digital humanities object-oriented rhetoric

digital humanities: two venn diagrams

Sort of.

Dh-venn1 Here's the first diagram, and I think it represents the conventional view of the digital humanities. Obviously it suggests that there is a vast realm of things that are digital and a vast realm of things that are the humanities and that some relatively small portion of these things overlap. It is a model of specialization. Maybe there are people who are digital humanists the way there are people who are Victorianists: a specific area of study for which one gets hired. Or maybe there are people who are digital humanists the way there are people who are feminists: a specific set of methods that might be applied to various areas of study. And these things can overlap. I'm sure there is at least one feminist, digital humanist, Victorianist out there. It is also a model that defines "digital" and "humanities" in ways that keeps the two mostly separate. Most humanities activities are not digital, and most of what might be called "digital" is outside the purview or interest of the humanities.

Dh-venn2 Now admittedly this doesn't really look like a Venn diagram… because the two regions are co-extensive. And yes, it is polemical. Feel free to write in with your arguments of exception. Yawn. Making these two overlap raises to obvious questions:

  1. What does it mean to say all of the humanities are digital?
  2. What does it mean to say all of the "digital" is in the purview of the humanities?

The first has some obvious answers. As humanists we all employ computers, the Internet, databases, and so on to teach and research. Today there is really no humanities without digital technologies. We are the digital humanities today, just as we were the print humanities in the last century. In 1980, would anyone have doubted the claim that print technologies and literacies pervade the humanities? Would anyone doubt that today? I would suggest the same is true now of the digital. It's just that we have yet to investigate the implications of that realization.

The second question is more complex. For me, it has to do with a shift toward a realist ontology. For centuries (if not always), the humanities have dealt with objects: books, historical artificats, works of art, performances, films, etc. But I think the Latourian-correlationist observation is insightful here. We have largely dealt with these objects in two ways. 1) We have addressed our human response, our ability to represent these objects to ourselves. 2) We have spoken of "culture" and "materiality" but in a vague, abstract way. As such, when we speak of the digital we have focused on the digital as a mode of representation and we have consider "digital culture" in broad and abstract terms. A realist ontology allows us to investigate objects in new ways. It makes the laptop, the mobile phone, the AR network, the procedurality of the video game all sites for humanistic investigation in new ways.

In short, this second not-venn diagram says two things.

  1. Not that all humanists must study the digital, but that all humanistic study is mediated by digital technologies (and that we do not fully understand the implications of that).
  2. Not that the digital world is solely the province of the humanities or that only the humanities have something useful to say about it, but that through a realist ontology we can extend humanistic investigation into the profoundly non-human world of digital objects.