps, something else entirely? Thus, Dave Parry is able to ask (taking his queue from Raymond Carver): “what do we talk about when we talk about digital humanities?” Parry’s line of inquiry is guided by his meta-analytical approach of tracking word usage/frequency within contemporary digital humanities discourse. The most incisive and compelling rhetorical move Parry makes is to draw the distinction between DH as claiming to do something different or new and DH as something that is doing things differently. Parry goes on to invoke Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in order to demonstrate that the real, meaningful, underlying question is not “what is the digital humanities?” but, instead, “what [does the digital do] to our concept of humanities and, by extension, even our concept of the human?” This shifts the focus of inquiry from a semantic rabbit hole (ad nauseam/ad infinitum) toward a more productive, ontological line of investigation.
Another issue that resurfaced throughout the readings was how some view DH as a panacea that will miraculously revive/resuscitate/rescue (pick one) the humanities from its seemingly ineluctable demise (“rebooting” the humanities?), while others harbor the misconception that DH is somehow incompatible with or even inimical to traditional literary scholarship. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Matthew Jockers who, incidentally, along with Glen Worthey, helped organize and host the “Big Tent” themed Digital Humanities conference held at Stanford University in 2011. In our interview, Dr. Jockers expressed some reluctance to adhere to or self-apply a title that carries such connotative (often negative) freight.
Again, paraphrasing Jockers: DH has achieved a considerable amount of cultural cachet (or, should I say, cashe?) such that, for some, it renders the title meaningless and, therefore, to a certain extent, useless. In his book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, Jockers draws an analogical correlation between the macroeconomic approach to analysis and, what he terms, a “macroanalytic” approach to studying literary history (25). To wit: if we can all somehow agree that DH is collaborative and inclusive– to what extent? (no pun intended). Svensson discusses the backlash generated by Yale’s adoption of digital humanities into their curriculum; namely, Amanda Gailey’s response to Yale’s induction of the Digital Humanities as a “watershed moment” (referring to Willard McCarty’s declaration): a threat to those who, as she phrased it, “professionally defined ourselves as digital humanists before it became an MLA buzzword.” This evinces a certain apprehension and tension about the territoriality and “gatekeeping” that can/has (take your pick) infiltrated DH. Svensson asks, “whether the tent can naturally be taken to include critical work construing the digital as an object of inquiry rather than as a tool.” As an alternative, Svensson proposes “a ‘no tent’ approach” that is, instead, a “trading zone” and/or “meeting place.” Or, as Davidson puts it: “Perhaps we need to see technology and the humanities not as a binary but as two sides of a necessarily interdependent, conjoined, and mutually constitutive set of intellectual, educational, social, political, and economic practices” (“Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions”)
Takeaway point: at the end of the day (in DH) it seems like a futile attempt to corral the digital humanities and force it/them into an ossified definition: a metonymic oversimplification of an irreducible and dynamic set of practices, beliefs, and methods. Any attempt to subsume DH under one totalizing heading is an insurmountable and misguided effort. However, there is an upshot of uncertainty: if the digital humanities can’t be defined, then that allows for it to be continually redefined: perhaps the future of the digital humanities resides in the very liminality that ensures its livelihood.[i]
Jockers, Matthew L. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2013. Print.
––––. Personal Interview. 17 Sep 2015.
Parry, Dave. “The Digital Humanities or a Digital Humanism.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2012. Web. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates. 19 Sep 2015.
Svensson, Patrik. “Beyond the Big Tent.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2012. Web. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates. 19 Sep 2015.
 As some have claimed (see: William Deresiewicz’s “Professing Literature in 2008: Why Is the Intellectual Agenda of English Departments Being Set by Teenagers?” The Nation. (March 11, 2008).
 “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. New York: Vintage, 1989.
[i] Final thought: Bringing it back to our class’s specific emphasis on “doing”– making/creating vs. using: I’m reminded of Barthes’ “users” vs. “creators.”[i] This, for me, seems to be a central question that pervades DH discourse (alas, the jury’s still out on this one . . .)