Gilmer Post 4: Neutral Space (And Other Figments of My Imagination)

Since their conception, the digital humanities have expressed a fickle relationship with the sciences. Scholarship ranges from wholehearted endorsement to scathing denunciation of the scientific model, fluctuating in a pendulumic rhythm: while our first week of readings asserted the importance of bridging the “two cultures,” this week’s scholars seem very hesitant to jump on the scientific bandwagon. In “The Digital Humanities as a Laboratory,” Amy Earhart explains that “the digital humanities lab is primarily imagined as science lab-like,” but rarely functions as such. Quoting Unsworth, Earhart argues that “our emulation may not actually bear that much resemblance to the reality of what goes on in science” (393). DH has essentially transformed into a knock-off handbag. This holds true for Stephen Ramsay, who professes an “obsession with building and making,” but ironically asserts that he hasn’t “really built or made anything” in his time as a digital humanist. What he does instead “is philosophize […] about digital humanities” (Ramsay, italics added); depressingly, any active roles typically relegate DHers to technical coding positions. And what an awful word he uses: he isn’t a doer, but a philosophizer. Digital humanities functions not a frontier of action, but as another great fat void of sitting around and thinking. Way to go, Ramsay: undermine the foundation of our entire class.


In light of these accusations of charlatanism, I find Kirschenbaum’s article very convincing: “When a federal funding agency flies the flag of the digital humanities, one is incentivized to brand their work as digital humanities” (10). Academic trends tend to go where the money goes, and at this current historical moment, the money is in the tech industry. As Earhart points out, there “remains a deep suspicion of bringing a science model to humanities work” (394). Are we, as DHers, simply wolves in sheep’s clothing? (Alpacas in sheep’s clothing? You get the point.)

Svensson’s “humanistiscope” emerges as a potentially useful paradigm, but I hesitate to conceive of DH studies on a humanistic foundation. Ramsay declares that DH should “break with the past”–a very different sentiment than Svensson, who advocates for a balance between the technical and humanist disciplines. I agree with Svensson that a “multiplex” methodology is necessary, but I question whether or not his model can meet the requirements of a “neutral space.” DH currently lacks the tools to articulate and construct an interdisciplinary infrastructure. Every time I try to mentally build this space, I get a very clear image of the border between North and South Korea: a highly guarded, miniscule strip of land that no one can access. 

Not such a pleasant thought, is it? Maybe I’m being too negative about the model–but if the point of DH is to create scholarship that is unrecognizable as traditional scholarship, then don’t we need an infrastructure that is equally unrecognizable as infrastructure?

To continue this week’s theme of constructing (and tearing down) disciplinary walls, I’ve attached a link to the Duke BorderWork(s) Lab (http://sites.fhi.duke.edu/borderworks/). This lab focused on national, communicative, and historical border-making, providing an amalgamation of border-work projects in a collaborative digital atmosphere. However, as you’ve probably noticed, I used the past tense–these guys shut down in 2014, it seems (thankfully past projects are still available on the site). I’m very interested in everyone’s opinions of this project, as I personally question whether or not this work qualifies as progressive. I’m a huge fan of anything digital, don’t get me wrong, but within the parameters of this specific lab, the digital element is fairly minimized. That’s not to say that the lab as a whole is conservative, and some of you may disagree with me after you take a look at the lab’s other projects. But when a project is advertised as being within the DH, I don’t expect to find a printed monograph among them: http://sites.fhi.duke.edu/borderworks/preview/biography-of-a-wall/. Is this a conservative approach to DH? Or is this what a “neutral space” looks like–an equal inclusion of text and digital? Personally, I doubt whether such a space is conceivable. Hopefully labs will prove me wrong!

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