Debates in the Digital Humanities

edited by Matthew K. Gold, University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 504 pp. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN 9780816677955.

Debates in the Digital Humanities is as much a success as it is a failure. It is at its best when the essays and blog posts illuminate, either directly or obliquely, the tensions and cracks in the definitions and practices of digital humanities (DH) by discussing the field’s practices and the theories that govern them. One such tension emerging from Debates is that between, say, the sciences and the humanities. When Stephen Ramsay declared (rather infamously, in DH circles) that digital humanists, by definition, build things—a position that he and Geoffrey Rockwell go a long way toward clarifying in “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities”—he gave voice to a critical tension between the scientifically and the humanistically digital. Defining the work of DH as building raised questions of access in terms of, for example, race and gender, topics that Tara McPherson and Bethany Nowviskie take up in “Why Are the Digital Humanities so White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” and “What Do Girls Dig?”, respectively. The imperative to build also creates a false differentiation between coding and thinking that Johanna Drucker helpfully navigates in “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” An interest in building, writ large, moves beyond just the narrow confines of humanities computing, in contradistinction to which digital humanities emerged, to ask the larger question of how the digital can inform the humanities, and vice versa.

In her essay “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities,” Lisa Spiro notes that consensus can only take a community so far in carving a sense of its values from the bedrock of existing institutional structures: “indeed,” she writes, “dissensus plays an important role in pressing an organization to consider blind spots and alternative perspectives” (17). Falling appropriately early in Debates in the Digital Humanities, Spiro’s assertion serves as something of a guiding principle behind the collection. Many of the essays in Debates push against the assumptions made by and about digital humanities even as they challenge the established ways of thinking about both the digital and the humanities. To be sure, the volume’s own blind spots are evident, at times. As an example, Susan Schreibman is not mentioned in Kirschenbaum’s narrative about composing A Companion to Digital Humanities whereas her seminal role is emphasized in Katherine Fitzpatrick’s essay in the same section, “Defining the Digital Humanities.” Oversights, however, may be expected of a book as ambitious in scope and composition as Debates: twenty-nine essays were peer-reviewed by the collection’s contributors, twenty blog posts were plucked from their parent contexts, and the entirety was assembled, as editor Matthew Gold relates in his Introduction, in less than a year. Indeed the pacing of the volume betrays a sense of urgency for the scholars at the forefront of DH—Debates’ contributors—to take the reins of a discipline that has witnessed an exponential growth in visibility over the last three years.

Another implicit tension arises as Debates treads the fault lines of defining values in and circumscribing boundaries for DH, and for every innovative harmonizing of theory and practice there are corollary counterbalances. As a case in point, the volume creates an unfortunate delimitation between “Theorizing [...]” and “Critiquing the Digital Humanities” in adjacent sections. This artificial binary isolate means that authors, such as McPherson, who offer specific critiques are isolated from the active engagement with technology-as-theory suggested by Ramsay and Rockwell. Strangely, though, such specific critiques also are distanced from authors like Jamie Bianco, who speak to larger concerns about the direction of digital humanities as a whole (if indeed DH can be said to have only one direction). Likewise, Elizabeth Losh’s contribution seems to speak directly to the practice-as-theory approach of Ramsay and Rockwell and then connect it to concrete, real-world concerns, but a reader who reads her chapter under the rubric of “Critiquing” may not realize how the practice she notes is itself theoretical. These are only two examples, but the sections could, and should, easily engage in a dialogue that is artificially stifled. By making the delineation between the two sections as they have, the editors mark a distinction between a positive “theorizing” and a negative “critique,” with the implication that critiquing digital humanities offers only destructive problematizing, not problem solving.

