As the date for this year’s DH conference approaches, I would like once more to express my dislike of the terms Digital Humanities and DH. I write this not from the perspective of somebody inside this particular tent, but as a faculty member in a standard humanities department who has tried (with very varying success) to persuade his colleagues that they should think a little harder about the humanities in a digital world and the headaches as well as opportunities that new technologies bring with them. My experience has been that “Digital Humanities” is a big turn-off. People either stop listening after the adjective, or they think that there is such a thing as Digital Humanities and we should lay our hands on some cheap version of it right now.
At the 2012 MLA Middlebury’s provost Alison Byerly argued along somewhat similar lines. She worried about the needless opposition set up by such terms as “New Media” or “Digital Humanities” and argued that humanists “by defining technology-enabled research as a separate field” have “both validated and segregated it,” with “important implications for the humanities as a whole.”
In an earlier blog about Stanley Fish’s New York Times triblogy about the Digital Humanities I made a similar argument. If a term is bandied about a lot, it must be about something. For me the something of Digital Humanities “is about the trouble that the humanities have had in absorbing digital technology into their habits of work and recognition. Unlike the natural and social sciences, they have so far put the digital into a ghetto–a mutually convenient practice for those inside and outside, but probably harmful in the long run.”
In an otherwise friendly response to my blog, Brett Bobley, the director of the NEH office of Digital Humanities challenged my assertion that there were no “self-proclaimed digital biologists, chemists, or economists” and pointed to the existence of such fields as “bioinformatics,” “computational biology,” “computational chemistry,” “computational economics,” to which one could add computational linguistics. But these fields seem to me quite different and rather more specific. In the humanities, something like “digital philology” would be a rough equivalent (the term in quite common in Germany but rare in the English speaking world). All such disciplines are implicitly recognized as helper disciplines where computational power and applied mathematics or statistics are brought to bear on increasingly large or complex data.
To put it differently, in all those cases, using some version of ‘digital’, ‘computer’, ‘informatics’ as a pre- or suffix to discipline X does not strike the practitioner of discipline X as problematical in some kind of existential sense. It’s a pragmatic matter of getting stuff to work. In the humanities, there are some subdisciplines that work that way. Whether you edit the thousands of manuscript fragments of the New Testament, use chemical analysis to determine the provenance of a painting, or manage an archaeological dig, you would have to be a fool not to take advantage of the digital resources that let you store, organize, and manage your data.
But most scholars in the humanities do not work on such projects with their strong curatorial and quite practical components. And for them the collision of “digital” and “humanities” is a useless and existential provocation that turns them off. Provocations have their uses. If after colliding ‘digital’ with ‘humanities’ there were some chance that we understand either of these terms a little better that would be worth doing. But the chances of that happening are very slim indeed, largely because the encounters of the many mansions in the humanities with the digital are so varied that they are not usefully bundled under one term.
Here is a very rough taxonomy of these encounters. Are the humanist’s objects of attention born digital or are they digital surrogates? If the latter, are they surrogates of texts, of material artifacts, of time-based analog media? Is the humanist’s bent of mind more of a historical, philosophical, or rhetorical kind? Do the research questions lend themselves to quantitative analysis?
The important goal is not to advance Digital Humanities or DH. The important goal is to find better ways of integrating digital tools and resources into the working world of humanities scholars, however they define themselves. “Humanities in a digital world” is a gentler and more promising phrase than “Digital Humanities.” It describes the challenges better, it is less likely to be perceived as some unitary claim (whether intended as such or not), and as a tag line it sets goals that are at once firmer and broader.