digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship

oh digital humanities, where art thou?

Some recent, thoughtful, and often provocative posts on the relations among digital humanities, digital media studies, and the traditional humanities from Ian Bogost, Dave Parry, Cathy Davidson, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick. As is discussed in these posts and the comments following upon them, there are all kinds of potential and actual conflicts among various flavors of digital scholars, which I suppose I would characterize as ranging from those who study digital media of some kind to those who employ digital technologies in their study of objects/practices that are not in themselves digital (e.g. historical literary texts). Among those more deeply embedded in digital media, it is common to find the argument that an engagement with the technology or digital literacy or some similar formulation is the humanities' best chance for continued relevancy (if not just survival) over the next decade. I have made this argument here. In fact, I pinned my career on this supposition nearly 15 years ago, as did many of the scholars now involved in digital media.

Perhaps this is not a fair characterization, but in my encounter with "digital humanities," this nomenclature mostly refers to scholars who are largely carrying out traditional humanistic scholarship and/or studying traditional objects but using digital technologies either in the analysis of those objects or in the dissemination of their research. In my new position at UB, I've been sitting on the steering cmte for our digital humanities initiative and reviewing applications for the grants we offer. And this would be how I would characterize the work I see here. One might be tempted to read this as an argument that digital humanities doesn't represent much of shift in the work being done. And I suppose that in the weakest versions of digital humanities that might be true. But at the same time, there is a more subtle observation to be made, that in taking up these technologies there is an inescapable shift in scholarly work. Maybe it is slow moving, maybe it is not fast enough to "save us," but something is happening.

Meanwhile, there remains a more substantive resistance among the traditional humanities that ranges from those faculty who might oppose colleagues or their institution when they pursue the "digital" to others who simply will not choose to "go digital" themselves.

But that's an old story. In some ways, the will to digital media is a refrain of modernity, to "make it new." And as such, it is perhaps fundamentally at odds with the humanistic ethos of conservation. 

The "problem with the humanities" as I see it is only tangentially related to digital media. In this regard, I strongly agree with Ian, when he writes "It's not "the digital" that marks the future of the humanities, it's what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas." I think that in a failed attempt to mimic science through the 20th century we have wound up insular and hyper-specialized, marginal and increasingly irrelevant to others. As highly specialized as scientific research becomes, there remains a general connection to the world through technology. One might be critical of that relationship, but it is undeniably there. The humanities don't have that. That's not to say that we need an instrumental or market-driven relationship with the broader culture, but simply that we need some relationship.

As Richard Florida argues, the strength of the university as cultural-economic machine is not only related to its production of technology, of patents and so on. It is also a function of its ability to attract and nurture "talent" and its capacity to foster "tolerance." The humanities, even the digital humanities, will likely never be a patent-making machine, but we should excel at producing talent and tolerance. In order to do this though, we must connect with the "great outdoors." In this way, I think Dave Parry's contention that "we" should be out here, in social media, on the web, communicating makes sense. We need to reconnect with the rest of the campus (and beyond) to make the humanities relevant again, and the digital as both media and object of study is an obvious means to that end (though not an exclusive one).

More importantly, this shift to reconnect the humanities with the outside will eventually need to recognize that the necessary move into digital media will change the humanities in ways that we don't understand yet. But think of it this way. Humanism has been around since the 14th century. Philosophy and rhetoric go waaaay back. Do we think the printing press changed the humanities? Of course. Did the industrialization of print change the humanities? Of course. We wouldn't have journal articles otherwise. The humanities has always been shaped by media technologies. 

So maybe these changes won't take place as quickly as some (like me) would want. Maybe they won't happen quickly enough to prevent the collapse of traditional humanities departments. But in the end, the study of digital media will continue, and I imagine that the study of history, literature, art, and philosophy will continue in some form as well.

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