Digital Humanities and the Technology Red Herring


Digital Humanities (DH)- what is it? If you look around within the humanities literature, you'll find lots of good examples of DH projects, and you'll also come across the ongoing debate: is DH a good or a bad thing? Does DH initiate a friction with traditional humanist approaches to scholarship? The problem is, without over-generalizing, that both proponents and critics of DH are failing to credit what is behind the DH movement. The research in DH has nothing intrinsically to do with technology, digital or otherwise. DH does, though, have a lot to do with augmenting humanistic methods of inquiry with scholarship in mathematics, science, and engineering (let's cluster these 3 areas to create SEM).  Moretti with his book entitled Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History comes close to providing this perspective. Let's begin with graphs. Graphs originated through graph theory tracing its roots to 1735 through Leonhard Euler's writing.  Trees are specific types of graphs (i.e., acyclic ones).  If you are a DH practitioner using a network visualization tool, the tool is tangential--what is new is using discrete mathematics and computer science of networks which went into making the visualization tool. Let's give credit where it is due rather than this trend in framing DH in terms of technology and tools. The folks in mathematics and computer science produce scholarly work. DH is augmenting research methods in the humanities with research methods from mathematics and computer science. This non-technology argument comes to the rescue in common criticisms I have read about DH-- the critics usually frame an argument asking why "using Tool X" amounts to doing scholarship? Using Tool X is not scholarly. But, infusing computer science methods into humanities scholarship is scholarly. Forget the tool--the tool helps move things along quickly, but areas such as "database systems" define the theory that DHers use when they are using a database "tool." We all need tools, but tools are an outgrowth of more fundamental, and generally mature, SEM scholarship. The "T" is a practical outgrowth of SEM, most suited to what you will purchase next in Best Buy or on Amazon or Alibaba. Nice shiny tools. Let's not mistake the real contributions of DH with tools and technology. Time to credit the scholarship in SEM as one of the primary intellectual contributions to ground-breaking DH research.