How We Became Digital Humanists

In a recent discussion in my seminar on the digital humanities, my colleagues and I explored two distinct, and, of course, contested definitions of Digital Humanities, or DH. David Golumbia defines the two definitions of digital humanities as “the “narrow” definition of DH, or recently “‘DH’ with capital letters,” or what I and some others refer to as “tools-and-archives” (para 3), and “the “big tent” definition, or what I’d call the plain literal meaning of the term “digital humanities” (or recently, “dh” with small letters): anything that combines digital work of any sort with humanities work of any sort” (para 3). What I would consider what counter-intuitive, especially with assessing both definitions in terms of how Golumbia defines them, Golumbia notes that “There is an explicit awareness in this definition that humanists (and administrators) not “part of” DH may see it as harboring some kind of desire to “replace or reject” what they call (in what I consider a highly tendentious fashion) ‘traditional humanistic inquiry.’ This definition seems worried that people might find DH exclusionary, and works hard to paint an inclusive picture” (para 12). I am not sure how exactly either definition would work in replacing or devaluing ostensibly traditional literary research; however, the fear of both definitions, or DH in general, strikes fear into many of those scholars and researchers who are wary of paper and ink meeting plastic and code. Stephen Marché is one example of the wary scholar when looking over the ramparts of the Ivory Tower.

Beginning his discussion, Marché appears to offer a tongue-in-cheek survey of DH/dh in the humanities: “Artificial intelligence has already changed health care and pop music, baseball, electoral politics, and several aspects of the law. And now, as an afterthought to an afterthought, the algorithms have arrived at literature, like an army which, having conquered Italy, turns its attention to San Marino” (para 1). He openly mocks traditional scholars, explaining, “In the popular imagination, writers and professors are liberals, hedonists, bohemians. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are, in fact, profoundly, deeply, organically conservative. The birth of print saw the emergence of many of the same Luddite tendencies recognizable today” (para 6). However, a swift in tone facilitates his main consideration, which, despite having just mocked dusty tomes and dusty scholars, places him firmly in the Luddite camp. He admits DH/dh has value though that value is not necessarily worth their weight in memory: “There are niche fields within digital humanities which are obviously valid, too, such as readings in avant-garde digital fiction or the analysis of how the development of word processing has affected contemporary writing practice. These are growing fields, important even, but necessarily minor” (para 13). He states his main concern in clear, albeit dualistic terms, explaining, “Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data” (para 16). Literature is not lines of code, poems are not algorithms because “Algorithms have replaced laws of human nature, the vital distinction being that nobody can read them. They describe human meanings but are meaningless” (para 28).

Marché’s view is not new. Arguments such as these swirling around DH/dh invoke the trepidation surrounding the Posthuman. In her book How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles’ fourth and ‘most important’ definition of the Posthuman “configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (2-3). While there are many nuanced considerations that extend from definitions of the Posthuman now of which I can eloquently articulate in this current venture (perhaps a discussion to follow at a later date), Hayles posits two conflicting possibilities of the posthuman, both of which seem appropriate in the larger discussion and value of DH/dh, where she states, “If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival” (5). Though a perhaps an unwieldly prosthetic to my argument, those scholars, like Marché, who fear DH/dh are trapped inside Hayles’ Posthuman nightmare—where cyborgs and algorithms wipe out the use of books and print—unable to see the possibilities that reveal themselves through embracing digital means in an analog world.

Digital Humanities (or DH or dh) is, and always has been, a prosthetic—a digital assemblage grafted upon the “natural” field of humanities. However, this assemblage is not new because an essential humanities (i.e. oral, fragmented) was necessarily bound in order to study. Hermeneutics arose directly from reading (interpreting, analyzing) a consolidated library (i.e. the Bible). Technology is and has always been necessary for the humanities, especially English literature and criticism. Any advancement in technology comes with its own set of Ludditean bulwark (apparently built into the software). These definitions of DH/dh come up against the same mistrust that rises out of Hayles’ posthuman nightmare. The small tent being a prosthetic, a cybernetic arm or enhanced vision (or merely a glove or a pair of glasses or contacts); whereas the big tent is a fully autonomous cyborg capable of all human attributes only more precise, effective, and efficient. If the allusions appear ridiculous, one only need to return to the ostensibly arbitrary parameters that separate the two definitions.

In desire of ascribing to a definition of DH/dh, I find solace in Ted Underwood’s definition in which he describes digital humanities as “a rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered—from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement—linked mainly by the fact that they are responding to related kinds of fluidity: rapid changes in representation, communication, and analysis that open up detours around some familiar institutions” (para 17). Underwood is replying to Stanley Fish’s interpellation of DH as ‘the next big thing in literary studies’ and Underwood stresses that DH is neither new or exclusive within literary studies but rather an avenue of “new opportunities for collaboration both across disciplines and across the boundary between the conceptual work of academia and the infrastructure that supports and tacitly shapes it” (Underwood, para 11). Nevertheless these various definitions and understandings of the digital humanities continue to ebb and flow as DH/dh reaches more scholars, departments and institutions (despite being decades old). Cutting angel hair over how we categorize what we do with what kinds of technology inevitably leads to an error 404. We have bigger fish to fry despite these definitions exist tethered to omniscient funding outlets that put the big money on big data; embracing Hayles’ posthuman dream could make the transition of “digital humanities” into simply “humanities” less of a nightmare and more of an opportunity to study literature in new and nuanced methods. However, if Marché ends up being correct in his fear of DH domination, I warmly embrace my cyborg masters.

Works Cited

Golumbia, David. “‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions.” Ucomputing. Web. <http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=203>

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Marché, Stephen. “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities.” LA Times Review of Books. Web. <https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/literature-is-not-data-against-digital-humanities>

Underwood, Ted. “Why digital humanities isn’t actually ‘the next thing in literary studies.’” The Stone and the Shell. Web. <http://tedunderwood.com/2011/12/27/why-we-dont-actually-want-to-be-the-next-thing-in-literary-studies/>

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