Some Stories We Can Tell About the Digital Humanities

What is there left to say about the digital humanities? I found myself staring down the barrel of that question last week, as an invited speaker at the University of Oxford’s wonderful Digital Humanities Summer School. I gulped. So much has already been said, after all. There are journals, handbooks, and overviews, publishers’ lists, blogs, online communities, small colloquia and large scale annual conferences. There are centres and institutes and labs, research council themes, a ceaseless torrent of lively, exciting, innovative projects and initiatives with which it’s already impossible to keep up. Surrounded by all this whirl, it might seem forlorn for a relatively late entrant into the field like myself to have any hope of saying something interesting at all. Indeed, I may not have done. I could have kept my head down, I suppose, and focused on the minutiae of projects I’ve been involved with. But I find myself, despite the evident hazards, unable to resist the temptation to lift the gaze a bit – to try and see a story, an itinerary, plugging those projects into a broader movement or process. But what would that story be?

You’ve got to roll with it

A good place to start is with my own experience of the digital transformations wrought on academic work and life since I was a student. I began my studies in an entirely analogue world – well, with the exception of the newly installed library catalogue at Manchester – and have embraced or rolled with every digital development and adaptation that has come our way since then. There have been a few crucial epiphanies along the way – the early realisation that ‘the controls are on the inside’, for example, made clear how different interacting with computers was going to be – but for the most part it’s been a relatively smooth movement towards the thorough interpenetration of the digital and what once seemed to escape it. I look at everyone sat on the train with their phones in their hands, and realise that of course I’m doing it too. We surrender.

This is, it should be said, a first world story, though that is changing as digital infrastructure and capability spreads. It’s also the story of academic life, even in the humanities – or perhaps especially there, given the relative absence of computational means and technologies from these fields prior to the later 1980s. If we look across the four dimensions of scholarship famously identified by Ernest Boyer – discovery, integration, application and teaching – we find the same story of increasing digital saturation. It’s hard to imagine any aspect of our professional lives which is entirely unmediated or unsupported – which is to say, untransformed – by digital processes.

Users are makers are users are makers

There are different ways to characterise this story, naturally enough. For the most part, it would seem to fit a narrative of increasing digital literacy – grasping and deploying new tools and capabilities, but working for the most part within the parameters of the technologies as they are presented to us. Sure, they get more complex and more capable, but we are users rather than makers. When I served on the project board for Edinburgh’s new library discovery system, I was described as a ‘Senior User’. I’m not sure I relished the phrase, but I could see where they were coming from.

AnnaBut then, when does digital literacy become something more? When does a humanities scholar’s digital involvement qualify them for the label of digital humanist? Is learning how to make a database enough, for example? Or will nothing short of proficiency in coding do? There’s an analogy, perhaps not entirely tenuous, with the kinds of things my 10 year old daughter does online. Like lots of people her age, she enjoys Minecraft. A lot. Like an increasing number of children, she has discovered Scratch, the MIT-based site that allows you to look at, play with, and comment on the digital projects of other site users. These projects are built using simple pieces of code – click a button, and you can look inside them to see how they’re made. And of course, you can build your own. This is a social machine focused on building machines, socially. Users are makers are users are makers. It’s brilliant.

Are the ‘Digital Humanities’ the new ‘Critical Theory’?

Are we anywhere near the point, yet, when a critical mass of humanities scholars has similarly drifted unknowingly across the boundary between using and making? Certainly, the software available now means that we can teach ourselves to do far more, for ourselves, than simply upload content. When you fiddle about with TAPoRware or make yourself a Google map, does that mean that you are morphing into a digital humanist? How about if you learn to write your research blogposts in the text editor? Even a resolutely traditional research project like the work we did on Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh was digital from outset to outputs and at all stages in between. It began with an OPAC and ended in an ebook and an innovative digital edition, travelling via innumerable databases, a blog, and a virtual re-enactment on Twitter and Facebook. Certainly, more and more early career researchers are now equipped with the skills and interests to bring digital capabilities into their scholarship with little fuss or fanfare. While plenty are not, yet, our expectations of each other do seem to be changing. No longer the strange intrusion it once was, digital scholarship is in danger of becoming ordinary.

So what’s the story? In my talk at Oxford, I couldn’t help but reach for an analogy with a trend in the humanities which I had the fun of watching in its later stages during the earlier part of my career. Are ‘the Digital Humanities’ the new ‘Critical (or sometimes ‘Literary’) Theory’? The latter erupted into the intellectual life of literary studies, particularly, in the later 1970s as something worthy of titular capitals, a specialism of its own with its own story to tell about itself. It developed an institutional life, as jobs and programmes and conferences coalesced around it – and helped it to coalesce in turn. It seemed to be a discrete presence in the discipline, something some scholars did but other scholars feared, disliked or ignored; it had its own canon of essential texts, which informed distinct curricula.

