Blog Post

I'm Chris. Where am I wrong?

Prepatory to anything else, I have to thank Bethany Nowviskie of the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia. The Scholars' Lab, and the wonderful people there, provides a consistently exciting intellectual community.

And now to introduce myself.

Or maybe not. In introducing yourself, you inevitably assume the coherence of your categories and treat them as though they were meaningful and self-evident. Even if you are able to avoid the worst perils of the genre (the bragging, the narcissism, the faux humility), the genre of the self-introduction (the professional autobiography in a paragraph or less) still seems too static, too much a self-report, to really engage an interesting response.

So rather than introduce myself, let me try introducing you. Well, maybe that is too clever a way of putting (didn't I say these introductions are dreadful genre?). What I'd like to do is locate myself by trying to simply answer the question, what is the "digital humanities"? In trying to introduce the perspective from which I am speaking, the gaps in my perspective and the assumptions I am making (both consciously & inadvertently) will, I hope, be more obvious—more open to discussion and conversation.

This is another equally well trod genre: the "What is the digital humanities?" (a paltry 5 google results) or "What are the digital humanities?" (127,000 results). Claire Ross, in her introductory post alludes to the seemingly interminable & inevitable question of defining the digital humanities. I think the best single thing to read on the broad question of "what are the digital humanities?" is Patrik Svensson's recent The Landscape of Digital Humanities; in addressing this question here (a question so basic, I've heard some express frustration that we're still hung up on it), I'm just continuing—repeating—some of what has already been said here).

Well-trod or not, this basic question nevertheless continues to ellicit some disagreement. In this blog post, Tanner Higgin suggests that the valuable, and frequently heard, talk of "collaboration" in the "digital humanities" "often becomes an uncritical stand-in for an empty politics of access and equity." From Higgin's point of view, important issues of cultural politics are insufficiently addressed in DH, leading him to make this recommendation: "I would like THATCamp and all of DH to expand and clarify what it is we do and to embrace a vigorous politics of inclusion and provocation." Two requests: clarify what we do (who? me?); and in the future, do it in a more politically inclusive and provactive way.

The substance of Higgin's post merits consideration. But I want to contrast it with the very short comment it elicited from Craig Bellamy: "Thanks for your post but I am not sure I understand how you are using the term 'Digital Humanities.' You actually don’t need to use the term at all." And then, somewhat cryptically, the comment recommends, "Read this entry about Roberto Busa" (I assume this comment iss gesturing to what I'll list as 1 below). This degree of disagreement seems interesting.

I find something similar when speaking to my colleagues and peers (or at least those of them who I don't regularly bump into at the Scholars' Lab). When I say I am interested in the "digital humanities" they are always very polite. That is the thing "where you use computers." ("That's funny, though; I don't see an Apple logo on your laptop...")

The confusion is tracable, I think, to the capaciousness of the term "digital humanities" (itself, not doubt, a function of that strange term the "humanities"; maybe that's the problem), a capaciousness celebrated in the Digital Humanities 2011 conference theme: "Big Tent Digital Humanities." This definition, from Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been repeated elsewhere; Fitzpatrick defines the digital humanities as:

a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, who ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies

There isn't anything there I'd disagree with. But I'm not sure it would help my colleageus really understand what DH folks do. So were I forced to try to explain exactly what is going on under that big tent, based on the glimpses I've had, I might split the circus into these four rings. (Recall, my point in offering this division is as much to reveal where I stand, how things look from where I am, than to offer a genuine taxonomy.)

  1. Direct, Practical, Uses of Computational Methods for Research: Here are your dyed-in-the-wool "humanities computing" projects. Things like (one of my favoritie subjects) statistically grounded, computer-enabled authorship study, text mining, etc. I think I'll have something to say about this sort of work (which I done—enthusiasticallly) and the unfortunate antagonism which has emerged between it and more "theoretically" grounded humanities (on the division between theory, or "ideology" and methodology, see Tom Scheinfeldt's post on ideology vs. methodology, about which I hope to say something in the future too). Another vein here, no doubt would be folks associated with TEI markup, and the question of how to best represent texts digitally, or (another of my favorites) text visualization.
  2. Media Studies folks studying "New" Media: I think this is the position which Tanner Higgin, in the post I linked to above, is coming from. I take his points there to be reasonable and his method to be recognizable to any academic in the humanities: political critique. But it is his object of study (in that post at least) that is "digital" rather than, say, his method. (There is no sense of Scheinfeldt's "sunset for ideology" in Higgin's post, for example).
  3. Using Technology in the Classroom: The concern for how various technologies change pedagogy has been written about by Brian Croxall here (among other places). And it isn't coincidental that Brian's very next post is about the state of adjunct teachers. Concern with pedagogy brings with it the political situation of teachers. And anyone interested in pedagogy comes up against the complicated politics of the relationship between teaching & research within university culture. (By calling it "complicated," à la a Facebook update, I get to just walk away, right?)
  4. The way new technology is reshaping research and the profession: Here I am thinking of Kathleen Fitzpatrick's work on academic publishing as well as Bethany Nowviskie's posts on alternative academic career paths. Here the "digital" in the digital humanities is not a method, so much as an event happening to the humanities, something humanistic scholarship is undergoing, and which opens up new avenues even as it presents certain challenges.

