May 5, 2013
Digital_Humanities book cover

by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp 
MIT Press, 141 pp., $16.00


JULIANNE VANWAGENEN - Form or content? Both

I was reading Digital_Humanities on a Saturday evening just as my roommates and a group of friends were preparing to go out. As they put on their boots and scarves in the front hall, one member of the group commented on the book, specifically on page spreads 72-73 and 74-75: “Wow! That’s cool! What are you reading?” The poignancy of the moment was not lost on me. Digital_Humanities, seeks, in part, new ways to engage a vaster audience, through, among other techniques, an increased focus on the aesthetics of humanities productions. The book in that moment had proven its own hypothesis correct: the material and visual decisions made about a humanities production, can have just as important, if for different reasons, an effect on readership as the content itself.

The page spreads in question were the heading pages of Chapter Three: on the first spread, the lefthand side is black with an abstract pattern that is reminiscent of cursors flashing on a page; on the righthand side there is simply the white chapter title written in a bold outlined font: “3. THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES.” On the following spread the lefthand side is black and blank, while on the right in a bold heading there is an explicative subtitle and below there is a bold, blocked introduction. This hierarchic delineation of text serves both an aesthetic and functional purpose, the large, dramatic font is pleasing to look at, which was highlighted by my friend’s immediate interest, but it also highlights important concepts before the chapter’s main text begins. It is a reading aid which is used throughout the book, in the form of blocked, bolded, and enlarged text (among other methods), within and outside the main text, as a sort of self-gloss to keep the reader focused.
I told my inquisitive friend, a PhD candidate in development biology at Harvard University, about the book and the problematic quest of the digital humanist. He was interested and eventually so was the entire group of scientists-to-be. They had many questions and wanted to look at and flip through the book, they wanted more examples of digital-humanities productions, and they pointed out that (a) collaboration - an essential part of the Digital_Humanities project, as we will soon see - in the sciences has always been an important part of theory production and project development, and (b) ludic team-building exercises are expected in science departments, where academic communication - in the form of journal club meetings on current scientific publications, weekly progress presentations by members of the student population, and yearly retreats attended by entire departments - is the norm.
In sum, it did not seem at all strange to these scientists that humanists should collaborate, that humanists take on experiments that risk failure, that humanists look for new aesthetic and technological means to attract public attention. Most of all, they did not understand why any of these tactics in the humanities would cause some to fear that the level of scholarship would ultimately be lowered. That, however, is the precise fear of many humanists when they hear the buzzword combo “digital humanities.”
The recently published Digital_Humanities, a collaboration by five scholars from across fields, is an attempt to allay the fears of humanists who think that a focus on form will ultimately have a superficializing effect on scholarly productions, as well as an attempt to define in detail their vision of and goals for the humanities in the Digital Age. The book is divided into four chapters and two subchapters:
This review will deal more with the general concerns and opportunities generated by digital humanities and less with the specific case studies. The first words of the book, in the Preface, are indicative of the tone of excitement and optimism the book conveys: “We live in one of those rare moments of opportunity for the humanities, not unlike other great eras of cultural-historical transformation such as the shift from the scroll to the codex, the invention of moveable type, the encounter with the New World, and the Industrial Revolution. Ours is an era in which the humanities have the potential to play a vastly expanded creative role in public life.” For those who are skeptical of digital humanities efforts, I believe it is important to confront their excitement with the general frustration and fear experienced around the humanities sphere, that the field is shrinking, is no longer relevant, is no longer profitable for universities, is no longer appealing to students. Digital humanities firmly believes that this is indeed a moment of crisis, but a crisis which brings the opportunity to choose, change, and begin a new and exciting life as a greater and more meaningful field. “Digital_Humanities,” they state later on in the book, “envisages the present era as one of exceptional promise for the renewal of humanistic scholarship and sets out to demonstrate the contributions of contemporary humanities scholarship to new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments.”
