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“Tell Me Something I Don't Know!”: The Place and Politics of Digital Methods in the (Islamicate) Humanities

  • Matthew Thomas Miller (a1) and Sarah Bowen Savant (a2)


Debates about the value of digital methods often return to the nature of knowledge itself. Specifically, do not digital methods tell us what we intuitively already know? Or, if we do not know something yet, is it trivial or discoverable through other more traditional humanistic modes of analysis?



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1 In alphabetical order.

2 “Reuse” is a technical term preferred by computer scientists. It refers to common passages between texts, whatever their origins, and is meant to be value neutral and encompass different text reuse practices, some of small scale, some of large; some involving precision, some using paraphrase; some providing acknowledgment to their sources, some not.

3 As David H. Freedman recounts: “Late at night, a police officer finds a drunk man crawling around on his hands and knees under a streetlight. The drunk man tells the officer he's looking for his wallet. When the officer asks if he's sure this is where he dropped the wallet, the man replies that he thinks he more likely dropped it across the street. Then why are you looking over here? the befuddled officer asks. Because the light's better here, explains the drunk man.” As Freedman surmises: “Many, and possibly most, scientists spend their careers looking for answers where the light is better rather than where the truth is more likely to lie.” Freedman, “Why Scientific Studies Are So Often Wrong: The Streetlight Effect,” Discover Magazine, 10 December 2010, accessed 20 September 2017,

4 F. Rosenthal, “Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, accessed 11 October 2017, For a discussion of this reuse, see also Bosworth's, C. E. introduction to his translation of volume 32 of al-Tabari's History; The History of al-Tabari (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987), 38 ; and (more detailed) Hans Keller's introduction to his German translation of the Kitab Baghdad (Sechster Band des Kitab Bagdad [Leipzig: O. Harrassowitz, 1908], 1:XIII–XXVI).

5 This is based on segmentation of the texts into one hundred–word chunks. Smith's software, among others, allows different parameters to be set; different parameters or chunking will almost certainly reveal further reuse. For the texts, see, and, therein, the files 0280IbnTayfur.Baghdad.Shamela0005880-ara1 and 0310Tabari.Tarikh.JK000157-ara1.

6 Savant, Sarah Bowen explores this theory in her next monograph, A Cultural History of the Arabic Book (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

7 A Representative summary of this view can be found in Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 May 2016, accessed 20 September 2017,!; and Grusin, Richard, “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities: Dispatches from Two Recent MLA Conventions,” Differences 25 (2014): 7992 .

8 Ted Underwood, “A Genealogy of Distant Reading,” DHQ 11 (2017):, accessed 15 September 2017.

9 See, for example, the work of Tara McPherson, Amy E. Earhart, Martha Nell Smith, Alan Liu, Domenico Fiormonte, Roopika Risam, Moya Bailey, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, and Amanda Phillips (the latter four representing the #TransformDH group).

10 Kirschenbaum, Matthew, “What Is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are they Saying Such Terrible Things about It?,” Differences 25 (2014): 6061 .

“Tell Me Something I Don't Know!”: The Place and Politics of Digital Methods in the (Islamicate) Humanities

  • Matthew Thomas Miller (a1) and Sarah Bowen Savant (a2)


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