These borders are hardly absolute, and there is plenty of room for permeability between them. Cutting a chicken, though, requires knowing where the joints are. This, though, is how I would cut up that thing, neither truly flesh nor fowl, that is the "digital humanities."

So, I'm Chris. I'm happy to be a HASTAC scholar this year. Where am I wrong? What I have left out? I'm here to learn.



Chris -- good post.

I liked your four rings. I often break out the big tent into similar rings, at least when we are sorting things into panels and such.  Here are two more possible rings to squeeze into your tent:

5. Using Technology for Public Programming.  I'm thinking about mobile platforms, GPS-based tours, museum installations, web-based exhibits that engage a public audience (maybe crowdsourced), etc.

6. Archive Building.  You might squeeze this one into your first ring (maybe that was your intention). But this ring might be less about research tools and more about gathering, building, testing digital archives/libraries for use by scholars/students/public audiences.  

I will also note that I am a fan of the circus finale when they rip out the rings and the clowns, lions, and acrobats all dance around together!  (They do that, right? :)  ).  One thing I dig about DH is how projects often combine aspects from multiple rings.




I think this is a good overview of some of the key tensions within DH. It seems that digital humanists now define themselves primarily through their methodology, hence why #3 on your lists (in which I am appropriately, but nonetheless uncomfortably, wedged!) seems out of place. I think this incongruity is unfortunate.

What my post warns about is the tendency for the DH mode of academic production to embrace a "sunset of ideology" and act as if building tools will simply make everything right because digital scholarship is "the future." DH practitioners are largely politically sensitive but these sensitives are rarely discussed and instead expected to just emerge in the process of creation. I don't trust this.

Consider a time, perhaps decades from now, where all academics will now be practicing DH and the term will no longer be descriptive. What kind of work and toward what interests will that work have been engaged and continue to be engaged? To be reductive, what unites the humanities is a concern with understanding the human condition (and breaking down that concept) and the technological contexts in which this work is done wax and wane. So what is of paramount importance to me is that we properly critique this context and ensure that we maintain the appropriate motivations in our research to contribute productively to the exploration of the human condition and the betterment of the world.

To put it another way, beyond what technologies we employ, what's most important is what we're doing and how we do it. So along with discussing what tools are needed we need to ask the right questions about our process and our goals. Most importantly, when defining the digital humanities we also need to define it as a political tendency and not just a collection of practices.


Thanks for the mention, Chris. Great post. Just a quick note on theory/method issues. I'm actually not hostile to theoretical approaches. I just think not everybody has to do theory and that methodological contributions can be as valuable or (to the extent that they enable lots of new theoretical insigts) more valuable than theoretical contributions. I also believe that there are methodological moments in the histories of all dicsiplines, and that the humanities are experiencing one of them now, and that that's OK. In addition to the early 20th century methodologial moment in History of Science that I point to in the "Sunset for Ideology" post, readers may be interested in the early 18th century moment in electrical physics described in "Where's the Beef?" We need theory, criticism, and ideology in digital humanities. But maybe not just yet, and maybe not from everybody.


Thanks for mentioning my posts as well, Chris. I quite like how you (and Brett) have broken out the possible rings of DH to include much more than the first ring, which is what some people tend to think of as "real" digital humanities. I know that I've occasionally found myself feeling a bit like an impostor in the Tent since I don't have a text analysis project. But talking about how we adapt tools that are designed for this scholarship (TAPoR, Ivanhoe, etc.) for use in the humanities classroom is an important part of the field and proffers us the chance to help students get interested not only in the digital humanities but in the humanities writ large.

That being said, I think a little bit of impostor syndrome can be healthy as it's led me to dream up a couple of text-analysis projects that I think could be kind of cool. The real advantage of the digital humanities at this moment is that the field is still relatively nascent enough (which might sound like I'm ignoring the work that went on since the 1980s) that it's still possible to get everyone together in the big tent for the finale. It's when we get groups 1-6 (plus how many others) talking to each other that we can find something new and valuable for each of us. And how cool is it that pedagogy has yet to be ghettoized in digital humanities?

Granted, this inclusive point of view should be critiqued by Tanner and (hopefully) ourselves. But if it's done collectively, perhaps we can avoid methodology/theory binaries in favor of something more synthesized and --possibly?-- useful.


Chris, thanks for your introductions (of yourself, of ourselves, of our practices), and I appreciate Brett and Tanner's thoughts as well. I think it's especially important to foreground Tanner's point that the digital humanities (like any field or discipline) has political and ideological tendencies that are often assumed, unspoken, or unexamined.

I hadn't thought of it before in such terms, but my own greatest fear about the digital humanities intersects with Tanner's concern that, as he puts it elsewhere, in the final analysis, the digital humanities will "still be mostly a bunch of white academics at relatively wealthy universities talking about open access and probably around a rather nice table with a few unlocked iPads on it."

