Thoughts on DH Manifestos:

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.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on DH Manifestos:

  1. Great post, Gaby, and thanks for sharing with us your views and personal experience as somebody who has already done a lot with both DH and literary studies. As you might know if you have read my post, I do argue that DH should be recognized as a discipline, or interdiscipline, on its own terms. The more I look into the question, the more I think that only a balanced, equal relation between a humanistic and a technological perspective can bring to success for DH scholarship. Again, maybe literary translation can be handy and serve as an example: when I translate, I have to understand how the text works, and how to read it, what the implications are, etc., but I also have to perfectly know what I can do with the language I am translating the original into. Otherwise, even if I do get a great understanding of the original, but I don’t fully possess the language I have to use for my act of translation-representation-recreation, the result will be awkward and ugly. For this reason I think that yes, it’s great to solidly acquire a language later in life (as the humanists who have been gaining proficiency in coding are now doing,) but it’s better, and easier, to be native speakers. At the same time, of course code and programs evolve continuously, so one constantly have to update anyway. But I think that studying computer science and lit (or whatever other humanity subject) at the same time, would create a better intellectual mindset for DH work.
    I understand the worry of “what should we include?”, “what jobs will these kids get?”, but I think we can run the risk. I remember when Communication Studies was founded as an independent discipline in Italy, approximately 15 years ago. There was so much perplexity around academics, and perhaps it was pretty hard for the first students who graduated with that major to find a job, but now there are many job opportunities for people with that major. Now people “understand” it and accept it.
    I think it would be worth to try. I am sure that, considering your experience, you could sketch a draft of those requirements, you could help drawing some programmatic boundaries for DH to stand on its own, as a primary field, and so I wonder if you could start giving further thoughts into this hard and yet crucial question.

    1. Caterina,
      Thanks for the great reply! I wholeheartedly agree that a balanced relationship between humanistic and technical perspectives is the ideal we should strive towards; it’s what makes DH so unique as a field of inquiry in the first place. I also thought that your notion of “native-speakers” was interesting. I arrived at DH my final year of college, and I certainly wish that I had come upon it sooner. Because I am pretty much an English major who learned a few computing tools, I constantly feel overwhelmed by the amount of technical information I don’t know. While this is probably true of most, I think that having a better foundation of computer science knowledge would make me a much better student of DH.

      One of the things I still worry about though in terms of making DH its own discipline, is that it pretty much leaves the other humanities disciplines as they are now. I’m not agreeing with “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” and saying that DH represents a revolution, but it certainly does change things. If digital literary studies is something that occurs under the umbrella of digital humanities, what will the regular literary studies scholars be doing? I think what we have with DH is a different way of answering some of the questions that our non-digital counterparts are also asking. If DH becomes its own discipline, does that mean that regular humanities departments will not adopt digital methodologies? If they do adopt digital methodologies, what will be the difference between majoring in say literary studies and majoring in digital humanities?

      I also wonder about the structure of course requirements for a DH major. Do you think it would be better for students to take classes in the computer science department and in humanities departments, or would they be taking classes (like Matt Jockers’s class) that are specifically designed for digital humanists?

  2. Gabi, I appreciate your observation of code as text. Though, we should also highlight the corollary that text functions as code.

    I do wonder about about how “we” (as a scholarly community) tend to create hierarchies that reinforce particular models of seeing the world as your note about the MLA implies. Even if DH is merely a theoretical toolset, if not yet a discipline, why do professional organizations grant primacy to geographical and chronological categories? Why not to theoretical models?

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