Can There Be a Digital Humanism?

The sense that technology is inherently a form of progress, rather than a platform for consumerism, is one of the most insidious ideologies of our time, and one that distracts us from meditating on the true sources of human flourishing.
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Stanley Fish addresses in his blog this week the rising currency of "digital humanities" and its strong presence at the convention of the Modern Language Association -- an academic conference, he rightly implies, to which one goes expecting more faddism than scholarship. I have previously voiced concerns about this sub-discipline, and find myself largely in agreement with his assessment.

But my friend and colleague Ted Underwood, who has spent significant time thinking about digital humanities, has written a blog post responding to Fish where he suggests that it may not be just another critical fad. Ted makes the point that digitizing information traditionally housed in books is not really so new. We can go one step further and notice that the quantitative reading of texts through stylometric analysis -- a statistical assessment of a writer's stylistic ticks that can help settle questions of authorship -- has also been in use for roughly half a century now, and faced its share of silly attacks from critics who felt it to be an affront to connoisseurship. Digital humanities is also not really a critical "movement," Ted argues, since it does not offer to reshape the ideas that we carry into our reading of texts and cultures; it offers instead a new and powerful set of tools available to a broad range of existing critical approaches. And in placing those tools in the hands of faculty and librarians, it assures that the archive is the province of scholars, which might prevent its colonization by corporations imposing forbidding paywalls.

This strikes me as exactly right: many of the things that have been done in digital humanities are a natural extension of the work that bibliographers have always done. One example in my field, early modern studies (what was once called the Renaissance) is the Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP). In a free resource, DEEP compiles several print bibliographies and can update its information to reflect current scholarship -- when a question of authorship gets settled, say, or when we discover new and significant information about the early performances and print history of a play. It is an excellent resource, and like all bibliographies is the result of countless hours of painstaking work.

It is also a resource that makes some inflated claims for itself, declaring that it allows "scholars and students to investigate the publishing, printing and marketing of English Renaissance drama in ways not possible using any other print or electronic resource." Well, yes and no. It is true that DEEP places information at one's fingertips that might otherwise take several hours in the library: there is no single print or electronic resource that duplicates the information it provides. But that does not constitute the opening of new possibilities of investigation.

In fact, DEEP engages in very much the kind of investigation that since 1975 has been conducted by the University of Toronto's Records of Early English Drama (or REED). One of the claims to fame of DEEP is that it indexes the publishers and booksellers of plays, rather than just playwrights. That is important, but my trusty old print bibliography of Milton prepared by John T. Shawcross -- as analog a piece scholarship as one could find -- does exactly the same thing.

Here's where I get troubled: digital humanities projects often say that they are innovating the way we investigate texts and cultures, though that innovation, as Ted notes, arises from a set of technological tools rather than an intellectual position. And when at their most excited, "digital humanists" can sometimes claim to be transforming humanistic study itself.

The great German critic Walter Benjamin has said that the task of cultural historians is to brush against the grain of cultural presuppositions. If that is the case, and I think it is in many ways, then one of the presuppositions that we should unpack is a coupling of technological innovation and human progress. We find this narrative advanced in the supposed "Facebook Revolutions" that make us feel as though we're doing more than wasting time when we log on to social media. Or, more perniciously, in our uncritical acceptance of drone attacks, which advance the fiction of technology leading to warfare producing no unwanted casualties. The sense that technology is inherently a form of progress, rather than a platform for consumerism, is one of the most insidious ideologies of our time, and one that distracts us from meditating on the true sources of human flourishing. When digital humanists claim not to be a critical movement in the traditional sense while also and simultaneously advertising new vistas of humanistic study made possible by their work, they come rather too close to that ideology for my comfort.

The kind of humanism that seems to me to be most valuable at present is that which fully disarticulates innovation and progress; which makes visible the limits of the ideology surrounding technology; which can summon several millennia of human culture from various corners of the globe; and which never stops reminding us of the spiritual and ethical, rather than material or digital, dimensions of human experience. Fish is right to suggest that throughout human history much of that kind of thinking has spoken in a religious idiom, and that it is not less thoughtful for that. The Platonic utopianism of Saint Augustine or al-Farabi prompts us to imagine an ideal human society. That is a kind of vision that no 3D smartphone can provide.

I have not yet seen such thought from digital humanists, I do not know whether digital humanism can yield such thought and I find unsettling the suggestion by digital humanists that they do not need to engage in such thought. The last of these, a previous round of critical fads should have taught us, seems like the kind of claim for the absence of ideology that is often ideology's favorite alibi. To put it another way, I wish all digital humanists had the humility of my friend Ted, who has made an excellent case for "digital humanism" not being a humanism at all, but an extremely important contribution to library science.

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