historian, author, film producer

On “Cyberargument” in Digital Humanities

We need a new genre of argument in digital form, one that I’ll name “cyberargument” or “cyberscholarship.” And here’s why. The Digital Humanities field has grown over the last decade and, indeed, prospered. The National Endowment for the Humanities created a new office dedicated to Digital Humanities and began awarding “start up” grants for dozens and dozens of projects. Scholars from a range of disciplines have jumped into the field, seeing in it new ways of reaching an audience, conducting research, teaching, and creating new knowledge. They have formed a new journal, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and a re-formulated a scholarly organization (the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations). The movement, and it is a scholarly movement, has every reason to be confident.

But there is a unsettling concern, a nagging “who are we?” question among ourselves and a skeptical “why digital humanities?” challenge from our peers. Melissa Terras at Digital Humanities 2011 explained, “If we think that no-one is watching us and making value judgements about our community, our research, our relevance, and our output, then we are misguided.” She’s right. Terras encouraged digital humanities scholars among other things to start paying attention to publication, research results, and outputs. “We need to learn to play the academic game with regard to publications.” She’s right again.

More recently, Wendell Piez in “Impractical Applications” wisely observes that digital humanities does need to stop, look, and listen. “Our dilemma is that, on the one hand, we have sometimes felt unwelcome even in institutions where the humanities are studied, facing persistent questions, often from those we respect most, about what we are for and whether we belong. Yet on the other hand — this is some kind of irony — in society at large, and even from academic administrations on occasion, we have heard the same questions regarding the humanities in general.” He recognizes that department chairs and deans are waiting, actually with eager anticipation, for the digital humanities movement to bring itself forward, to explain itself more fully. “We do not help matters when we respond only with a counter-critique, seeking to deconstruct the terms in which questions are asked, only to discover again the old lesson that at least when unbalanced by any compensating affirmation, critique tends to be demoralizing,” Piez writes, “Yet we also cannot justify ourselves entirely in the terms presented to us.” Piez encourages us to defend the “practical” in our work, and to make “common cause, indeed, between the ‘digital humanities’, the humanities writ large, and the economy and culture that sustain them.”

So, how do we “justify ourselves”? This seems an important moment in Digital Humanities to take stock and, indeed, a number of leaders in the field are. Rafael Alvarado in a smart post on his blog has attempted to sketch who we are as digital humanists by focusing on our “on-going, playful encounter with dig­ital representation itself.” He is surely right in observing that “without this play—to the extent that the scholar has a stand-off, do-this-for-me attitude toward the medium—then, no, she is not a digital humanist.” And Stephen Ramsay has also explained in a polemical piece that digital humanists code by definition, and they engage a priori in “building.” Both offer useful and important justifications in this regard. But the wider debate on whether to code or not, whether play unites digital humanities as a discipline or not, misses an important practical question that Terras (and Piez) confronted.

We in digital humanities are embedded in particular disciplines, universities, humanities associations and professional societies. We can hardly go forward for tenure and promotion on the basis of “playful encounter” or “code” (although I know that an argument for this could be made) without interpretation or the development of new knowledge. But there is a skepticism about the digital humanities we need to address more directly. And a reason for the anxiety of the current moment. And I think our “undertheorizing” is not as important in this regard as what I will call our “underinterpretation.”

We may be so busy building things, so drawn in by the praxis of what I have elsewhere called “assemblages”–and understandably–that we have not constructed arguments our colleagues understand. More to the point, that they must engage with, that they simply cannot ignore.

I propose that we need interpretative arguments as a genre more fully integrated into the digital humanities. We need to recover the rhetoric of interpretation and weave it into the digital form more intentionally and more publicly. This is perhaps particularly true of history where the division between “digital archive” projects and “code” projects has prompted few interpretative revolutions. This may explain why Alvarado is right to observe “To a disconcertingly large number of outsiders, the digital humanities qua humanities remains interesting but irrelevant.” Historians, perhaps more than others, judge relevance in the discipline by interpretative value, by an argument’s architecture, relevance, and longevity. In this regard we need to answer Terras’ call to publish, to produce, and to engage our colleagues. Can we use our “play” and our “building” to create new knowledge and then to intervene in the broader humanistic scholarship of argument and interpretation? I think so. And we might consider what constitutes “cyberscholarship,” what are its qualities, its structures, and how can it be assessed. For that another post.