Digitizing and humanizing

“Although expanding the audience for historical scholarship continues to be a goal for digital historians, we might ask how and what we a building for these audiences.”

–William G. Thomas in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History

The how and the what of digital humanities only seem to get more contentious as it comes into clearer focus. Thomas, along with his fellow participants in the 2008 discussion, might have been disappointed, but probably not surprised. Digital humanities is a movement to stake out a space for the humanities on the cutting edge of methodology, and it is also a movement for a “big tent,” inviting new voices into places that might otherwise be dominated by academic institutions. But as a “disruptive political force,” in Matthew K. Gold’s phrase, it also seems to revolve around some especially long-lived arguments about what, exactly, the digital humanities is. (Or are. Take your pick.)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick approaches the question via a history of the field, in her article “The Humanities, Done Digitally.” Like many scholars, she traces the digital humanities’ ancestry to  the field of “humanities computing,” which sought to bring computing power to the humanities. Data-driven humanities scholarship offers some examples, like Mapping the Republic of Letters, which tracks the physical pathways of key enlightenment-era correspondence. As Patricia Cohen points out in her “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” other fields have reached new capabilities through new computing technologies. Why should the humanities be left out?

That’s a persuasive argument, but it might lead us to view the digital humanities as a basically methodological movement, and I’m not convinced that’s a complete picture. We can see in the argument throughout the digital humanities moment. In that same 2008 discussion, Michael Frisch predicts that digital humanities “may change the research, the production process, and ultimately our understanding of history itself.” Listening to most of the people who would call themselves digital humanists today, you’d have a hard time finding a dispute with that prediction. Patricia Cohen connects the methodological focus of the digital humanities with a wider post-theoretical trend, and Fitzpatrick herself sees an update of the theory-versus-practice dispute in the digital humanities’ argument over the relative importance of “building” and interpretation.

But the field’s greatest vulnerability might lie in that very argument, and its capacity to raise technical ability above more scholarly values. In a skeptical article on the state of the digital humanities, Adam Kirsch points to a field undergoing an “identity crisis” in which big-computing hype is leading scholars into a position where neither technical nor humanistic best practices hold sway. The authors of “Neoliberal Tools and Archives,” while they make a separate critique, go even further, calling out “a slapdash form of computational linguistics adorned with theoretical claims that would never pass muster within computational linguistics itself.” But their challenge to the digital humanities is to seek an integration of method and theory, rather than to abandon either. They quote Adam Liu’s concern that in the emerging world of digital scholarship, “technical expertise trumps all other forms of knowledge.”

These criticisms are important, and the call to tame excessive hype seems on-point. But even the authors of “Neoliberal Tools and Archives” go on to place the digital humanities, like Fitzpatrick does, within a longer argument in the humanities. When Kirsch challenges that new digital tools, “no matter how powerful, are themselves incapable of generating significant new ideas,” I’d like to remind him that the old analog tools don’t, either. He is right to conclude that one of the best things the humanities can now do is to “resist and critique” new digital methodologies, but if he imagines this is a novel idea to scholars within the digital humanities, I have to wonder how closely he has really followed the thread.

I have the pleasure of being a grad student in the digital humanities here in 2016, so I appreciate this argument, but I side with those scholars who don’t mind working around the edges of the fight. If we are doing humanities, and we are doing digital media/methods, then I’m not too bothered by the boundaries we might be muddying along the way. I take an especial interest in the history of technology, partly because it helps me to look past the short-sighted categories of “digital” and “everything else.” But the big questions, the “how” and the “what” questions, deserve serious thought, especially if we intend to take the insular club of high-tech and make it a truly “big tent” for the breadth of voices that is so poorly represented in either digital media or the humanities. As Dan Cohen put it, the bigger question about the future is “whether historians are going to be active in shaping it.”