When I originally became interested in DH, I thought that the main question at the core of the discipline was whether or not digital humanists needed to be able to code. The answer to this issue has always seemed rather straightforward to me: in order to be a Marxist critic you need to understand the economy, in order to be a psychoanalytic critic you need a working knowledge of Freudian terminology, and in order to be a literary scholar of any sort you need to know how to read. Given the fact that in literary studies it is always considered more academically rigorous to study a piece of literature in its original language, why in the world would it be acceptable for a digital humanities scholar to theorize about a digital object without having knowledge of how that object works? My attitude in part stems from the fact that I regard code as text. Consequently, I view the ability to code as a type of literacy.
This is not to say that I think every humanist needs to learn to code or that everyone interested in DH needs to have extensive technical knowledge. Too often it feels as if excitement about digital humanities is coupled with a naively positive attitude towards technology. This view seems to go hand in hand with the idea that technology is the only way to achieve successful scholarship. I suppose the attitude comes from viewing the advent of digital media as a revolution. For example, in the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Presner, Schnapp, and other contributors argue that the digital revolution will blur the line between “critics and makers, coders and cogitators, scholars and entertainers.” In my opinion, assuming that computers will magically turn critics into “makers” furthers the popular anti-intellectual idea that in their natural habitat humanities critics are essentially parasitic as opposed to generative. I think Willard McCarty makes a much more nuanced point in his manifesto when he quotes Cherry’s comments on the telephone: ‘‘Inventions themselves are not revolutions; neither are they the cause of revolutions. Their powers for change lie in the hands of those who have the imagination and insight to see that the new invention has offered them new liberties of action, that old constraints have been removed…” There are many websites that offer users little beyond the static print page and there are many instances were print media takes on characteristics we would associate with digital media. It seems like these instances can be explained by the fact that the power for change lies in the hands of the coder, scholar, writer, and reader as opposed to being an intrinsic property of the technology itself.
After reading several other DH manifestos this week, I realized that some of my viewpoints regarding DH are in part predicated on the fact that I view the digital humanities as a subset of literary studies. This can perhaps be demonstrated by a personal anecdote. Last week, I finally became a member of the MLA. When you sign up for the MLA, you have the opportunity to record your interests. First, you can select primary interests from among a list that includes areas like 18th and 19th century British Literature. “Computer Studies in Language and Literature” is not listed under primary interests. Instead, it shows up in the next category, which is for groupings of related interests. Perhaps DH’s categorization as a tertiary interest demonstrates the widespread confusion about the nature of digital humanities. Categorizing DH as something other than a primary area of study indicates that it is a tool. Like Marxism, or feminism, it is a way to look at literature. At times I subscribe to this view. Relegating DH to the status of a tool allows me to feel comfortable about my status as a humanist. However, part of me was disappointed that DH was not listed among primary interests. I often find myself answering that ever-popular English Graduate meet and greet question: “what’s your period?” with the awkward/nonsensical answer, “digital humanities.”
So, where exactly should DH be put? It could be a tertiary interest, or a tool, it could be a primary interest, like 18th century literature, or it could be something else, its own discipline. Thinking about these groupings has made me question some of my earlier views. In particular, the idea that DH is a “take it or leave it” approach to literature stems from my assumption that it is a tertiary interest that is grouped within other disciplines. If DH is an approach to studying literature, like feminism or queer theory, than it follows that there are other approaches of equal merit. However, thinking of DH as a discipline gives it a little more weight. For example, a discipline’s methodologies might change over time, but the discipline itself doesn’t just go out of style. There are certainly several pros and cons of making DH its own distinct discipline, but I’m not even sure if it would be possible. Rafael Alverado’s notes that “Given this surplus of extensional meanings, there is simply no way to describe the digital humanities as anything like a discipline. Just think of the curricular requirements of such a field! Not only would the field require its members to develop the deep domain knowledge of the traditional humanist—distant reading notwithstanding—it would also demand that they learn a wide range of divergent technologies.” I’m not sure that this is entirely true, but in order for DH to become its own discipline more thought would have to go into determining exactly what the digital humanities includes.