By Whitney Anne Trettien on April 26, 2010
What does it mean to be a Digital Humanist?
In a Dave Parry’s widely-circulated, post-MLA2009 blog post, tauntingly titled “Be Online or be Irrelevant,” Parry argued that social media should be front-and-center in Digital Humanities:
The more digital humanities associates itself with social media the better off it will be. Not because social media is the only way to do digital scholarship, but because I think social media is the only way to do scholarship period.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this claim sparked fierfce debate over the role, nature and future of digital scholarship. Who can claim to be a digital humanist? Do you have to have a PhD? How much coding do you have to know? Are humanities bloggers and twitterers participating in e-scholarship? At the root of it all: how do we (or do we not) want to delimit our community?
Last year, I completed a born-digital thesis for the Comparative Media Studies program here at MIT. It was written as a media archaeology that attempts to take its methodology seriously, excavating the deep history of text-generating mechanisms through a text generating mechanism and thereby forcing the reader to participate in the writerly, combinatorial practices I was theorizing. At the time, I considered my work deeply implicated in Digital Humanities: I was doing e-scholarship, I thought, making a webtext that rethinks the relationship between media form and media content. Wasn’t this exactly what I spent my days doing as a research assistant for HyperStudio — designing web-based scholarly tools that remediate our relationship with texts, artifacts and history?
Since its completion, though, I’ve found my work doesn’t have much resonance with the Digital Humanities community. Labs like those at UVA or GMU direct their energies toward large-scale, database-oriented resources such as NINES or scholarly aids like Zotero — tools that, in themselves, tend to support research whose end is in print. Meanwhile, to many university presses, “e-publishing” still means PDFing printed journals. Somewhere in the push to build an infrastructure supporting web-based research (an infrastructure which, I should underscore, we need, and I use), we lost the idea of web-based scholarship. It’s a difference between means and ends in academic work.*
A few months ago, I exchanged emails with Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos, regarding another webtext I was working on. I naively asked her what had happened to all that early ’90s excitement over multimedia essays. Her response (accompanied with a chuckle, I could tell) was that it only seems like nothing has been done in these areas because “most folks have ignored the work that rhetoric and composition has been doing on multimodal scholarship since the late 90s.” While the “literary-critical digital humanities scholars” have pushed to produce archival, collaborative resources to support scholarship, others (often producing scholarship digitally, and in doing so rethinking what scholarship itself means.
So what was I doing? My born-digital thesis was not a scholarly resource: I wasn’t and never intended to present or curate a collection of digital artifacts for others to browse. My work was critical and individualistic, conscious of its methodology and historical moment. It strove for self-awareness. In this respect, it had more in common with the essays on Kairos than with the work of NINES; yet it never emerged from the disciplines of rhetoric and composition. I was more interested in challenging notions of “old media” literacies, or even “literacy” itself, than exploring those of “new media.”
I was positioning my work as Digital Humanities, but Digital Humanities didn’t really want to claim it. Ultimately, my nomadic thesis found a home in the digital arts community, where it’s been shown and circulated as “art.” Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me — artists are people used to rethinking the fraught form/content relationship.
I want to use this example to revisit Parry’s question about social media — a question that I think, now, can be reformulated as one of methodology. On the one hand, the Digital Humanities community — the community formed around institutions and labs and grant cycles and funding structures — has set itself up as a production house, a place where the infrastructural work of digitization, marking-up texts, and producing tools to facilitate research gets done. Many of these tools, like text mining applications, attempt to rethink the boundaries of texts and artifacts in a digital space, and all — even the most minimal PDF work of university presses — have made scholarship easier and quicker. On the other hand, though, is the promise of a more radical, and radically individual, break with university structures: Parry’s social media-savvy digital humanist. This is the twitter-blogger who follows her passions across interdisciplinary boundaries, the Facebooker who makes the personal the political and in doing so humanizes the humanities. Against the disciplined Digital Humanities and its large-scale iniatives, this model is lower-case and personified, enacting micro-revolutions that reframe our mundane interactions with new media as points of connection and collaboration. If the digital humanist emphasizes pedagogy, it’s not through class websites and digital resource-based assignments, but by signing students up for a WordPress account, giving them a camera and saying, “Here; make something.”
I’m not sure Digital Humanities, even a big-tent Digital Humanities, has room for all these digital humanists. Samuel Pepys as digital humanist, Doris Lessing as digital humanist — they quickly crowd the field. Conversely, I’m not sure these digital humanists fit under a tent; for what I’m proposing is not interdisciplinary, but fundamentally antidisciplinary — an uprooted methodology that’s productive, always in process.
* To be clear, I admire the work done on NINES and similar large-scale archival projects. I use these resources, have worked on similar projects, and see them as integral to the work of the “digital humanist” I posit later in the post. I’m not challenging their value, but their primacy within Digital Humanities as a discipline.