“Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

I had hoped to begin this entry by relating the first time I heard the term “digital humanities,” but I honestly cannot remember.  I can, however, relate the reactions I’ve received from friends and family when I explain my course load this semester.  Generally these range from disinterest to confusion, with one going so far as to jokingly say, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

At the risk of demonstrating a lack of intellectual curiosity, I must admit that I never experienced such a strong reaction to combining those terms.  In class, we discussed the idea that the phrase does not translate well into other languages–someone said it just didn’t make sense in Spanish.  Perhaps I never saw it as anything more than the name that had been assigned to a practice I already understood, having just completed my degree in library science.  (I am continually struck by the similarities between library science and the digital humanities, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Now that I’ve spent much more attention to the question, it seems there is a lot more to say.

Rafael C. Alvarado posits a pragmatic approach to defining DH in “The Digital Humanities Situation” by looking not at what the field is, but what makes its practitioners distinct from other fields.  He arrives at the following as a possibility:

“Digital humanists are simply humanists (or interpretive social scientists) by training who have embraced digital media and who have a more or less deep conviction that digital media can play a crucial, indeed transformative, role in the work of interpretation, broadly conceived.” (Debates, 52)

I have an almost visceral reaction to this description, in the way it seems to perfectly articulate a “situation” that I have gleaned from the bits of reading I’d done prior to this course.  It is his use of “transformative” that appeals to me, for I think that there are many avenues of interpretation, going beyond close reading and writing, that continue to fit the humanities mold.  I think it is notable, for example, that museums approach interpretation through building exhibits.  Does this mean that DH is a methodology, and nothing more?  I’m not sure.  But I do think the question deserves to be explored further, and is not just a case of idle academic navel-gazing.

My undergraduate degree is in Film Studies, from UC Berkeley–a very theory-heavy program that at the time was still aligned with the Rhetoric department (it has since attained its own independent status).  The discourse on DH reminds me of some of the debates within Film Studies, and I think it is useful to consider them and remember that any new discipline will have a period of growing pains before it is fully understood and defined.  For example, in Film Studies we focused on identifying the filmic qualities of a film–as opposed to one that amounted to little more than a “filmed play.”  This, of course, is reminiscent of the difference between a digitized text and a digital text.  I once took a class offered through the English department that covered literature and film, and was aghast when the instructor focused on the stage directions found in the printed screenplay to interpret a character’s emotions and action in the film, instead of referring to the film itself.  There is also the typical practice vs. theory divide, further complicated by the fact that filmmaking is usually part of commercial entertainment for the masses.  Filmmaking is collaborative, so debates surrounding auteur theory enter the picture, etc.  The similarities are striking, and it is worth noting that Film Studies heavily embraced theory in its early years both to justify its academic merit and to distinguish film as constituting more than moving, talking pictures.

I find it significant to the definition that we are discussing DH as a practice among established humanities scholars.  What about the next generation?  Are we asking digital humanists to learn both traditional humanities methods and how to “build things” (as Alvarado described, the size of the curriculum necessary to encompass everything that gets folded into DH is quite daunting).   It is interesting that an important part of being a digital humanist is having that traditional humanities training.  If today’s undergraduates–the so-called “digital natives”–are taught using interactive media, and instinctively look to technology to help answer their questions, will this even be an issue when they begin to undertake their own research?  In this respect, I can agree with those who cite the “horseless carriage” phenomenon–that the term “digital” will seem quaint and outdated a decade from now, and that DH will simply become the new norm for the humanities.  Or, perhaps, the young scholars themselves will already possess the technological skills and be accustomed to thinking algorithmically before they begin to study the humanities.  Perhaps in the next decade we will be discussing not whether building is necessary to call oneself a digital humanist, but how to integrate the traditional humanities training into a world where digital methods predominate.  Either way, the idea that “digital humanities” could be construed as an oxymoron is on the way out.


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About Roxanne Shirazi

Roxanne Shirazi is the Adjunct Reference & Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center Library.
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