Implicit already in these first sentences, and explicit later in the book, is that, due to our historical moment, the humanities will ‘digitize’, whether it wishes to or not. The question is not one of technological change in the humanities, but rather, whether humanists will be active in forming the new technological space for production, collection, and reception of cultural objects or if it will simply be an unorganized and non-purposeful hodgepodge of forms that become the norm because they are all that exist. In the latter case, humanists’ contribution in the cultural field will almost inevitably, in this reviewer’s opinion, be superseded by extra-academic entities that succeed in creating new rules and spaces for digital cultural productions.
Chapter One begins its introduction: “With the migration of cultural materials into networked environments, questions regarding the production, availability, validity, and stewardship of these materials present new challenges and opportunities for humanists.” Challenges and opportunities will continue, throughout the book, to be the double-faced coin of digital humanities. Central among these challenge-opportunities is a hot-spot of debate: designing digital humanities. Current humanities professors fear they will be rendered obsolete if digital or material design becomes requisite in the field, and current graduate students fear having to add another talent to their already cluttered toolbox. But, while the book recognizes the potential caveat of professors/students being forced to master more without commensurate pay, it also points out, that while polymaths will certainly exist in the field, “there is also ample room for specialization and, particularly, for collaboration.”
The opportunity to collaborate (note the five alphabetically-listed authors of this book), as noted previously, is another fundamental aspect of Digital_Humanities’ vision. These five authors see the project as “a basic unit” of digital humanities; using the term as both a noun and a verb, “a project is a kind of scholarship that requires design, management, negotiation, and collaboration. It is also something that projects, in the sense of futurity, as something which is not yet … to conceptualize possible trajectories.” In their Q & A in Part 4: “Provocations: A Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” the authors deal in depth with the concerns and responses to the idea of projects and how they will morph, yet bolster rather than detract from, the current work done in the field. The questions concern the who and the why, the organization, the funding, and of course the attribution of authorial credit in a group project. The answers, as always, are non-pessimistic, non-fearmongering, forward-thinking, and exciting/ed. Projects can be creations of individuals from across fields, institutions (university, library, museum, etc.), and hierarchical boundaries (undergraduate and graduate students, staff, professors). They are organized around a research question that is usually, but not always, developed by a member of faculty or staff, and guided by a Principal Investigator (or PI) as delegated by the group. While the humanities are less abundantly funded than the Sciences, Digital_Humanities points out that digital humanist projects have garnered a great deal of support from private and public institutions due to “the scope and innovative character.” The shift from single to group authorship can be a difficult one for the humanist author and hesitations and fears are prevalent. Digital_Humanities admits that there is yet no “standardized crediting system” but points out that the dominant trends are analogous to “either natural science laboratory projects or to the collaborative attribution system used in the performing arts.” For their part, the authors of Digital_Humanities are listed alphabetically and in a three-page afterward titled “Notes on Production,” in a sort of production-tale, each author’s contributions are narrated.
It seems that the humanist’s desire to work alone in an office or archive and to publish alone, is a practice of non-inclusion that begets other deleterious forms of non-inclusion for humanist authors themselves. For one, many single, small projects lead to publications of tiny scope, so as not to overlap with other works and so as to be possible for a single researcher. Thus we begin to see that this turning in on oneself that is so common in the humanities, this auto-referentiality in the research and writing process, has its natural consequences: a turning away from and exclusion of a possible wider audience. Through the broading of scope and audience through projects, one could add to that previous definition of “projection into the future,” the idea of “projection into the visible,” another concern close to the heart of digital humanists.
