Friday, 25 February 2011

The Boundaries of the Digital Humanities

it is strange though; for once, as a young man, he sat on damp ground and drank rum with soldiers - virginia woolf - the waves p144

I've said before on this blog that I don't really consider the work that I do to be Digital Humanities.  Sometimes, though, at conferences, when people don't know where to position my work (and I certainly don't) it's the tag they append to it.  After the twitter frenzy following this year's MLA I started to ask the question more and more: "What is DH?"  I'm not overwhelmingly qualified to answer, a very early-career academic at the fringes of the subject at best, but it's been a pleasure to try and work through the idea, and I thought I'd share the essay that came out of those musings.

I've posted the opening section below, which contains the essay's potentially provocative thesis, but if you'd like the full .pdf head here (google docs downloadable file).


The Boundaries of DH: 
Finding A Place For Neuropsychology (and Other Things) in the Digital Humanities

In this essay I want to address a question that will bother, in one way or another, an ever increasing number of academics, and which already haunts calls for articles, conference outlines, website biographies, and university course plans: What does it mean to be a Digital Humanist? (I wonder why it so holds the attention? Maybe because it sounds like a debate of philosophical conviction with an electronic mind - 'so what does a digital Humanist believe?' - which also emphasises, nice and early, the oxymoronic irony of the term DH where a set of disciplines built, in recent times, on subverting an over-reliance on the 'truth' of dyads now finds itself twinned with a field which can only find expression, at its heart, in binary code. 'Yes, the trace of 'OFF' may be in 'ON,' but trust me, the computer knows the difference'. The technician closes her eyes). I suspect that there are as many answers as there are people who are asked this question, and I cannot hope to somehow answer it definitively here. But I would like to consider the Humanities+computers=DH definition, which, despite the extent of the debate,1 remains the gloss of the matter to most initiates/skeptics/saboteurs, and this will form the essay's first section. I'd then like to offer two hopefully illustrative supplementary essays (of sorts) which draw on my own research, and that I believe could sit in an augmented idea of what might be appropriately considered the field of the Digital Humanities. I offer these examples not as an attempt to position my research, or to draw conditions or conclusions, but only as another instance of pushing at some of the boundary lines, as my part of the project so many of us are attempting as we attack, defend, and otherwise refine what might turn out to be one of the most vital contemporary disciplines.

DH can seem, primarily, to be about creation, about using new digital technologies (i.e. computers and surrounding hardware and software) to build new things that Humanities scholars enjoy, whether that be scanning documents, democratising access to materials, maintaining databases, or exploring new literary forms which push at the boundaries of linearity, of textuality (and, on occasion, of cogency). But the interpretive work, whether it be looking at the ontology of the new technologies themselves, the impacts of those technologies, as well as the possibility of bringing those technologies to bear on existing disciplines, is already immensely rich, as evidenced in totemic work in the field such as Matthew Kirschenbaum's forensic studies in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008), and Katherine Hayles' theoretical and close readings of 'born digital' and digitally inspired literature evidenced in Writing Machines (2002) and Electronic Literature (2008).

Such works bring the peculiarities of academic, artistic, corporate, governmental, and home computing under the gaze of Humanities scholarship, making digital content and content producing equipment the thing to be interpreted, or as the way-in to interpretation; they are, to most arguers, clearly DH projects. But I've been wondering if these are the right lines, or rather the only lines to draw around the Digital Humanities; is the computer, whether used for creation or interpretation, the correct primary signal to look out for in the process of defining our own and others' work? Or should we also include projects which might only have computing as a secondary or tangential concern? It must be involved, of course, to satisfy the digital of 'DH,' but up until a few decades ago literary scholars needed paper and ink to be involved for their discourse to exist, and no matter how important these things are they certainly didn't seem to be the primary drivers or indicators of the field, more the underlying condition.

