There are no Digital Humanities

While ideas of this kind appear just that little bit too neat and symmetrical to be entirely convincing, this so-called ‘scientific turn’ in the humanities has been attributed by some to a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis regarded as having been brought about, if not by the lack of credibility of the humanities’ metanarratives of legitimation exactly, then at least in part by the ‘imperious attitude’ of the sciences. This attitude has led the latter to colonize the humanists’ space in the form of biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition and so on.  Is the turn toward computing just the latest manifestation of, and response to, this crisis of confidence in the humanities?

Can we go even further and ask: is it evidence that certain parts of the humanities are attempting to increase their connection to society; and to the instrumentality and functionality of society especially? Can it merely be a coincidence that such a turn toward computing is gaining momentum at a time when the likes of the UK government is emphasizing the importance of the STMs and withdrawing support and funding for the humanities? Or is one of the reasons all this is happening now because the humanities, like the sciences themselves, are under pressure from government, business, management, industry and increasingly the media to prove they provide value for money in instrumental, functional, performative terms? (Is the interest in computing a strategic decision on the part of some of those in the humanities? As the project of Cohen and Gibb shows, one can get funding from the likes of Google.  In fact, ‘last summer Google awarded $1 million to professors doing digital humanities research’.)

To what extent, then, is the take up of practical techniques and approaches from computing science providing some areas of the humanities with a means of defending themselves in an era of global economic crisis and severe cuts to higher education, through the transformation of their knowledge and learning into quantities of information – deliverables? Following Federica Frabetti, can we even position the computational turn as an event created precisely to justify such a move on the part of certain elements within the humanities?  And does this mean that, if we don’t simply want to go along with the current movement away from what remains resistant to a general culture of measurement and calculation, and toward a concern to legitimate power and control by optimizing the system’s efficiency, we would be better off using a different term other than ‘digital humanities’? After all, as Frabetti points out, the idea of a computational turn implies that the humanities, thanks to the development of a new generation of powerful computers and digital tools, have somehow become digital, or are in the process of becoming digital, or at least coming to terms with the digital and computing.  Yet what I am attempting to show here by drawing on the philosophy of Lyotard and others, is that the digital is not something that can now be added to the humanities – for the simple reason that the (supposedly pre-digital) humanities can be seen to have had an understanding of, and engagement with, computing and the digital for some time now.

(HT Daniel Allington)

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