In my own mind I had simply formulated this greatest fear of mine as exclusivity. It's not intentional exclusivity, but that doesn't make it any less pernicious. And we can see valiant attempts to overcome this exclusivity---regional THATCamps and the conference call for a "Big Tent" Digital Humanities are two significant examples.

In fact, I'd like to run with the big tent/four ring circus metaphor, and take it perhaps a little more literally than Chris intended (and more seriously than the CFP for the 2011 Digital Humanities conference intended). I can't think about circuses without recalling Peter Stallybrass and Allon White's reworking of Bakhtin's carnivalesque, in which they argue that beginning with the Renaissance, fairs, carnivals, and circuses were slowly pushed to the margins of European society---symbolically, temporally, and geographically.

Circuses, in our modern world, are marginal, marginalized happenings.

And indeed, to most of our colleagues doing more traditional work, we scholars and teachers in the so-called digital humanities occupy the same kind of carnivalesque, marginalized space. We're a blast to hang out with every once in a while (during ritualized, predictable moments, such as major conferences), but once it's time to get down to the allegedly official business of scholarship and teaching, we are indulgences best forgotten, perhaps even regretted.

There are a few major institutionalized, permanent fairs---what Steve Ramsay has called Centers of Attraction, a phrase that fits quite well with the circus metaphor, though that's certainly not how Steve intended it to be used. I'm lucky enough to know people at these Centers of Attraction (one is even on my own campus, though I'm not officially affiliated with it). But for most people drawn to the digital humanities, these centers are the equivalent---if I can mix up my historical metaphors---of cathedral cities, while the bulk of actual daily DH living occurs far away in distant villages and hinterlands. As I argued in a post called On The Death of the Digital Humanities Center,

Most of us working in the digital humanities will never have the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated center or institute. We’ll never have the chance to work with programmers who speak the language of the humanities as well as Perl, Python, or PHP. We’ll never be able to turn to colleagues who routinely navigate grant applications and budget deadlines, who are paid to know about the latest digital tools and trends---but who’d know about them and share their knowledge even if they weren’t paid a dime. We’ll never have an institutional advocate on campus who can speak with a single voice to administrators, to students, to donors, to publishers, to communities about the value of the digital humanities.

My solution then, as is now, is to foster a kind of digital humanist diaspora, where, even though there might be Big Idea Centers of Attraction, most of our work is decentralized, nonhierarchical, and oddly enough, purposefully marginal.

I've already begun seeing the phrase "digital humanities" hijacked (by administators, institutions, the media) as a misguided tagline or empty signifier. I for one will refuse the label when it means I am expected to teach or research particular topics with particular tools or particular methodologies---or even worse, when it means I am trotted out as a token digital humanist for people who have no conception of what's at stake with the humanities, digital or otherwise. And I would hope other digital humanists do the same. We belong on the margin---not because we've been pushed there, but because that's where the edge is. And when the center expands to swallow the periphery---not in the name of exclusivity, but in the name of incorporation and assimilation---we need to push ourselves further away. The digital humanities should not be about the digital at all. It's about innovation and disruption. The digital humanities is really an insurgent humanities.

I say embrace the circus, the fair, the freakshow. Stop worrying about definitions and categories and celebrate hybridity. Take advantange of all that the margin affords. Do what you do and keep doing what you do. Engage outsiders, build coalitions, and form tactical collaborations. And move on when the time comes to move on, finding another periphery point to innovate and disrupt.

Hi, I'm Mark, and welcome to the circus.


I think the confirmation that you wrote a very insightful post is that you ellicited a number of insightful responses.  I can only tack on a couple things to the ongoing discussion.  The first is that I'd put historical GIS/Spatial what-have you in there with Text Analysis.  As far as using digital tools and performing rigorous analysis in established theoretical frameworks, hGIS has reached enough maturity that it's examining itself and its products in the way that TA has done.

The other is a question about the trend toward critique and self-analysis in DH, which I'm happy about but still would like to explore more deeply.  What are your predictions (and, naturally, the predictions of other commenters) about the future of The Digital Humanities.  Will the rings bud off and become their own acts, with their own methods, jargon and schools?  Are we seeing the Second Great Awakening of the humanities, with a new batch of disciplines borne of the union of digital with traditional?  Or is it an attempt to synthesize the disparate humanist communities into a single, amorphous school--something large and more unified, like Engineering, Medicine, Law and Business?  And is it for practical purposes, or idealistic, or cynical or simply the result of no great unifying theme resulting in autonomic behavior in the academy?


Hi, Chris,


Excellent post, and the conversation is fantastic.   The three pillars of HASTAC, since 2002, have been:  (1) new media, (2) critical and creative thinking about the role of new media in society, (3) participatory learning (formal and informal).   That's the big tent of HASTAC, the idea that you cannot be developing new technologies without thinking critically as well as creatively about their use and implementation and all new media forms should have some "learning" component, in the sense that they are not static but include some form of participation as one of their intrinsic qualities.   (I'm not a purist so I would say a book does that too, since reading communities are definitely not static.)    You've done a superb job of breaking digital humanities out in a different way but one I find extremely appealing, and I like the subsequent "big tent" additions as well. 


