The Digital Humanities… DH and Me


In her essay, “On Beauty,” Marilynne Robinson reminds us that science is not perfect, has not always been perfect, and will not be perfect in the future.  She reminds us of the errors of science: “Racial theory and eugenics are cases in point.”  She also reminds us that “those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science…must not have been paying attention.”  So, she looks to language, narratives, fiction, and storytelling—the humanities—to find the truth and beauty of humanity.

What does Marilynne Robinson’s essay have to do with my thoughts on the digital humanities and digital literary studies?  This is what you’re asking, right?  Well, for me, Robinson’s essay has everything to do with my approach to the digital humanities and digital literary studies.  Basically, I wish to remain skeptical about the extreme and unnecessary scientification of everything that is not science.  Therefore, I am skeptical with regards to the scientification of the humanities, including literature, especially fiction and poetry.  I am not anti-science.  Of course not!  However, I know that as separate disciplines, the humanities and the sciences have different functions, purposes, methods, and goals.  And in her essay, Robinson eloquently explains the need to keep the humanities separate from the sciences.  Yet, after reading about digital literary studies and the digital humanities, I noticed that quite a few people do not want to keep the disciplines separate, and do not see a need to do so.

I perused through Melissa Dinsman’s twelve interviews on the digital humanities, with experts in the field, which were published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  I perused twelve, but I read three interviews from beginning to end (as a human, not a machine, I enjoy the human aspect of storytelling… yes, I am being sarcastic here).  I read Dinsman’s interview with Franco Moretti, first.  Then I read her interviews with Pamela Fletcher and Marisa Parham.  Immediately, in the beginning of the interview, Moretti supports my skepticism and bothers me when he says: “I have been interested in a scientific approach to literature for a long time, since the late-1980s when I wrote on evolutionary theory in literature. From here I moved to geography and wrote the Atlas of the European Novel. While doing geographical research, I realized that quantitative methods helped considerably with mapmaking. So I became interested in quantitative approaches to history of all kinds.”  I disagree!  I do not think that literature deserves a scientific approach.  And I do not think that the humanities deserve quantitative approaches.  I would also think that scientists would laugh at a scientific approach to literature and say that it must not be a “real” scientific approach.  I also know that social scientists do not use an exclusive quantitative approach because they say that they are studying humans not rocks.

I will now move to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”  I was not surprised to read that the digital humanities is “more rooted in English than any other departmental home” because English departments have a history of pioneering other fields: American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Composition Studies, Ethnic Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Latino/a Studies, Native American Studies, Queer Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, etc. (you get my point).  I also was not surprised to learn that digital humanities manifestos are all over because I see them everywhere I look.  If you keep your eyes open, you will see a digital humanities manifesto.

I also learned a lot from Kirschenbaum.  I did not know and found it fascinating when I learned that the Office of Digital Humanities legitimized the field of DH because “the designation of ‘office’ assigning the program (and its budget line) a permanent place within the agency.”  My interpretation of this milestone is that in the capitalist and material culture of the United States, a field of study is not legitimate until it is given a budget (money) and a physical office (location).

One great aspect of the digital humanities is that scholars can be given control over their work, as Kirschenbaum writes about in his essay.  Also, the tenure process can be improved because the digital humanities advocates for the open access of information.  So, if DH can improve some dysfunctional traditions of academia, then I’m all for it!  However, I will remain skeptical: I’ll believe it when I see it!

Kirschenbaum ends his essay with: “the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible…a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks or people and that live an active 24/7 life online.  Isn’t that something you want in your English department?”  No!  No, this is absolutely not something that I want in my English department.  Actually, more important, this is not something that I want in my life!  I do not want to be connected 24/7 online.  I want time to breathe and be and contemplate.  I don’t want my tombstone to read: “He was connected 24/7 online.”  Once again, this is the false American thinking.  Kirschenbaum simply perpetuates the incorrect capitalist, corporatist, puritanical American way of thinking that working more means being more productive.  This has been proven wrong many times.  So, if the digital humanities means being active 24/7 then I don’t want it.  Thanks!

Moving to Kenneth Price and Ray Sieman’s introduction on the digital humanities, I was unable to stop thinking: “Aren’t they assuming too much?”  They claim that “literary studies is being reshaped in the digital age…to help all of us better appreciate.”  Why do they assume that all of us with benefit from digital literary studies?  Why do they assume that all of us will be better?  Hmm, they should know better than to assume.  Price and Sieman are simply classist in their assumption.  Years ago, I read a statistic that only 35% of Americans had access to the Internet in their homes (I will have to find those facts, but until I do, I present this idea).  Obviously, if every American is not digitally connected, then every person in the world is not.  So, clearly, Price and Sieman are wrong to assume that every person will benefit from the digital humanities.  Evidently, once again, poor people will suffer.

