Curious Rainbows: the humanities in the digital age

by Michael Goodman

… there can be no divorce between science and technology, on the one hand, and art, on the other, any more than there can be a divorce between art and the forms of social life.
(Susan Sontag, ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’, 1965)

… too often at the moment we are being hamstrung by a restrictive and unimaginative view of what it is that academic work in the humanities should do. It’s high time we brought to a halt this obsession with utilitarian responses to current challenges and allowed space for the inspiring business of being curious.
(Martin Willis, Times Higher Education, 13 September 2012)

What are the humanities for? This was the implicit question that ran through the inaugural Digital Humanities Congress 2012 in Sheffield and the Forms of Innovation Symposium in Durham like a mischievous, but silent, spectre. And it was in the different ways that the two conferences dealt with this spectre that made them such compelling events.

The Digital Humanities Congress 2012 (6–8 September) was a huge event. Organised by the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, it compromised 63 speakers (including myself) and three keynote speakers: Andrew Prescott, Lorna Hughes and Phillip J. Ethington. The purpose of the conference, according to the beautifully produced programme, was to ‘promote the sharing of knowledge, ideas and techniques within the digital humanities’, and it is to the organiser’s credit that, on the whole, they achieved this aim.

Andrew Prescott got proceedings off to a fascinating start with his paper ‘Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities’. The talk argued that the best historical analogy for thinking about digital culture is not, as is often the case, the establishment of movable print by Gutenberg, but instead, the industrial and economic transformations that took place in Britain in the late eighteenth century. The computer, Prescott suggested, should be seen within this historical context: as the latest and most complex ‘product’ of the industrial revolution. This historical repositioning of the computer, and thus digital humanities, allowed Prescott to place Sheffield, and this very conference, at the centre of technological debate. It was an excellent keynote and set the scene for the rest of the conference with its historical depth and intellectual insight.

The diversity of the subsequent panels, however, did pose certain broader questions. Is it possible for an academic discipline to encompass such broad topics as Assessing Impact in the Digital Humanities, Text and People: Authorship and Sentiment within Textual Analysis and 3D Modelling in Research? On the face of it, the only element they have in common is that they use computers for research purposes. Can ‘digital humanities’ really be considered a discipline in its own right? Or, is the term, as Phillip Ethington suggests, as silly as saying in the nineteenth century, ‘I work in the print-based humanities’? Working with computers for research purposes is just what people instinctively do in the twenty-first century. This issue was not resolved at the conference, or even discussed, which was, I felt, a wasted opportunity. I’m aware that the debates surrounding a definition of the term ‘digital humanities’ go back some years, and many of the senior delegates may have found it a tiresome debate to reignite, but as this was the first of what will hopefully be many more Digital Humanities Congress’s  in Sheffield it is a discussion I would have welcomed. It proved, from my perspective, to be the proverbial elephant in the room, the silent spectre that everyone is aware of but chooses to ignore. Sitting in on some of the more software based panels I found myself asking can a digital humanist be someone who has never read a Shakespeare play? A Dickens novel? Or has no interest in the humanities at all?

Technology and its relationship with the humanities offer us, as scholars, an extraordinary opportunity to conduct research in unprecedented and tremendously exciting ways. It is also for this reason we need to be cautious. As Jonathan Culler has pointed out in his essay ‘The Pursuit of Signs’ (1981): ‘The establishment of a new discipline within the system of academic research is not a frequent event.’  By labelling everything that is mildly related to computing and the humanities as the ‘Digital Humanities’ we dilute some of the truly innovative and original work being done under this label. Digital humanities projects must be self-reflexive, provoke and be instigated by challenging research questions that would not have been able to have asked without the use of that specific technology at that historical moment. Projects that don’t adhere to this are simply IT.

Where, then, are the humanities in the so-called digital humanities? In an excellent article entitled ‘Curiosity Knows No Bounds’, recently published in Times Higher Education, Martin Willis warns about the need for the humanities to retain its own unique identity in this ‘new interdisciplinarity’ between science and the arts: ‘the great strength of humanities-based interdisciplinarity is its ability to deal with an ever-changing, diverse, human world … The philosophical foundation of the humanities is in critique and interpretation.’ Willis argues that the sciences have embraced interdisciplinarity because it has allowed them to ‘sell a new idea of interdisciplinary work that suits present solution-focused agendas.’ This is, obviously, to the disadvantage of the humanities which, instead of being solution driven, seek to articulate and reflect the ‘complexity of human knowledge’ and the multiple truths inherent within human experience. Currently, from my experience in Sheffield, the humanities are by far the junior partner in this potentially revolutionary coalition called ‘digital humanities’.

This, of course, does not mean that a realignment cannot take place. In Durham the following week, the Forms of Innovation symposium (14 September 2012) confronted the issue of the sciences and the arts directly by historicizing and revealing the deeply compelling symbiotic relationship between literature and technology. Papers included ‘Dickens, Visual Technology, and the Mobile Eye’ by Nicole Bush; ‘Taping the Writer: Spies, Cut Ups and the Interview Form’ by Becky Roach; and ‘ “Little Bombs”: Michel Foucault and Literature as Technology’ by Lena Wånggren. As is evident from these three examples, the papers on the day explored technological literary innovations from a variety of critical and theoretical standpoints. Encompassing a wide historical sweep, the papers were representative of research that is both imaginative in its scope and intelligent in its dissemination. Roach’s paper, for example, discussed how the advent of the personal tape recorder changed the way conversation was perceived, and how it offered writers such as William Burroughs an experimental literary platform. Forms of Innovation as a title, then, did not just reflect the technological and literary techniques used by artists from the past, but was also uncannily apt for the innovative scholarship and research that the people who gave papers are currently conducting within the humanities.

By placing humanistic based research centre-stage Forms of Innovation was a dynamic and inspiring symposium. The implicit question ‘what are the humanities for?’, which I suggest was spectrally present at both events, was answered confidently in Durham, by the strength and creativeness of the papers alone. Through asking challenging questions of science and art in ways that have never been asked before, such as Wånggren’s suggestion that the idea of literature as technology ‘problematizes the latter’, we do not, as Keats feared of  physics and chemistry, ‘unweave the rainbow’, but instead we see the rainbow more vibrantly.

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