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What Is Digital Humanities? (humanscode.com)
36 points by ethanmiller on June 5, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 16 comments

I studied* Humanities Computer Science, as it was called at my university at the time. Behind closed doors, the professor was fairly explicit about it not being as world-changing, innovative or new as it was presented whenever they were seeking funding. Their work ranged from metadata tagging to version control to long-term digital archives.

In fact, he said the field had been renamed several times, largely to make it seem like a new field when it wasn't. Digital Humanities, Humanities Computer Science, and so on all refer to the same loosely defined field.

Although there certainly is something in it that isn't entirely nebulous, I'm not convinced "Digital Humanities" in itself, really is a thing or that the definition has any practical use other than providing a label when you seek funding.

*note: I was enrolled for a lengthy period of time and spent most of my time in university with their department and in the student association but I left without a degree.

It is in many respects nebulous, but that I think is because it's not quite a discipline. It can't quite mark out it's domain and jurisdiction in the way a traditional discipline might, and that's in large part because the transformation in cultural practices -- economic, analytical, subjective, etc -- that the advent of computing, software, and big data is generating is so momentous. It will require a transformation of the basic assumptions that lay at the base of professional training in the humanities all across the board.

Here's a better assessment from one of the leaders in the field: https://mkirschenbaum.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/what-is-digit...

It is something of an understatement to say that DH pays a generous amount of attention to its own roots and limits... At this point it is basically a cliche to ask "what is DH?"

Thanks for the link @quinndupont. Do you care to elaborate about what is better about Kirenschenbaum's analsysis? What, I mean, is the substance of your opinion?

I would suggest that it is more a matter of position. Kirschenbaum writes from within mainstream DH, and is aware of the many discussions of DH that have occurred since its inception in 1949[1] (an arbitrary, but useful date). In another work of his (and he's not the only one analysing these matters), he lampoons the kinds of critique offered by Ethan Miller.

Kirschenbaum writes: "Herewith, then, are some of the terrible things of my title, hardly any of which are exaggerated for effect: Digital humanities is a nest of big data ideologues. Digital humanities digs MOOCs. Digital humanities is an artifact of the post-9/11 security and surveillance state (the NSA of the MLA). Like Johnny, digital humanities can’t read. Digital humanities doesn’t do theory. Digital humanities never historicizes. Digital humanities is complicit. Digital humanities is naive. Digital humanities is hollow huckster boosterism. Digital humanities is managerial. Digital humanities is the academic import of Silicon Valley solutionism (the term that is the shibboleth of bad-boy tech critic Evgeny Morozov). Digital humanities cannot abide critique. Digital humanities appeals to those in search of an oasis from the concerns of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Digital humanities does not inhale (easily the best line of the bunch). Digital humanities wears Google Glass. Digital humanities wears thick, thick glasses (guilty). Perhaps most damning of all: digital humanities is something separate from the rest of the humanities, and—this is the real secret—digital humanities wants it that way. Terrible things indeed these are!"[2]

Miller reiterates many of these positions without acknowledgement that not only have they been discussed before, they have even become points of ridicule. Perhaps one does not need to agree with those within DH, like Kirschenbaum, but to regurgitate "MOOCs", "silicon valley" and "big data" without at least a passing familiarity with the discussions that have been going on is more than a little shallow.

Yet, DH usually thinks of itself as "big tent", so competing histories and conceptions are part of its very fabric, and sure to be welcomed. The problem with assessments of DH from the outside is that they usually end up rather unsavoury and polemic, hence Kirschenbaum's invocation of William Pannapacker's rabble rousing and the attendant fallout.

[1] http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackw... [2] https://mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/dhterrible...

I think you might be right about the perspective being partly a matter of "position". Looking over your own impressive body of work, I can see that you are also a deep traveller in this world. So first off, much respect for all the good work.

I think, however, you misread the text, or rather projected a certain easily dismissed critique onto it. My point was to understand what digital humanities is, as I put it, as an "epiphenomenon of the tectonic encounter between this world of computing, with its newly acquired 'Silicon Valley sex appeal,' and the world of ideas." The point of the supposed "Sex Appeal" line is not to denigrate the importance of computing or the digital humanities; quite to the contrary, it is to note that in contrast to the past computing has been elevated to a level of cultural importance that perhaps matches the revolutionary nature of the technological changes it has produced.

I agree completely with Kirschenbaum in the passage you quoted above when he rejects the notion that: "Digital humanities is complicit. Digital humanities is naive. Digital humanities is hollow huckster boosterism. Digital humanities is managerial. Digital humanities is the academic import of Silicon Valley solutionism...." My point here is precisely that "digital humanities" is that domain through which the academy is renegotiating its relationship to the broader culture, redefining the relationship of its traditional values of critique in relationship to the properties of the cultural world "outside" that is being so radically redefined by computing.

