Why everyone should welcome the coming controversy over digital humanities.

Over the next several years, I predict that we’re going to hear a lot of arguments about what the digital humanities can’t do. They can’t help us distinguish insightful and innovative works from merely typical productions of the press. They can’t help us make aesthetic judgments. They can’t help students develop a sense of what really matters about their individual lives, or about history.

Personally, I’m going to be thrilled. First of all, because Blake was right about many things, but above all about the humanities, when he wrote “Opposition is true Friendship.” The best way to get people to pay attention to the humanities is for us to have a big, lively argument about things that matter — indeed, I would go so far as to say that no humanistic project matters much until it gets attacked.

And critics of the digital humanities will be pointing to things that really do matter. We ought to be evaluating authors and works, and challenging students to make similar kinds of judgments. We ought to be insisting that students connect the humanities to their own lives, and develop a broader feeling for the comic and tragic dimensions of human history.

William Blake, "Newton," 1795


Of course, it’s not as though we’re doing much of that now. But if humanists’ resistance to the digitization of our profession causes us to take old bromides about the humanities more seriously, and give them real weight in the way we evaluate our work — then I’m all for it. I’ll sign up, in full seriousness, as a fan of the coming reaction against the digital humanities, which might even turn out to be more important than digital humanism itself.

I wouldn’t, after all, want every humanist to become a “digital humanist.” I believe there’s a lot we can learn from new modes of analysis, networking, and visualization, but I don’t believe the potential is infinite, or that new approaches ineluctably supplant old ones. The New York Times may have described data-intensive methods as an alternative to “theory,” but surely we’ve been trained to recognize a false dichotomy? “Theory” used to think it was an alternative to “humanism,” and that was wrong too.

I also predict that the furor will subside, in a decade or so, when scholars start to understand how new modes of analysis help them do things they presently want to do, but can’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjamin Schmidt’s point that search engines are already a statistically sophisticated technology for assisted reading. Of course humanists use search engines to mine data every day, without needing to define a tf-idf score, and without getting so annoyed that they exclaim “Search engines will never help us properly appreciate an individual author’s sensibility!”

That’s the future I anticipate for the digital humanities. I don’t think we’re going to be making a lot of arguments that explicitly foreground a quantitative methodology. We’ll make a few. But more often text mining, or visualization, will function as heuristics that help us find and recognize significant patterns, which we explore in traditional humanistic ways. Once a heuristic like that is freely available and its uses are widely understood, you don’t need to make a big show of using it, any more than we now make a point of saying “I found these obscure sources by performing a clever keyword search on ECCO.” But it may still be true that the heuristic is permitting us to pursue different kinds of arguments, just as search engines are now probably permitting us to practice a different sort of historicism.

But once this becomes clear, we’ll start to agree with each other. Things will become boring again, and The New York Times will stop paying attention to us. So I plan to enjoy the argument while it lasts.

3 thoughts on “Why everyone should welcome the coming controversy over digital humanities.

  1. I find this post very compelling. One issue I’d like to hear more about is the difference between quantity and qualia, and is there a technical way to get to something like an understanding of qualia? David Miall was doing this kind of thing when he published his essay on Coleridge and his use of the term emotion (Computers and Humanities, 1992). Was Heidegger right when he claimed that mathematics skips over the thing, and how might Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory help us attend to the nuances of things encoded in words?

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