Friday, September 20, 2013

This is a far too long response to a post by Adeline Koh.


I agree with Ted's point that DH is a social category more than anything else, but, as he acknowledges, such social categories are consequential. I've argued before that the search for "the most digital digital" is basically intellectually doomed. But I don't think that's the question Adeline was asking—I think she was already asking the social question. (Matt Kirschenbaum gave a social answer.)

In most cases in the humanities, there isn't that much disciplinary boundary-policing; people usually care more about whether the work is good (for what it is) than whether it's "modernist" or "eighteenth century" (a century reputed to be quite long!) or, to use Ted's examples, Marxist or New-Critical. Thus "[t]he ideal PMLA essay exemplifies the best of its kind, whatever the kind." To the question of "what kind of scholarship is this?" PMLA literally says "whatever"!*

Weirdly, though, when it comes to digital humanities, the digitalness (how digital?) matters a lot. In some quite consequential institutional settings (hiring, fellowships and grants, tenure), what kind? matters for things marked "digital" where, for other things, the operative question would be how good? (for widely varying definitions of "good," of course).** It's nice to say, "focus on the scholarship, not on whether it's DH" (#4 above). But there's a reason people focus on whether it's DH: largely through the urging of digital humanists themselves, digital work has come to be seen as warranting an entirely different evaluative system from "traditional" scholarship, so that the question of how good? depends on the question of what kind? in the first place. So in practical terms, "how digital?"—philosophically incoherent as the question is—often serves as a proxy for "how good?," and even if we think it shouldn't matter we've set it up so that it does (and not entirely without reason).

Matt's social answer to the "how digital?" question—tautological or recursive, depending on how we prefer to read it—is that "It is DH if it assumes value within a community of practice that 'does' DH."

But Adeline's question was posed in the specific context of putting together an introduction to DH for people who need one—who have heard of this "digital humanities" thing, do not [think they] do it, and would like to. If they're in "a community of practice that 'does' DH," they're not aware of it. Adeline's task is to inform them of how they might create or join such a community of practice. Under what circumstances would creating an online journal constitute such a thing?

So I think Ted's right; it's a social question. But it's a social question that matters for social reasons that can't, I think, be disavowed without abdicating responsibility for the institutionalization that was so ardently fought for (resulting in an "eternal September" or "DH II" that long-time practitioners are now declaring uncomfortable—y'all, what did you think was going to happen?).

Is an online journal "DH"?

I think Matt's social answer to this social question probably comes closest to the mark. But I also think what he's describing is unfortunate. It would be better, I think, to examine why the social question—how digital?—keeps mattering, so we can figure out how to make it matter less.

* But: as far as I know, PMLA is not set up to publish a database.

** I'm glossing over some local circumstances of boundary-policing—like, we all know that C19 has a vision of American lit scholarship that's different from ASA's or ALA's.


Will Fitzgerald said...
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Will Fitzgerald said...

I wonder what different kinds of answers you'd get if it were called "computational humanities" (on the analogy to computational linguistics, computational biology, computational mathematics).

Ted Underwood said...

You're right to say that social categories matter and can be worth discussing, even if their boundaries are largely arbitrary. I tried to tacitly acknowledge that at the end of my comment by comparing "DH" to terms we've been arguing about for years ("science" and "the humanities"). In my view those are also arbitrary social categories -- and yet I don't imagine we'll stop arguing about them, though I suspect we invest more energy in the debate than it's worth.

In any case, "it's a social category" shouldn't end discussion. But I would add that I think this particular category is becoming more and more vaporous. I'm not sure DH has ever been a "community of practice"; to paraphrase one of Matt K's older statements, it was more like a tactical alliance between loosely related projects, bound together as much as anything by Twitter. That's not a very substantial glue! And I suspect those different projects (media studies, text mining, library science, computational social science/SNA) are going to be pulled apart by their strong connections to other disciplines. This has nothing really to do with the "eternal September" issue. It's just the intellectual structure of the field. When I look at Miriam Posner's list of "things people in DH do," I only know how to do a third of them. And in order to do that third well I find that I have to read a lot of CS, linguistics, etc. leaving me no time to learn the other two-thirds of "DH."

So practically, when I'm in Adeline's situation (addressing interested grad students or colleagues), I advise them to invest little-to-no-energy in the term "DH" itself. Maybe it was useful to "claim" a generalized DH on the job market in 2012-13, because search committees had no idea what "DH" was. But that situation is not going to last. Search committees are going to realize that media studies and text mining are really not the same thing -- and they're going to start looking for someone who does media studies or what have you really well, not someone who can claim "DH." Anyway, that's my feeling.

Brian Lennon said...

Ted Underwood: "...has nothing really to do with the 'eternal September' issue. It's just the intellectual structure of the field."

I disagree that it has "nothing really to do with the 'eternal September' issue": for just the reasons Ted Underwood suggests — but which are already suggested in the post itself, in other ways — there is no given "intellectual structure," no given "field" for "DH," but only a struggle, as yet unsuccessful, to create those.

But very much agreed with Ted Underwood on the likelier longer-term trajectories of job creation (if any!) in the future. And the rare department that has in the meantime hired someone to identify (or to be identified) more primarily with the nomen "DH" may then have a bit of a problem, and a responsibility.

Natalia said...

Ted, if I'm reading you right, you're saying that Eternal September isn't eternal; it's temporary. That's fair; I can't predict the future. I agree with your and Brian's sense that there's starting to be more awareness of specific practices and groups of interlocutors.

Will, that's a point that David Golumbia has brought up a lot. I think you're suggesting it would remove some of the urge to police boundaries; I tend to agree, although, as Ted points out, it's not the name alone; it's also the way the field has formed (basically, on Twitter).

Ted Underwood said...

Yes, exactly. I think eternal September is almost over, because people are starting to realize that "DH" isn't actually the name of a field.

Brian Lennon said...

Ted and Natalia: whether the implication is intended I'll leave up to you. But I see it in both of your remarks, and find it remarkable: the notion that until recently, some significant mass of our disciplinary colleagues was unaware of such more specific categories of actually existing activity. Nothing in my professional experience confirms that. What DHers in particular tend to construe, all too conveniently, as the confusion or ignorance of their colleagues, I've always thought merely reserve — of judgment, that is. And so I can't help wondering what is at stake in this construction of (to me, implausible) ignorance. Further thoughts?

Ted Underwood said...

When I suggest that people have been less than clear about the different intellectual traditions involved in DH, I'm not by any means talking only about "non-DHers." This applies just as much to myself: as recently as 2010 I knew very little about the different subfields of linguistics and computer science that actually constitute "text mining."

Ted Underwood said...

I.e., I didn't know several of those subfields existed. I still have only a hazy notion of how to define software studies or media studies; a year or two ago I wouldn't have been sure they were two separate things.