Wednesday, 19 September 2012
[The modifier “literary” in “literary humanities,” here, is audience-specific.]
I really have only one thing to say about “digital humanities,” and I’m going to put it in the antinomian form that Jacques Derrida used so often and so well.
You needn’t concern yourself with “digital humanities”; you must always be doing “digital humanities.”
What do I mean?
Like “creative nonfiction,” “digital humanities” is a deliberately, rather than accidentally presentist name for a set of practices that are not new at all. Literary humanist involvement with computing is coterminous with the history of computing itself, beginning with research on machine translation immediately after the Second World War and in computer-assisted or computer-enhanced philological activity going back to the 1950s.
Now, unless one counts “theory” — by which I mean mainly French structuralism and poststructuralism — as a product of French fascination with U.S. cybernetic research (as has recently been suggested), none of this prior work in what is now being called “digital humanities” has left a disproportionately significant mark on the literary humanities: that is, a significance any greater than any other thing that comes and goes. There is a good reason for that, and I wager that the situation will not have changed appreciably twenty or thirty years from now.
That is because while what we call the sciences represents one form of modern secularization, the humanities represents another, different form of that historical process, one that has proved inassimilable to the sciences for historical reasons (rather than as a matter of will, as the opportunists would have it). We call it secular humanism, or historical humanism. In many ways the literary humanities, in particular, deals with secularized versions of the ethical questions that were once, perhaps, the exclusive domain of religion. Such questions are never resolved, as problems in engineering are resolved, because they are rooted in the conflicts and contradictions of human life and indeed, of all life and non-life.
Research technicians of all kinds, bound as they are to a domain of constant activity, have too little time (and often little desire) to address such questions. So people turn elsewhere — if often incoherently, inarticulately, and angrily, shooting first and aiming later. But that itself is one reason, at least, for the fact that when you look under the hood, so to speak, you see that what one might call the traditional literary humanities appears very much alive. I hope you have read this essay by James English in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as Christopher Newfield’s work on how the humanities appear to subsidize the sciences in some public research universities. Reality is startlingly counter-intuitive.
So you needn’t concern yourself with “digital humanities”: it can’t save you, it isn’t the key to anything, and you’ll be no worse off for ignoring it if that is your wish.
On the other hand, you must always be doing “digital humanities.” And by that I mean two things. First, that you should take the acquisition of new technical skills — and not only those associated with computing, but all kinds of new technical skills — as just as vital to your intellectual growth as immersion in the history of ideas. Second, that you ought not to delegate either those skills, or the engagement with the historical present that they represent, to a new group of specialists. That, in my opinion, was the mistake that literary humanists made in the invention of “creative writing,” leaving the intimate immersion in form to others while they focused exclusively on the so-called “content” of their work.
In some ways it is true that during the last twenty years, the means of intellectual production have been disrupted more rapidly and continuously than before, and that the popularization of that document distribution and retrieval system we call the World Wide Web has come to threaten the traditional control of the bureaucratic intellectual class over archives and other repositories of data. To over-invest in the “digital humanities” as such is to over-invest in a segregation permitting that intellectual class to avoid thinking too deeply about such change, by hiring others to manage it on their behalf. But such arrangements are not victories for anyone. Rather, they are sources of a kind of tectonic tension, and eventually something breaks.