After TheoryThen something happened. Versions of critical or literary theory spread throughout the humanities, and a basic familiarity with the theoretical canon became a standard expectation of early career researchers and teachers not just in literary studies but elsewhere. You couldn’t ignore it and hope to thrive, even if you were not really all that interested, convinced, or comprehending. And in the same move, it lost its definite outlines and its titular capitals and became a piece – well, lots of different pieces – of our intellectual furniture. Books and articles appeared proclaiming the death of theory, telling us we were now after theory, or post-theory. The canon fragmented. New ‘key thinkers’, approaches or essential concepts came and went.  Sometimes we gave a toss. Sometimes we didn’t. ‘Critical Theory’ disappeared from the job adverts, and most of the research centres faded away or shapeshifted into something else.

Are we going Postal again?

Will something like this happen to the digital humanities? It’s tempting to look at the current picture and project a similar story. There have been the moments of emergence, of self-conscious self-fashioning, of centres, programmes and so on – all the stuff I listed at the top of this post. I’ve suggested that we’re on course for a much greater degree of familiarity with the approaches of digital scholarship within the humanities, if technologies, skills and capabilities continue to develop as they are. And just as the moment when we were clearly all over ‘Theory’ was marked by the proclamation that we were all now, in fact, over theory, so a few annunciatory voices have begun to sing of the ‘postdigital humanities’.

To which I feel moved to say – let’s not, eh? I don’t think that way of accounting for the intellectual and institutional changes that we went through was actually very helpful in the case of theory, even though it’s now a moment in the historical record. Despite the undoubted trendiness of the digital humanities – and therefore the likelihood that they will be expected to follow the standard trajectory of a trend – there is more here than any story of definition and dispersal would manage to indicate. Or rather, there are other ways of telling the story of those processes. Here’s one.

Converging and becoming

The phrase ‘Digital Humanities’, it seems to me, has the peculiar capacity to polarise and solidify the two terms it is meant to merge or conjoin. For some, at any rate, what we are doing here is negotiating between the quantitative and the qualitative, computation and interpretation, calculation and meaning, the given – data – and the constructed. The humanities have a series of as yet unanswered or unanswerable research problems, which digital tools might now help us to solve. Digital humanists are excited by this possibility. Their opponents fear that something vital to the humanities will be lost or cast aside in the process.

I caricature, or at least paraphrase. But if scholars decide that we need to embrace the ‘post-digital’, then it will be because something in our understanding of the digital humanities will have been diagnosed as unsatisfactory or inadequate. Polarities of this sort are a great but unwelcome prod towards the making of that diagnosis. And that may well be the effect not only of the definition of a capitalised ‘Digital Humanities’ but also of its establishment as an articulated, institutional thing in its own right.

What excites me at the moment is the evidence of so much work, so many projects, that won’t easily be assimilated to that kind of template. While the digital humanities may well for some be a matter of adding new or better tools to the repertoire we use to investigate questions that already meet the standard rubrics of the established humanities, for others they mark the development of new ways of asking questions, and a new sense of what can count as one. Rather than looking either for the computational validation of the humanities, or vice versa, perhaps we can focus on the ways in which each changes in the presence of the other. Neither side will merely offer ‘tools’ to be used by its partner and opposite – there might be a more widespread, and perhaps not always comfortable, alertness to the ways in which the digital and the humanistic find themselves converging on substantive issues and questions in practice, and in real time. This has been my experience in the work the project team undertook in the making of LitLong – I’m sure others have similar stories to tell.


This brings with it – as critical theory never did – a series of challenges to the way we organise our scholarly efforts. So much of the work done under the rubric of the digital humanities is, of necessity, collaborative. How are early career researchers, in particular, to be supported in undertaking this kind of collaboration, in a system that still expects the humanities PhD to be the work of a sole trader? Can we accurately diagnose, and avoid, any pitfalls in the standard approaches to collaborative research taken in the sciences? What kind of opportunities for the development of research skills will we be able to establish? There are many more such difficulties to face. But if we can bring about the institutional change needed to acknowledge such labour (a pretty big if, admittedly), then the digital humanities will not disappear from view once the shine has gone off all the centres, labs and institutes, and once a basic proficiency in some necessary skills is widely expected and assumed. Critical thinking and the making of theory didn’t cease, of course, just because ‘Critical Theory’ withered away. And if we can learn to speak of the digital humanities not as a thing whose time has come and will soon perhaps be gone, but as an ever-developing praxis, then there’s no way of telling what it might yet become.

Published by James Loxley

Researcher, teacher and writer based in Edinburgh.

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