Let's take the example of Lawrence Lessig to consider this further: his work on copyright law in a digital age3 seems to me as if it should be classed as a form of DH. Law is arguably a Humanities subject, at least as an academic discipline, and Lessig explores the impact of digitisation on legal theory, creative use of others' work as material for new creations, and the content industries (whose output forms the basis for a lot of more easily defined Humanities scholarship) which seek to hide behind increasingly draconian copyright legislation. Why isn't this, or why is this so infrequently considered to be a Digital Humanities project? I can only assume because the legal,observational, and persuasive aspects take precedence over the hazily defined computational component of his discussions. Would it make the term too baggy or ill defined to include such projects, which investigate the impact of digital technologies, but don't have computers as their primary focus? Would this opening of the floodgates to any Humanities work which draws upon the effects of digital media - of digital means of production, and attempts to understand them with a sensitivity to the discourses of New Media in general, and Computer Science in particular - but which doesn't give precedence to the source of that media's expression, would this open up the field too widely, too permissively?

Already I've had to make an assumption: that New Media studies and Cyberculture studies could fall, at least in part, under the auspices of the Digital Humanities. This assertion is certainly not self-evident, and there is a strong argument for keeping the object oriented studies of New Media, and the online sociology of Cyberculture separate from the 'Humanities Computing' of DH. But the boundaries between all three disciplines are so frequently blurred that to some degree I'm inclined to argue for bringing them all together (for our purposes here under that term 'Digital Humanities') so that we might unite their voices and their research; to a large extent that will be the position from which I'll argue for the augmentation of DH in this essay. I certainly think that there will be space to mark such granularities further down the line, but for the moment it may be counter-productive to balkanise groups which have so many common aims. In the same way, to define DH as solely about bringing Computer Science into Humanities scholarship seems to leave a number of energetic and instructive voices out in the cold. How many scholars interpreting digital technologies and their artefacts and practices don't feel like they're 'just' doing English, or Philosophy, or History, but are also not learning to programme, archive, or otherwise bring computers to bear on their home field's traditional practices? A banner term, be it Digital Humanities or not, seems like a requirement to galvanise like-minded scholarship, rather than yet another too-fluid taxonomy.

If I were to offer my own somewhat instinctual definition, to answer that question 'what does it mean to be a Digital Humanist?', I would opt to see DH projects as those which aim to bring the impacts, artefacts, and discourses of digitisation to the Humanities ahead of time so that Humanities skills can be tested and refined rather than left behind, and/or that allow those refined skills to help shape the future of those concerns. In this case Lessig would be in as we're only just starting to feel the extent of the copyright issues digitisation will introduce into the Humanities; Lessig's work opens the door early and asks us to consider problems which might not manifest their full extent for a decade or more, even though some are unpleasantly already on our doorstep.4 Hayles' and Kirschenbaum's work, which spearheaded new forms of textual engagement and contributed to opening up the Digital Humanities to a new generation of scholars, would also certainly be included due to their near prescience (seemingly the effect of being curious enough to explore, explore well, and explore early) of what would become the new or most productive concerns. But as such studies (digital copyright, close reading electronic literature, forensic investigation) become, if not commonplace then rarified and increasingly specialised, then we might see them as retreating out of the Digital Humanities over time and becoming repositioned into more traditional and less fluid disciplinary camps which allow for minute study and canonisation, thus making way in DH for new broad themes and ideas to again be tested early.5 DH, in this guise, can, and should to my mind, remain ever on the front lines of interpreting and supporting the evolution of digital technologies as they apply to the Humanities.

But this is obviously a much broader definition, and one which allows many more projects to be included under the umbrella of DH. I would argue, however, that specialisation is the privilege (and sometimes burden) of long-established disciplines with long-established corpora for consideration, and that DH studies remains, despite by some estimates around four decades of activity in one way or another, a youthful enough field to continue its attempts to map and shape a potentially vast shift in scholarship and society relatively unimpeded by the minutiae of taxonomic worries. This continued vitality/adaptability is surely part of the excitement, so what not make it part of the definition?

It is probably worth saying why I sympathise with such an expanded boundary: Whilst it would be surprising indeed for traditional Humanities skills to, by themselves, be up to the task of interpretation and creation in a newly digitised world, surely it would be equally incredible to find that all of the answers lay in a combination of CompSci and close reading? 'Digital' certainly means computers, but the impacts and understanding of born digital content, and the digitisation of previously corporeal materials, will also occur well beyond the screen.

