The following remarks are a slightly modified version of a presentation made by MITH Director, Neil Fraistat, for the TILTS Symposium Roundtable: “WHAT IS DIGITAL HUMANITIES?” In order to open conversation on this topic, Fraistat draws together quotations from some of the most recent statements on the subject and articulates a set of questions through which it might be thoughtfully explored.


The topic for our roundtable today, “What is Digital Humanities?,” is a question that has already been widely addressed in a virtual cascade of tweets, blogs, newspaper articles, conference sessions, and manifestoes, not to mention a few essays, the most recent and best of which is by my colleague Matt Kirschenbaum. Links to much of this commentary can be found at CUNY COMMONS. The intensity of interest in this question and the heated debates about it reflect the perceived high stakes of the answer. Two MLAs ago, Digital Humanities was proclaimed as “the next big thing” on the academic scene; this past MLA it was discussed in the Chronicle as not only already well established, but as having developed a “star system,” a sure sign of approaching superannuation. Next year, I expect we’ll be hearing about “The Death of the Digital Humanities,” so it is probably best that I speak quickly before the whole subject completely disappears.

At an MLA session on “The History and Future of Digital Humanities” a few weeks ago, I found myself wanting to tell those in the room who were obsessing over exactly what Digital Humanities is to relax: I’m a Romanticist, and after over 150 years we still haven’t come to a generally agreed upon definition of the field--and that, oddly enough, has helped to keep Romanticism dynamic and vibrant. On the other hand, it has also made Romanticism as a field vulnerable to disappearing into the long 18th or 19th Centuries, which is to say that “fieldness” has very real material and institutional instantiations and consequences, as Kirschenbaum and others have argued. These consequences are well illustrated by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in terms of the Media Studies Progam at Pomona College. Here is a long but very useful quotation from "The Stakes of Disciplinarity" on her blog “Planned Obsolescence”:

"n order to be able to hire the person that media studies needed, in the subfields that we needed, working on the issues and with the methodologies we wanted our students exposed to, we had to become a department. We had to be able to control our own positions. We also needed our own space, rather than being spread out across the campus, and we needed a budget that could support the faculty that we were building. All of these pressures had the inevitable result of shoving us into a disciplinary model. In order to make the case for departmental status, I had to argue that media studies was a coherent field with a commonly agreed-upon set of core texts and methodologies. And it is, sure — but the thing about those core texts and methodologies is that they’ve got their origins in a range of other disciplines, which media studies has brought together in conversation around the idea of mediation. Over time, of course, those conversations have resulted in something that begins to look like a canon, and that process of canon-formation has, as it has repeatedly in fields across the academy, resulted in debates about what’s in and what’s out, who’s really doing media studies and who’s not."

Fitzpatrick concludes by wondering about the cost of “disciplinarity,” about “the degree to which we are now being disciplined by our need to define the field. What conversations won’t take place,” she asks, “now that our structure has become officially institutionalized?” We DHers stand now at an intoxicating and relatively rare moment in the history of the humanities, at the cusp of what appears to be an emerging field that our own words and deeds can help to define; but Fitzpatrick’s cautionary note should bring necessary sobriety to our discussions about the exact meaning of Digital Humanities, since each of our attempts to discipline Digital Humanities risks losing whatever is most vital and promising about it. And yet such discussions as our own should and must go on.

I’d like to help frame our discussion this morning by thinking about some of the most interesting questions that are presupposed by the question, “What is Digital Humanities,” the first among which would appear to be: “Is it a field?” Although some still consider DH to be an array of methodologies across the humanities disciplines rather than a field in its own right, most DHers appear to consider themselves to be engaged in a field with already well entrenched institutional roots. In the words of Steve Ramsey: “Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum. It is a series of concrete instantiations involving money, students, funding agencies, big schools, little schools, programs, curricula, old guards, new guards, gatekeepers, and prestige. It might be more than these things, but it cannot not be these things.”

Those who assume DH is a field face another set of subsidiary questions, among them:

• What is its geneology?

• What are its Boundaries?

•Who is a Digital Humanist (and who is not)?

•How does it change humanists' relationships to their tools and objects of study?

•Who does its Labor? How is this labor rewarded?

• What is its Language?

•What is its Curriculum?

•What is its Value?

•Has it Been Successful for the Right Reasons?

•Is it Sustainable?

•What is its Future?

These are some of the questions that I hope we’ll pursue in our joint discussion, for which I would like to prime the pump by making a few related observations. Of the questions I’ve named, the one about the boundaries of DH is perhaps the most contentious and has involved problematic oppositions between DH and new media studies, building and theorizing, method and ideology, service and research, “big tent DH” and disciplinary specialization. About such issues, I find especially interesting the following provocation by Mark Sample, with its call for innovation and disruption, though it might seem to fly in the face of thematerial realities I’ve already discussed:

Stop worrying about definitions and categories and celebrate hybridity. Take advantage of all that the margin affords. Do what you do and keep doing what you do. Engage outsiders, build coalitions, and form tactical collaborations. And move on when the time comes to move on, finding another periphery point to innovate and disrupt.

Sample’s tactics are founded on a compelling vision of the field as always not one, as it were--or to be more precise, that is always not one thing, but rather a dynamic process of thinking, making, and collaborating that is fundamentally concerned with disciplinary interrogation, innovation, and transformation.

What DH has perhaps most lacked are compelling strategic visions of its own larger place and value both within and outside of the academy. As Johanna Drucker has recently noted, the real challenge to digital humanities is still intellectual: how does work in this area contribute to theory, methods, or the corpus of humanistic study? This question goes right to the heart of ways we assess the value of tool-making, project development and management, institutional initiatives, programs. Humanities fields constitute themselves, like any discipline, through their theoretical approaches (ways of thinking), methods (ways of doing), and objects of study (pre-existing and constituted by the act of study). I do think we have instances of each of these in our legacy of digital humanities projects, but the explicit articulation of this – rather than blunt assertion – is not yet fully developed or we would not have to keep making the case.

Alan Liu similarly laments the lack of cultural criticism in DH:

To be an equal partner–-rather than . . . just a servant-–at the table, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.

Questions that might follow from Liu’s position include:

•What are the politics of DH?

•What kinds of ideological commitments does DH embody?

•How does DH engage issues of Access, Openness, and Literacy?

•How does DH engage issues of Diversity, Equity, and Globalism?

If Drucker and Liu are right about the intellectual work left to be done for the field, then for the purposes of our joint discussion this morning, we might take our cue from Chris Forster, who in a posting on the HASTAC blog last September that received much attention, suggests:

[I]nstead of asking "What is 'digital humanities'?" we might ask, with greater profit (or maybe, simply, greater honesty): 'What does the digital humanities want?' or 'What do you want from the digital humanities?' or 'Why do you wish to make the humanities digital?'”

Addressing such questions thoughtfully and compellingly is, perhaps, our best hope of securing the future of digital humanities. But, to my mind, the vitality of that future depends on our not foreclosing our definition and leaving the question of digital humanities just that.