Price and Sieman also state that texts have always been data.  They, too, are responsible for the scientification of literature.  Yet, the explanation was weak when they tried to explain how defining a text as data will benefit humanity and society.  I think, at least, that if one is going to turn literature into a science, then one should at least present scientific evidence explaining how such will alleviate the problems that humanity and society deal with.  Anyway, I totally loved Stephen Marche’s essay, “Literature Is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” which nourished my skepticism.

Finally, Price and Sieman claim that the digital humanities will break the traditions of academia and will change the institutionalization of academia.  They claim that DH will continue to create a “culture of sharing and exchange.”  Once again, I’ll believe it when I see it.  The history of human beings is that they simply replace old institutions with new ones; therefore, I predict that the digital humanities will become its own old institution some day, and will then be replaced by the next new exciting thing that humans will create.

DH and Me?  Not a love affair.  Not a match made in heaven.  Not even a marriage of convenience.  Sorry, there is no harmony here… yet.  I say: “yet.”  I’ll need to see more before I convert and praise.  I’ll need to know more, and DH will have to prove itself a lot more.  Until then, I’ll remain a skeptic.  And a healthy dose of skepticism is required in every society.  This sheep isn’t following the rest of the herd.  There’s no brainwashing here, so move along.


3 thoughts on “The Digital Humanities… DH and Me

  1. I disagree as well. Literature cannot take on a scientific approach. It can be studied, observed but it doesn’t have a concrete nature that science attempts to orchestrate. The digital humanities and English studies are living and breathing modes of production, they are the epitome of human understanding and to capture a field such as that, one with emotion and indefinable elements, a fluid approach must be taken. I think its important not place any form similar to these two in a box with a scientific approach. This would dull the full spectrum of what the arts hope to achieve and turn a rich field into academic dry lands.

    Trying to theorize and mechanicalize literature is like trying to theorize the human soul. So things just ARE, and by trying to capture and label them they loss their essence. Of course we do theorize English and study the forms and structures, and what makes literature well written or poorly composed, but it doesn’t capture the initial experience that the individual reader undertakes when engaging with a text. The same can be said with engaging in the digital world. We haven’t studied the forms and analyzed information on it before engaging with it- we just use it. Only know have we thought of digital interaction as a subject of humanities. As we move forward addressing it – it’s fluidity must be acknowledged and using a “scientific” approach is the opposite of its purpose.

    Also, mentioned in your piece was the rights to authorship regarding control over ones work within digital humanities. Today open access allows anyone to take part in an author’s creation and authorship seems to be less rigid than before. Does digital humanities attempt to reshape what authorship and access means or are these writers attributing a liberal approach to the capabilities of the digital world?

    I would like to here a bit of an expansion on how poor people will suffer from the integration of digital mediums in our lives? What defines suffering? Is this is reference to a social understanding and how everyone communicates today- or are we talking about broad ideas of the poor that may affect access to supplies to sustain themselves? I would like to know.


  2. Michael, I really appreciate your candor and how unwilling you are to take many of these readings and interviews at face value. I say this (and mean it) because I have just been so open to the concept of the Digital Humanities, I’ve simply looked it as an opportunity for exploration, not really considering all that you have so eloquently described here. I’d like to respond to just a couple of your thoughts (I’m unsure I can do justice to more than that).

    Similar to you, when I read the idea of a “scientific approach to literature,” in Moretti’s interview I was quite surprised. The beauty of literature is that it can’t be quantified, why would anyone want it to be? In my blog post, I discussed my fear of trying to understand programming and more technical knowledge in order to even begin taking part in the Digital Humanities. And after reading your blog post, I realize what specifically it is that I fear so much in trying to gain this rather technical knowledge: the loss of creativity and just pure enjoyment of literature. When we’re discussing how the technological advancement age intersects with the English Studies, my fear lies in never being able to get back the sheer freedom associated with just writing, sharing, discussing, and connecting with others through literature. I do think Digital Humanities provides some great tools to connect and discuss, but to me, there’s nothing like feeling and seeing a human being respond to literature. (However, I also fear this is my rather poetic side sheepishly showing though?)

    Also similar to you, I am not too convinced Digital Humanities will change the age-old dinosaur of the higher education institution and its political tethers. I think the rise of Digital Humanities will require more money from various parties, and as it succeeds in getting even more money, there are more stakeholders, ones that the Digital Humanities will then be held accountable to. As you stated so well, new structures will be put in place to control and maneuver this now beautifully conceived thing as the Digital Humanities.

    Lastly, you mentioned a statistic I find rather daunting about how only 35% of Americans have access to the internet. I discuss the issue of access briefly in my blog post. The idea that we just assume everyone has access and will be impacted really doesn’t take into account the educational landscape of the United States and who really has the financial means to access technology.


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