In my own research I look at the problems inherent in defining what exactly a 'technology' is. This has become my way-in to considering people's reactions to electronic texts, to reading on screen, on Kindles and iPads, and to people's reactions to other people reading on such screens. I'm trying to get at the impetus behind three assertions which seem to make up the brunt of the resistance to such practices: i) electronic texts are 'unnatural' ii) electronic texts don't 'feel right' (otherwise known as the 'but you can't read it in the bath' or 'ebooks don't smell good like a proper book does' arguments) and iii) web-connected or online electronic texts 'make us stupider'.6 These three broad assertions stand for much of the popular debate surrounding the evolution of reading technologies, but I believe that they also hold the key to a more nuanced understanding of the potential effects of digitisation facing readers and reading.
Babette Gladney speaks with her husband Jack halfway through Don DeLillo's White Noise:

'I feel they’re working on the superstitious part of my nature. Every [technological] advance is worse than the one before because it makes me more scared'.
'Scared of what?' 'The sky, the earth, I don’t know'.
'The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear'. 'Why is that?' she said (1985: 161)

Resistances to reading on screen somehow tap into some fairly primal fears, of the unnatural, the other, loss of control, and loss of our primary means of communicating with the world: touch. Books have become positioned as 'natural,' as somehow a-technological, and the intrusion of buttons and touch-screens and connectedness is seen as somehow getting in the way of a more 'pure' reading experience. By using the word 'resistance' I fully intend to invoke a political, moral, or ethical claim to avoiding or repudiating the move toward a new electronic written environment, to allowing a generation to grow up reading digitally. Sven Birkerts is amongst the most eloquent detractors of the new forms, and he picks up on this language of the ‘unnatural’ throughout his work on the subject. His playing up of a dichotomy between the reader’s ‘natural’ interaction with a bound book and the ‘unnatural’ processes of reading on a multimedia screen recurs frequently throughout The Gutenberg Elegies, and his argument reaches its apotheosis in the following: 'What [book] reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that a life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny. That God or no God, life has a unitary pattern inscribed within it' (1996: 85). This quotation gets to the absolute heart of the resistance to ‘unnatural’ screen reading: for detractors of electronic reading technology, book reading, and all of its related practices, has become a spiritual experience, tapping into something at the centre of who we are. Alan Kaufman, in a ferocious article entitled 'The Electronic Book Burning,' discusses this near-religious love of the codex form, and the related hatred of digitisation:

My books have been hard won. What made it all seem worthwhile was the book, the physical item, a kind of sacred and appropriate temple for the text contained within. Had I been told from youth that my literary destination would be some 7 inch plastic gizmo containing my texts shuffling alongside thousands of other 'texts' I would have spit in the face of such a profession and become instead a hit man or a rabbi...To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but as shown in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, something that is even worth dying for. And yet, though I have been willing to sacrifice everything for the books I have written, compiled or just read, though I have given the days of my life, my years, my youth and adulthood to the book, as both sacred object and text, I am now witness to the culture turning away en masse from the book. The world is moving to embrace the electronic media as its principle mode of expression. The human has opted for the machine, and its ghosts, over the haptic companionship and didactic embodiment of the physical book (2010).

Not all commentators would go this far, of course, and I suspect that many who resist screen reading in favour of their own idiosyncratic relationship with the printed word would deride Birkerts and Kaufman's polemic. But it does feel as if they all somehow stem from a common pool, that all such resistances seem bound to a notion of an 'advance' too far, a sudden tapping of a nerve that no one realised was exposed. With the Kindle's launch in 2007 books became very suddenly under fire as the default way to receive written information; suddenly books, rather than simply reading, seemed like something which had to be defended.

The pertinent question is whether getting to grips with these ideas is a Digital Humanities project. When I've spoken at conferences it often gets positioned as such, and I think that it's probably as useful a distinction as any to frame the work. But in order to support my ideas I find myself increasingly drawing on research and metaphors from outside of English, my 'home' discipline, looking instead at neuropsychology, philosophy, archaeology, biology, and anthropology. Computer Science is perhaps most notable by its absence in this list, not that I don't think that there's plenty of opportunity to draw on the discipline in order to address these questions, but instead that that task is already under way. I believe that these less considered fields, in terms of the Humanities attitude towards new reading technologies, have the potential to add much needed nuance to our understanding of the impacts of digitisation on individuals, and on societies at large, and that they are often left largely untapped for elucidating metaphors and raw evidence by Humanities scholars. If brought into use as soon as possible then such discourses could help researchers, en masse, refine their cumulative skill set for interpreting and manipulating the development of the digital, and, as I've already said, that could well be a useful measure of what we define as a DH project.

