digital humanities digital rhetoric

the rhetoric of digital humanities

Clearly there is a great deal of interest (and consternation) over the "what is DH?" question. Personally I've heard from a number of folks both here and on twitter over the last 24 hours. Even though, as Stephen Ramsay was pointing out in a comment on my last post, this is a longstanding question, it is one that seems to be increasingly pointed, perhaps because, as others have noted, there are more and more folks interested in the term. The DH11 conference that initiated my last post is really just one, even reasonably minor, example of the issue.

I won't even attempt to account for the volume of discussion on this issue. However, I believe it is safe to say that "digital humanities" raises many more eyebrows than the term "humanities computing." And this is a rhetorical issue to me. For example, if one looks at the Companion to Digital Humanities, the terms "digital humanities" and "humanities computing" are used interchangeably. Kirschenbaum's ADE article, (which I cited in my last post as well), begins with the question, "What is (or are) the 'digital humanities,' aka 'humanities computing'?" He then traces a very specific genesis of the term digital humanities through an interview with John Unsworth and quotes Unsworth:

The real origin of that term [digital humanities] was in conversation with Andrew McNeillie, the original acquiring editor for the Blackwell Companion to Digital Hu- manities. We started talking with him about that book project in 2001, in April, and by the end of November we’d lined up contributors and were discussing the title, for the contract. Ray [Siemens] wanted “a Companion to Humanities Computing” as that was the term commonly used at that point; the editorial and marketing folks at Blackwell wanted “Companion to Digitized humanities.” I suggested “Companion to Digital humanities” to shift the emphasis away from simple digitization.

So there you go. I think it is undoubtely the case that the term digital humanities was meant to mean humanities computing. It also seems clear that the switch was a rhetorical move. From this passage it is impossible to know if the term "digitized humanities" or "digital humanities" was thought to be more accurate in some epistemological, (inter)disciplinary, sense than "humanities computing," or if the switch was intended as a way of creating a title that might have broader appeal. The reference to "marketing folks" makes me think the latter, but one can't be sure. Now someone who isn't a rhetorician may think that's a kind of criticism, but it isn't coming from me. The switch, in my view, would represent a belief on the part of the authors and editors regarding who they believe their audience should be. Digital humanities addresses that audience in a way that humanities computing does not.

Perhaps, however, that choice has had unexpected consequences.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum clarified in a previous comment, he identifies several related activities in English that make it a "hospitable setting" for humanities computing/digital humanities. And when it was known by its prior term (i.e. before the last decade), humanities computing lived side-by-side with computers and composition, the cultural study of technology, new media studies, and so on. No one of these practices could make a claim to be "the digital humanities" any more than English Studies could claim to be the entirety of the humanities. Each was one flavor of the study/use of digital technology in the humanities.

Of course, as rhetoricians, we've been down this path before with literary studies imagining itself to be the entirety of English. Sigh.

For good or bad, we've already pressed send on the digital humanities. And I think it will ultimately be for good. However I think it is unavoidable that the term digital humanities means (simultaneously and recursively) the humanistic study of the digital and the digital study of the humanities in all of its varieties. I don't think any insistence on anyone's part that digital humanities equals humanities computing is going to matter. I can't help thinking that this was part of the rhetorical choice that was made 10 years ago. Even if it wasn't fully foreseen, wasn't the point really to broaden the appeal and significance of humanities computing? To suggest that the work of humanities computing was relevant to a far larger field of study? Consider the histories of humanities computing in comparsion with the history of new media studies as suggested, for example, by the New Media Reader. I would think there's a fair degree of overlap there.

So, as I mentioned in my last post, but as others have also said to me recently, there are a lot of conferences and journals that deal with the various kinds of humanistic-digital studies that go on. And one may see some overlap of scholars or topics among them from time to time. Maybe there should be a kind of umbrella journal or conference, something that would be akin to MLA (for literature and language) or CCCC (for rhetoric and composition)–i.e. a conference with 1000s of participants. Maybe that should be the conference that currently goes by the name of "Digital Humanities," but mabye not. I'm not going to make that argument. 

However it's going to get worked out, I suppose the bottom line for me today is that I don't think anyone can make digital humanities equate with humanities computing any longer. It's just a term that bleeds too easily into other fields. Furthermore, I don't think it's in anyone's long term interest to make that attempt. Absolutely humanities computing scholars retain their own distinct (inter)disciplinary identity (and journals, conferences, book series, etc.), as do these other humanistic-digital fields of study, but inasmuch as the term digital humanities is suggestive of their integration, it represents an opportunity to address the larger challenges all humanists face with emerging digital technologies.