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.


byzantine philology said...

a very interesting article indeed.

cryurchin said...

@byzantine philology - thank you. It's an interesting topic for sure, and certainly one doing the rounds at the moment. I wonder if we'll ever get to the bottom of it, or if it will remain a contested issue (and hopefully a productive one if it does)?


Post a Comment