Humanities & Social Thought

The Humanist Question

The digital humanities have bred some interesting discussions about what the humanities are. I have to be honest with you, it never occurred to me that this was so controversial. I assumed that the humanities were obviously a way of asking questions that complemented the sciences through difference. That is, the sciences were concerned with factual explanations, and the humanities were concerned with that erstwhile issue of meaning. I said, with no small amount of confusion, but isn’t it obvious? Science can explain to you what gravity is, why it exists and how it works, but only the humanities can tell you what it means. So, obviously, both the sciences and the humanities were valuable because they addressed different aspects of the same thing. Our tendency to focus on STEM came from pleasure of quantifying things – and it is pleasurable, because one of the primary anxieties is not merely whether one is doing something right, but what constitutes “right.” Quantification takes care of all that.  Suddenly, measuring the world is a lot easier. That sounds glib, but the truth is, there are a number of times when quantification is a great method for measurement – one of the primary examples is time itself. But anyway, my only point is that I thought we were all pretty much agreed that this was the case: that the humanities and the sciences were both valuable and difficult for different reasons and we happened to be finding the humanities a little more difficult than the sciences in this current time. Did you think that, too? You may be alarmed to find out that this is not the case.

In reality, there are fundamental questions of methodologies at play right now, because the digital humanities do not ask the kind of questions that the humanities usually ask. I’ve made a slight pun in the title of this post, because it is typical to see in the humanities when referencing a particular body of thought, “The [subject] Question.” In this case, I am referring to the construction of a humanist question in general, but I am also referring to the underlying crisis that comes out of people apparently not agreeing about what that construction is. Many people argue that the digital humanities are the future of the humanities. [1] But some of my favorite humanists, including Kant and Thoreau, could never have existed within the digital humanities. That’s because the digital humanities use computational methods (which must ultimately be quantifying methods) to answer questions about humans, humanist texts, and the arts. A program was used to scan all of Agatha Christie’s books and find out whether or not her vocabulary began to shrink significantly before she showed any other symptoms of Alzheimers (it did); a program was used to scrape the blogosphere for sentences that started with “I feel” and then show those sentences by color according to whatever came after “I feel”; a program was used to digitize all of Thoreau’s work and the commentary by the greatest Thoreau scholars alongside it, so users could read the scholarly commentary alongside Thoreau’s text; a program was used to do high resolution scans of old manuscripts page by page and make them searchable with a controlled vocabulary. Sometimes the digital humanities consist of a humanist doing something and then a computer scientist doing something to whatever the humanist did. This is called interdisciplinary work, and usually the people who use this phrase do not refer to or otherwise acknowledge different disciplines with the humanities working together, which they often do. This is another cause for concern, it seems that the digital humanities have also challenged what a discipline is.

So there is a question here about abstraction. I just want to briefly mention this before I move on to pick apart the question of the question. This process of abstracting disciplines away, of functionality subsuming diversity, is a lot larger than this particular example. Again, there seems to be a certain fetishization of the quantification of experience, and this has led to what appears to me to be a large and dangerous abstraction of content into process, of thinking in steps and technique instead of in ideas and philosophies. I am talking about consumerism, and dating, and communication. I am talking about representation of self, and democracy, and governance. I am talking about religion, and morality, and education. I am talking about everything. Except – possibly – art. I am not going to spend any more time on this right, I just wanted to briefly mention that though this writing is exploring a question about academics, this is not an academic question.

So, if we were going to use an older conception of the humanities in relation to the digital humanities, I would have assumed that we would be talking about the meaning of data [2]. And for what it’s worth, the French are really very good at examining the technical and technological processes critically from a humanist perspective [3]. Or at the very least, we would be talking about a humanist approach to digital native texts (where text refers to the examined body and not only to words). But we are not.

That is not to say that there is no use for what the digital humanities are doing – indeed, many DH projects are fascinating – but what they are doing is not only new, it directly contradicts what the humanities have traditionally done. It contradicts it so much that in fact, there is a division in the literature between the “digital humanities” and the “traditional humanities.” The main way in which this contradiction expresses itself is on the axis of breadth vs depth. The digital humanities take a broad view because they use digital methodologies which are best used in application to large amounts of data. One of the most clever bits of computer functions is recursion. That is, running through a vast amount of data, and applying the same process to every datum and then collating the results. If you have a long list of names in no particular order, you can use recursion to alphabetize them by checking the first letter of every name and even checking the second or third, upon finding that this is not the first name with that first initial. You can check the total vocabulary of a text by using a function which asks each datum “have I seen this word before?” It’s really, truly brilliant and it’s solved innumerable problems for us. Its vastness is its greatest benefit. But you see the catch, I’m sure. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason did not apply the same question to each datum in a large quantity of data, in fact Kant had to be very particular to avoid vastness. Such is the nature of the humanist text: it is particular, it is cautious, and it is interested in talking about the same small thing for a good long while, instead of talking about the similarities or differences or ordering of many little things from many sources in aggregate. Any given digital humanities project is broad, any given humanist text is particular.

I don’t have a particular love of humanist texts, I find them often very obnoxious to read, and even my favorite ones are only really my favorite because I found I was glad I read them, not because I enjoyed the process of reading them. It would be convenient to do away with that tedious process altogether, but I can’t escape the fact that what is lost cannot be gained through the digital humanities, and on a more personal note, that the people I love and admire most on the planet are themselves steeped in the work of tedious reading and careful thought.

If the digital humanities are indeed the future of the humanities, then very soon, there will be no more humanities. Not to sound too conspiratorial, but they may not be the only things to find their death at the feet of the digital. We must be careful.

[1] Here is all the stuff I read for class about it. Brace yourself:

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. The MIT Press, 2012. Sections 1 and 2, pg. 1-72

Johanna Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities(Minnesota, 2012).

N. Katherine Hayles. “Chap 2: The Digital Humanities: Engaging the Issues” in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University of Chicago Press. (available through NYU ebarary)

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. “What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?ADE Bulletin, 150. 2010.

Stephen Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” in Matthew Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minnesota, 2012).

Stanley Fish, “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of MortalityThe New York Times. 9 Jan 2012

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Humanities, Done DigitallyChronicle of Higher Education. 8 May 2011

[2] Humanist perspectives of data (also yanked from class readings):

Trevor Owens. “Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?Journal of Digital Humanities, March 16, 2012.

Christof Schöch. “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, November 22, 2013.

[3] French musings on technology, and technique:

Baudrillard, Jean. “The ecstasy of communication.” 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Vol. 16. Cambridge university press, 1977.

Ellul, Jacques, and Robert King Merton. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage books, 1964.
Lefebvre, Henri, and Christine Levich. “The everyday and everydayness.” Yale French Studies (1987): 7-


By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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