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.

What no one tells you about the digital humanities.

There are already several great posts out there that exhaustively list resources and starting points for people getting into DH (a lot of them are by Lisa Spiro, who is good at it).

Opportunities are not always well signposted.


This will be a shorter list. I’m still new enough at this to remember what surprised me in the early going, and there were two areas where my previous experience in the academy failed to prepare me for the fluid nature of this field.

1) I had no idea, going into this, just how active a scholarly field could be online. Things are changing rapidly — copyright lawsuits, new tools, new ideas. To find out what’s happening, I think it’s actually vital to lurk on Twitter. Before I got on Twitter, I was flying blind, and didn’t even realize it. Start by following Brett Bobley, head of the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH. Then follow everyone else.

2) The technical aspect of the field is important — too important, in many cases, to be delegated. You need to get your hands dirty. But the technical aspect is also much less of an obstacle than I originally assumed. There’s an amazing amount of information on the web, and you can teach yourself to do almost anything in a couple of weekends.* Realizing that you can is half the battle. For a pep talk / inspiring example, try this great narrative by Tim Sherratt.

That’s it. If you want more information, see the links to Lisa Spiro and DiRT at the top of this post. Lisa is right, by the way, that the place to start is with a particular problem you want to solve. Don’t dutifully acquire skills that you think you’re supposed to have for later use. Just go solve that problem!

* ps: Technical obstacles are minor even if you want to work with “big data.” We’re at a point now where you can harvest your own big data — big, at least, by humanistic standards. Hardware limitations are not quite irrelevant, but you won’t hit them for the first year or so, though you may listen anxiously while that drive grinds much more than you’re used to …