In spite of the complications arising from--and reflected in--a codexical need for order, Debates remains a fundamentally rich resource. The opening discussion, “Defining the Digital Humanities,” situates the reader in the midst of this conversation by complicating the very notion of defining DH as a discipline (or is it a methodology?). Its indefinability arises partly from the variety of fields—e.g. textual studies, media studies, history, musicology—involved in the digital, all with different perspectives on methodology. In addition to complicating questions of definition, this variety also creates a kind of definitional anxiety that is explored in the collection’s second section, “Theorizing the Digital Humanities.” These essays wonder, what is the role of digital humanities in a world shaped by the acquisition and interpretation of quantitative data (McCarty)? What is DH’s critical engagement with the larger world (Bianco)? And they worry about the tendency of its tools to flatten otherwise complex connections between people, places, objects, and time (Drucker), investigating the extent to which the very development of these tools presents a type of interpretation, theory, or argument (Ramsay and Rockwell). “Critiquing the Digital Humanities” examines primarily the role of DH in academe. Authors in this section draw attention to the field's failings, examining, for instance, its failures of inclusivity—namely the disabled, people of color, particular scholars/work, and the n00b. The subsequent two sections mark a shift from larger ideas about digital humanities to what we might call “doing DH.” In “Practicing the Digital Humanities” the focus shifts to questioning how effective the field has been in:

  1. challenging the literary canon,
  2. redefining traditional methods of academic scholarship and publishing,
  3. and changing how capital is managed within and among academic institutions.

Institutional structures for DH are investigated. Neil Fraistat asserts that successful digital humanities centers are not insular and must network with other institutions, share knowledge, and produce research that benefits the general public. The section also explores “para-academic” careers—usually called “#alt-ac”—offered in digital humanities. This practical side of doing DH is reflected as well in the essays in “Teaching the Digital Humanities,” which suggest that pedagogies and curricula that are invested in digital humanities have the potential to affect change in the humanities writ large. These selections take to task the existing structures that privilege research over pedagogy, product over process, and research-teaching over service. Many of these essays defend focusing on collaborative networks, the possibilities that they offer, and the ways that they represent our cultural moment. The concluding section, “Envisioning the Future of the Digital Humanities,” prophesies its future. For some, the term represents not a field or discipline so much as a tactical maneuver (Kirshchenbaum, 415). Insofar as writers in this last section see the function of DH as testing the boundaries of academic disciplinarity, they promulgate a larger role for it in academia: re-formulating the Humanities at large. The selections from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Cathy Davidson, Lev Manovich, and Alan Liu, which end this section, offer concrete discussions of where the field might go and what future it has in the academy and beyond.

An open-access edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities was published in January 2013. Published via a “custom-built social reading platform,” the open-access edition promotes an interactive text experience allowing readers to highlight and mark passages and even contribute to a crowd-sourced index of terms. This iteration is not precisely interactive, providing a basic highlighting feature and an indication of how many marks were made. The ability to add to the index of terms is nice, but hardly adds to the “debates.” The website acknowledges that an expanded online edition is planned throughout 2013. At this point the affordances provided by the open-access edition are largely monetary, and the critical content is not enhanced more than what is offered by the codex form.

Unfortunately, there's a certain abject specter within Debates in the Digital Humanities editions. The contributions are at once poignant and careful and yet feel haunted and empty—rehearsed and rehashed. When the articles refer to each other, for instance, they cite the other articles’ original sources and page numbers rather than referring to the articles as they are reprinted in the Debates volume itself: it was easier, certainly, to leave the articles as they were originally written, but it might have been valuable to take the occasion of bringing these articles together to engage in dialogue rather than simply citation. It's possible that the unity, or at the very least clarity, attempted in the structure of the edition, the inclusive yet delimiting headings and the hollow play between articles and "blogs," highlights, in ways unexpected, the artificiality of a series of texts that are neither debates, nor debatable. The works collected here explore "the theories, methods, and practices of digital humanities" rather than staging actual debates between the relationships, theories, practices, and methods. The central term of the book’s title, “debates,” implies a conversation, a history, or alternative history, of critical inquiry, an opportunity for the conversations to overlap and even disagree, and this collection offers none of these aspects of debate. Instead, the collection prefers and privileges the voices of "leading academics" and highlights the delineations and variations of trends in a field that barely recognizes itself as such.

Reviewed by The Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture 1

  • 1. The Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture hails from Texas A&M University: Writers of this review are, in alphabetical order:
    • Matthew Davis
    • Tess Habbestad
    • Jacob Heil
    • Laura Mandell
    • Shawn Moore
    • Laura Perrings
    • Katayoun Torabi