Digital Humanities, academic camps and boundary commissions

Scholars are curious creatures. You would think them more open to divergent strands of thought than most, but academia isn’t just made up of academic disciplines; it’s comprised of academic camps. And you need to know what camp you’re in, it seems. Most of these camps were established in an age beyond the memory of those who reside within them, though it is the work of many inhabitants to trace such origins, to pinpoint any expansions and contractions so that we might better understand why any camp is indeed a camp and why it is precisely the type of camp that its residents believe it to be.

Digital Humanities is not as new as people might think, it’s just that the boundaries are only now being defined. The use of technology in humanist pursuits is not even a phenomena of what we have so proudly declared the “digital age”. Was the age of the abacus not digital? But back to the camps. When a new camp is established, the other camps get uneasy – how will the newcomers encroach upon their space? This anxiety is greeted with two things – attack and defence. Let’s consider this militant reaction from both the perspective of the digital humanists, as well as from the perspective of those camps that have taken umbrage to the arrival of the aforementioned upon the plain.

Digital Humanities is here, and it’s here to stay. As already noted, it’s been here a while. The noble humanist that works only from original manuscripts and folios, committing all of his research to memory without the need for mechanical instrument, perhaps it is this scholar that can truly claim to be beyond the touch of technology, but for the vast majority of researchers and theorists, technology is part of their profession. However, Digital Humanities is not just about the use of technology to aid research – otherwise, we’d all be digital humanists. Perhaps we are, but while all men are born digital, some are born more digital than others, this latter group being sent to pitch their tents and flog their wares in the newest of academia’s camps. Whatever Digital Humanities is, and I have often offered my own position on this, the way to present such definitions is not in the knee-jerk reactionary way that we tend to favour. Digital humanists don’t need to convince the doubters – we simply need to justify our existence. There will always be doubters, particularly in the humanities, where subjectivity holds dominion. What’s important is that the term “digital humanities” doesn’t become a buzz word. People throw it around too much, flexing it like a muscle that suggests some sort of misplaced rejection of the old in favour of an embracing of the age-old new. One must be sure of what it means to be digital, before one should claim it as a mantle. Perhaps the doubters don’t actually doubt Digital Humanities, but rather, perhaps their apprehension is directed towards everyone suddenly claiming to have roots in this latest camp? I don’t consider myself a literary critic, no more than I’d consider a literary critic with a blog as a digital humanist. If scholarship is what it claims to be, such distinctions will sort themselves out. We need to stop worrying about our defensive, while others need to pull back the attack.

Beyond the defensive embankments of the Digital Humanities camp, it is all about attack. It’s an unusual state of affairs. Historians rarely challenge the validity of Sociology, while sociologists care little for the merits of Computer Science. Why is it that so many scholars feel the need to attack Digital Humanities, without any knowledge of what digital humanists do? It is easy to make general sweeping statements: “the book will never be replaced by the electronic edition”; “computers will never be equal to the eye of the critic”; “methodologies aren’t disciplines”. When was it that any digital humanist of high regard claimed that the physical book would be replaced by the electronic edition? Who claimed that the machine would replace the man in the creation of meaning? Is the development and application of new methodologies not a valid avenue of scholarly pursuit? I should hope so, for in literary and cultural circles, many of our champions were critical theorists whose spurs were won through the presentation of methodological frameworks. You may find such claims on a blog or discarded cereal box, but in a respected peer-reviewed journal with a focus on Digital Humanities and its related fields? No, you will find no such claims. I would be more than happy to defend my field from the attack of any other humanist camp, provided that the assailants come armed with an understanding of technology; all that which lies under its hood, its application and cultural significance. Would they not expect that I show them the same courtesy? Or perhaps I should occupy my time with challenging the geographers? I studied it in school as a child, after all. And I own some ordnance survey maps. But look at me, getting all defensive.

This newest camp has its own internal issues to contend with. It is not just external forces who believe citizenship is warranted because one has mastered Twitter or the production of pretty pictures using a screen and, if you’re a Luddite like myself, a keyboard. Paul Muldoon’s “The Boundary Commission” comes to mind – it is very strange how we go about the process of drawing lines in the sand.

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