For the remainder of this essay I'd like to outline two examples from my own research which relate to the question of resistance to digitisation. The first considers what is so special about a particular book which couldn't be reproduced on screen, and the second looks at the application of computing to philosophy (and yet doesn't feel like DH). I offer them as examples which might enact the more troubled boundaries of the field, and at best I hope that they can demonstrate some of the use in an augmented idea of DH study.

If you'd like to read the rest of the essay please see here.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Digital English: How Technology is Changing What We Study

I posted an early draft of a module proposal last month, and I wanted to offer this update which is hopefully a lot cleaner and simpler to scan and get a sense of.  Below the module itself is my reasoning for why I think this is a great time for such a module to appear in the UK.

I'm currently writing up my PhD and at the moment this is a course without a home; if you know of any institution which you think might be interested in such a module then please let me know.  Also if you have any questions or recommendations for changes then I'd love to hear from you.


Digital English: How Technology is Changing What We Study
None (no computer skills needed)

This module aims to allow students to identify and interrogate the possibilities, and potential threats, digital technology offers to the study of English, and more generally to the practice of reading in the 21st century. In an age increasingly dominated by computers and the internet this course will allow students to engage with the arguments that are going on all around them. How might technology change the way we read texts? What new texts might be created? Is technology really a threat to reading? What makes reading from a screen different to reading a book? How does literary theory need to change in order to    consider electronic texts, and can these digital objects make theory easier to approach? These are the conversations going on    around the world as written texts become ever more diverse, and ever more accessible. As English scholars we have a unique    education in the impact of writing on readers, and this module aims to be part of putting us to work on the texts of our time.

The module begins with a consideration of the 'threat' of technology, particularly the popular discourses of screen reading and easily accessible material attenuating focus and attention. From there we will go on to situate the current technologies historically, consider the unique details of their forms and their potential impacts on readers, and then move on to how we might respond, how we can theorise, and how we can productively use these new tools.

As it encourages an advanced understanding of the increasing impact of digital technologies in the world, the course should prove particularly valuable to students who wish to pursue a career that might involve electronic modes of communication, digital content production, or further study of these issues.

We will look at a diverse range of experimental and canonical texts, from novels to poems to theoretical, philosophical, and even neuropsychological work in order to understand what might be different about digital. This diversity has two functions: i) to demonstrate the range of aspects of English study that digitisation affects (and what new aspects it necessarily calls into play) and ii) to allow students to focus on what interests them most about English as a subject, whether that be close reading, high theory, or trying to understand the changing pleasures of the written word in all its forms.


Module Specific Skills - On successful completion of this module, students should be able to:
a. demonstrate an advanced understanding of the current and potential implications of various digital technologies on English Studies.
b. demonstrate an advanced ability to discuss what might make reading on screen different to reading from a printed page and the implications for readers.
c. demonstrate an advanced understanding of how written electronic texts are situated in a history of technologies of textual reproduction.


1. The dangers of digital - What does technology do to reading?
2. Scrolls to screens - how do electronic texts fit into the history of reading technologies?
3. What does electronic literature look like (and how do we read it)? (offscreen)
4. What does electronic literature look like (and how do we read it)? (onscreen)
5. “It doesn't feel right” - Neuropsychology and understanding what it means to hold a book.
6. E-reader anatomy - features of digital reading devices and their impacts on reading and research.
7. Digital subjectivities and electronic communities.
8. Amateur vs. expert - authority online.
9. Theory for electronic texts.
10. What comes next?
11. Summary, conclusions, and essay workshop.


This reading list is intended to indicate the sort of work with which the module is concerned; it is by no means comprehensive. Ideally a reading pack would be produced with a mixture of complete essays and extracts from longer works.