I really love Tanner's comment that we have to guard against the idea that DH represents the "sunset of ideology."   That a product is a finale and not itself part of a critical process.  Even if the critique and the ideology are unstated, untheorized, or presumed to be non-theoretical, they embody a theory.   That is where I would disagree with "FoundHistory."   Not stating the theory doesn't make it go away.   I believe it is very important to think through the implications of one's premises before investing a lot of money in building something new or it is likely not to have a long shelf-life, even if one's conclusion is that this data base or this project is intended for a public, is canonical, is selective, or whatever one's theoretical choice may be.  There is always a choice of doing this versus doing that, even if the theoretical assumptions motivating the choice are unstated.  Someone recently said to me that digital humanities is important because of the "failure of theory" and wasn't "theoretical."   I was appalled:  first, because I see no evidence that critical and cultural failure have failed and, second, at the naivete of the idea that unstated theory is theory-free).   Perhaps that's another tension in the field.

I also like Mark Sample's "death of the digital humanities center" idea.   We've recently gone to a Humanities Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute here at Duke.   It incompasses digital and non-digital projects, but also a methodology of collaboration, including by distance, and tinkering and archives, and media arts, and performance.   The first lab we're running here is the Haiti Lab and it encompasses all of those things and many more, in partnership with intellectuals, artists, citizens, students, health and rescue workers, and many others in Haiti.  We first designed the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute to be a "humanities lab" in 1999 (I published piece in CHE in 1999 called "Why Can't Humanists Work Together in a Lab?") but it was premature.  The new FHI director, Ian Baucom, was able to realize that this year and we've refurbished the last bay in a converted factory warehouse into the Humanities Lab.   We refurbished the first bay back when I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, in 2001, as the ACT Warehouse--Arts, Culture, Technology, the predecessor space locally for HASTAC.  It's a nice continuum.   Theorists including Tim Lenoir, Mark Hanson, Kate Hayles, Mark Olson and others are in the ACT Warehouse---and so is our interactive game design lab.  And so are interactive multimedia classrooms.  The same continuum of theory, practice, interdisciplinary application, public programming, outreach, inreach, design, pedagogy, and communication characterize the brand new (we're still in boxes!) Humanities Lab.

Some day I suspect the word "digital" will go away and simply be part of the apparatus of communicating humanist ideas, in the same way that one need not say "digital science" or "digital social science."  For now, if we don't use the word, we can loose the technology, and it is useful for designating a new kind and form of funding required for the new humanities since "humanities" once implicitly (this is one example of why one must make theoretical assumptions explicit) meant "cheap." It also also once meant "unemployable."   That's why Duke has asked HASTAC to work up a new pre-professional and re-professional terminal MA Degree in Knowledge and Networks.  We'll be posting that soon for comments and feedback from all. 


This is a combination response to these excellent posts--and I share the homogenizing worries of Mark and Elijah--and a news update.   Thank you so much to new HASTAC Scholar Chris for this excellent, inspiring, provocative post.  The main thing is that it is important to have exactly these kinds of conversations, whether we call what we are doing "digital humanities" or simply "humanities."


Mark's and Cathy's posts state more eloquently what I would have bumbled toward myself -- in particular, the move away from "digital humanities" toward "humanities lab" (note: I didn't say "*digital* humanities lab"!) is really crucial, and hopefully forecasts a broader conceptual shift within the humanities -- so I only have one small addition: history! It's fascinating that almost all of us commenting here do some form of historical work, and the word has only been used once!

As Chris points out, DH is really good at building tools for studying the past -- for curating historical collections on the web, for expanding access to historical materials -- but, I would add, it's not so good at historicizing itself. I know Bethany Nowviskie and Johanna Drucker have both written beautifully on media-historical analogs like Ramon Llull; can we find a place in the circus for this kind of work? What can our own moment of media transition learn from earlier moments (for instance, I'm thinking of Ann Blair's work on information overload in the early modern period, or Siegfried Zielinski's work on forgotten or "failed" media of the past)? People have struggled with how to build communities around technologies for as long as people have been using technologies; we have to get better at reading the traces they've left as a way of understanding our own processes, assumptions, differences, uniqueness, commonalities, etc.

(And, I should add: I don't mean peppering the literature with decontextualized examples ("Plato thought writing would destroy memory, too!"), which only reduce complex media ecologies to DH soundbites. Instead, I want to see what we know as (literary, science, book) historians infiltrate our DH work more seriously, and with a greater sensitivity to our own historical moment.)


To quote my other HASTAC blog post of the day, the description of my course on "Industrial Origins of the Digital Age":  "Virtually everything that is being invented now for a digital age had its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial age.   As Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, has recently said 'Everything should have a history button.'"  I'm so glad you made that overt in this sequence, Whitney.  As a historicist, I don't believe there is any such thing as theory without history or technology without theorized history.  As Fred Jameson famously has said, "Always historicize!"   Thank you so much for that timely reminder.


