The Digital Humanities surrounds you

Stanley Fish recently published a blog post in the NY Times with the grandiose title, The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality. The article is engaging; it seems to sharpen the knife for the Digital Humanities but then decides not to stick it in (although that might be to follow)

What strikes me about the post is that is latches on to some recent synthesis work on digital humanities, extracting some of its findings and treating them as an ideology to be critiqued.

This implies there is a coherent philosophy to the digital humanities. A set of founding ideas, an essential ideology, that will either determine its success or failure.

The trouble is that the Digital Humanities is not reducible to a manifesto. Rather it is the evolving set of humanistic traditions and practices about investigation, analysis, critique, communication and publication that are coming under pressure in the Internet age. The whole practice of scholarship is evolving / being revolutionised (delete to taste) because of the digital realm.

All scholars are affected by this. Are there really any scholars who don’t use emails, mailing lists, JSTOR, digitised resources, Google Search, electronic journals, Wikipedia? Are there really any scholars who’ve not worried about peer review, or taken advantage of open access?

No, of course not. Although they might pretend that this is all mere convenience and doesn’t help come them closer to the the ‘explanation of aesthetic works’?

But the ‘convenience’ of the digital can drive their work in different directions; a radical reduction in the hours spent travelling to libraries and browsing through print archives changes the research process.

And as the tools created by digital humanities projects grow in their scope and functionality – projects in 3D scanning, data mining, textual analysis, crowdsourcing – these too will change research practices.

I don’t disagree with Fish that we need to measure the contribution of digital tools to scholarship, but this should be with the aim of refining these tools, not just throwing them all away.

Arguing against the Digital Humanities is a little like arguing the Internet itself. It’s there, and it surrounds you. It won’t go away.

3 replies on “The Digital Humanities surrounds you”

I think you’re arguing slightly at cross purposes with Fish, or rather, broadly agreeing with him without quite acknowledging it. To my mind, your statement that the digital humanities can’t be reduced to a manifesto more or less accords with his statement that digital has no inherent political valence.

But he’s right that certain trends in digital humanities are insurgent and radical. In this era of technology patent wars, and the walled-garden approach to tech sharing represented by the Apple and Android app stores, even something as apparently neutral as a commitment to open source has a political/ideological undertow. That it can’t be reduced to a manifesto is neither here nor there.

Of course, there are more strands to the digital humanities than the ones Fish is talking about, and you’re perfectly correct to say that it’s a field of emerging traditions (a nice phrase, and a nice way of thinking about it), but again, I don’t see any major disagreement between your views. I don’t, for instance, see him calling for any developments or technologies to be thrown away.

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