‘Defining Digital Humanities’ or ‘Why Not Defining Digital Humanities Is Good For Literary Criticism’

For those new to the Digital Humanities, defining it as a discipline can seem daunting. This conversation within DH itself shows no sign of slowing down, if one is to judge by the girth of the recently published Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (2013). This is underlined further by Lou Bernard’s droll contribution to the discussion, saying that he would define Digital Humanities “with extreme reluctance.” When it comes to bringing DH and literary studies together, this internal insecurity presents the question as to what DH can contribute to the formation of an interpretive practice within literary studies. This is the question that this blog post will seek to answer. In doing so, it will also advance potential reasons as to why the overdetermination of what exactly DH ‘is’ could be productive and even preferable in critical approaches to literature.

The most obvious critical approach that computation enables in the act of interpretation is through ‘distant reading.’ This involves the creation of corpora, which are generally large collections of literary material. The text therein is easily searchable. Unfortunately, the name that is given to this technique is derived from the practice of ‘close reading’ something that digital humanists from a literary background will be far more familiar with, being drilled in it from an early stage in a humanities education. The unfortunate connotation to the word ‘distant’ suggests that the methodology is, by comparison, not as labour-intensive as close reading, and therefore not as intellectually engaged. It also suggests that distant reading intends to supplant close reading and erase that which is unique about the academy with it. Hence, the implications of using a search function to do the work of hermeneutics for us can seem troubling. In a lecture at Columbia University, Daniel J. Cohen explains it as a form of prospecting, not intended as a replacement to the pre-digital humanities methodologies, a necessary component of humanities research with the tools and objects of inquiry that exist within in a new media ecology.[1]

In ‘Imagining the New Media Encounter,’ Alan Liu indicates that in narrativising the transition from a pre-digital environment into the so-called ‘new media ecology’ loose terms are often used, such as ‘borderlands,’ ‘otherness’ and ‘surmise.’[2] All these words will be familiar to those who have read critical material engaged in the definition of DH. Liu continues: “narratives of new media encounter, like all narratives, have no one necessary story.”[3] Liu is here resisting critical evaluations of this new landscape that read it telelogically, or in a linear way. In fact, media change is non-linear to such an extent that such discussions project themselves backwards. Literary objects created in a pre-digital environment or ‘old media’ can reconfigure themselves within contemporary discourse. This accounts for Liu’s use of Plato’s Phaedrus in his essay, and explains why Dick van Hulle can argue that James Joyce’s experimental novel Finnegans Wake (1939) and T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922) anticipate the advent of hypertext through their use of discrete units of text called lexia that play off one another in order to generate meaning in the mind of the reader.[4]

The position of the contemporary reader or literary critic have in fact been occupying the kind of mutable terrain outlined here for some time. Before ‘new media,’ post-structuralist theorists have criticised the notion of text as being fixed or stable. According to theorists such as Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida, text is a confluence of social forces. As Jerome McGann writes, a book is never “self-identical,”[5] because of the collaborative and socially charged nature of text. There are an ever-expanding number of agents involved in its production (the contribution of authors, publishers and typesetters) and in its transmission and reception (by actions of the reader). DH is fraught and subject to change. This is a useful and novel way to approach literary study and should be retained in future engagements with text so that the critical practice itself can more accurately reflect the entity being deciphered. It could lead to the kind of critique that will best serve one in examining the kind of born-digital texts that Jerome McGann delineates as “radiant textuality,”[6] the dynamic, multi-layered expressions that technologies enable us to produce.

The practice of scholarship is generally thought of as solitary. With the increasing use of digital tools in both publishing and academia, that DH can facilitate, the process of interpretation becoming a socially generated cross-disciplinary field “with scholars, students, librarians and technologists working together to produce a scholarly product with more functionality, further reach and potentially wider appeal.”[7] In such an environment, an aspiration toward the apparent stability and certainty of close reading seems hopelessly romantic. The ongoing uncertainty within DH can only be productive, and far more so than the monolithic ideal of the ideal Platonic text revealing the totality of its literary techniques to the scholar’s allegedly omnipotent and forensic scansion.

[1] Daniel J. Cohen, Federica Frabetti, Dino Buzzetti, ‘Defining Digital Humanities,’ (Columbia: 2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu6Z1SoEZcc

[2] Alan Liu, ‘Imagining the New Media Encounter,’ Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, p.9 (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)

[3] Ibid, p.11

[4] Dick van Hulle, ‘Hypertext and Avant-texte in Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature,’ Ibid, p.139

[5] John A. Walsh, ‘Multimedia and Multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for Nineteenth Century Literary Studies,’ Ibid, p.125

[6] William G. Thomas III, ‘Computing and The Historical Imagination,’ A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

[7] John A. Walsh, ‘Multimedia and Multitasking: A Survey of Digital Resources for Nineteenth Century Literary Studies,’ Digital Literary Studies, p.125

Bibliography:

Daniel J. Cohen, Federica Frabetti & Dino Buzzetti, ‘Defining the Digital Humanities,’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu6Z1SoEZcc (Columbia University: 2011)

Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens & John Unsworth (Editors), A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)

Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyann & Edward Vanhouette (Editors), Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (Ashgate Publishing Company: 2013)

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One response to “‘Defining Digital Humanities’ or ‘Why Not Defining Digital Humanities Is Good For Literary Criticism’

  1. I’m enjoying the optimism here, Chris. From what I’ve seen thus far, very few DHers are particularly interested in rigorous lit. crit. approaches, with McGann and Liu striking me as the exceptions that prove the rule. I guess that’s part of why DH is seen as such a breath of fresh air … but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t reengage, as you are doing here.

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