Why digital humanities isn’t actually “the next thing in literary studies.”

Vacuum tubes from a 1950s computer. Creative commons license: Shieldforyoureyes.

It’s flattering for digital humanists to be interpellated by Stanley Fish as the next thing in literary studies. It’s especially pleasant since the field is old enough now to be tickled by depiction as a recent fad — as Fish must know, since he tangled with an earlier version of it (“humanities computing”) in the 80s.

Fish seems less suspicious of computing these days, and he understands the current contours of digital humanities well. As he implies, DH is not a specific method or theory, but something more like a social movement that extends messily from “the refining of search engines” to “the rethinking of peer review.”

In short, Fish’s column is kind enough. But I want to warn digital humanists about the implications of his flattery. Literary scholars are addicted to a specific kind of methodological conflict. Fish is offering an invitation to consider ourselves worthy of joining the fight. Let’s not.

The outlines of the debate I have in mind emerge at the end of this column as Fish sets up his next one. It turns out that the discipline of literary studies is in trouble! Maybe enrollments are down, or literary culture is in peril; as Fish himself hints, this script is so familiar that we hardly need to spell out the threat. Anyway, the digital humanities have implicitly promised that their new version of the discipline will ensure “the health and survival of the profession.” But can they really do so? Tune in next week …

Or don’t. As flattering as it is to be cast in this drama, digital humanists would be better advised to bow out. The disciplinary struggle that Fish wants to stage around us is not our fight, and was perhaps never a very productive fight anyway.

In explaining why I feel this way, I’m going to try to address both colleagues who “do” DH and those who are apprehensive about it. I think it’s fair to be apprehensive, but the apprehension I’m hearing these days (from Fish and from my own friends) seems to me too narrowly targeted. DH is not the kind of trend humanists are used to, which starts with a specific methodological insight and promises to revive a discipline (or two) by generalizing that insight. It’s something more diffuse, and the diffuseness matters.

1. Why isn’t digital humanities yet another answer to the question “How should we save literary studies?” First of all, because digital humanities is not a movement within literary studies. It includes historians and linguists, computer scientists and librarians.

“Interdisciplinary?” Maybe, but extra-disciplinary might be a better word, because DH is not even restricted to the ranks of faculty. When I say “librarians,” I mean not only faculty in library schools, but people with professional appointments in libraries. Academic professionals have often been the leading figures in this field.

So DH is really not another movement to revitalize literary studies by making it relevant to [X]. There are people who would like to cast it in those terms. Doing so would make it possible to stage a familiar sort of specifically disciplinary debate. It would also, incidentally, allow the energy of the field to be repossessed by faculty, who have historically been in charge of theoretical debate, but not quite so securely in charge of (say) collaborations to build new infrastructure. [I owe this observation to Twitter conversation with Bethany Nowviskie and Miriam Posner.]

But reframing digital humanities in that way would obscure what’s actually interesting and new about this moment — new opportunities for collaboration both across disciplines and across the boundary between the conceptual work of academia and the infrastructure that supports and tacitly shapes it.

2) That sounds very nice, but isn’t there still an implicit disciplinary argument — and isn’t that the part of this that matters?

I understand the suspicion. In literary studies, change has almost always taken place through a normative claim about the proper boundaries of the discipline. Always historicize! Or on second thought no, don’t historicize, but instead revive literary culture by returning to our core competence of close reading!

But in my experience digital humanists are really not interested in regulating disciplinary boundaries — except insofar as they want a seat at the table. “Isn’t DH about turning the humanities into distant reading and cliometrics and so on?” I understand the suspicion, but no. I personally happen to be enthusiastic about distant reading, but DH is more diverse than that. Digital humanists approach interpretation in a lot of different ways, at different scales. Some people focus tightly on exploration of a single work. “But isn’t it in any case about displacing interpretation with a claim to empirical truth?” Absolutely not. Here I can fortunately recommend Stephen Ramsay’s recent book Reading Machines, which understands algorithms as ways of systematically deforming a text in order to enhance interpretive play. Ramsay is quite eloquent about the dangers of “scientism.”

The fundamental mistake here may be the assumption that quantitative methods are a new thing in the humanities, and therefore must imply some new and terrifyingly normative positivism. They aren’t new. All of us have been using quantitative tools for several decades — and using them to achieve a wide variety of theoretical ends. The only thing that’s new in the last few years is that humanists are consciously taking charge of the tools ourselves. But I’ve said a lot about that in the past, so I’ll just link to my previous discussion.

3. Well, shouldn’t DH be promising to save literary studies, or the humanities as a whole? Isn’t it irresponsible to ignore the present crisis in academia?

Digital humanists haven’t ignored the social problems of academia; on the contrary, as Fish acknowledges, they’re engaging those problems at multiple levels. Rethinking peer review and scholarly publishing, for instance. Or addressing the tattered moral logic of graduate education by trying to open alternate career paths for humanists. Whatever it means to “do digital humanities,” it has to imply thinking about academia as a social institution.

