Defining DH as a Particular Argument

The difficulty digital humanists have in defining what exactly digital humanities is makes the discipline difficult to talk about in any general terms. Digital humanities discourse in specific terms tends to focus on finding and making meaning in digital tools in the context of the use of those tools within our experience as humans. In this way, digital humanities differs from what one might assume to be the discourse over that which is digital: mere code, mere information, the inner workings of our computers. In the digital humanities, we talk about our computers and our digital spaces as something more than cold, mechanical data. We are therefore making the argument simply by our participation in a particular conversation that our digital tools are essentially humanistic in nature.


One possible way of defining digital humanities is as this argument. The argument that the digital space is a human space is the premise for all digital humanities conversations; in engaging with that which is digital from this vantage point, we become digital humanists.


Defining digital humanities in such a way speaks to the issue of why the discipline tends to be found within English departments. It may be painting in broad strokes to divide all disciplines between the sciences and the humanities, but the basic distinction is sufficient for the argument the digital humanities makes. It is not to be disputed that the creation of that which is digital is a function of scientific inquiry. The existence of the digital humanities, however, challenges the notion that computers equal science. When an English department introduces the digital humanities, it does not take computer-based discipline away from the scientists and mathematicians; what it does take from them is their monopoly on computer-based discipline.


Why, then, are English departments so prominent in the digital humanities rather than any other particular department in the humanities? One possibility or factor may lie in the relationship between digital spaces and creation. Much of humanities scholarship occupies the realm of analysis rather than creation. While this can no doubt be said for English as well, English also distinctly has a foot in the realm of creation via creative writing. English departments have an interest in the creation of new works just as they have an interest in the analysis of existing works. And clearly, the intersection of creation and analysis makes digital tools useful in the analytical realm of English as well. The sciences, likewise, are focused largely on the realm of creation, particularly in the initial creation of the digital machines and tools in question.
The history and origins of the digital humanities may expose main shortcoming, or else an extension of meaning, in defining the digital humanities as the argument that the digital is humanistic. Given David M. Berry’s distinction between the first and second waves of the digital humanities, the definition of digital humanities as argument seems at first to fit the second wave in its lesser focus on being able to code. The first wave, in its emphasis on coding, more nearly matches computer science. That does not mean, however, that the argument “the digital is humanistic” was not there. In one sense, defining “the digital” as coding, as closer to the science side, makes the argument “the digital is humanistic” a tighter argument. On the other hand, the evolution of digital humanities, moving away from a need for coding, makes the argument the digital humanities makes. A more universal human application of the digital has become, with the “second wave,” the focus of digital humanities.


One thought on “Defining DH as a Particular Argument”

  1. One of my favorite lines in your post is: “We are therefore making the argument simply by our participation in a particular conversation that our digital tools are essentially humanistic in nature.”
    I love your focus on the human aspect in digital HUMANities. Your post went a different direction than mine in terms of how to approach the topic of the definition. I love your insight and thoughts. The emphasis on our involvement with the area is key. Without us, all of us,
    I wonder if we have a certain amount of obligation to the analysis/creation intersection you talk about. I also wonder if maybe it would be helpful for us to put DH in a department of its own, instead of keeping it in English. I feel like there’s an intersection into the digital world that we can’t ignore. How can we encourage more participation and engagement with the computer science realm?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s