As a proud Omeka user, I can't believe I neglected explicit mention of such platforms in my post (a piece of software that seems to fit into both Brett's categories) . And I can only heartily agree with Elijah's point about GIS & mapping technologies (the most audible buzz around the Scholars' Lab often seems to be around GIS technologies). It makes me realize that another way to divide DH would be by methodology & technologies: archive & presentation software (Omeka, etc); data mining & machine learning; text representation (TEI); mapping, GIS, etc. For purely practical purposes, there would be some benefit here no? Of course, where would those "theorists" hang out? Everywhere? Nowhere?

I pose this question, of course, for it this fissure which seems to have elicited the most comment.

As Cathy Davidson suggests: "Not stating the theory doesn't make it go away." I certainly would not wish to disagree with this suggestion. But where is the theory in building a tool to make the organization and publication of blog material easier? I don't mean to suggest there isn't any theory behind such a tool; Steve Ramsay, for one, suggests that such "tools can embody arguments and viewpoints." But there does seem to be a real tension here.

Much of the energy in digital humanities comes from a sense that things are happening; people are doing things. I take Dave Lester's motto for a recent THATCamp, over the summer, "more hack, less yak," to capture some sense of this spirit. Such a spirit is not necessarily opposed to that of theory; but "getting things done" and "getting things theorized" sometimes seem to proceed at different paces.

But really it is a more fundametanl question which seems at stake: the question of desire. Since theory is the order of the day, I won't blush too much at quoting Lacan: "The question of desire is that the fading subject yearns to find itself again by means of some sort of encounter with this miraculous thing defined by the phantasm." Whatever one may think about psychoanalysis, the lesson that desire is a very serious matter which calls into question our sense of self in fundamental ways seems reasonable and valuable.

My point in making this admittedly odd appeal to psychoanalysis, is that instead of asking "What is 'digital humanities'?" we might ask, with greater profit (or maybe, simply, greater honesty): 'What does the digital humanities want?' or 'What do you want from the digital humanities?' or 'Why do you wish to make the humanities digital?'

The uncertainty of our desire, I think, stems from a sense that we know something massive, call it the "digital," is underway; but we don't know exactly what it means. Will it change how we do things? Will it change the very things we do? How radical a change will it bring? Are "we" (students of the humanities) charged with helping to usher the humanities into a digital age where the primary mode of scholarly communication and exchange is no longer paper? Or is something more radical afoot? (Or, to take another tack entirely: is the digital changing our minds in undesirable ways? Is it destroying the very culture which has been the very definition of the "humanities" for centuries?)

This sense of uncertain change, I think, breeds various responses. Tanner's response is, I think, the most coherent. It is also the response which, I think, most stresses a continuity with the past. There will be no sunset on ideology. The term DH itself will be subject to sunset. And what abides is a "concern for understanding the human condition." What has been will be again...

While in other regards sympathetic to Tanner's points, I take Mark's comments to be essentially vanguardist in tone; stressing not continuity with the past, but rupture. The uncertainty introduced by "the digital" (and I hate the substantization of an adjective in this way, but am uncertain of a better option) opens up new possibilities which should be seized upon. I don't think I'm misreading Mark's comment to suggest that the "digital" drops out b/c what is really important (for Mark) is simply the fact of disruption. "embrace the circus, the fair, the freakshow. Stop worrying about definitions and categories and celebrate hybridity." Not digital humanities; insurgent humanities. But against what is this insurgency rebelling? "Stop worrying about definitions and categories and celebrate hybridity. Take advantage of all that the margin affords. Do what you do and keep doing what you do." That, of course, presupposes that I'm already doing something. And that (I feel that) it is worth doing. That it is, what I want to do. Which is to say that it only raises more forcefully the question of desire.

And in this sense I wonder if Whitney's appeal to history (which, let me be clear, I share 100%) doesn't pour historicist oil on the insurgent waters that Mark seems to stir up.

So, what do you want? I'll be thinking about this and trying to answer it. I am writing this comment in emacs, a text editor with the helpful benefit of having onboard psychotherapy (M-x doctor).

I asked the good doctor, "What are the digital humanities?" Her answer, I think, is the right one: "Why do you say what are the digital humanities?"


Thanks, Chris. You beat me to the punch. Shifting the terms of the debate from theory/method to thinking/doing will clarify things, I think. Knowledge making is always is a productive balance between thinking/talking and doing. Recent scholarship in the history and sociology of science tells us that much. For many decades, the balance in the humanities tipped toward thinking/talking. Digital humanities tips the balance back toward doing. Neither is done in isolation, both are necessary, one always informs the other, but I don't think it's very controversial to say that digital humanities concentrates more on doing than most of humanities scholarship of the past fifty or seventy five years.

In response to Cathy, I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that digital humanities projects should be undertaken uncritically or without a clear sense of their always present theoretical underpinnings, especially when it comes to content projects. But I also think it's safe to say that more digital humanities projects have failed from over-thinking and under-doing than the other way around.


