DH as a social phenomenon disciplinary history undigitized humanities

On the novelty of “humanistic values.”

Academics have been discussing a crisis “in” or “of” the humanities since the late 1980s. Scholars disagree about the nature of the crisis, but it’s a widely shared premise that one is located somewhere “in the humanities.”

The crisis of the humanities, as seen in Google Books.The phrase “digital humanities” invites a connection to this debate. If DH is about the humanities, and “grounded in humanistic values” (Spiro 23), then it stands to reason that it ought to somehow respond to any crisis that threatens “the humanities.” This is the premise that fuels Alan Liu’s well-known argument about DH and cultural criticism. “[T]he digital humanities community,” he argues, has a “special potential and responsibility to assist humanities advocacy.”

I think these assumptions need to be brought into conversation with Geoffrey Harpham’s recent, important book The Humanities and the Dream of America (h/t @noeljackson). Harpham’s central point is simple: our concept of “the humanities” emerged quite recently. Although the individual disciplines grouped under that umbrella are older, the umbrella itself is largely a twentieth-century invention — and only became institutionally central after WWII.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, when administrators at Columbia, Chicago, Yale, and Harvard began to speak fervently of the moral and spiritual benefits of a university education, “the humanities” has served as the name and the form of the link Arnold envisioned between culture, education, and the state. Particularly after World War II, the humanities began to be opposed not just to its traditional foil, science, but also to social science, whose emergence as a powerful force in the American academy was marked by the founding of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1951 (87).

In research for a forthcoming book (Why Literary Periods Mattered, Stanford UP) I’ve poked around a bit in the institutional history of the early-twentieth-century university, and Harpham’s thesis rings true to me. Although the word has a pre-twentieth-century history, our present understanding of “the humanities” is strongly shaped by an institutional opposition between humanities and social sciences that only made sense in the twentieth century. For whatever it’s worth, Google Books also tends to support Harpham’s contention that the concept of the humanities has only possessed its present prominence since WWII.

humanitiesDefenses of “culture,” of course, are older. But it hasn’t always been clear that culture was coextensive with the disciplines now grouped together as humanistic. In the middle of the twentieth century, literary critics like René Wellek fervently defended literary culture from philistine encroachment by the discipline of history. The notion that literary scholars and historians must declare common cause against a besieging world of philistines is a very different script, and one that really only emerged in the last thirty years.

Why do I say all this? Am I trying to divide literary scholars from historians? Don’t I see that we have to hang together, or hang separately?

I understand that higher education, as a whole, is under attack from the right. So I’m happy to declare common cause with people who are working to articulate the value of literary studies and history — or for that matter, anthropology and library science. But I don’t think it’s quite inevitable that these battles should be fought under the flag of the humanities.

After all, Florida governor Rick Scott has been just as critical of “anthropology” as of literary criticism. Humanists could well choose to make common cause with the social sciences, in order to defend shared interests.

Or one could argue that we’d be better off fighting for specific concepts like “literature” and “history” and “art.” People outside the university know what those are. It’s not clear that they have a vivid concept of the humanities. It’s a term of recent and mostly academic provenance.

lithistOn the other hand, there may be good reason to mobilize around “the humanities.” Certainly the NEH itself is worth defending. Ultimately, this is a question of political strategy, and I don’t have strong opinions about it. I’m very happy to see people defending individual disciplines, or the humanities, or higher education as a whole. In my eyes, it’s all good.

But I do want to push back gently against the notion that scholars in any discipline have a political obligation to organize under the banner of “the humanities,” or an intellectual obligation to define “humanistic” methods. The concept of the humanities may well be a recent invention, shaped by twentieth-century struggles over institutional turf. We talk about “humanistic values” as if they were immemorial. But Erasmus did not share our sense that history and literature have to band together in order to resist encroachment by sociology.

More pointedly: cultural criticism and humanities advocacy are fundamentally different things. There have been many kinds of critical, politically engaged intellectuals; only in the last sixty years have some of them self-identified as humanists.

What does all this mean for the digital humanities? I don’t know. Since “the humanities” are built right into the phrase, perhaps it should belong to people who identify as humanists. But much of the work that interests me personally is now taking place in departments of Library and Information Science, which inherit a social science tradition (as Kari Kraus has recently pointed out). So I would also be happy with a phrase like “digital humanities and social sciences.” Dan Cohen recently used that phrase as a course title, and it’s an interesting move.

