What is it about the digital humanities?

What is it about the digital humanities that attracts so much, so much … angst, anxiety, and/or vituperation? (Some of it well intended, some of it not.) As I’ve noted before, the digital humanities is an *ex post facto* label brazenly applied to a wide variety of activities: computational analyses of texts and other data normally the purview of the humanities, sometimes individually or sometimes on a scale not previously possible; the creation of new kinds of archives of such materials, paving the way either for traditional forms of analysis or for the new kinds of analysis just mentioned; or the creation of new kinds of texts, sometimes called the digital arts (or digital media). And even with this list I am surely leaving something, okay a lot, out.

Given the variety of activity, the situation that results is best likened to the fabled six blind men who encounter an elephant, wherein each can only know the part that they touch. (The fable has always bugged me, because of the lack of communication among the blind interlocutors, but let’s leave it at its original task: to remind its listeners/readers that knowledge is almost always partial.)

The current tempest in the popular teapot is Adam Kirsch’s book review essay, “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities” appearing at the New Republic. ([Link][]. Note the telling addition of “limits” in the essay’s URL: the NR’s editors are laying it on thickly.)

Ignoring obvious false starts, like the fact that two mathematicians, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel are featured early in the essay or that it’s too easy to give prolegomena and provocations too much weight in such considerations, Kirsch does grasp at least that “the field has no common essence: it is not a species but at best a genus, comprising a wide range of activities that have little relationship with one another.” He also foregrounds some of the essential difficulties that the digital humanities face, in actually bringing to the fore some of the difficulties that the humanities themselves have ignored.

One of those difficulties is, as many already know, the demise of the scholarly monograph, whose history is a lot more complicated than most realize, its roots being in the change in the way publishing companies were taxed on inventory (which is to say they were) in the eighties and then the way libraries were funded (which is to say *not*) in the nineties. The internet offered a place to publish, to communicate, and some humanists experimented not only with the new medium not only as a place to publish conventional materials, but to try out new kinds of genres, genres previously impossible in a communicative infrastructure based solely on codices. This desire to make things for ourselves has been in parallel with a host of other interests in “making” that has arisen in an era where devices and machines are increasingly sealed “for protection” and/or roped off by vague claims to IP entitlements. As Kirsch notes, “Like many questions in digital humanities, this one remains open. But the basic emphasis on teamwork and building, as opposed to solitary intellection, is common to all stripes of digital humanists.”

It’s really when it comes to what new kinds of analyses the computational turn in the humanities might make possible, that Kirsch reveals a real blindness, assuming that you think as I do that some of the above is insightful in its own fashion. Taking Moretti’s “Style, Inc.” as indicative of the larger field of computation, Kirsch notes: “It is striking that digital tools, no matter how powerful, are themselves incapable of generating significant new ideas about the subject matter of humanistic study. They aggregate data, and they reveal patterns in the data, but to know what kinds of questions to ask about the data and its patterns requires a reader who is already well-versed in literature.”

A reader could substitute any domain expertise for *literature*: history, folkloristics, rhetoric, linguistics, etc. And so the question really becomes: what exactly is Kirsch’s complaint? That the digital humanities still think domain expertise is important? Central? Critical to the application of computational technologies and techniques? He returns to Aiden and Michel for his discussion, which only proves the point: both are mathematicians with little to no domain expertise in the humanities. Of course many of their grander claims are rather thin. (I watched several audience members at the Texas Digital Humanities Conference try to get Aiden to think about his impoverished understanding of human history and language use, but he just doesn’t get it.)

Where does all of this take Kirsch? Well, he muses, quantification is what has gotten the humanities *into* trouble — the corporatization of the American university, wherein corporatization refers to the bureaucratic impulse to quantify things, like education — and so it should be the role of the humanities to resist quantification. *Really?* Is this the best answer? The only answer? Isn’t it also the job (and the switch from *role* to *job* here is purposeful) of the humanities to critique, to lay bare the apparatus by which certain phenomena appear and forces work? Previously to this moment, and currently in the so-called “traditional” humanities, the humanities have largely responded to the quantification of everything with simply “not everything can be quantified.” Which is rather like the childhood response “Is not!” That is, in a world where a new field called *social physics* cranks out social network analyses of myths, the opportunity arises to respond by being better at it than the physicists.

And that’s what some in the digital humanities aspire to do. In the process, some are also banking on the notion that there may actually arise refinements if not wholesale revisions of methodologies that can only come from not only treating the kinds of materials that have long been the purview of the humanities but also by incorporating humanistic theories and forms of theorizing.

**See also**: [Alan Jacobs’ response](http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com/2014/05/my-response-to-adam-kirsch.html) — I’m very jealous of his site name, *text patterns*. So good. [Ted Underwood](http://tedunderwood.com/2014/05/03/you-cant-govern-reception/) says “you can’t govern reception.” [Gary Hall](http://www.garyhall.info/journal/2011/1/12/on-the-limits-of-openness-v-there-are-no-digital-humanities.html) argues that the humanities have long been undertaking computation. And, speaking of the corporatization of the university, aka *scientific management*, [Jill Lepore][] has a nice review of Matthew Stewart’s _ The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong_.

*Revised* 19:30: because English is a stable language and deserves to be treated with more respect that the first draft. Also, there were some redundancies and excesses that needed trimming.

[Link]: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117428/limits-digital-humanities-adam-kirsch
[Jill Lepore]: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/10/12/091012crat_atlarge_lepore?currentPage=all

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