I don't disagree with the emphasis on "doing" -- in fact, I'm very, very much in favor of it. (My "Hacking the Academy" submission wasn't a blogpost but a digi-poem produced in 1 hour that emphasizes the power of quick prototyping over long posts that few of us have the time to read, and which sadly don't often spark the level of discussion that Chris has here!) What's problematic is the distinction it's premised on: thinking *vs.* doing. No one talks or *thinks* more than DH people -- and no one *does* more than scholars who spend hours in the archive. It was perhaps a helpful dichotomy in the high days of theory, when DH had to argue for its practical value; but we now seem to be in a place where everyone wants to be doing, everyone wants their thinking to have practical value and relevance. Few of just know how.

In this sense, I don't see any such thing as historicist oils smothering insurgent waters, because history as I envision it *is* doing; literary criticism, if done well, *is* active, productive (hence my recent interest in creative criticism, or critical digital poetry). In fact, I would tentatively argue that DH as it is structured now in terms of labs and funding cycles works against the insurgent humanities that Mark is talking about. (And, by contrast, Deleuze -- whose name elicits groans amongst those hostile to theory, knew all about insurgent humanities. His work is experimental in form, more like an unfulfilled DH project than anything. We just haven't learned how to read these aspects of him yet.) You can't do without thinking, you can't think without doing -- it's an embodied act. I think we damper the discussion about what we want to be by arguing against (and in doing so maintaining) divides that are (or should be) no longer relevant.


Hi, WHitney, Well said!  I really love this important conversation.  Needless to say, to end these binaries (which I find naive and unuseful) is one reason we made developing new media/creative and critical thinking about it/and new interactive forms of pedagogy ALL part of HASTAC's mission.  I think we fool ourselves when we separate them . . . and, as you know, I've spent my whole career, going back to Revolution and the Word which is rooted in British cultural studies theory and also finding actual marks in actual 18th century books (most of which weren't even in book catalogues or kept by libraries at the time), saying history is theory and theory is historical.   I also think pedagogies embody theories and histories too.   Thanks so much for your contribution to this very rich conversation.  I am learning so much from these formulations.  


It's interesting that Whitney has steered us to the body, that thing that might be thought to fall out of the equation when discussing the digital humanities. (Of course, we could presume that "digital" here refers to one's hands and therefore prompts us to think again about "doing.") Since the humanities invite us to examine what it means to be human, some of what the digital humanities asks us to do is to figure out what it means to be human now that we are as a species increasingly dependent on digital technologies (we have, of course, always been a techological species; this is, in other words, the fourth of Chris's rings). How does the digital affect human perceptions, creations, and interactions?

To take the conversation in a different direction, I've always found it interesting that history is so prominently a portion of the digital humanities. In some ways I think this development makes historical sense: after all, historians often have objects that they want to make more readily available. A monograph is in some ways a curation of particular objects and facts, and history has taken to the digital environment in interesting ways. Literary studies (my own field) has been slower to figure out what, as Chris puts it, we want from the digital. We know that we can count words using new tools, but we have yet to figure out whether we're interested in counting words. Sentiment analysis is important, but it certainly doesn't reflect everyone's interests. The growing use of geospatial tools in the humanities seems promising for much literary work--provided we can find ways to represent fictional spaces as well as those that can actually be georeferenced.

A final point: this discussion shows an admirable congress between thinking and doing. In other words, it's digital humanities. And scholarship.


Hi, Chris. I missed this post because, honestly, I've been leery of reading introductions. Thank you for showing me that introductions can be useful. As my first post, I also tackled the issue of what DH means, though you were probably more thorough. In particular, I discuss your #1 and (more dear to my heart) #2:

I'd love to know what you think about it.



Thanks so much to everyone for these engaging/thoughtful responses.

As Brian suggests, DH and history have a long... er... history. But it seems to me that it is a history (with regard to literary studies anyway) of a particular kind, connected to history of the book, to questions of bibliography and of editing (I am here thinking primarily of McGann). This connection is implicit in many places, and explicit in others (here I'm thinking of the way Matthew Kirschenbaum locates his own work in Mechanisms w/r/t textual criticism & bibliography); precisely the sort of Cultural Studies work mentioned by Cathy, and which, even if you strip me of all my digits (rendering me thoroughly undigital), would remain vital to my own goals as a scholar of the early twentieth century. I stress this, in part, b/c that sort of work (bibliography, history of the book), while not un-theoretical, as Whitney implies with her reference to Deleuze, has had at times an uneasy relationship to the grand, high tradition of "theory."

To put it bluntly: can one be a Lacanian digital humanist? (Would anyone want such a thing?) I strongly suspect that while everyone can agree, in the theory, about the inextricability of theory & practice, in practice, people's attitudes towards particular theoretical texts (Whitney's mention of Deleuze; Mark's of Bakhtin; my own of Lacan; Cathy's of the Cultural Studies tradition emanating from Birmingham) would be quite divergent. And it is there, where we begin to disagree (for good & honest reasons) that I think discussion is most valuable and profitable.

