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.

Problems of scale.

The Artist in Despair Over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, by Henry Fuseli.

Just a quick note here to acknowledge a collaborative project that I hope will generate some useful resources for scholars interested in text mining. We don’t have many resources up on the website yet, but watch this space.

The project is called The Uses of Scale, and it’s a pilot project for the Humanities Without Walls planning initiative, run by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The principal investigators most actively involved in Uses of Scale are Ted Underwood (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Robin Valenza (University of Wisconsin, Madison), and Matt Wilkens (Notre Dame). All of us have been mining large collections of printed books, ranging from the early modern period to the twentieth century. We’ll be joining forces this year to reflect critically on problems of scale in literary research — including the questions that arise when we try to connect different scales of analysis. But we also hope to generate a few resources that are immediately and practically useful for scholars attempting to “scale up” their research projects (resources, for instance, for correcting OCR). There’s already a bare-bones list of OCR-correction rules on the website, as well a description of a more ambitious project now underway.

How everyone gets to claim they do DH.

h/t @frankridgway – who now, performatively, does DH

When I saw the meme to the right come across my facebook newsfeed — and then get widely shared! — I realized that the field of digital humanities is confronting a PR crisis. In literary studies, a lot of job postings are suddenly requesting interest or experience in DH. This requirement was not advertised when people began their dissertations, and candidates are understandably ticked off by the late-breaking news.

I know where they’re coming from, since I’ve spent much of the past twenty years having to pretend that my work was relevant to a wide variety of theoretical questions I wasn’t all that passionate about. Especially in job interviews. Did my work engage de Man’s well-known essays on the topic? “Bien sûr.” Had I considered postcolonial angles? “Of course. It would be unethical not to.” And so on. There’s nothing scandalous about this sort of pretense. Not every theme can be central to every project, but it’s still fair to ask people how their projects might engage a range of contemporary debates.

The problem we’re confronting now in DH is that people don’t feel free to claim a passing acquaintance with our field. If they’re asked about Marxist theory, they can bullshit by saying “Althusser, Williams, blah blah blah.” But if they’re asked about DH, they feel they have to say “no, I really don’t do DH.” Which sounds bracingly straightforward. Except, in my opinion, bracingly straightforward is bad for everyone’s health. It locks deserving candidates out of jobs they might end up excelling in, and conversely, locks DH itself out of the mainstream of departmental conversation.

I want to give grad students permission to intelligently bullshit their way through questions about DH just as they would any other question. For certain jobs — to be sure — that’s not going to fly. At Nebraska or Maryland or George Mason or McGill, they may want someone who can reverse the polarity on the Drupal generator, and a general acquaintance with DH discourse won’t be enough. But at many other institutions (including, cough, many elite ones) they’re just getting their toes wet, and may merely be looking for someone informed about the field and interested in learning more about it. In that case “intelligent, informed BS” is basically what’s desired.

What makes this tricky is that DH — unlike some other theoretical movements — does have a strong practical dimension. And that tends to harden boundaries. It makes grad students (and senior faculty) feel that no amount of information about DH will ever be useful to them. “If I don’t have time to build a web page from scratch, I’m never going to count as a digital humanist, so why should I go to reading groups or surf blogs?”

“Don’t be a square …”

Naturally, I do want to encourage people to pick up some technical skills. They’re fun. But I think it’s also really important for the health of the field that DH should develop the same sort of penumbra of affiliation that every other scholarly movement has developed. It needs to be possible to intelligently shoot the breeze about DH even if you don’t “do” it.

There are a lot of ways to develop that kind of familiarity, from reading Matt Gold’s Debates in Digital Humanities, to surfing blogs, to blogging for yourself, to Lisa Spiro’s list of starting places in DH, to following people on Twitter, to thinking about digital pedagogy with NITLE, to affiliation with groups like HASTAC or NINES or 18th Connect. (Please add more suggestions in comments!) Those of us who are working on digital research projects should make it a priority to draw in local collaborators and/or research assistants. Even if grad students don’t have time to develop their own digital research project from the ground up, they can acquire some familiarity with the field. Finally, in my book, informed critique of DH also counts as a way of “doing DH.” When interviewers ask you whether you do DH, the answer can be “yes, and I’m specifically concerned about the field’s failure to address X.”

Bottom line: grad students shouldn’t feel that they’re being asked to assume a position as “digital” or “analog” humanists, any more than they’re being asked to declare themselves “for” or “against” close reading and feminism. DH is not an identity category; it’s a project that your work might engage, indirectly, in a variety of ways.

I like “open.” And I like “review.” But do they need to be fused?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about “open review.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo have drafted a thoughtful and polished white paper on the topic, with input from many other hands. Alex Reid also commented insightfully.

“Open Doors,” Federica Marchi 2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Though my assessment of print scholarship is not as dark as Alex’s, I do share a bit of his puzzlement. To me, the concept of “open review” sometimes feels like an attempt to fit a round peg in a square hole.

I’m completely convinced about the value of the open intellectual exchange that happens on academic blogs. I’m constantly learning from other people’s blogs, and from their comments on mine. I’ve been warned away from dead ends, my methodology has improved, I’ve learned about sources I would otherwise have overlooked. It’s everything that’s supposed to happen at a conference — but rarely does. And you don’t have to pay for a plane ticket.

