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An Affective Response to Defining Digital Humanities

An Affective Response to Defining Digital Humanities

For a Digital Humanities course (#dh666), we were asked to define Digital Humanities.  Here was my response:

As it has been defined hitherto, the best definition of digital humanities (dh) comes from Matthew G. Kirschenbaum who defines dh as "a term of tactical convenience" (Debates 68).  Since dh crosses numerous academic and scholarly boundaries: disciplinary, institutional, geographical, pedagogical, etc., the task of defining digital humanities becomes increasingly troublesome as each definition must seek to include the wants of the person defining dh, but also exclude those practices that fall outside of the practitioners scope of access.  Patrik Svensson articulates this inclusive/exclusive critique of digital humanities in his article "Beyond the Big Tent."  For Svensson, and for Kirschenbaum, the digital humanities becomes a space of growing tactical precision in which defining research practices and institutional policies becomes a galvanizing attempt to distinguish what is and what is not digital humanities.

What makes it a term of "tactical convenience" is that it easily becomes malleable to fit the practices of those who are doing the defining.  Though it is not directly articulated in such terms by Kirschenbaum, or by Svensson, I would argue that this really means that defining digital humanities becomes a tactical practice of exclusion rather than inclusion.  For all the inclusiveness that Svensson notes regarding the Big Tent DH 2011 Conference, what is missing from the big tent is a lot, and what is included are institutional and disciplinary structures that are traditional to a number of humanities and computer science fields.  Therefore, I would argue that there is no such thing as digital humanities.

What there is, however, is a tactic for institutionalization.  But, more importantly, it's also an affected response to our relationship between institutional boundaries and the universalizing impulses of the public humanistic tradition.  What the digital humanities is is an emotional response to the institutional demand to articulate traditional boundaries of scholarly communication and practice (pressures which determine tenure, promotion, and funding) and the humanistic need and want to articulate and produce inclusive service learning practices that engage the public in critical conversations about culture, society, and the foundation of the human condition.

To be clear, there is no negative connotation to my use of emotional in this meaning.  The emotional response is a good one, a productive one.  The myriad of "What is Digital Humanities" are affective responses to an emotional engagement with our work and with the public that we serve.  Though this response is a disruptive force by reinforcing normative values within the humanities institution, it requires us to include and exclude, to institutionalize traditional practices of scholarly publishing, tenure, promotion, funding, graduate and undergraduate eduction (even the #altac conversations locates its place within the arguments and boundaries of academia), it is also a disruptive force that decentralizes power, knowledge, scholarly practices, and public engagement, but only when let those forces affect our emotional responses to our position as academics, as "knowledge workers" as Bethany Nowviskie has recently employed the term (for me, Nowviskie's term goes beyond the academy and includes public knowledge workers to the effect that public/private/academic are no longer necessary descriptors of learning spaces).

Thus, the discussion of what is and what is not digital humanities means nothing to me.  Digital Humanities is a term used to identify persons, practices, ideologies, etc., that conform to institutional and scholarly values as determined by individual and institutional norms.  But doing digital humanities means something much more; doing digital humanities means challenging the institutionalization of humanistic inquiry; in fact, it means responding to the crippling institutionalization of emotive responses to humanistic practices within the public sphere of all "knowledge workers."  To do this means that we must build tools, technologies, methodologies, and theories that represent this disruptive force, but we must also put what we build into practice.  It is not longer enough to present (or represent) an idea, a tool; we must do the work of the community and we must engage the community in developing the ways in which we make our (our as in humanity) work accessible (this means disability studies needs to become a stronger focus of our scholarship and our practices).  We must, as Alan Liu argued practice being the service community that we have always wanted to become.




Thank you so much for your wonderful response.  It means a lot to me.  I completely agree that any "field" is only a "field" because it has been carved out as such.  Sometimes that can be a bad thing, but often those divisions are where some of the best work comes from because it survives by engaging what is there and what is absent and thus contributes to the discussion (more often than not by promoting and practicing activism rather than paper as you rightfully point out by "merging fields into projects and problems") by applying pressure to what we think we know about our own positions in the conversation.  For me, it's an important space to inhabit and I'm happy to read such a great response.  Thank you.


Enjoyed an insightful look at the pertinence of the humanities from Sir Martin Evans' perspective as presented at Standford University. The free iTunes link is below.

It's worth a listen just to be clear about our goal as instructors and how easy it has been to veer off the path.



Thank you for generating such a profound, serious, and invested debate!   I am very impressed.  I hope others in your class will use HASTAC as a forum for articulating these questions.   I've always said a "field" does not exist until there are divisions within a field.   Then again, I've spent my whole career defying "field" as anything definitional and, in my fantasy university, I would be merging fields into projects and problems that universities (and others) could have a key role in solving for the world.   I have said it before and will again:   if the humanities are not key to thinking through all the most important and thorny issues and applications, tools and policies, ideas and histories of an Information Age, then we aren't really worth the paper (sic) we're written on.      Thanks for this contribution, Shawn.