Whitney, I suspect you're right that Mark's insurgent DH is at odds with "funding cycles" etc. I would be interested whether Mark sees an appeal to the long tradition of scholarly 'historicism' as in line with the carnivalesque celebration of the margins he describes. Surely "always historicizing" (to invoke Jameson by way of a more recent echo in this very thread by Cathy) is not a position at the margin? At least not the margin of academia? It is now the mainstream of what we do as scholars, no? (Or am I too blindered by my position in an English department, where always historicizing can feel like old hat?)

I think Mark's comment points to a fundamental tension: seeing DH as (I won't say "just") a way of continuing to do what "we" have always done as "humanists"; and seeing DH as an opportunity to upset everything. Cathy's voice I take as one of a middle path between these two extremes.

Part of my desire in asking questions about what we do and what we want is to try to keep any conversation of DH grounded in particularities. The moment we even say "digital humanities," I fear, we are trafficking in abstractions. Abstractions which in some contexts may serve certain interests (not least our own: for funding, for recognition, for community), but which makes take us away from the material things themselves.


Thank you so much for this post, Chris, and to everyone else for their comments.  I've enjoyed reading along as the conversation has developed, and I just want to make a few quick remarks.  

First, what especially interests me about the digital humanities are precisely these tensions between (1) technical practice and theory and (2) materiality and material conditions.  I, for one, do my best to sustain that tension, rather than resolve it.  And I also think it is indeed a historical question, which can be mapped through a variety of genealogies, the histories of science, technology, and literature included.  

Regarding the debate about "thinking" and "doing," DH is also exciting because it simultaneously enables that distinction and problematizes it.  In some areas (e.g., media studies and technoculture studies) scholars such as Haraway, Stone, Foster, Nakamura, and Hayles rightly question any neat splits between mind and body (or embodied practices and the cultural formation of "the body").  And no doubt, technologies and new media become suggestive areas to further study those ostensible splits, the investments in them, and the issues that emerge.  

Elsewhere (e.g., STS), folks like Latour, Star, and Bowker remind us of historical impulses to render technologies and classification systems invisible --- to black box them --- and offer some suggestions for opening that box and interrogating how it's culturally embedded.  

What's more, today many scholars are building spaces and technologies that enact --- or better yet, execute --- theory.  "Theory on the move" is how (I believe) Wendy Chun described it at HASTAC III.  Here is where DH may be best distinguished from what humanities work has done in the past (excluding, perhaps, the work of public intellectuals or humanities practitioners).   

In short, that work necessitates competencies in computing AND critical theory.  Since DH work is often collaborative in character, perhaps one person is theorizing and another is building a platform (or tool).  Or one is providing a context and another the content.  Granted, some folks manage both.  

Regardless, the point is that --- whether you imagine DH as the mobilization of technologies to represent humanities texts/research OR the mobilization of humanities methods to examine technologies --- the technical and the theoretical are always at play.  The question is where and when the emphasis is placed, by whom, and for whom.  

At times, when I am building a site (e.g., in Omeka or WordPress) or I am using something like Voyeur, all I want to do is "do."  I want less yack and more hack (especially when a deadline is involved).  Yet, at other moments, I want to slowly unpack the histories and ideologies at play in that work.  For example, I want to write about how I've used technology to represent a specific text or cultural formation.  To do so, I'll draw upon the "thinky" theory at my disposal.  

But to be frank: Not everyone has that privilege.  DH is imbricated in a long legacy of the division of labor and its material conditions: parsing out "doing" from "thinking." Consider the differences between an architect and who actually frames a house, or who designs technologies and who is (outsourced to) build them. Sure, everyone involved is both doing and thinking; nevertheless, job titles/security, training/education, working conditions, and cultural formations related to "brains" and "bodies" reflect a split that generally privileges the thinker or the "ideas person."  That split is also reflected in hierarchies of power, whereby the everyday technicians rarely have much influence in, say, the organization of institutions, the distribution of power, or the representation of communities.     

So your admirable desire for the "material things themselves" cannot be divorced from the material processes involved in their production, circulation, and economies of attention; however, I also believe material things should be studied empirically (or hands-on), too.  To echo Matthew Kirschenbaum, technologies cannot be reduced to concepts or popular representations alone.  Luckily, many DH folks are now putting those concepts into motion through the formal and forensic dimensions of the digital objects at our disposal.  

Or our making.  

I say the more often that making is collaborative --- and not just a division of labor as per usual --- the better.  


Just a quick response to Chris's direct question: "Always historicize" is, I agree, old hat in some respects; but that just means it's time to shake up what we think history is. Our current media ecology has -- is -- unmooring a lot of our assumptions about how we relate to the past (thinking of my favorite media archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski here). DH has that potential but seems to be in a hybrid state right now of using the web to present print-based ways of doing history. I would love to see that change.

In other words, I don't think Mark's call to the margins is anti-intellectual, just a different kind of intellectualism -- a radical rethinking of the very term.

