One of the recurrent issues I noticed when our Praxis cohort began discussing the meaning of the digital humanities was the field’s need to justify its existence. At the beginning of the semester, we read articles about digital humanities as a “tactical term” and the kind of institutional, financial affiliations necessary to sustain DH labs and staff. All of this background on the history of the field proved useful in understanding where DH stands within academia and why it has received so much recent criticism as an instrument in the further neoliberalization (insert your personal definition here) of the university. Scholars within and outside the field have noted, with some justification, how DH might further the financialization and quantification of, well, everything and how that might lead us further away from the inquiries that should ostensibly drive our intellectual pursuits in the humanities.
So, if there is this “dark side” of DH, then what does it look like and what can we do to push against it?
An emphasis on empirical, quantitative projects and the “mining” of data and texts has characterized many (most?) DH projects, creating easy fodder for critics concerned with the ever-growing reach of neoliberalism. These types of projects have served as the very foundation for many DH literary studies and have yield generative results into topics like genre devices, authorial style, and the history of the novel. But beyond yielding new insights into literary texts, these types of projects offered a way to justify the field of DH. If humanities scholars could use computational analysis to produce projects illustrated with graphs, charts, and numerical data, then perhaps the humanities could maintain its relevance in a political/academic climate that seemingly values STEM over the arts.
The other way that DH seems to claim its relevancy is by emphasizing the production of tools. Our own Scholars’ Lab staff has created new tools like Neatline and previous Praxis cohorts have developed Prism and Ivanhoe, making useful, open-sourced tools and bringing attention to the work being done here at UVA. Of course, there’s no problem with producing such tools and many will say that’s exactly what DH should do. The problem will arise if every DH lab in the world starts producing new tools for every new project. At that point, the future of DH might look a lot like the iTunes app store, more a marketplace of things rather than ideas.
So, will this year’s Praxis cohort create a slick new tool for the DH marketplace? You guessed it, no.
For one reason, our cohort simply does not have the time or expertise to build the coolest new tool on the web. Several of us entered this program with little to no knowledge of coding, web design, or software development. My goal is to gain an introduction to if not a handle on those skills while I’m here.
The other reason is political.
During a DH presentation at the 2016 American Studies Association conference, I heard a panelist describe the Internet as the “island of misfit toys.” I took this to mean that in a push for innovation and the need to justify the field’s existence a proliferation of DH projects have led to a mass of broken, unmaintained, and otherwise unusable tools. This stress on tool creation has fed into the critiques of DH as a neoliberal undertaking bent on the production of quantifiable and marketable results rather than the humanistic analysis that might yield more ideas than products.
Our cohort won’t be producing a fancy new tool, and that’s okay. But we will use existing digital tools in innovative ways and maybe offer inspiration for other scholars with similar amounts of time and DH experience to pursue projects of their own.