Diminishing Returns on Tactical Terms? Plus a Very Derivative and Reductive Quiz.

In “What is ‘Digital Humanities’ And Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” Matthew Kirschenbaum quotes Rita Raley’s articulation of “digital humanities” as a “discursive construction” (3). Later, he describes it as a “term of tactical convenience” (4) that is “unabashedly employed to get things done” (4). For Kirschenbaum, it seems, the construct is a limiting one: “To indulge digital humanities only ever as a construct and a site of contest is also thus to give in to a world view that seems to me precisely neoliberal, precisely zero sum and agonistic—disembodied, desocialized, and evacuated of materiality or material history” (7). This limitation is partly a symptom of the constructs discursive nature; its aim is to define and then include (or rather, exclude), set the boundaries (10), but because it is purely discursive, it also distracts from the fact that digital humanities is, above all else, “work, somebody’s work, somewhere, some thing, always” (16). He pushes us to “talk about this work, in action, this actually existing work” (16), to return a sense of materiality to the conversation and move beyond the purely discursive construct. Ramsay echoes this sentiment, a sort of elevated “Less talk, more action” in “Why I’m In It,” ending the piece with a self-admonition that he should perhaps “go make something new” rather than write a book, manifesto, or blog post (1).


I can certainly understand the frustration and the desire to root the conversation in tangibility—this is something I was thinking about in a previous post, since I had trouble during earlier readings in visualizing DH or concretizing what its practices could be without tangible examples—without seeking my definitions through real work. At the same time, though—are there moments in which constructs, even purely discursive ones, are useful for disciplines that are still in moments of self-definition? Even if they are useful only in the fact that they can serve as a gateway to or a means of obtaining material support for projects that might not yet have tailor made spaces and infrastructures?

I’m thinking specifically of Svensson’s article on humanistiscope. Svensson uses the “humanistiscope” as a “thought piece” (339), a “rhetorical device that can help us conceptualize” (348) and a “tool to help us think about and enact a humanities infrastructure” (348, emphasis mine). As a rhetorical device, Svensson sees the “humanististicope” as a means of articulating something that has not yet been articulated, that can’t adopt previous models because of its specific and unique goals: “For one thing, there is not necessarily a name for the kind of things under discussion here (existing or possible humanistic infrastructures), and the notion of the humanistiscope gives us a way of packaging and imagining humanities infrastructure without being locked into a current vocabulary and infrastructures” (339). That “way of imagining” is also a way to enact, a means of achieving necessary material structures tailored to DH needs.

This strikes me as the possible value (or at least past value) of a construct like the term “digital humanities”: even as a purely discursive stand-in, it is a means of achieving non-discursive results, be they financial, infrastructural, concerned with evaluation practices, etc.
In Svensson’s case, the use of a new term, a tactical term, is partially driven by the inability of previous infrastructural models to meet the specific needs of the digital humanities; the danger of imitating already existing models that are geared toward established disciplines (often scientific) is also articulated by Earhart. There is a danger, for both of them, in adopting rather than tailoring these models, largely because the humanities are much more multimodal, even commons-like, in their projects. As Svensson says, “a particularity of humanities infrastructure is that it is likely to be multiplex to accommodate different scholarly and educational needs. Major science infrastructure, in contrast, tends to be seen as more specific in terms of relating to certain projects, questions, or even certain problems” (351). A construct like humanistiscope is useful in that it allows for an imagining of an infrastructure not yet in place, tailored to humanities goals and free from the “clear risk…of adopting a science and engineering based model for humanities infrastructure in such a way that the model significantly constrains and shapes possible research enterprises and directions” (346). For Earhart, too, “It is crucial that we tailor the existing science laboratory model to meet best practices in the digital humanities.” (396).

The “work”, the projects that scholars produce does not happen in a vacuum; it is often produced through and catalyzed by conversation; tools are often developed because conversation and construct (imaginings) dictate the need. Structures, be they infrastructural, methodological, even spatial, also have an effect on the work that comes out of them, not just in how that work develops, but extending to what kinds of projects are conceived of in the first place. Do some constructs allow us to develop structures (labs, infrastructure, departments, centers, funding opportunities, etc.) that are particular to DH and don’t fall into the trap of purely mimicking scientific models? Has the “digital humanities” construct been useful in the past in allowing for the development of a discipline that is not wholly contained by either the purely scientific or the purely humanistic (if such categories even exist)? And even if the term has been useful in the past, has the constant rearticulation and reification of it outlived its value? Perhaps the large construct was useful in the past, but, as Kirschenbaum says, it is time to focus on the work. Earhart’s focus on labs and Svensson’s focus on infrastructure don’t focus on specific projects, but are certainly more rooted in materiality than the “Who’s in, Who’s out” conversations and “What is DH” conversations that have dominated in the past.

Perhaps one answer is that constructs can be useful, can expand our conceptions of what is possible and therefore move toward enacting specific, tailored systems that foster DH work instead of work based on previous models—as long as we renew them as the conversation develops. There is no final answer to “What is the Digital Humanities?” and, as Kirschenbaum says, this may be because “we don’t want to know nor is it useful for us to know” (11). But the answer, the “what” doesn’t seem to me to be the “end” for which such a construct is a useful means. Like a utopian imaginary, the construct “digital humanities” expands our notions of what can be done beyond current models. It allows us to detach from limiting connotations in the same way that humanistiscope frees DH infrastructure from science models. If we keep trying to use it as a means to a single answer, though, instead of following the new paths that are opened up by the discursive construction, the construct becomes limiting. If it is a tool, let it be a tool, and then move on.

Because this is the end of Part One, which seemed to be largely about defining, delineating, articulating, and categorizing, I created an example of a completely limiting, useless form of discussing DH – the Buzzfeed archetypal Personality quiz.

Buzzfeed Quiz

So click the link below to find out the single answer to the singular question, “What Kind of DHer Are You?”


Please note: descriptions and quiz elements do not reflect my actual opinions but are meant to be exaggerated versions of possible opinions within the DH community. It’s just for fun :).


One thought on “Diminishing Returns on Tactical Terms? Plus a Very Derivative and Reductive Quiz.

  1. I got “The Team Player”! Thanks for making this!

    And I think your final paragraph does a great job of pointing out the potential pitfalls of nomenclature. I find “What does it do?” or “What is it for?” much more interesting and useful questions than asking, “What is it?” Of course the latter may affect the former two, but in general, getting caught up in a semantic joust over what gets called “DH” doesn’t get you too far.


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