But it doesn’t have to imply the mode of social engagement that humanists have often favored — which is to make normative claims about the boundaries of our own disciplines, with the notion that in doing so we are defending some larger ideal. That’s not a part of the job we should feel guilty about skipping.

4. Haven’t you defined “digital humanities” so broadly that it’s impossible to make a coherent argument for or against it?

I have, and that might be a good thing. I sometimes call DH a “field” because I lack a better word, but digital humanities is not a discipline or a coherent project. It’s a rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered — from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement — linked mainly by the fact that they are responding to related kinds of fluidity: rapid changes in representation, communication, and analysis that open up detours around some familiar institutions.

It’s hard to be “for” or “against” a set of developments like this — just as it was hard to be for or against all types of “theory” at the same time. Of course, the emptiness of a generally pro- or anti-theory position never stopped us! Literary scholars are going to want to take a position on DH, as if it were a familiar sort of polemical project. But I think DH is something more interesting than that — intellectually less coherent, but posing a more genuine challenge to our assumptions.

I suppose, if pressed, I would say “digital humanities” is the name of an opportunity. Technological change has made some of the embodiments of humanistic work — media, archives, institutions, perhaps curricula — a lot more plastic than they used to be. That could turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s neither of those just yet: the meaning of the opportunity is going to depend on what we make of it.

34 thoughts on “Why digital humanities isn’t actually “the next thing in literary studies.”

  1. Great post. I love how you turn the lack of a single disciplinary claim for DH into a strength. I agree that most DHers are more interested in the work than the normative claim of how their work is going to change the field, or how they are different. We’ve had enough of that. Let’s just build networks and work with people.

  2. Thank you for articulating all of these points, Ted, in response to Fish’s article.

    One of the contingencies about Digital Humanities is its messiness. But that messiness allows for multiple interpretations, interpositions, interruptions, and so on. That’s the beauty, IMHO. At every turn, I find a new direction (for me), a new application of a tool, a new revision to an old question (that I’ve been asking about my work as a scholarly editor). It’s exciting, and that’s the reason that I followed this career: to see what new and cool things I could learn from people around me. Digital Humanities fosters this enthusiasm (and productive debates) in such a way that I’ve *not* found in other area studies. Perhaps DH offers a sense of collegiality; perhaps that’s what helps it grow?

    • I’ve had the same experience. In part, I’ll pat DH on the back and say it’s the collaborative nature of the field itself. But to be a bit more cynical about it: I also notice, anecdotally, that other small, embattled, but growing fields tend to be internally collegial. You’ve got to stick together for self-defense, and there’s no reason to fight over an expanding territory. On the other hand, older, well-established fields get fierce — e.g., reviewers in those fields can be on average much harsher.

      When the territory isn’t expanding in and of itself, there’s only one way to clear space …

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  7. Great thoughts, Ted. Since DH is not a discipline, everything you say makes sense. Fish is always doing more than what he says, IMO, and here he’s demonstrating that disciplines themselves will do something specific with DH and call it their own. But of course that’s “English-DH,” or “Sociology-DH,” etc. Maybe not a bad thing, if it gets disciplines to think in new ways about old assumptions. What I like about your post is noting that DH exists apart from these appropriations, and that’s one of the things that makes it so exciting and important now. Important enough event to get Fish to stand up and take notice.

  8. Great post, Ted. But don’t you think that the porousness of literary studies (which Fish acknowledges but does not address) is one of the reasons why it emerged in and around English departments rather than, say, Sociology? But I agree that Fish has misrecognized the actual interests and potential of DH.

    • You could be right. It’s true that English has a history of eclecticism, and “humanities computing” (DH version 1.0) had a strong association with English departments. On the other hand, I’m not totally sure that DH version 2.0 did emerge specifically “in and around English departments.” My uncertainty here is genuine; I was out of the loop from 1996-2005 (desperately trying to get/keep a mainstream job), and I missed some crucial stages of the story. But it *feels* to me like the “humanities computing” thread merged with broader cultural developments that weren’t necessarily located in the humanities. (New media, a new interest in data mining, etc.) And from my limited perspective, that “merger” doesn’t seem to have been negotiated specifically by English departments (who are often still pretty wary of it). It often seems to have happened in libraries, or schools of “library and information science,” etc. Which may be part of the reason why DH feels, to me, more genuinely interdisciplinary than most humanistic projects. But, as I say, I was out of the loop; it would be interesting to hear the perspective of people who were actually involved.

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  11. “The outlines of the debate I have in mind emerge at the end of this column as Fish sets up his next one.”

    This promise of a 2nd episode kind of surprised me since I didn’t get the impression that he’s devoted a lot of time to understanding what Digital Humanities is — beyond categorically dismissing it.

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  23. My name is Kate Bowers, and I am a student in a digital humanities seminar called “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary: .
    In my final paper for the course, I would like to base my argument on your blog post. You can read my paper after April 25th on the course blog:

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