Added a few hours after posting: To show a few more of my own cards, I’ll confess that what I love most about DH is the freedom to ignore disciplinary boundaries and follow shared problems wherever they lead. But I’m beginning to suspect that the concept of the humanities may itself discourage interdisciplinary risks. It seems to have been invented (rather recently) to define certain disciplines through their collective difference from the social and natural sciences. If that’s true, “digital humanities” may be an awkward concept for me. I’m a literary historian, and I do feel loyalty to the methods of that discipline. But I don’t feel loyalty to them specifically as different from the sciences.

Added a day after initial posting: And, to be clear, I don’t mean that we need a better name than “digital humanities.” There’s a basic tension between interdisciplinarity and field definition — so any name can become constricting if you spend too much time defining it. For me the bottom line is this: I like the interdisciplinary energy that I’ve found in the DH blogosphere and don’t care what we call it — don’t care, in a radical way — to the extent that I don’t even care whether critics think DH is consonant with, quote, “humanistic values.” Because in truth, some of those values are recent inventions, shaped by pressure to differentiate the humanities from the social sciences — and that move deserves to be questioned every bit as much as DH itself does. /done now

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. (I should note that I may not agree with all aspects of Harpham’s argument. In particular, I’m not yet persuaded that the concept of ‘the humanities’ is as fully identified with the United States in particular as he argues.)

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). 490-509.

Spiro, Lisa. “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). 16-35.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

16 replies on “On the novelty of “humanistic values.””

“The notion that literary scholars and historians must declare common cause against a besieging world of philistines is a very different script, and one that really only emerged in the last thirty years.”

VERY interesting. Note that the 1966 structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins was organized in the name of “the sciences of man,” which is a European phrase, not an American one. What you’re saying suggests that the emerging sense of “the humanities” latched onto Continental philosophy and thought as one means of articulating this sense of the humanities vs. the rest.

But I reserve the right to take it back, as I’ve not really thought this through.

What you say here about “the sciences of man” is intriguing. Harpham would agree with you; he thinks “the humanities” as we understand them have mostly been an American invention, and are significantly different from “sciences humaines.” I’m not yet sure what I think about that part of his thesis.

One subplot here is that digital historians, even computationally leaning ones, have a strong incentive to define their work as ‘digital humanities’ as a way to finesse a tough hand: using numbers while affirming the new(ish) shibboleth that history is a humanistic practice, not a social science. So “humanistic methods” may be a (marginally) less vacuous term for historians because there’s a very real alternative in the discipline’s recent history. Historians may be attached to the label in part because it helped them avoid technocratic/instrumentalist encroachment from other parts of the university in the 1980s to engage in cultural criticism.

That’s very interesting, and it’s a part of the story I really couldn’t see from my vantage point in English.

If you go back far enough (to the first couple decades of the twentieth century), literary studies also had a flirtation with social science. This isn’t widely realized, but the project of “comparative literature” wasn’t originally just to question national boundaries. It was an attempt to remake literary studies on the model of anthropology/folklore. Pretty forcefully rejected by the 1940s.

Ben, I wonder if it’s fair to say that econometrics/cliometrics had a stronger influence in history (pre-‘DH’) than stylometrics/computational analysis did in literary studies. My impression is that this is true, though I don’t know as much about the recent history of history.

I do think it’s true that cliometrics played a bigger role (although I don’t know for sure–does old-school stylometrics regularly show up on comprehensive reading lists for English types?), along with quantitative work in, say, demographic history that wouldn’t have taken up the ‘cliometric’ label.

But I think what’s really important in hindsight was the *negative* role it played. Probably exaggerating a bit, but the cliometrics moment in history–unlike comp lit, I think–wasn’t just humanists flirting with quantitative methods; it was the zenith of influence for the explicitly the social-scientific wings of the profession. So while Comp Lit could (maybe?) just return to a status quo ante, the pushback against cliometrics led us to pretty decisively reject the model of the history-as-social-science (even though we’re in the social sciences administratively about half the time)–which not only blackballed further quantitative research, but also led to some house-cleaning where established subfields like economic history being pushed towards economics departments rather than history ones.

I think the analogy I’m going for here is roughly:
Sunnis = humanists
Shiites = social scientists
English/Comp Lit = Saudi Arabia
Economists = Iran
History = Iraq

I loooove that analogy, especially if I get to be Abu Nazir.

I think there are parallels with cliometrics in our discipline, but not sure stylometrics would be the candidate. Stylometrics has been pretty marginal, and definitely does not show up on your average reading list.

