There are no Digital Humanities

Thanks to Daniel Allington for linking to this fascinating piece by Gary Hall:

While ideas of this kind appear just that little bit too neat and symmetrical to be entirely convincing, this so-called ‘scientific turn’ in the humanities has been attributed by some to a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis regarded as having been brought about, if not by the lack of credibility of the humanities’ metanarratives of legitimation exactly, then at least in part by the ‘imperious attitude’ of the sciences. This attitude has led the latter to colonize the humanists’ space in the form of biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition and so on.  Is the turn toward computing just the latest manifestation of, and response to, this crisis of confidence in the humanities?

Can we go even further and ask: is it evidence that certain parts of the humanities are attempting to increase their connection to society; and to the instrumentality and functionality of society especially? Can it merely be a coincidence that such a turn toward computing is gaining momentum at a time when the likes of the UK government is emphasizing the importance of the STMs and withdrawing support and funding for the humanities? Or is one of the reasons all this is happening now because the humanities, like the sciences themselves, are under pressure from government, business, management, industry and increasingly the media to prove they provide value for money in instrumental, functional, performative terms? (Is the interest in computing a strategic decision on the part of some of those in the humanities? As the project of Cohen and Gibb shows, one can get funding from the likes of Google.  In fact, ‘last summer Google awarded $1 million to professors doing digital humanities research’.)

To what extent, then, is the take up of practical techniques and approaches from computing science providing some areas of the humanities with a means of defending themselves in an era of global economic crisis and severe cuts to higher education, through the transformation of their knowledge and learning into quantities of information – deliverables? Following Federica Frabetti, can we even position the computational turn as an event created precisely to justify such a move on the part of certain elements within the humanities?  And does this mean that, if we don’t simply want to go along with the current movement away from what remains resistant to a general culture of measurement and calculation, and toward a concern to legitimate power and control by optimizing the system’s efficiency, we would be better off using a different term other than ‘digital humanities’? After all, as Frabetti points out, the idea of a computational turn implies that the humanities, thanks to the development of a new generation of powerful computers and digital tools, have somehow become digital, or are in the process of becoming digital, or at least coming to terms with the digital and computing.  Yet what I am attempting to show here by drawing on the philosophy of Lyotard and others, is that the digital is not something that can now be added to the humanities – for the simple reason that the (supposedly pre-digital) humanities can be seen to have had an understanding of, and engagement with, computing and the digital for some time now.

Categories: Digital Sociology


6 replies »

  1. It’s certainly plausible that some people are attracted to the Digital Humanities label because there’s money in it, or because it makes their work look more like science. However, software can help make a lot of things less tedious in humanities research, especially tasks like finding relevant primary sources, comparing them, identifying interesting portions of them, annotating them, publishing them, and so on. To a large extent, software that’s really suited to helping scholars do these things has yet to be developed. Many attempts by humanities scholars to use software for these kinds of purposes have been isolated efforts, unmaintained after the end of the project, and their results have often been lost when the technology they rely on becomes outdated. There’s a real need for a collective, long-term, well-funded effort to develop good software for the humanities. This effort needs a name. Maybe Digital Humanities isn’t the best name, but I think it’ll do.

    • I totally agree & often find myself getting frustrated by the inability of many to consider internal and external factors at the same when it comes to topics like this. But I do think this piece offers some insights into the external side of the picture, if you see what I mean, the politics and power relations inherent in the digital humanities etc.

      Daniel Allington (who forwarded this to me) and I have a vague plan to run a seminar on the ‘politics of digital humanities’, or something along those lines, from a sociology of higher education standpoint. If you have any ideas about speakers or themes I’d be keen to hear them.

      • That sounds like a good idea for a seminar. One thing that’s struck me, very subjectively, is that some humanities scholars (definitely not all) have a sort of visceral opposition to science. This often seems to go along with a surprising lack of awareness of the overwhelming success of the natural sciences and of the huge role they play in our everyday lives. (I often have to tell such people that GPS depends on Einstein’s theory of relativity, that MRI scanners depend on quantum mechanics, and so on.) And it sometimes also goes along with a mistaken belief that Continental philosophy has deconstructed science and shown it to be just another discourse based on nothing more than power relations. I tend to see these attitudes as defensive postures on the part of individuals who, feeling that the value of their training is implicitly threatened, are inclined to discredit the scientific training that they don’t possess.

        I thought I detected some of this in the above post, which seems to romanticise resistance “to a general culture of measurement and calculation”, as if measurement and calculation were somehow inherently dehumanising forces turning us into soulless automatons, rather than powerful tools for improving our understanding of the world. I think a critical discussion of these attitudes would be an interesting topic in a seminar.

      • Oh I see where you’re coming from, I read it sightly differently though. I thought the author was arguing that there had been a failure of nerve (for lack of a better expression) and a longstanding opposition to ‘scientific discourse’ had given way to a enthusiastic embrace, in a manner driven by (probably quite realistic) fears about the future of the humanities in the neoliberal academy. I’m 100% in agreement with the thrust of what you’re saying – I’m always astonished and baffled when I encounter this axiomatic pomo textualism, in some spheres it seems to still be hegemonic, despite (arguably) poststructuralism beginning to die out within the social sciences.

  2. Sorry, just came across this discussion.

    As a quick way of trying to convey the idea that there is something a little more subtle and interesting behind the above post than a ‘visceral opposition to science’ – and still thinking in the context of the digital humanities, and how software can help scholars in the humanities do interesting things – perhaps I can suggest taking a look at the Living Books About Life series Joanna Zylinska, Clare Birchall and I put together with Open Humanities Press for Jisc.

    This is a series of open access books that endevours to provide multiple points of interrogation and (to avoid the trap of ‘scientism’) contestation, as well as connection and translation, between the humanities and the sciences.

    And just in case that is not enough to convince you the above post is not coming from a position in which science is somehow seen as threatening the value of a humanities training, might the Critical Climate Change series ( Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook have put together for us at Open Humanities Press be another example of scholars working in Continental philosophy and theory who have an approach to the sciences that is far from seeing it as ‘just another discourse based on nothing more than power relations’?

    I hope this helps.

Leave a Reply to Gary Hall Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *