What is Digital Humanities?


As a historian and a Tech-nerd, I have always been intrigued by the concept of “Digital Humanities” (D.H), what could it mean? Is it about making a text visible on the web? Or is it about data processing? Is it simply interdisciplinary? To what extent could D.H impact the creation and dissemination of knowledge? Also, what could it bring to the historiographical problem given the partisanship and selectivity of digital archives? These questions, for historians and humanists in general, remain a continuing process to be explored and refurbished, rather than seeking ready-made answers. Indeed, there has been a challenging scholarly debate as to what is DH and what is not. John Unsworth, one of the pivotal figures in the terrain, defines DH or “Humanities Computing”, as the use of “computational tool for modeling humanities data.” (Unsworth, 1) While this approach is a slice encapsulation of what is DH, Davis and his co-authors went even far to describe “Humanities Computing” as “a practice of representation, a form of modeling or […] mimicry. It is […] a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and it’s representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other.” (Davis et al., 1) This position might produce certain logic to make a text visible on the web, but others like Amanda French, still finds it difficult to define the term while stating: “I am sick of defining it…”.

As it may seem, DH is not a unifying field, it is rhetorically contested and several scholars have lobbied for one definition over the other. But what is crucial about it, is the way in which it has become an integral part of the academic discourse. It has also unearthed the question of the democratization of culture and scholarship and to a certain degree it has collapsed the boundaries between humanities and other disciplines. In other words, it is about looking backward to move forward acting in new ways. Lunenfeld et al., in this frame, argue that DH “promotes collaboration and creation across domains and expertise […] leverage[s] the increasingly distributed nature of expertise and knowledge and transform[s] this reality into occasions for scholarly innovation, disciplinary cross-fertilization, and the democratization of knowledge.” (Lunenfled, 4) Knowledge production and reproduction are no longer limited to a single authorship and intellectual policing, but rather a truly ubiquitous and multilingual authorship who create, manage and share information on a common platform. Several authors can share the same interface to comment on on each other’s research, receive updates, identify certain needs, exchange in-process queries and bring a collaboratively crafted work.

That being said, DH, through the peer-to-peer review, reasserts and reinterprets the value of knowledge of humanities. As Lunenfled argues it is a new “umbrella under which to group both people and projects seeking to reshape and reinvigorate contemporary arts and humanities practices, and expand their boundaries.” (Lunenfled et al., 13) Differently put, it is no longer associated with the number of publications but instead based on the reception and feedback of the community of readers. Following the same line of thought, Willard McCarty states that DH, as a new invention, “has offered” scholars “new liberties of action, that old constraints have been removed, that their political will, or their sheer greed, are no longer frustrated, and that they can act in new ways.” (McCarty,1224) These liberties will continue to shape the future of DH as new opportunities for scholars will open up to share and render their works ubiquitous. But still, could one be a digital humanist if one doesn’t know how to code? Is DH a question of coding? These questions are speculative and lie beyond the scope of present knowledge.



3 thoughts on “What is Digital Humanities?

  1. I think that “looking backward to move forward” is a very apt and succinct way to summarize (at least one) common DH strategy. I was especially pleased to see that you took time to raise the issue of publication, and of its transitional relationship with the field. I absolutely agree that DH is going to alter the current tenure-track trajectory of books and articles (for those who seek an alternative, anyway). However, I do wonder how long the alternative will take to become widely accepted, and I wonder how murky the interim period will become. One specific issue I wonder about is the definition of a comparable workload, especially when the projects in question are designed to be ongoing. The revisionist and cooperative nature of DH is a huge positive, but it does seem to make for a messier evaluative process. (Maybe messier is better?) At a time when so many people are tackling the big questions—what is DH? why is DH?—I can admit that it might seem unnecessary to address the small things. I think, though, that if we also take time to ask these smaller questions—as you do—that we are more likely to later find answers that are to our liking.

  2. Salut!

    Moi aussi j’avais les memes questions! I think that coding, as you posit in your last paragraph, is only part of the problem. Once I attended the DH2013 conference, I became aware of just how important it is to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the languages that produce the programs we use in DH. I wonder if a study of how those programs shape our knowledge is an interesting place to start.

  3. Hi Beligh,

    “Digital Humanities” to my mind could be that space when “Humanities” in the classical use of word and “digital” are contested and could be more than an approach to “new Humanities.” Should we surrender to tech-inspired theories of “doing” Humanities or we should rather impose a Humanistic Scholarship while it is and will be digital, this is a question. What is the “cult of our age” that will permit “Digital Humanities” to evolve “freely” and “democratically”, this, is also a question.

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