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The Meaning of the Digital Humanities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


This question of disciplinary meaning—which I ask from the viewpoint of the humanities generally—is larger than the question of disciplinary identity now preoccupying “DH” itself, as insiders call it. Having reached a critical mass of participants, publications, conferences, grant competitions, institutionalization (centers, programs, and advertised jobs), and general visibility, the field is vigorously forming an identity. Recent debates about whether the digital humanities are a “big tent” (Jockers and Worthey), “who's in and who's out?” (Ramsay), whether “you have to know how to code [or be a builder]” (Ramsay, “On Building”), the need for “more hack, less yack” (Cecire, “When Digital Humanities”; Koh), and “who you calling untheoretical?” (Bauer) witness a dialectics of inclusion and exclusion not unlike that of past emergent fields. An ethnographer of the field, indeed, might take a page from Claude Lévi-Strauss and chart the current digital humanities as something like a grid of affiliations and differences between neighboring tribes. Exaggerating the differences somewhat, as when a tribe boasts its uniqueness, we can thus say that the digital humanities—much of which affiliates with older humanities disciplines such as literature, history, classics, and the languages; with the remediation of older media such as books and libraries; and ultimately with the value of the old itself (history, archives, the curatorial mission)—are not the tribe of “new media studies,” under the sway of the design, visual, and media arts; Continental theory; cultural criticism; and the avant-garde new. Similarly, despite significant trends toward networked and multimodal work spanning social, visual, aural, and haptic media, much of the digital humanities focuses on documents and texts in a way that distinguishes the field's work from digital research in media studies, communication studies, information studies, and sociology. And the digital humanities are exploring new repertoires of interpretive or expressive “algorithmic criticism” (the “second wave” of the digital humanities proclaimed in “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” [3]) in a way that makes the field not even its earlier self, “humanities computing,” alleged to have had narrower technical and service-oriented aims. Recently, the digital humanities' limited engagement with identity and social-justice issues has also been seen to be a differentiating trait—for example, by the vibrant #transformDH collective, which worries that the digital humanities (unlike some areas of new media studies) are dominantly not concerned with race, gender, alternative sexualities, or disability.

The Changing Profession
Copyright © 2013 by The Modern Language Association of America

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