belated and belabored

Caveat Emptor: Digital Humanities as a “Discursive Construction”[1]

“we do things differently in DH, we are vast”[2]

–Dr. Matthew Jockers

“My name is Legion; for we are many”

– Mark 5:9

After this week’s readings I found myself musing, along with a certain star-crossed heroine: “what’s in a name?”[3] Apparently, according to Kirschenbaum, Ramsay, and many others, a name carries connotative freight that can and, by and large, does determine “who’s in and who’s out.”[4] However, like any ‘new kid on the block,’ digital humanities is subject to ridicule and scrutiny; particularly from those that feel DH is encroaching on their hallowed territory. I’m reminded of Edmund Wilson’s caustic response to Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.[5] In other words, there have always been–and will always be–the naysayers, the sanctimonious skeptics, the self-righteous cynics: those who make it their sole purpose to ‘critique’ (i.e. criticize) others’ endeavors in a misguided effort to serve their own self-interests and promote their own agendas. This is what Kirschenbaum refers to as “the rhetoric of contempt” (7). Ultimately (and unfortunately), this often results in nothing more than an embarrassing intellectual pissing contest. Nevertheless, as Kirschenbaum notes, even as a “term of tactical convenience”– or, rather precisely because it’s treated as a “discursive construct”– there are real implications for digital humanists.

For many skeptics, the concept/practice of digital humanities simply ‘does . . . not . . . compute.’ The only point of consensus as to what digital humanities is or should be, for that matter, is that it remains to be decided; which, in turn, makes me wonder: is this uncertainty unique and/or inherent to digital humanities? And, if so, is that such a bad thing? (i.e. or does this mutability allow for a level of innovation, experimentation, and collaboration that isn’t present/possible in traditional approaches to the humanities?)

Regardless, the fact remains: there are real people out there doing real things that constitute authentic scholarship and, furthermore, deserve recognition and consideration. One such example is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili project at MIT This is an online codex to, what is considered to be, one of the earliest known extant incunabula of print culture (ca. 1499). The entire document is electronically reproduced in the original Italian, but there is a link to Liane Lefaivre’s exegesis; which, in addition to a plot synopsis, includes supplementary explanatory information about the typography, woodcut engravings, architecture, metaphors, and hidden messages in the text.

Furthermore, as a result of her undertaking, Lefaivre’s research also led her to attribute authorship to Leon Battista Alberti.

The point I’m trying to make is that whether or not we treat DH as a construct, it has a real-world, practical and logistical impact on the work and livelihood of those doing it. Institutional infrastructure aside, DH is here–like it or not–and, the amount of interest in defining and describing it only further testifies to its vitality and validity. The moment the debate is finally settled signals the impending demise of digital humanities.

Works Cited

Jockers, Matthew L. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2013. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is ‘Digital Humanties,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” differences 25.1 (2014). Durham, NC: Duke UP. Web.

24 Sep 2015.

[1] Rita Raley’s term (qtd. in Kirschenbaum 3)

[2] (fn. Jockers 12)

[3] Romeo and Juliet. (II.ii:43).

[4] the title of Ramsay’s controversial talk at the 2011 MLA Convention

[5] (“Who Care’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”) “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” The New Yorker. October 14, 1944.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: