Digital humanities as a semi-normal thing

Five years ago it was easy to check on new digital subfields of the humanities. Just open Twitter. If a new blog post had dropped, or a magazine had published a fresh denunciation of “digital humanities,” academics would be buzzing.

In 2017, Stanley Fish and Leon Wieseltier are no longer attacking “DH” — and if they did, people might not care. Twitter, unfortunately, has bigger problems to worry about, because the Anglo-American political world has seen some changes for the worse.

But the world of digital humanities, I think, has seen changes for the better. It seems increasingly taken for granted that digital media and computational methods can play a role in the humanities. Perhaps a small role — and a controversial one — and one without much curricular support. But still!

In place of journalistic controversies and flame wars, we are finally getting a broad scholarly conversation about new ideas. Conversations of this kind take time to develop. Many of us will recall Twitter threads from 2013 anxiously wondering whether digital scholarship would ever have an impact on more “mainstream” disciplinary venues. The answer “it just takes time” wasn’t, in 2013, very convincing.

But in fact, it just took time. Quantitative methods and macroscopic evidence, for instance, are now a central subject of debate in literary studies. (Since flame wars may not be entirely over, I should acknowledge that I’m now moving to talk about one small subfield of DH rather than trying to do justice to the whole thing.)

The immediate occasion for this post is a special issue of Genre (v. 50, n. 1) engaging the theme of “data” in relation to the Victorian novel; this follows a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly on “scale and value.” Next year, “Scale” is the theme of the English Institute, and little birds tell me that PMLA is also organizing an issue on related themes. Meanwhile, of course, the new journal Cultural Analytics is providing an open-access home for essays that make computational methods central to their interpretive practice.

The participants in this conversation don’t all identify as digital humanists or distant readers. But they are generally open-minded scholars willing to engage ideas as ideas, whatever their disciplinary origin. Some are still deeply suspicious of numbers, but they are willing to consider both sides of that question. Many recent essays are refreshingly aware that quantitative analysis is itself a mode of interpretation, guided by explicit reflection on interpretive theory. Instead of reifying computation as a “tool” or “skill,” for instance, Robert Mitchell engages the intellectual history of Bayesian statistics in Genre.

Recent essays also seem aware that the history of large-scale quantitative approaches to the literary past didn’t begin and end with Franco Moretti. References to book history and the Annales School mix with citations of Tanya Clement and Andrew Piper. Although I admire Moretti’s work, this expansion of the conversation is welcome and overdue.

If “data” were a theme — like thing theory or the Anthropocene — this play might now have reached its happy ending. Getting literary scholars to talk about a theme is normally enough.

In fact, the play could proceed for several more acts, because “data” is shorthand for a range of interpretive practices that aren’t yet naturalized in the humanities. At most universities, grad students still can’t learn how to do distant reading. So there is no chance at all that distant reading will become the “next big thing” — one of those fashions that sweeps departments of English, changing everyone’s writing in a way that is soon taken for granted. We can stop worrying about that. Adding citations to Geertz and Foucault can be done in a month. But a method that requires years of retraining will never become the next big thing. Maybe, ten years from now, the fraction of humanities faculty who actually use quantitative methods may have risen to 5% — or optimistically, 7%. But even that change would be slow and deeply controversial.

So we might as well enjoy the current situation. The initial wave of utopian promises and enraged jeremiads about “DH” seems to have receded. Scholars have realized that new objects, and methods, of study are here to stay — and that they are in no danger of taking over. Now it’s just a matter of doing the work. That, also, takes time.