Thoughts on ‘What is DH?’

Drawing tendentious distinctions between ‘fields’ or ‘disciplines’ or ‘approaches’ or ‘methods’ of thinking is at least as old as Socrates, who (at least as Plato presents him to us) very desperately wanted to distinguish ‘philosophy’ from ‘rhetoric’ (or ‘sophistry’) and ‘poetry’. These days, one almost expects to see new ‘fields’ proclaimed weekly. Which then requires a proliferation of publications ‘defining’ the ‘new field’ and engaging in boundary work for it.

Of course, if you’re doing a degree in ‘Digital Humanities’, the first question you’ll get really is, “What the heck is that?” This short interview with Harvard’s Jeffrey Schnapp was offered to us as one possible way to answer that question. I wanted to post my initial reactions to it.

“How does the digital intersect the humanistic and … transform … the human sciences?”

This clearly is a question at the core of the discourse of digital humanities. From a philosophical and historical perspective, however, I can’t help but think how odd it is that the digital is seen as external to (and disruptive of) the human sciences. I mean, “the digital” can, in a relevant sense, be thought of as simply n-th generation applied Leibnizianism. Presuming that philosophy is understood as a “core humanities discipline”, then the digital is simply a current (or, these days, a vast set of currents) within the human sciences. That said, there is no question that the digital is seen as external to, and disruptive of, the prevailing conventions of at least some parts of the humanities, most especially within literary studies. We can, no doubt, account for that historically, presumably with an outsized role for people like Herder. But, given how a digital humanities is so often treated as odd, I think it’s worth considering how odd that fact is.

“Every research question becomes a design question.”

This seems to be Schnapp’s key thesis and it does strike me as a delightful and productive provocation. It’s not, of course, like the humanities really are treading on unbroken ground here. Large-scale, collaborative research projects, the principal outputs of which are data collection tools or models or algorithms or artifacts, to which the papers documenting them are but supplementary adjuncts – these are standard across broad swathes of contemporary intellectual work. But I do think that it is useful to conceive of these various outputs in terms of “genres”, to think about their distinctive “rhetorics”, and how those genres might best align with some of the questions literary and cultural scholars are exploring today. In terms of my own planned work, it’s not at all clear that a paper – a two-dimensional work – is really the best way to convey what I expect to be a highly multi-dimensional model. Not that it can’t be done, of course. But is it really optimal?

“an area of experimental scholarship … not a discipline or a field … an umbrella”

I appreciate Schnapp’s refusal to deem DH a field. It seems to me that a good deal of the literature around DH does wish to present it as a discipline or a field, albeit an inter- or multi-disciplinary one. My own exposure to DH makes me think of it more as a suite of techniques than a field. Though there’s the key fact that it is a suite of techniques that provokes reactions from many in the humanities ranging from discomfort to outright rejection. If anything, DH may best be defined as the people who have experienced that reaction – “by their enemies, you shall know them”.

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