Many humanists are alarmed that a shift in focus to group projects and aesthetics could dramatically reduce the profundity of humanist productions. A question everyone in the field should ask herself, however, is: “Does it matter that a cultural work is extremely profound if it is ignored by the culture it speaks of and to?” Humanities production should not become more superficial, no, but they should begin to conceptualize new practices that will increase readership so as to assure a prominent place for humanist studies in the future. As we have already seen, a first step in creating a larger audience is to include a larger spectrum in the creation of humanist works. As the authors state in their introduction to Part 3: “Because networks connect us, they are social technologies. As scholarship moves from the library and the lecture hall to digital communication networks, it takes on expanded social roles and raises new questions. New modes of knowledge formation in the digital humanities are dynamically linked to communities vastly larger and more diverse than those to which the Academy has been accustomed. These communities increasingly demand and delight in sociable intellectual interactions, in which critique manifests as versioning, and thinking, making, and doing form iterative feedback loops.” Creating interpersonal networks outside of the humanities, taking advantage of and creating highly visual and appealing digital networks, are two ways that group projects can help to secure a readership and audience for future humanists and help attract future humanists themselves to the precious yet contemporarily unpopular field. A first step for current students in the humanities to practice new forms of visibility and networking is to hack their own dissertation. The hacked dissertation refers to a new approach to the traditional ritual test of coming-of-age in the humanities. Digital humanists suggest one hacked chapter of the dissertation that is non-textual, be it performative, digital, video, interactive, and that will attract a general audience for the work as a whole.
While Digital_Humanities does not deal strictly with the hacked dissertation, it does speak to the concerns of students currently studying in the field who fear that their skill sets will no longer be applicable when the humanities go digital. “What will the new humanist look like?” Digital_Humanities answers that the new humanist will look like a “hedgefox.” In their subsection “The Care and Feeding of Hedgefoxes,” the authors detail their image of the future humanist, created by and for digital humanities. They ask both how this student should be shaped and how this student should desire and strive to shape the world. The term hedgefox is a mash of the hedgehog and fox, to allegorical animals used two and half millennia ago by the Greek Poet Archilochus to mark out two camps of people in the world: “the fox knows many things,” he declared “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The hedgehog’s “tenacity” and “willingness to spend months, years, decades in pursuit of a ‘single central vision’” reminds one of the traditional humanities character that some fear will be lost in digital humanities, as the field pushes scholars to splinter their interests and efforts. “How can the digital humanities keep the ways of the hedgehog alive in the era of the fox’s ascendancy?” Digital_Humanities asks. Their answer: hybridization in the form of hedgefox. “21st century citizenship requires that students of digital humanities see social networks as having both pro- and anti-social agenda, that they develop political literacies, and that they harness the collaborative energy of their academic experiences and apply them to the broader culture.”
As a PhD candidate in the humanities myself, I found it refreshing to read a collaborative scholarly work that is optimistic about and acutely relevant to my future pursuit of a career in the field. Instead of inciting an atmosphere of high-angst, these five authors give real solutions, they give case studies and concrete examples of how students can make themselves attractive to hiring institutions and how they can make their field attractive to the student bodies they will someday teach. The book’s appearance highlights the importance of form and aesthetic in digital humanist productions, and it proves how books are still judged by their covers. Collaboration with designers, artists, and IT specialists in digital and material productions could certainly help make humanist works visually appealing and thus help them garner a larger portion of what Jacques Rancière referred to as the distribution of the sensible.
As a PhD candidate in the humanities, however, I do take one issue with the obviously carefully curated aesthetic choices made for the book. The book’s target audience is to a large extent made of scholars like myself, who spend 60-hour weeks scrutinizing the written page, scholars whose eyes are strained from overuse and whose vision is blurry by 3pm, taxed by small print or the ill-effects of a computer screen. Yet this book, with its large size, wide, appealing borders, and relative thinness at 141 pages, has a body content font that is notably smaller than that of the average book. The blank space threatens to shine the print from the page, which lends each spread a sort of pristine elegance, yet form must meet in the middle with function in all design arenas, and, in my view, aesthetics in the design of the book strong-armed functionality a bit, creating a body content that is too small to be read comfortably.