Espen Aarseth. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins UP, 1997

Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Faber and
Faber, 2006

Jay David Bolter. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999

The Book History Reader. eds. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. Routledge, 2002

Mark Z. Danielewski. House of Leaves. London: Anchor, 2000

Robert Darnton. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Public Affairs, 2009

Stanislas Dehaene. Reading in the Brain. London: Viking, 2009

Jonathan Safran Foer. Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions, 2010

Jeff Gomez. Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age. Macmillan, 2008

N. Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines. MIT Press, 2002

N. Katherine Hayles. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008

Frederick G. Kilgour. The Evolution of the Book. Oxford: OUP, 1998

Matthew Kirschenbaum. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. MIT Press, 2008

George Landow. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Johns Hopkins UP, 2003

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2001

Jerome McGann. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. Palgrave, 2001

Jerome McGann. The Textual Condition. Princeton UP, 1991

The New Media Reader. eds. Nick Monfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. MIT Press, 2003

Maryanne Wolf. Proust and the Squid. Cambridge: Icon, 2008

Web based resources:

A Companion to Digital Humanities. eds. Schreibman, Siemens, Unsworth. Blackwell, 2007. (Available online at

Electronic Literature Organization (


The following list shows Universities ranked by the Guardian for teaching in English (Do they have a department with clear ties to the Humanities focussing on the study of digital materials or the impact of computer technology? (is there an undergrad option?) / Do they have undergrad English modules which include the impact of digitisation?):

Oxford (Yes - Oxford e-Research Centre (no undergrad) & Oxford Internet Institute (limited undergrad lecture series) / No)
UCL (Yes - Centre for the Digital Humanities (no undergrad) / No)
Cambridge (Yes - CRASSH Digital Humanities (no undergrad) / No)
St Andrews (No / No)
Warwick (No / No)
Buckingham (No / No)
Durham (No / No)
Exeter (No (CMIT Digital Arts & Humanities discontinued as of this year) / No)
Edinburgh (No / No)
King's College London (Yes - Centre for Computing in the Humanities (with undergrad course) / No)
York (No / No)
Aberdeen (Yes - Recoded at the Centre for Modern Thought (no undergrad) / No)
Queen Mary (No / No)
Leeds (No / No)
Liverpool (No / No)
Glasgow (Yes - Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (with undergrad course) / No)
Essex (No / No)
UEA (No / No)
Bristol (No / No)
Brunel (No / No)

The vast majority of undergraduate English students who make it into a top 20 university (for their subject) will have no immediate access to academic discussion of how computers, the internet, digital reading devices, and the issues provoked by their use apply to their chosen field. In a time which is fast becoming defined by on- and off-line digital activities this seems to represent a failure to keep up with current developments in issues which will become increasingly relevant to society and scholarship, and also marks a space where universities outside of this ranking can very easily become competitive by demonstrating their sensitivity to the times, and to the needs and desires of their students.

It is, perhaps, too easy to assume that English students, by choosing their courses over, say, Computer Science, have made their decision to exclude themselves from such debates. The rise of postgraduate courses in the Digital Humanities at UCL and Kings, and the HATII undergrad course at Glasgow, not to mention the currently promoted AHRC theme of 'Digital Transformations' and the rise of the Digital Humanities as a significant international academic discourse, demonstrates that there are an increasing number of voices from the Humanities which wish to make themselves heard in this area.
Those few courses that are available, however, have a strong programming / production / Computer Science element, where radically unfamiliar skills must be acquired in order to take part, and a commitment to specialisation must be made early on. There is clearly a space for students who are interested in the impact of digitisation on Humanities study, but don't yet want to specialise, and also for those who want to interpret digital content without having to go about learning to code and produce such materials for themselves. The present situation is comparable to having Creative Writing as the sole approach to studying literature; practice, however significant and informative, is not the only way to encounter a subject.

This is certainly not to talk down the importance of Humanities researchers learning to code and markup text, indeed these skills are increasingly vital, but they involve a certain kind of specialised tuition and requirement of resources which is perhaps not yet available, or in many cases desirable, at
undergrad level. I would like to propose a course that could be taught as a 2nd or 3rd year optional module which would seek to fill the gap between an English course unable to talk about digital technology, and one which is so specialised as to be off-putting or impractical.

By focussing on the interpretation of digital materials and the impact of digitisation on English Studies I believe that it could be made non-threatening, and indeed actively appealing to undergraduate students seeking to expand their skills as they turn an eye to the job market beyond HE study. A graduate who is easily able to demonstrate how their degree might be a good fit for certain jobs, in sectors which might not otherwise have realised the value in their input, has to be more competitive as they enter the fray. With the contemporary literature and theory elements I would like to include it would also be a particularly appealing module for those students interested in contemporary experimental literature and the evolution of English Studies as a whole.