On the other hand, philology might once have played a parallel role. And in fact, history itself has. As I say above, we have not usually been sure you historians count as ‘culture.’ Even when you’re not counting things, you’re treating them as aggregates, which is pretty shady.

More broadly — as Andrew highlighted in that recent topic modeling post — literary studies spent the whole 20c downgrading ‘evidence’ and replacing it with ‘interpretation.’ I think that might be the biggest sign that we’ve been reshaping our discipline to differentiate it from social science.

If I have this right, one of the first econometric historical studies argued that American slavery wasn’t that bad because—calories. That does sound like the sort of claim you’re more likely to find in a contemporary economics department than history, I suppose. I wonder how the reception would have been had the initial studies taken a different ideological approach (allowing for the inevitable oversimplification, etc.)

Ah, Time on the Cross. For all its strengths, it probably did more harm to quantitative historical research than anything else, ever. Fogel and Engerman (both economists, important to note), even though they offered a lot of important insights, ended up provoking most of the best scholars of slavery rather than bring them along. So that to this day everyone remembers that book as you describe it: “using numbers to do history leads you to believe that slavery wasn’t so bad.” (A different study, author escaping me now, showed that railroads didn’t significantly increase America’s economic growth in the 19th century: that was another one that my grad seminar professors used as evidence that quantification was a total waste of time.)

I’ve thought about doing a really exhaustive study of the reception and influence of Time on the Cross on American historians. My gut feeling is it’s a strongly cautionary tale against the idea that disciplines don’t matter, only questions do: although E&F were asking important questions about slavery and answering them in very interesting ways, their failure to integrate them into the very sophisticated conversations about slavery already going on led to more rejection of quantification among people studying slavery (most of whom are always going to be historians, not economists) than take-up.

Whoops, that railroad study was Fogel, too. I should also add that I got my learning at Princeton, which was more associated with the cultural turn in the 80s than anywhere. So I’m giving a somewhat biased history here.

Very interesting Ted, thanks. Your point about “the humanities” being in opposition to the social sciences is worth a lot more discussion. There’s a real tension in the humanities community about that (at least here in the US). It always surprises me to hear humanists criticize an approach as being “too social science.” Increasingly, as I work on more grant programs that involve funders from other disciplines and countries, the reasons for dividing the disciplines seem to make increasingly less sense.

In programs like Digging into Data, we’re trying to eliminate those borders as much as possible. In descriptions of the program, I try to be discipline-neutral and talk more about the research questions to be tackled rather than WHO must do the tackling. That said, I also find myself compelled to list potential disciplinary involvement, as those titles are so ingrained in the academic culture. Hence, I end up with descriptions like: “a joint grant competition to focus the attention of the social sciences, humanities, library, archival, and information sciences communities on large-scale data analysis and its potential applications.” But, at the end of the day, I’m hoping for great research by great people, regardless of what title they have or which disciplinary conferences they attend. Of course, DiD is an unconventional program. Doing interdisciplinary research in other contexts can be difficult to get funded.

Anyway, thanks. This is a topic worth more discussion going forward.

Talking “more about the research questions to be tackled rather than who must do the tackling” is probably a good mantra for everyone.

In the humanities and social sciences, I suspect research funding plays only a small role (if any) in reinforcing boundaries. The impulse to separate “humanities” and “social science” approaches probably has more to do with the curricular limits of a major. Since you can only teach so many different methods in four years, it would be nice if real-world problems fit into self-contained disciplinary packages that were roughly four years long. We’re strongly motivated to pretend that they do!

As another little footnote, that 1966 structuralism conference that gave Continental Thought a beach-head was sponsored by the newly formed Humanities Center at Hopkins. That center was conceived as an interdisciplinary activity. I’d guess that all these various humanities centers were formed in the 1960s and 1970s. As for the interdisciplinary aspect, I’ve been hearing calls for interdisciplinary work for 40 years. And the “literature and X” formation has made literary studies something of a black hole of interdisciplinary. Everything goes in, but nothing comes out. In some sense literary studies exemplifies Plato’s fear of thinking about the world through a copy (the literary text) of a copy (the world) of the Ideal Forms.

“don’t care, in a radical way”

I’m taking that and from now on throwing it against the wall I constantly run into with folks who are so hung up on the term DH. Beyond the wall there is work to be done, so I hope this phrase—which better and more succinctly states my personal position—is heavy enough to help me breakthrough.

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