I think I may have been asked that question, the title above, about 100 times, but most recently I was asked by one of my favorite students who shocked me with this addition to it: “A literature professor in my — class sneered when someone brought up the phrase ‘digital humanities,’ and I just wondered why.” Why — why such dark sarcasm in the classroom?
The Humanities are of course, under fire, and they say that snobbery is the last bastion of despair. At a UCLA / Second Life seminar in the Mellon-sponsored series, “What Is(n’t) the Humanities?” Peter Lunenfeld commented that it is just as hard — but no harder — to justify an interest in specific topics in the “digital Humanities” as it is in marriage practices in late Victorian England or literary genres popular in 1910. So snobbery on the part of literature professors, philosophers, and historians partly reflects the difficulty of justifying one’s interests as a humanities scholar AT ALL.
I once ran a Faculty Learning Community that was supposed to design a course in Humanities Computing, as we were calling it then, but we never got beyond trying to figure out what the term “Humanities” designates. In fact, I’m still not sure whether to ask what the Humanities “IS” or what THEY “ARE.”
The term “Humanist” clearly comes into existence around the time of the birth of the modern disciplines of anthropology and literature, and at the very moment that “natural philosophy” is splitting into “science” and “philosophy” — a divorce upon which we can blame technology gone wild unchecked by ethical concerns. The term “Humanities” designates a shifting list of specific disciplines that includes philosophy, literature, history, cultural studies, and various among the social sciences, but basically, since Matthew Arnold with whom the term is sometimes associated, studies in human culture that have nothing to do with or are even pitted against the sciences. Thus, cultural anthropology is a humanities discipline, while archeology — in the same department — is not. The basic distinction between the humanities and the sciences, the argument goes, is that one is interpretive, the other quantitative, and so the sneer to which my student was subjected also partly asks, “Isn’t ‘digital humanities’ an oxymoron?” “Digital” is “quantitative,” and I think my colleagues feel that the sciences or the quantitative disciplines are now more than ever REALLY WINNING the war (the “two cultures” war) that claim time, attention, and precious, evanescing resources.
I have been participating with a group of people devoted to launching a new humanities center at Miami, and that experience has taught me that digital humanities differs from the “public humanities” to which this center will be partly devoted. The public humanities is about making the public aware of what humanists do.
Digital Humanities really involves two very different impulses, as Tara McPherson has so eloquently argued: a retreat away from “theory” (viewed by those who fear it as anarchic relativism and 60s radicalism) into the scientific analysis of literature: “After running my C++ program, I can tell you that canonical novels contain on the average 225.75 uses of the word ‘THE.’” Fascinating. But the other impulse is exactly the opposite: a swan-dive into theory, into poetry that is theoretical (John Cayley), critique of software as ruling our patterns of thought (Althusserian, paranoid, Foucauldian, postmarxist theory), cyberpunk, Matrix, Baudrillard, simulacra, Deleuze and Gauttari, rhizomes . . . oiyy. It makes me want to quote Scarlet O’Hara: “I’ll figure it out. Tomorrow.”
But I think the California Digital Humanists, among whom I include N. Katherine Hayles (even though she has moved to Duke), the Digital Cultures project spearheaded by UCSB, Vectors at USC, Software Studies as UCSD, and all the programs at Stanford and UCLA, are onto something in their new Digital Humanities Manifesto: if the term “Humanities” is embroiled in the rise of disciplinarity as such, which always included and required a war of some kind to sustain its identity, whether a two cultures war or the more recent culture wars of the 1990s, there is something about the Digital Humanities that heralds interdiscipline, a radical shaking up of the academy till it falls out in new forms. Their argument is that disciplinarity and humanity (as opposed to “humaneness,” which is something else altogether that involves no sneering at all) are products of print culture, and that, with all of us living more often immersed in little electrical pulses, joysticks, and screens than absorbed in b&w bound pages, our realities will gradually transform.
It is possible to wax overdramatic about this — no, no, there is no slouching involved, toward Bethlehem or anywhere else. So don’t bother to sneer, just hum along with this even if you don’t know the words: Gone With The Wind