Blog Post

Giving the Finger (Back) to the Digital

Digital Humanities is not an obvious combination, to say the least. As an international student coming from France, the association of terms surprised me, so much that I made up my own definition for it. To me, digital doesn't only mean "involving or related to the use of computer technology". It means that, but also so much more. Etymologically speaking, of course, digital comes from the finger. I started thinking about how our digital age demands so much more from our fingers than it used to, what with the keyboards and iPads and other trackpads. The Homo Sapiens distinguished himself by the use he could do of his fingers, to make tools, to paint the walls of Lascaux. How far as the litteral and original sense of digital is concerned, fingers were always involved in writing and/or painting, and the Humanities and the Arts were digital from the very beginning.

At the center of the concept of digital as related to computer technology is the idea of computing, of counting. So it really comes from those "abaci" or "abacuses" systems that symbolize for children at school the beginning of knowledge and of humankind as such, at least in France. This sets quantity as the foundation of our civilization. So this could be why we needed literature and arts in the end, to counterbalance the effects of too much counting. But who came first, the digital or the humanities? Did the necessity for counting provoke the "invention" of writing, thus leading to the keeping of record, the birth of literature and history? Or did the necessity for a certain keeping of records precede the necessity for counting?

As a HASTAC scholar, I'd like to interrogate the digital in the humanities, but also the humanities in the digital. New technologies, social networks, smartphones: what have those done to literature? What have they done to spelling and grammar? To social interaction?

As a possible introduction to the blog, I thought about that passage in Mrs Dalloway where the crowd is waiting in the streets of London for the Prime Minister to pass by them:

"The car came on.

Suddenly Mrs. Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! making letters in the sky! Every one looked up."  (Mrs Dalloway, 20)

I find this passage to be a perfect metaphor for the Digital Humanities: there is the Prime Minister's car, but everyone is too busy noticing something new, something surprising, that they turn away from the stage of politics, of society, to look up into the sky. There, something even more innovative and rare than a car moves, an aeroplane. Virginia Woolf is there to capture/invent this moment, and immortalize the crisis of a literature confronted to the blooming of advertisements (the aeroplane is not writing a message per se, but the name of a brand of toffee). The Humanities are always confronted to visible enemies; to most people, the digital is a threat to the humanities, and HASTAC is a collective attempt at proving the contrary. What Mrs Dalloway proves is that literature, as part of the humanities, integrates this danger, this conscience of a crisis, into the body of its texts. "Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked into the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks." (Mrs Dalloway, 21-22)



Great break down on the etymology. And the imagary. You've playfully confronted a central conundrum: the digital and the human(ities). By going to the structure of words and meanings I think you've come up with a very good point about the use of fingers, the reliance on the digits to manipulate the digital. Or to initiate the digital.  


I'll try to continue thinking about it. There is a lot to be said, of course. Maybe we should start some type of forum to question the finger in the digital!


Lovely intro. I'm reminded of Mr. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, and his inability to get beyond the letter "Q" in his philosophical work. Perhaps DIgital Humanities is one way forward.


I'm particularly intrigued by your exploration of "the crisis of a literature confronted to the blooming of advertisements (the aeroplane is not writing a message per se, but the name of a brand of toffee)."

I love what you're saying here, especially if we consider the ways in which the digital sphere is permeated and often produced in response to consumerist culture.  Woolf's image of being distracted from the immediate (political) happenings by a looking-up to the new and strangely beutiful is ironized by the overt capatalism fueling this moment. I think it's equally important for us to consider the economies fueling the digital, particularly in its intersections with the humanities, and I love that you point us back to literaturea as means of integrating/exploring /negotiating. this danger.


I do think literature can be a means of negotiating this danger, like you said. I shall be thinking about this more in the future weeks and there will probably be more to be discussed!