The false promise of the digital humanities

Adam Kirsch in the New Republic: “The humanities are in crisis again, or still. But there is one big exception: digital humanities, which is a growth industry. In 2009, the nascent field was the talk of the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention: “among all the contending subfields,” a reporter wrote about that year’s gathering, “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” Even earlier, the National Endowment for the Humanities created its Office of Digital Humanities to help fund projects. And digital humanities continues to go from strength to strength, thanks in part to the Mellon Foundation, which has seeded programs at a number of universities with large grantsmost recently, $1 million to the University of Rochester to create a graduate fellowship.

Despite all this enthusiasm, the question of what the digital humanities is has yet to be given a satisfactory answer. Indeed, no one asks it more often than the digital humanists themselves. The recent proliferation of books on the subjectfrom sourcebooks and anthologies to critical manifestosis a sign of a field suffering an identity crisis, trying to determine what, if anything, unites the disparate activities carried on under its banner. “Nowadays,” writes Stephen Ramsay in Defining Digital Humanities, “the term can mean anything from media studies to electronic art, from data mining to edutech, from scholarly editing to anarchic blogging, while inviting code junkies, digital artists, standards wonks, transhumanists, game theorists, free culture advocates, archivists, librarians, and edupunks under its capacious canvas.”

Within this range of approaches, we can distinguish a minimalist and a maximalist understanding of digital humanities. On the one hand, it can be simply the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts. An exemplary project of this kind is the Rossetti Archive created by Jerome McGann, an online repository of texts and images related to the career of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: this is essentially an open-ended, universally accessible scholarly edition. To others, however, digital humanities represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture itself, spurring a change not just in the medium of humanistic work but also in its very substance. At their most starry-eyed, some digital humanistssuch as the authors of the jargon-laden manifesto and handbook Digital_Humanitieswant to suggest that the addition of the high-powered adjective to the long-suffering noun signals nothing less than an epoch in human history: “We live in one of those rare moments of opportunity for the humanities, not unlike other great eras of cultural-historical transformation such as the shift from the scroll to the codex, the invention of movable type, the encounter with the New World, and the Industrial Revolution.”

The language here is the language of scholarship, but the spirit is the spirit of salesmanshipthe very same kind of hyperbolic, hard-sell approach we are so accustomed to hearing about the Internet, or  about Apple’s latest utterly revolutionary product. Fundamental to this kind of persuasion is the undertone of menace, the threat of historical illegitimacy and obsolescence. Here is the future, we are made to understand: we can either get on board or stand athwart it and get run over. The same kind of revolutionary rhetoric appears again and again in the new books on the digital humanities, from writers with very different degrees of scholarly commitment and intellectual sophistication.

In Uncharted, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, the creators of the Google Ngram Vieweran online tool that allows you to map the frequency of words in all the printed matter digitized by Googletalk up the “big data revolution”: “Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves…. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.” These breathless prophecies are just hype. But at the other end of the spectrum, even McGann, one of the pioneers of what used to be called “humanities computing,” uses the high language of inevitability: “Here is surely a truth now universally acknowledged: that the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures.”

If ever there were a chance to see the ideological construction of reality at work, digital humanities is it. Right before our eyes, options are foreclosed and demands enforced; a future is constructed as though it were being discovered. By now we are used to this process, since over the last twenty years the proliferation of new technologies has totally discredited the idea of opting out of “the future.”…