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Essay on digital humanities

Byte the Humanities

March 27, 2013

Last year Temple University Press published Toby Miller's Blow Up the Humanities, a book that starts straining for provocation with its title and never lets up. The author is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. His preferred rhetorical stance is that of the saucy lad -- pulling the nose of Matthew Arnold and not fooled for a minute by all that “culture as the best which has been thought and said” jazz, man.

What we must recognize, his argument goes, is that there are two forms of the humanities now. What the author calls "Humanities One" (with literature, history, and philosophy at their core) is just the privileged and exclusionary knowledge of old and dying elites, with little value, if any, to today’s heterogeneous, globalized, wired, and thrill-a-minute world. By contrast, we have studies of mass media and communications making up “Humanities Two,” which emerged and thrived in the 20th century outside “fancy schools with a privileged research status.”

In the future we must somehow establish a third mode: “a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded.” Enough with the monuments of unaging intellect! Let the dead bury the dead; henceforth, culture must be biodegradable.

What I chiefly remember about Blow Up the Humanities, a few months after reading it, is exclaiming “What a cheeky monkey you are!” every few pages -- or at least feeling like this was expected of me. Otherwise it mostly seemed like vintage cultural-studies boilerplate. But one passage in the book did strike me as genuinely provocative. It takes the form of a footnote responding to Google’s claim of a "commitment to the digital humanities." Here it is, in full:

“In the United States, ‘the digital humanities’ can mean anything from cliometric analysis to ludic observation. It refers to a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One, dressed up in rather straightforward electronic empiricism. So counting convicts in law reports or references to Australia in Dickens becomes worthy of grant support because it is archival and computable.”

A scrawl in the margin records my immediate response upon reading this: “Cute but misleading.” But now, on second thought… Well, actually “cute but misleading” pretty well covers it. The caricature of the digital humanities might have been recognizable a dozen years ago, though just barely even then. What makes Miller’s polemical blast interesting is the angle of the assault. For once, a complaint about the digital humanities isn’t coming from traditionalist, semi-luddite quarters -- “traditionalist” with regard to the objects of study (i.e., books, manuscripts, paintings) if not necessarily the theories and methods for analyzing them.

On the contrary, Miller regards video games as a rich cultural medium, both profitable and profound. To shore up his claims for Humanities Two (or, fingers crossed, Three) he finds it useful to pretend that the digital humanities will, in effect, take us back to the era of professors tabulating Chaucer’s use of the letter “e.” The scholarship will be more efficient, if no less dull.

Now, I have no interest in impeding the forward march of Angry Birds studies, but there is no way that Miller doesn’t know better. The days when humanities computing was used to count dead convicts are long gone. Much more likely now would be a project in which all of the surviving files of Victorian prisons are not simply rendered searchable but integrated with census data, regional maps, and available documentation of riots, strikes, and economic trends during any given year.

My griping about Miller’s griping has as its catalyst the recent appearance of Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, which is part of the Modern Language Association’s “commons” site.  (Anyone can read material published there; only members can contribute.)

MLA is a major component of the Humanities One infrastructure, of course, but has enough Humanities Two people in it to suggest that the distinction is anything but airtight. And while Miller pillories the digital humanities as nothing but “a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One,” even old-school philological practice takes on new valences in a digital environment.

“In the humanities,” write Charles Cooney, Glenn Roe, and Mark Olsen in their contribution, “scholars are primarily concerned with the specifics of language and meaning in context, or what is in the works. [Textbases] tend to represent specific linguistic or national traditions, genres, or other characteristics reflecting disciplinary concerns and scholarly expertise.… [T]extbases in the digital humanities are generally retrospective collections built with an emphasis on canonical works in particular print traditions.”

So far, so Humanities One-ish -- with only the neologism “textbase” to show that much has changed since Isaac Casaubon’s heroic proof that the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t as ancient as everybody thought. Textbase just means “collection,” of course. For that matter, the options available in textbase design (the ways of annotating a text, of making it searchable, of cross-referencing it with other items in the textbase or even in other textbases) are basically high-tech versions of what scholars did four hundred years ago.

Alas, what Casaubon could do alone in his study now requires an interdisciplinary team, plus technicians. But he did not have the distractions we do.

If digital humanists were limited to converting cultural artifacts of the print era into textbases, that would still be useful enough, in its way. The classics aren’t going to annotate themselves. But the warehouse is much larger than that. Besides the inherited mass of documents from the past 5,000 years, more and more texts are now “born digital.” Besides warehousing and glossing such material, the digital humanities incorporate the changes in how people receive and engage with cultural material, as Alan Liu discusses in “From Reading to Social Computing,” his essay for the MLA anthology.

What Liu calls “the core circuit of literary activity” – the set of institutions, routines, and people involved in transmitting a poem (or whatever) from the author’s notebook to the reader's eyeballs – has been reconfigured dramatically over the past two decades. Besides making it possible to publish or annotate a text in new ways, the developing communication system transforms the culture itself. The digital humanist has to map, and remap, the very ground beneath our feet.

Nor is that a new development. Other papers in the anthology will give you a sense of how the digital humanities have developed over the long term -- beginning when Roberto Busa started using a computer to prepare an exhaustive concordance of Thomas Aquinas in the 1940s. At some point, an important change in the digital humanities will be necessary, which is to drop the word "digital."

(Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Toby Miller's name.)

 

 

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