Digital Humanities

The humanities are in a crisis again, or still. But there is one big exception: digital humanities, which are a development market. During 2009, the nascent field was the talk of the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention: “among all the challenging sub-fields,” a press reporter had written about that year’s gathering, “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” Even previously, the National Endowment for the Humanities designed its Office of Digital Humanities to help finance projects. And digital humanities is constantly on the go from strength to strength, thanks in part to the Mellon Foundation, which has seeded programs at a number of colleges with large grants, most recently, $1 million to the University of Rochester to make a graduate fellowship.


Despite all this passion, the question of what the digital humanities is has yet to be given an acceptable response. Indeed, no one asks it more often than the digital humanists themselves. The latest development of guides on the subject from source books and anthologies to crucial manifestos is an indication of a field undergoing an identity crisis, trying to find out which, if anything, combines the different actions taken on under its advertising. “Nowadays,” says Stephen Ramsay in Interpreting Digital Humanities, “the term can mean anything from press research to digital art, from information exploration to edutech, from scholarly editing to anarchic blogging, while inviting code junkies, digital artists, standards wonks, transhumanists, game theorists, free culture supporters, archivists, librarians, and edupunks under its capacious fabric.”

These are the types of concerns that humanists ought to be well prepared to answer. Indeed, they are just the latest types of concerns that they have been asking since the Industrial Trend started to make our tools our masters. The position of uncertainty is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so assured and life is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are influenced to toss off the traditional burden and generate the humanities with the content sources and the militant assurance of the digital. The risk is that they will awaken one morning to find that they have marketed their birthright for a mess of applications.