Turn and Face the Strange: How Digital Humanists Embrace a Culture of Adaptation

(This post was originally written as an assignment in my grad level DH class. Part of the assignment was to write about how I might use DH in my own work in the future, but when I wrote this I had very little idea of what was possible in the field. Now, in the process of revising and adding to the assignments to complete them for the portfolio, I have included an addendum post which covers that question in some detail.)


As will happen to any new entry onto a field of combatants, Digital Humanities has taken its dings here and there. Some seek to destroy it, claiming that it has no part – or no special part – in the field of humanities, while others are critical of its lack of standards and cultural awareness. These are not entirely wrongheaded arguments against DH, but they do miss some key elements of the field that are seeking to address the problems it finds itself in. Digital humanists are quite aware of what they’re going through, and because of the flexibility inherent in the digital realm they are able to turn themselves to face the issues present in their field with more ease than traditional sections of the humanities.


Perhaps one of the strongest attacks against the Digital Humanities comes from David Golumbia, who goes through some of the claims that Digital humanists make and demonstrates how destructive those ideas can be to the humanities as a whole in his essay, “Death of a Discipline.” Included in his wrath is the idea that Digital humanists who, “wish to participate in literary studies … need to express much more clearly their commitment to existing forms of scholarly practice and their arguments for rejecting them in their own practice” (158). This hostility comes from one of the areas where Digital humanists are trying to change the way their institutions work, specifically that of questioning the value of individual authorship when it comes to papers and projects. The Digital Humanities is an inherently cooperative field and the more open process of coming up with new scholarship in it is not an attack on the old way but rather a recognition that the old methodology just does not work within new paradigms of research. Their only want is to have the collaborative work they do count towards the standards of advancement within the academic sphere (Gold 148). Of course more traditional research will still be done, and Digital humanists are not opposed to the traditional just because it is traditional, but the new way of doing things must be held in equal value, not seen as a sub-field with correspondingly less value.

There are places, though, where Digital humanists are working to tear down old ideas. A major example is that of open publishing. Where the orthodoxy of the academy has always been about holding research as part of its intellectual property, Digital humanists often see the research they create, including the tools they create to do their work, as being part of the knowledge base of the internet. It adapts the internet’s language and ideals because it is immersed within it, so open source becomes a kind of primary directive, and the free sharing of the final results (along with the documentation of the process getting to those results) is encouraged. This is yet another example of the Digital Humanities seeing a problem, that of knowledge being kept from people who would get the most out of it, and solving it by facing it head on. There are some drawbacks to such an open publishing paradigm, including the potential lack of rigor that such freely published and quickly changeable texts might encourage, but those negatives are balanced by the wider and freer spread of information, at least in the eyes of many Digital humanists.

But the complaints about Digital Humanities are not just based on their participation in or destruction of traditional academic procedures, they also stem from the kind of work that Digital humanists do. Golumbia laments (again) the loss of an old way of doing something to DH’s new world order when he claims that, “DH recommends the demotion of interpretive close readings as the hallmark of literary study, especially in its widespread deployment of ‘distant reading’” (160). But again, while the majority of DH scholars may participate more often in “distant reading,” studying a large body of texts using statistical means among others, than they do interpretive close readings, they make no value judgements about their research over that of the standard English scholar, just as a Victorianist does not claim to be better or do better work than a Modernist. They are just interested in different areas of the same very wide field. That is, distant reading will not supplant close reading as the dominant means of understanding literature. But it might augment close readings of texts by providing an overarching understanding of a time period or genre or even individual body of work through which a traditional scholar can frame his work.

Golumbia is not the only critic of the Digital Humanities, either. Alan Liu asks a straightforward question in his essay, “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” It is a good question, because cultural criticism has become one of the major subgenres of the wider Humanities. Liu argues that, so far, the Digital Humanities has just been a servant to Humanities as a whole, and the only way he sees for Digital humanists to become full-fledged humanists is to start engaging in the dominant mode of conversation in the field, that of cultural criticism. He is just one in a sea of voices calling for increased participation from the Digital Humanities in the realms of conventional Humanities. Johanna Drucker is unhappy with the ways the digital part of Digital Humanities has overshadowed the humanities element. Specifically, she wonders in her essay “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” “Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” (1). She goes on to criticize the way Digital humanists have embraced tools like Google Maps to present information because it misrepresents location and movement between one spot and another as fixed elements where the reality would necessarily be more complex than that. Specifically, she presents the DH project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, as an exemplar of the spatial (and temporal) conflation that troubles her. It shows the journeys letters written in the 18th century took from sender to receiver but does so in straight lines rather than the decidedly more twisted and fraught journeys they must have taken in the real world. Both Drucker and Liu present this distance between the digital and the humanities as a problem, and it certainly is one, but Digital humanists have seen that this is the case and so are beginning to address it. That a project showing the correspondence journeys is even happening at all is a big step from the earlier work Digital humanists were doing, organizing and archiving all sorts of writing. This kind of constructive criticism is what propels a new field into its maturity.

Because seemingly all writings about DH must include a reference to its beginnings with Father Roberto Busa, let him serve as a model citizen in the DH community. Here was a man who saw a way for new technology to enhance his Index Thomisticus, a giant, searchable, collection of all of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s writings. He sought out people in the digital industries, specifically at IBM, to help him figure out what he was doing and how to do it. In creating punchcards for every word written by Aquinas, he was performing a mix of methods old and new, for it was a very old kind of thing he was making, a concordance, in a very new way. His work allows one to search for all the occurrences of a given word in Aquinas’s writing and that seems as helpful to a scholar studying Aquinas as it can be. The development cost of this kind of work must have been gigantic, but as of 2005, it is freely accessible on the internet for any and all to use. The Digital Humanities can be an essential part of the Humanities if it continues its pattern of changing itself in the face of criticism from within and without. Like Busa switched from punchcards to magnetic tape and later internet code, so too can the Digital Humanities adapt with the times and become more than just a servant at the table of the broader humanities.


Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Print Edition ed. U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Gold, Matthew. “Digital Humanities.” Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (2014): 143-48. Print.

Golumbia, David. “Death of a Discipline.” differences 25.1 (2014): 156-176.

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