Digital Humanities, on the other hand, is clearly cool and funky because it is ‘Digital’, but what exactly is it? Selling it beyond the old core audience of digital natives is complicated by the convention of having most DH courses start with the question ‘What is DH?’ Students who take up a subject in University which they have not had the chance to study at second level will probably be required to buy a text called “Introduction to <Insert Name of Discipline > in which Chapter One will be called What is <insert Name of Discipline> which will not only have a definition and some key terms, in next text boxes, but even review questions at the end to remind them. Every publisher has slightly different versions of these texts for every discipline but not one exists for DH so far.What we tend to do is present students with a selection of readings which reflect a variety of views on what DH is, without making explicit the common elements which digital humanists share. I will put my hand up and admit that I do this myself, and as our DH courses draw a wider audience, I’ve come to see that it is a bit like throwing a non-swimmer in at the deep end of the pool. University must be about difficult, contested, troublesome knowledge, but we do need a better shallow end to the pool if DH is to play well to a wider audience. As DH moves from experimental shows in dark little fringe theatres to the main stage, we need to play more attention to the PrologueDefining the humanities in terms of epistemology or ontology itself is a problem – if pressed for a definition, most will list a set of disciplines. The US National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest grant awarding bodies for the Humanities, does precisely that in a definition which is mostly a list of disciplines with a passing reference to methods
“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”
The key failing here as I see it is that these disciplines are only lenses which approach the humanities through different types of evidence, using differing methodologies.
Coming from that type of background, many ‘digital humanists’ have defined what they do in terms of applying digital methods to the subject matter of their home discipline. Not only is this not wrong, but it is important to explore how new tools and methods allow us to look afresh at the subject matter of the disciplines. That may make you a digital historian, or a digital literary scholar, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a digital humanist. I’m afraid that if we are to be honest, the majority of self-described Digital Humanists are in fact Digital Literary Scholars, with a decent smattering of Digital Historians and a few Digital “Insert Name of Discipline”.
The humanities is about much more than a clatter of disciplines in a university. The humanities is about what it means to be human, to live and act in the world. It is about the fundamental nature of our existence.
The interaction of the Digital and the Human is a very fundamental fact of our existence at this time, because one may be changing what the other means. If we are to engage with question like “How is (Insert name of transient tech toy) changing the world?”, we need to declare some first principles about the nature of the work. We need to get past methods and talk epistemology and ontology.
(Part 1 of possibly many posts..)