But: I don't want to hijack this thread. As you astutely point out, Chris, what DH is means a lot of different things to different people. I'm coming from literary and media studies; others will inevitably have a different take. Welcome to the circus? 


What a terrific discussion---and a microcosm of the larger issues that the digital humanities face (and which are shared by higher ed in general).

I want to emphasize that I see the thinking/doing divide as a false dichotomy, just as the theory/practice divide is false. Framing the digital humanities in these terms (e.g. "less yacking, more hacking") is ultimately an exclusionary move, and one we ought to avoid. To use a recent real world example, it's tempting to credit the programmers of Anthologize, the Center for History and New Media's One Week, One Tool "digital barn raising" project, at the expense of the non-programmers, whose non-PHP contributions were just as essential.

I also see the continuity/disruption divide as false. Though I would love to be known as a guerilla humanist, disrupting the status quo at every turn, I am more pragmatic in practice than I might appear in print. A more nuanced view might be something like Raymond Williams' idea of dominant, residual, and emergent practices, all of which are present at the same time in any given social sphere. Of course, I'd still push digital humanists to strive for the most emerging of emergent practices. And even more importantly, to strive to subvert the residual and dominant practices for their own ends.

Finally, there's one other divide that I'd argue is not false. And that's the divide between institutional digital humanities "centers of attraction" and singular efforts by faculty and students working in relative isolation. The best digital humanities centers are, to borrow a phrase, too big to fail. No matter what, they will always be there. But most of the individual efforts are too small to succeed. It doesn't matter how much they overthink or underthink, how much they underbuild or overbuild, they will fail.

This is the central tension I see in the digital humanities. Rather than simply lament this fact of size and sustainability, however, I think the solution is to pay more attention to the failures. If anything, the smaller digital humanities projects need to accelerate their rate of failure. Failure is a precondition of success, and the freedom to fail might actually lead to greater contributions to the humanities than the larger centers---too big to fail---can offer. What I'm suggesting is that the pressure for digital humanities centers to succeed (coming from home institutions, funders, and the centers' own commitments to their staff) might, like the pressure to publish for tenure, lead to less experimental designs, less innovative projects, less dalliance with potential failure.

So alongside digital humanities centers of attraction, we need traveling sideshows, working on the periphery. My call for marginality is not an intellectual or anti-intellectual move; it is an acknowledgment that tremendously important work is being done by people unattached to any formal digital humanities initiative, and it is these people, laboring without institutional support and succeeding only through failure, to whom the digital humanities should look for guidance and inspiration.


This has been a very intriguing conversation but I'm not sure where it went: historicizing digital humanities or defining it?  Mark brings up a good point about the solitary scholar. Dare I say it's still that monastic model of research, writing and publishing that exists in very traditional academic circles?  Someone earlier also pointed out that digital humanities suffers from a division of labor issue in which there is inherently a class structure embedded. 

What I'd like to bring to the forefront is #3 about pedagogy and digital humanities.  There are some fantastic courses being taught in theorizing digital humanities.  But, then there's the invisible work of bringing the tools to the students -- the actual use of what's being created by big tent digital humanities.  The Looking for Whitman project manifests itself not only as a good digital humanities course, but also as a literary content-driven course on Whitman which turns out to be a project-centered course.  Now all of these descriptors are associated with digital humanities, mostly this idea of collaboration. But, we often talk about collaboration between disciplines and/or technologists.  But what of our students? How are we shepherding digital humanities to those undergraduates who could most benefit from exposure to collaborative tools or humanities computings strategies?  This is the practical application where I think digital humanities has not grown itself. After all, for many of us, working with undergraduate on a project is intensely gratifying and it releases many faculty from the doldrums of teaching the same courses over and over and over again.  (Believe me, after 12 straight semesters of teaching Intro to Literary Criticism, I was happy when I had a moment to re-think the curriculum.) 

And, happily, HASTAC has been addressing the teaching end of things, with Cathy Davidson's post "Research is Teaching" and the wildly successful forum "Teaching with Technology and Curiosity." Each time someone builds a tool or an archive, I would like to see pedagogical materials, even nascent ones, accompany the project.  For someone who teaches 4/4 and 4 preps each every semester, a helping start would be immensely appreciated. For my university's mission, my research is linked to my teaching. They must serve each other.


Kathy, I think you're absolutely correct about the monastic model of research. I didn't mean for my own distinction between digital humanities centers of attraction and traveling sideshows on the periphery to play into this inaccurate and damaging model of scholarship. In my vision, faculty still collaborate, often building tactical coalitions with strange cohorts, but they are unattached to larger institutional digital humanities center.

I also want to second your point that the release of every tool or digital archive should be accompanied, from the beginning, with pedagogical materials. We need tools for our tools---pedagogical tools. Too many digital humanities projects have been created with the misguided belief that if we build it, they will come. A quick survey at the astonishing number of digital humanities tools dying on the vine shows that this self-absorbed notion is not true. In fact, releasing pedagogical materials in conjunction with a tool or achive should be a fundamental part of that tool or achive's long-term sustainability model.