What is the object of the Digital Humanities?

By which I mean on one level, what is its purpose?, and on another, what is its field of study?

In an earlier post on this blog I listed what I saw as the major subdivisions of the discipline, such as it is, and opined that at the CCH as presently constituted we mostly focus on realising traditional humanities ends in a digital fashion. That is to say, digital humanities as we practice it tracks the other humanities disciplines pretty closely, and ultimately we’re “about” the same things that they are.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach. There’s no question in my mind that most of the scholarly genres — even those most firmly rooted in natural language as a medium — are better realised in electronically than in print. But if that was all there was to the digital humanities — the humanities, but in a more convenient and useable form — then I don’t think I would have bothered switching out from the thoroughly-traditional Classics track my PhD had prepared me for. Because this seems to me an approach to DH that belongs more properly to scholarly publishing than scholarly research.

For me, what differentiates digital humanities from other humanities disciplines and gives it some kind of distinctive value of its own only arises when it turns reflexive and experimental: when it takes as its objects of study not simply those taken by other disciplines, but starts exploring the effects and potential of digital remediation of these objects. When it starts trying to stretch the affordances of the medium and the data and examining their interaction. In other words, I’m interested in the digital humanities in the same way that Vannevar Bush was interested in hypertext, back in the ’40s. As a way of exploring new ways of thinking and understanding. Of reconceptualising our knowledge of our field of study.

To anyone with a memory that encompasses more than a decade in this field, all this will sound wearyingly familiar: do we remember all those many, many unread articles whose titles promised a radical hypertext revolution in the novel/the essay/narrative-modes-of-thought/whatever with the advent of the web?

But the problem with this entire (now-vanished) genre of research wasn’t, to my mind, that its motivations were incorrect. It’s that it was insufficiently experimental. As far as I could ever tell, they were almost always purely theoretical: based, almost all of the time, of a skimming of a McLuhan (or one of his epigones) mixed in with a soupcon of Foucault, Derrida, or, more often than not, Baudrillard. There was never any engagement with the medium, its message, or the material itself.

But here, at the CCH, we have the opportunity to work up close and intimately with the corpus of humanities knowledge, and the skills  to shape and experiment with it using digital technology. We’re in the right place, in other words, to start exploring. And this, to my mind, is what constitutes the purpose of the digital humanities: to create new tools that allow us to open up new understandings. To think better, and think different.

If, of course, we can ever find the bloody time.

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