In other words, I see digital humanities as one of the most exciting cultural sites of complex cultural transformation that there is today, and in no way am I reiterating the critique to which your refer.

One point, however, where I'd like to challenge you. Your reference to "position" is I think an interesting one because it points to a fairly traditional approach to professional formation in the academy. It's a fairly common posture within a new or emerging profession to attempt to establish a "domain", to establish lines of jurisdictional control, and to begin to build a historical narrative that grounds that new domain in time, giving it a "tradition." There's a certain parallel here between the myth-building that goes along with constructing national narratives to reinforce the idea of the nation and what the myth-building that professions do about their own history. This I would suggest is why the 1949 date is so "useful," as you put it. It provides digital humanities with its own ontology.

That said, one of the things I find interesting about digital humanities is the way it is on some level potentially so fundamentally interdisciplinary. Indeed, one of the interesting consequences of thinking of digital humanities not as a traditional "profession" but rather, as I did here, as a site of cultural renegotiation, as a "tectonic" meeting of cultural spheres, capable of creating a cultural "quake" (forgive the metaphors), is that it eludes this tendency to define a profession in terms of a specific domain and orthodoxy.

So I guess what I am suggesting here is in some respects an alternative and unorthodox way of assessing the growth of a new sphere of cultural production and exploration. I wonder if this isn't particularly appropriate for the digital humanities. So I guess that's my question for you: would you like to see the digital humanities as its own professional domain, e.g. one day that every university will have its "Digital Humanities" or "Humanities Computing" department? I wonder, somehow, if this kind of outcome would mean that the kind of cultural renegotiation that I was (rather hopefully) anticipating had fallen on its face. Curious to know what you think.

At my most cynical I view Digital Humanities as the latest clever way of still getting grant funding for projects and explorations that probably otherwise in this day and age would not be able to obtain it. I follow some digital humanities mailing lists, read the Calls for Papers for upcoming conferences, and read the program agendas for conferences in this space, and frankly I just don't get much of it.

A similar thing is going on with "Data Journalism" which is, again, viewed cynically, a way to keep one's job but take advantage of incorporating sheer masses of information and "infographics" into conventional stories.

Asking "what is Digital Humanities" also reminds me of the angst certain communities felt over "what is blogging" and "what does it mean to be a blogger." I sat through many conference sessions on such topics. I did not gain much insight.

I worry that anything digital is ephemeral, and that is not a good thing for the humanities. I prefer dusty old books. They're a proven technology that tend to stick around long after whatever the latest file format, O/S, or cloud solution has passed from being in favor to being forgotten.

Finally, I will say that if the field of Digital Humanities helps imbue in people a better sense of, and better set of skills for, information comprehension, information composition, and critical thinking in the digital age of always-on, ubiquitous firehoses of noisy information about the world and everyone in it, then that is a good thing. We desperately need upcoming generations to be really good at what I call the three C's (composition, comprehension, and critical thinking). Just a brief glimpse at Twitter or any cable news outlet would suggest these skills are not often on display anymore.

> I worry that anything digital is ephemeral

After I read that I immediately thought of a bit of _why's Printer Spool. In it he poses a question that if something written by Kafka was on 32-bit PowerPC that it would have been forgotten about more easily than if it were simply left in his collected notes. I would write the actual quote by _why, but it looks to me China has blocked archive.org and I am unable to access it at this time (should've configured a proxy or something before my trip, drats).

You can read it here:


"I worry that anything digital is ephemeral..." This is a central issue for the digital humanities, which considers how to preserve our digital cultural heritage for the future. I think we can all agree that software is an important part of history. In the future, it will be increasingly important for historians to be able to use and read legacy format files and software. We need to be able to read digital documents of the past, whether they are from literary authors, government officials, or news outlets.

I think it's only positive that academics are realizing they can take advantage of this new, low-cost method of information proliferation.

Had a brainwave about putting small-scale humanities discussion with the power of MOOCs:


Put a landing page and a Show HN out there but didn't get any positive responses.

I really like this idea Theodore! Would love to hear more about it. Get in touch.

"What’s at stake, of course, is very much a question of authority."

Which explains the moral panic that accompanies any mention of the Digital Humanities in certain quarters.

jeez. worrying about books is pretty much antipodal to DH as I see it practiced...

I disagree. Much of the digital humanities is actually of direct descent from bibliography and textual criticism. I would argue, in fact, that the field of book history owes a great deal TO digital humanities which exposed the nature of the book as a writing technology with unique textual affordances. A large amount of digital humanities work is centered on how to capture "bookness" in the digital realm including digital editions of just about any literary text, the Textual Encoding Initiative, etc.

@nkelber, thanks for this clarification here. can you recommend some good texts on this issue: "how to capture 'bookness' in the digital realm..."? It would be me much appreciated.

what do you mean by "worrying about books"?

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