This kind of exchange is “open,” and it has intellectual value. On the other hand, I have no desire to claim that it constitutes a “review” process. It’s better than review: it’s learning. I don’t feel that I need to get credit for it on my vita, because the stuff I learn is going to produce articles … which I can then list on my vita.

As far as those articles are concerned, I’m more or less happy with existing review structures. I don’t (usually) learn as much from the formal review process as I do from blogs, but I’m okay with that: I can live with the fact that “review” is about selection and validation rather than open dialogue. (Also, note “usually” above: there are exceptions, when I get a really good reader/editor.)

To say the same thing more briefly: I think the Journal of Digital Humanities has the model about right. Articles in JDH tend to begin life as blog posts. They tend to get kicked around pretty vigorously by commenters: that’s the “open” part of the process, where most of the constructive criticism, learning, and improvement take place. Then they’re selected by the editors of JDH, which to my mind is “review.” The editors may not have to give detailed suggestions for revision, because the give-and-take of the blog stage has probably already shown the author where she wants to expand or rethink. The two stages (“open” and “review”) are loosely related, but not fused. As I understand the process, selection is partly (but only partly) driven by the amount of discussion a post stirred up.

If you ask, why not fuse the the two stages? I would say, because they’re doing different sorts of work. I think open intellectual exchange is most fun when it feels like a reciprocal exchange of views rather than a process where “I’m asking you to review my work.” So I’d rather not force it to count as a review process. Conversely, I suspect there are good reasons for the editorial selection process to be less than perfectly open. Majorities should rule in politics, but perhaps not always in academic debate.

But if people want to keep trying to fuse the “open” part with the “review” part, I’ve got no objection. It’s worth a try, and trying does no harm.

Why DH has no future.

Digital humanities is about eleven years old — counting from John Unsworth’s coinage of the phrase in 2001 — which perhaps explains why it has just discovered mortality and is anxiously contemplating its own.

Creative commons BY-NC-SA 1.0: bigadventures.

Steve Ramsay tried to head off this crisis by advising digital humanists that a healthy community “doesn’t concern itself at all with the idea that it will one day be supplanted by something else.” This was ethically wise, but about as effective as curing the hiccups by not thinking about elephants. Words like “supplant” have a way of sticking in your memory. Alex Reid then gave the discussion a twist by linking the future of DH to the uncertain future of the humanities themselves.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing friends speculate that the phrase “digital humanities” will soon become meaningless, since “everything will be digital,” and the adjective will be emptied out.

In thinking about these eschatological questions, I start from Matthew Kirschenbaum’s observation that DH is not a single intellectual project but a tactical coalition. Just for starters, humanists can be interested in digital technology a) as a way to transform scholarly communication, b) as an object of study, or c) as a means of analysis. These are distinct intellectual projects, although they happen to overlap socially right now because they all require skills and avocations that are not yet common among humanists.

This observation makes it pretty clear how “the digital humanities” will die. The project will fall apart as soon as it’s large enough for falling apart to be an option.

A) Transforming scholarly communication. This is one part of the project where I agree that “soon everyone will be a digital humanist.” The momentum of change here is clear, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be generalized to academia as a whole. As it does generalize, it will no longer be seen as DH.

B) Digital objects of study. It’s much less clear to me that all humanists are going to start thinking about the computational dimension of new cultural forms (videogames, recommendation algorithms, and so on). Here I would predict the classic sort of slow battle that literary modernism, for instance, had to wage in order to be accepted in the curriculum. The computational dimension of culture is going to become increasingly important, but it can’t simply displace the rest of cultural history, and not all humanists will want to acquire the algorithmic literacy required to critique it. So we could be looking at a permanent tension here, whether it ends up being a division within or between disciplines.

C) Digital means of analysis. The part of the project closest to my heart also has the murkiest future. If you forced me to speculate, I would guess that projects like text mining and digital history may remain somewhat marginal in departments of literature and history. I’m confident that we’ll build a few tools that get widely adopted by humanists; topic modeling, for instance, may become a standard way to explore large digital collections. But I’m not confident that the development of new analytical strategies will ever be seen as a central form of humanistic activity. The disciplinary loyalties of people in this subfield may also be complicated by the relatively richer funding opportunities in neighboring disciplines (like computer science).

So DH has no future, in the long run, because the three parts of DH probably confront very different kinds of future. One will be generalized; one will likely settle in for trench warfare; and one may well get absorbed by informatics. [Or become a permanent trade mission to informatics. See also Matthew Wilkens’ suggestion in the comments below. – Ed.] But personally, I’m in no rush to see any of this happen. My odds of finding a disciplinary home in the humanities will be highest as long as the DH coalition holds together; so here’s a toast to long life and happiness. We are, after all, only eleven.

[Update: In an earlier version of this post I dated Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth’s Companion to Digital Humanities to 2001, as Wikipedia does. But it appears that 2004 is the earliest publication date.]

[Update April 15th: I find that people are receiving this as a depressing post. But I truly didn’t mean it that way. I was trying to suggest that the projects currently grouped together as “DH” can transform the academy in a wide range of ways — ways that don’t even have to be confined to “the humanities.” So I’m predicting the death of DH only in an Obi-Wan Kenobi sense! I blame that picture of a drowned tombstone for making this seem darker than it is — a little too evocative …]