What are the Digital Humanities?

The digital humanities are defined as the intersection between humanities and computing. At first glance, this conflation of opposites seems unlikely, perhaps even disconcerting. There has also been, naturally, a flurry of criticism of a field that is largely misunderstood. Take, for example, the reaction to ebooks. In 2012, Jonathan Franzen said this: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now” (Telegraph).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that argument convincing, mostly because the fact that spilling water on something will break it does not necessarily make it bad technology. Let’s also not forget that if you spill enough water on a hard-copy book, you won’t be able to read it either. Moving beyond Franzen’s hazy technological knowledge, there is a clear anxiety that if we change the way readers and scholars consume literature, we will lose something, though it is not always clear what that something is.

Let me backtrack to my definition of the digital humanities again. First of all, it is a field, not a discipline. Digital humanities scholars study a wide range of materials, from video games to digital archiving, to topic modeling. It seems to me that the digital humanities are not defined by actual object of study, but by the use of technology to study it. I specialize in topic modeling, and so that is what I plan to address, but that is only a substratum of a wide range of possibilities covered by digital humanities.

Adam Hirsch, in his essay for The New Republic argues that the difficulty scholars face in the categorization of the digital humanities is a flaw:

Despite all this enthusiasm, the question of what the digital humanities is has yet to be given a satisfactory answer. Indeed, no one asks it more often than the digital humanists themselves. The recent proliferation of books on the subject — from sourcebooks and anthologies to critical manifestos — is a sign of a field suffering an identity crisis, trying to determine what, if anything, unites the disparate activities carried on under its banner. (Hirsch)

Kirsch fears that digital humanists do not even know what it is they do. I disagree with Kirsch. I think that the digital humanities is so challenging to categorize because it doesn’t fit into our traditional notion of a discipline. It functions more like a network, with the synthesis of technology and humanities centrally located, reaching out to nodes that may be more or less connected.

When considered on its own terms, rather than in the terms of the more conservative discipline, digital humanities seems productive and exciting. It does not replace the more traditional humanities, but it works alongside it as its own separate entity. All I ask is that readers of this blog keep an open mind about the abundant possibilities offered by digital humanities research and to keep thinking about how technology can improve our understanding of the humanities rather than hinder it.


Works Cited

Jonathan Franzen: E-books Are Damaging Society.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/9047981/Jonathan-Franzen-e-books-are-damaging-society.html&gt;.

Kirsch, Adam. “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments.” Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117428/limits-digital-humanities-adam-kirsch&gt;.

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