Why is Digital Humanities?

Submitted by Sarah Stanley on Wed, 06/21/2017 - 17:42

Why does the “what is DH conversation” seem to never die? I have been subjected to it throughout my (admittedly short) career in the digital humanities, and it has never actually done anything to change the scholarly practices that I engage in from day to day. Actually, I take that back: it changes my day-to-day work by by making me rage-blind, and compelling me to write hasty blog posts on my lunch break. You, my dear reader, have already probably guessed this, but I should say that I am very tired of the “What is DH” debate. It is navel-gazing, pedagogically useless, and as Mark Sample puts it:

Digital Humanities (noun): something white tenured males have the privilege to debate on Twitter.

— Sample, Mark (@samplereality) June 21, 2017

In this post, I would like to interrogate the utility of even asking this question. How does it improve our practice? How does it help us improve scholarly communication and communication with the public? How does defining “the field” actually impact the structures by which we review our colleagues’ work for academic rigor? Does defining digital humanities actually help us build a community of practice? Generally, I am writing this post in response to many of the struggles that I’ve had “defining DH” at my institution (for grad students, tenured faculty, fellow librarians, random scientists who ask me “but what do you do” at interdepartmental events). But specifically, I am writing in response to the thread that this tweet inspired:

It's 2017 and still nobody knows what Digital Humanities is.

— Ian Bogost (@ibogost) June 21, 2017

The prevailing sentiment that I am reading into Bogost’s argument here is “because you can’t explain DH in a tweet, and because people sometimes have different conceptions of DH as a discipline, DH is frivolous.” I will leave aside for now the fact that this pithy, marketing-statement approach to understanding whole discourse communities is somewhat reductive, but I will come back to it later. I would like to say that the constant relitigation of “what is DH” divorced from discussions of any of the actual scholarly outputs (seriously: how many of these types of debates actually entail in-depth discussions of the theories and methodologies as practiced in the literature?) is part of the reason that trying to “enter the field of DH” is so hard for people.

Instead of flogging the dead-for-several-years horse that is this debate, I would like to explore why is DH. This is not meant to be exhaustive, and certainly others have addressed this topic. However, the approach of defining the uniform and shared practices and features of the digital humanities is not working for us, so please let’s stop and try to look for new ways of working this out.

The following are a series of maxims about why it is that DH is a useful category for some people. I would like to emphasize that I see the utility of DH as a discipline being at the forefront of its formation:

  1. DH is a response to the fact that the academy has been largely non-self-reflective about its modes of production: Digital Humanities owes major debts to media studies, library and information sciences, open access publishing initiatives, and book history. All of these things have meant that, increasingly, questions of infrastructures for the creation, dissemination, and publication of scholarly materials have been moved to the center of questions of digital humanities. That is not to say that these questions never existed in humanistic circles before! However, the increasing formalization of for-profit publishing in the humanities and elsewhere has created a crisis that it is impossible to solve on a local level. Digital Humanities gives scholars new tools for pushing back against trend and contextualizing it within the larger academy. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence and the strong ties between DH and Open Library of the Humanities both demonstrate this point quite well.
  2. DH is a response to institutional structures that make interdisciplinary communication prohibitively difficult: Hyperspecialization in the academy has brought many good things (and I will not pretend otherwise). Giving people time to explore certain topics in a depth that is not accessible to others has led to a lot of knowledge creation that has been essential for scholarship. However, as tenure and promotion committees and administrators have tried to force impact metrics and other quantified, atomized mechanisms for assessment into this environment, it has made it onerous (if not impossible) to break out of that hyperspecialization. Digital Humanities is a useful name to stick on interdisciplinary journals and conferences, and it gives researchers a mechanism for pushing back against that disciplinary siloing.
  3. DH is a response to an environment where the hierarchical structures of the academy don’t always map onto the actual expertise held by various members of the community: Many (if not most) of the outside-looking-in criticisms of DH that I have seen have stubbornly ignored the fact that non-tenured/tenure-track humanities faculty have made an impact on the discipline. Librarians, archivists, developers, technologists, and many other actors have played into the formation of DH as it is now. However, it is almost impossible to recognize this labor with the way the academy is structured now, especially considering the fact that the humanities continue to value single-authored scholarship over collaborative endeavors. The digital humanities formed as a response to the fact that work was and is being done collaboratively and collectively. DH is using coalition politics specifically to combat unhealthy labor practices that artificially suggest that humanities research is conducted alone. The Symposium Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities held at Florida State University last year is a perfect illustration of this.
  4. DH is a response to (not a cause of) the neoliberal academy: The Digital Humanities have often been accused of participating in neoliberal politics. A lot of this misplaced criticism comes from the idea that “we don’t engage in critique or use theory.” However, digital humanists have been deeply engaged in discussions about sustainable labor practices in the academy. Indeed, digital humanists have frequently talked about compensation for student labor (more than many tenured faculty who utilize Marxist theory, I may add!), warn about the dangers of contingent laborers, rail against the University’s penchant for relying on adjunct labor. The constant interrogation of what “work” is (writing? building? breaking?) in the academy has opened up an (albeit imperfect) space for addressing many of the problems that are endemic to the academy in the 21st century. Which is all to say that:
  5. DH is a response to unsustainable infrastructures of the academy: Digital Humanities is a response to the fact that so frequently, researchers and scholars are forced to account for their time in a way that is intelligible within the context of marketing and promotion. The question is always “what do you do?” rather than “what have you done?”. We focus on disciplinary definitions rather than the actions and impacts of practitioners within those disciplines. Everyone, down to the lowliest of graduate students, is supposed to have an “elevator pitch,” and this is not a good way to approach scholarship. Personally, I love DH's stubborn definitionlessness! In so many, ways it allows for new types of work that haven't yet been metricized and quantified. I would like us to start questioning whether the question of defining actually does anything for creating an academy based on useful and ethical scholarship. To borrow the hackneyed phrase from creative writing, digital humanists should “show, not tell.”

To wrap up, I’d like to address this tweet:

This just begs the question. DH becomes whatever anyone who wishes to self-identify as DH does. Is that your answer?

— Ian Bogost (@ibogost) June 21, 2017

I’m assuming that Bogost is accusing DH practitioners of moving goalposts, or using the fluidity of the definition of DH to somehow by hypocritical or duplicitous? I am not positive that's the case, but that's how it reads to me. I will admit that I hear a lot of sentiments that do this sort of suspicious/paranoid reading of the discipline, and I will admit that I’m not convinced by it. No one, as yet, has given me a good explanation for why community definition of the digital humanities is so dangerous and bad. To me, all it means is that we are addressing the needs and concerns of our community and engaging in a bottom-up approach to knowledge-making. If it makes DH-suspicious people more comfortable, we can start referring to ourselves as a society of mutual support. I don’t care.

Ultimately, the entire “What is DH” debate is a big game of “Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” We have conferences, journals, listservs, Slack channels, and entire modes of communication that enrich our practices of scholarship. As is evidenced by the response to Katherine Bode’s recent article on distant reading, having these modes of communication fall under “DH” is incredibly useful. That particular piece inspired a conversation between English scholars, art historians, and librarians, and I am willing to bet money that conversation (and many conversations like it) would not have happened if we didn’t have the arbitrary label of “DH.”