Let me begin this, my first blog post (ever!), with a little anecdote that I hope will help illuminate some of the questions I will ask later in this blog. About two years ago – I was already quite a good way into my graduate studies in literature – my mom and I had a conversation about a book she'd read and liked: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Now, my mom is an avid reader, and probably more widely read than many other people are. However, she is not a literature scholar, so when, during this conversation, I pointed out some of the larger symbolism in the novel, her response (in essence) was that "this would be reading far too much into it. Because, really, the book was simply about a man who just really likes his boat." This response really stunned me, coming from my own mother, and I was quick to point out that I was currently in the process of studying for a doctorate in "reading far too much into books." Certainly, I have since explained to her in much more detail what it actually is that I do – and I think she really does understand more about literary studies now. Yet this incident back then really illuminated the problem in trying to explain a specialization, or better, a specialized study to someone not in the field (kudos to all you teachers out there!).

Most of us in academia, especially in the humanities, are probably well familiar with the question of "What do you actually do?" or with its more prevalent (and perhaps more offensive) counterpart "What do you do with a degree in philosophy/literature/history/etc.? Teach?" The implication here seems to be that ‘the study of the human record' has little more specific application than to stuff our students' class schedules with "basic requirements" that, yes, are good to have heard about at one time, but really only justify our own indulgences and distract students from the pursuit of "a real job." So, then, if the value of ‘the study of the human record' already is hard to justify – even to explain – what are we to do with Digital Humanities, which, perhaps far too simplified, is the digital, or computational, study of the human record?

As I am reading manifestos for next week's discussion, I thus cannot help but wonder about the nature of Digital Humanities in general, and the purpose of a manifesto about it in particular. Perhaps it is less the purpose I need to question here and more the implications of a manifesto in an area yet so undefined. Are manifestos useful? Certainly they are. But are they useful for an area that, as Willard McCarty admits "indicates the failure of the traditional model for scholarship adequately to describe serious intellectual work … [and] whose scope cannot be delimited in the same way and to the same extent as the traditional, nor can its genre be confined to stable discursive prose" (1227)? In other words, can we describe something we perhaps do not yet fully understand how to describe? Something that we might not even be entirely sure of where it begins and where it ends? Or, maybe even what it is?

I would definitely consider myself a relative newbie to the field of Digital Humanities, and, despite having worked on several literary projects already, there is much I admit not to know. In a slight allusion to Socrates (at least according to Plato), perhaps the problem here is that the more I learn, the more I realize what I do not know. And what is my concern when it comes to DH is not my lack of knowledge about code or programming – code is something framed, consistently defined, and with fixed rules and delimitations. My concerns are much more basic: What is it that I'm doing here; how is it to be defined; how is it to be explained; and how am I to position my work within the field of Digital Humanities? I know that what I'm doing is Digital Humanities (to some extent or another), but where within this field - whose boundaries seem perpetually opaque – am I to consider myself and the work I do?

The manifestos I've read this week certainly attempt to answer these exact questions, and some of them are surprisingly easy to read (burdick et. al., and Lunenfeld et. al. certainly fall into this category). And yet, I have to remain somewhat dissatisfied with the answers they do give. If "Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated" (Burdick, 122), then it is inherently non-linear – perhaps in much the same way the web functions. And yet, these very practices are based on tools that require a very different kind of thinking – one that we humanists perhaps are not quite yet as used to: simple yes or no data entry. On or off. 0 or 1. Perhaps it is precisely this seeming contradiction between Digital Humanities requiring "intellectual self-consistency and internal logical coherence" (Unsworth), while in itself "there is no definition of digital humanities", as Alvarado admits, that makes reading these manifestos so unsatisfactory – especially to a relative newbie like me.

It is my personal contention that specifically the Digital Humanities is an area that finds itself in a position of "always already" being from within, perhaps very much due to the fact that there simply is no fixed definition for it. One seems to "fall" into Digital Humanities, often already doing Digital Humanities before being even able to conclusively describe what it is. Manifestos and "'What is digital humanities?' essays like this one are already genre pieces," as Matthew Kirschenbaum admits (very rightfully, in my opinion), and many of them assume an already existing knowledge about what it is, and even how to work in it – I envision someone completely unfamiliar with DH to try to decipher just some of the very technical jargon Unsworth cites. Whew! Perhaps Digital Humanities very closely reflect some of the mark-up we might do: Yes or no. We either do it already or we don't. And perhaps we still simply need to get much better at introducing Digital Humanities to those who are not already invested in it. I will start with my mom.

comments powered by Disqus