Patrik Svensson always seems to elegantly and lucidly set out the state of the DH landscape in his scholarship. In “The Humanistiscope—Exploring the Situatedness of Humanities Infrastructure,” Svensson introduces us to the notion of the “humanistiscope” as a new mode of viewing infrastructure that is created for the specific needs of the humanities. I’m interested in the discord that arises due to his identification of the opportunity, indeed the need, for DH as a ‘field’ to creatively and uniquely forge its own infrastructure, whilst adhering to the larger cultural, social, political, and technological frameworks around us. This tension is most obvious when we situate the goal of “unlocking infrastructural making and doing” alongside the practical necessity to “relate to the notion of infrastructure established by the policy makers, funding agencies, and institutions of higher education” (337, 344). A number of DH commentaries have expressed the desire to completely re-imagine processes and tools rather than merely revitalize the old, but realize that they must be grounded in real-world institutional politics. Svensson’s phrase the “situated imagination” helpfully combines these ideas, and he acknowledges that “making a case for [rethinking DH] infrastructure is one of politics and packaging as well as ideas, people, and equipment” (338).
Recent trends that Svensson identifies as imbedded in DH’s situated imagination are viewed in real-world spaces and methodologies; for example, they are all encompassed in the package that is the newly established University of Sussex Humanities Lab. Officially opening this month, the SHL is still developing its first projects, but aims to “re-launch the humanities” through the digital. Their mission statement claims to “re-imagine the humanities” without relying on “inherited disciplinary approaches,” and to this end the Lab is directed by an interdisciplinary team with backgrounds in media studies, philosophy, politics, sociology, performing arts, cultural studies, and coding and algorithms (https://humslab.wordpress.com/). But the SHL website also demonstrates the institutional expectation that has shaped the initiative. The £3 million investment demands longevity, and PhDs are the only individuals invited to apply for funded research positions at the Lab, in specific fields of study. Svensson considers the digital humanities lab an ideal model that can bring together different humanistiscopes, but the SHL shows that such a space, whether digital and/or physical, is largely formulated under a policy-driven rule of thumb. The policy itself is not necessarily undesirable, but it certainly limits the DH’s potential explosion in scope and innovation by setting out expectations based on traditional methods of study and evaluation.
As a side note, I’m very much in support of Svensson’s claim that “The [DH] challenge is also one of moving from critical sensibility to creative, if conditioned, making, which often does not come easy to the humanities” (337). His statement reminds me of the irony that when bridging the “two cultures” in a humanities lab, the humanists are often viewed as bring the creative element to the more structured workspace traditionally favored by the scientific community. However, except for specific programs such as creative writing degrees, we could argue that the humanities often find it difficult to integrate the creative into the academic. This is of course a gross generalization, but I think it’s worth considering the fact that the humanities still largely consists of disciplines defined by strict practices, making it all the more bizarre that humanists are viewed as compellingly more creative forces when undertaking work with STEM collaborators.
Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “The Humanistiscope—Exploring the Situatedness of Humanities Infrastructure.” In Between Humanities and the Digital, eds. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg, 337-353. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.