The End of the Digital Humanities

I just read Roger Malina’s  compelling blog post: “Yes again to the end of the Digital Humanities.”  I found myself agreeing with most–but not all–of it. Like Malina, I fervently hope the term Digital Humanities is transitional, for a number of reasons: It’s an awful umbrella term that can mean nearly anything (as Malina’s link to this site suggests) that is also syntactically confusing (is it singular? is it plural? is digital an adjective or a hyphen-challenged compound noun?).  But especially problematic to many humanists is its at once colonizing (resistance is futile) and divisive (you are an anointed member of the technorati or you are a luddite) stance within the academy–a rhetorical stance which borrows more from the cornier conventions of science fiction than anyone, on either side of the fence, might want to acknowledge.

Scholarship within the field hasn’t done much to help.  Early “cyberstudies” varied little except in the degree of their bombastic import, from broad-sweeping claims about the GUI’s role in destroying the modern subject to libertarian fantasies of intellectual emancipation.  These, at least, were cleanly written, if overblown, treatises.  The language of contemporary digital humanities  work, although not as dramatic in tone, is alienating in a different way, having introduced an entirely new vocabulary, imported from information technology and computer science, which, to the uninitiated, rivals the opacity of anything that emerged from the twisting, linguistic, Freud-haunted corridors of French poststructuralism.

I  also admit that I am sick of the term, even as I have benefitted from its current cultural cache, and even as I am grateful for what it’s accomplished.  And it has accomplished a lot–an enormous amount, in such a short span of time. Before DH became “a thing,” the practice and theory of computational humanities work were wholly divorced. Humanistic work on large data sets was excluded, de facto, from humanistic inquiry, and opportunities for technological training were excluded, de facto, from humanities curricula. This was a false separation, and DH has been enormously successful in challenging this divide.  Yet perhaps it’s been too successful. Broad-tent DH has engulfed Humanities Computing to the point that someone who writes about the aesthetic implications of digital technology (as I do) is via the DH descriptor lumped together with someone who does the programming, site development, and data structure of, say, the Perseus Project.  Is this a useful taxonomy?  Or, rather, is there a taxonomy? Or has the term DH, so amorphous and blobular, swallowed it?  Like the Blob, it seems to be all consuming.

Like Malina, I hope that the tools and methods that are emerging from humanities computing will get folded into to every-day humanistic research so that we will no longer treat them as threatening interlopers to be singled out for praise or scorn. This is already happening, thanks, in no small part, to the Chronicle’s popular band of  Professors Hacker, the NEH’s ODH, and the general success of DH efforts.

But I disagree with Malina’s hunch that “digital humanities” is “not a conceptually or theoretically useful term,” a conclusion that he comes to through a recap of his experience as an astronomer during the days of “digital astronomy,” which has now, thankfully, been subsumed into, simply, “astronomy.”  In the 1980s, he states, digital technology had a glossy newness to it, which necessitated a brief transitional period of assessment.  What this assessment revealed to astronomers, Malina states, was that “the ‘digital’ nature of the information was not conceptually useful but rather that the development enabled new astronomical research agendas.”  The only thing that remains of this brief period of DA is the “Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems (ADASS) conference,” which “provides a forum for scientists and programmers concerned with algorithms, software and software systems employed in the acquisition, reduction, analysis, and dissemination of astronomical data.” Digital Humanities will follow suit, Malina predicts.  They should be folded up into the regular humanities so the humanities can return to the business of being the humanities.  As a bonus, we would never have to hear this awful term again.

This argument seems compelling at first.  The Digital Humanities are in their early days, still grappling with the relationship between digitization, culture, and the arts.  And we can even see a parallel between the ADASS and the ADHO. But comparing DH to digital astronomy sets up a false analogy. The practice of “digital astronomy,” at least in Malina’s brief account of it here, does not seem to have called into question the conceptual foundations and objectives of the discipline. That is to say, astronomers may have been shaken up–a bit, briefly–by the tools they used to study stars, but, in the end, they were still in agreement that their object of study was sidereal. Star-stuff.

The same cannot be said of the humanities. Humanists are no longer in agreement about what constitutes their object of study.  Truth be told, they haven’t been for some time, well before DH lurched onto the scene.  You don’t necessarily realize this as an undergraduate or even a graduate student.  It doesn’t become clear, perhaps, until you’ve been in a few different Universities, seen how wildly the culture can vary from place to place, department to department, state to state.  Basic foundational assumptions about what it means to be a humanist, and the ethical implications they build up to, are fraught, fractured and contradictory, all across the academy.

What the digital humanities have done is put these contradictions into relief.

So as terrible as the term “Digital Humanities” may be, it does crucial conceptual work.  Would I like to see the term go away?  Yes.  But there’s a lot more work to do before that happens.

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