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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

20 February 2012


I was very pleased that my contribution to the special double issue of the journal Arts and Humanities Research on ‘Digital Humanities, Digital Futures’ appeared this week. It is an honour to be published alongside such distinguished scholars as Alan Liu and Patrik Svensson. My contribution deals with some of the themes I discussed in my inaugural lecture, so it is good to have it available so quickly after the lecture.

My article is entitled 'Consumers, Creators or Commentators? Problems of Audience and Mission in the Digital Humanities', and is a criticism of a digital humanities community that seems to me excessively inward-looking, over-pleased with itself, and lacking in links to wider humanities scholarship. These limitations of the digital humanities as currently practiced are apparent from the way in which discussion of such major themes in current humanities scholarship as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and identity is absent from such leading digital humanities journals as Digital Humanities Quarterly and Literary and Linguistic Computing. It is astonishing how the names of many of the key thinkers whose work underpins current humanities scholarship are absent from much digital humanities literature: 'In rebuilding links with the constituency of humanities scholars, the digital humanities community first needs urgently to reengage with the humanities by exploring the debates around the thought of key thinkers such as Raymond Williams and Merleau-Ponty whose names are at the moment absent from the digital humanities literature. Re-engaging with these more current intellectual debates will immediately open up new audiences for the digital humanities and engage new constituencies'.

These issues of the failure of the digital humanities (as represented by the international associations which comprise the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations or by the digital humanities centres in North America and Europe) to engage with the wider concerns of cultural theory have also been discussed by commentators such as Alan Liu, whose masterly discussion at the 2011 MLA of the question 'Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?' is available here, and I regret that I didn't pay more attention to Alan's paper in my article. In his piece for the Arts and Humanities Research special issue, Alan again emphasises what seems to me the astonishing fact, that 'The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness'. Indeed, there appears to be among many practitioners of the digital humanities a conviction that computing offers a means of escape from the hard work of theoretical discussion and a return to the comforting certainties of data and empirical observation. I quote in my article the declaration in a New York Times piece on the digital humanities that 'Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have'. This is a point of view that verges on the anti-intellectual. One of the great achievements of the humanities over the past forty years is the creation of a sophisticated set of cultural and theoretical tools which enable us to explore cultural artefacts with real richness and depth. Yet too often humanities scholars cast aside this critical training and mentality when they sit in front of a computer screen.

Part of that great achievement of what Terry Eagleton has called the 'Golden Age of Cultural Theory' has been to create a more liberal and inclusive view of the subject matter of the humanities. We now accept that (for example) comic books, television, magazines and texts associated with non-elite groups are suitable subjects of scholarly discourse. We recognise that women, children, marginal ethnic groups, poor people should figure just as prominently in our scholarly discussion as those elite groups who dominated the vision of humanities scholars of earlier generations. Bringing these people and subjects into the consideration of scholarly discourse has been one of the great achievements of modern cultural theory.

If the digital humanities spurn an engagement with theory, they also run the risk of returning us to the world of Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot or F. R. Leavis, in which humanities is identified with the civilizing effect of ‘high culture’. And, indeed this is precisely what the highly formalistic view of the digital humanities which has dominated the field thus far is apparently doing. Of the dozens of digital humanities projects from the University of Oxford featured on the University's digital.humanities@oxford portal, only a handful deal with the period after 1850, and the majority are concerned with the period before 1700. Themes such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality - key themes of modern humanities scholarship - are noticeably absent. The selection of projects offered by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London isn’t much better in this respect.

It is in this context that, I think, we need to pay very serious attention to, and engage with, the recent movement to #transformDH. I really didn’t know enough about this movement when I wrote my article for Arts and Humanities Research. I first really became aware of it when I attended the HASTAC conference in Michigan in November, and met the excellent Alexis Lothian, who has been a leading protaganist of the need to #transformDH. The origins of this movement lay in a panel on the American Studies Association in 2011 on ‘Transformative Mediations? Queer and Ethnic Studies and the Politics of the Digital’. This led to a call for action by Amanda Phillips, available here, which urged "Digital Humanities" (used here in the most expansive sense possible) … to diversify itself in terms of inclusion, approaches, theorization, and application to social justice issues’. Alexis Lothian herself provides one of the best short discussions of #transformDH in a blog post here: ‘most of us also felt that the majority of DH projects did not speak to our areas of queer, feminist, critical race studies, cultural studies (within which we study a wide range of literature, theory, media and culture between us). We started #transformDH to think about how those interests might intersect with DH – how, most importantly, they might already be intersecting. We were not, I think, trying to take away from the good experiences others have had in the DH community: just to add to them, in the specific ways that mattered to us, transformatively’.

Some digital humanities scholars have pointed out in response to these criticisms that digital humanities is always open, collaborative and welcoming, although this is difficult to perceive from the mix of projects generally offered in the digital humanities, which rarely stray beyond old-fashioned ideas of high culture. Technology is too often presented in digital humanities as something that is raceless, sexless, genderless. One fundamental role of digital humanities scholars must surely be to point out that our new technologies are in themselves complex cultural artefacts, whose origins after all lie in the military-industrial complex of the 1940s and 1950s. To quote Amanada Phillips's summary of Tara McPherson's comments on the 2011 ASA session, ‘We need more critical race coders. We need more feminist media scholars who can't write code to run software labs. We need more people fighting to make these paradigms play nice with each other’. This should not necessarily be as surprising as it perhaps seems at first sight. It is a commonplace of library studies that catalogues are highly gendered constructions: one need only look at the way in which the British Library’s manuscript catalogues treat women’s names to see that. Likewise, code and software are cultural constructs which require analysis and criticism.

Another objection is that digital humanities by definition involves some hands-on work – it is about building things. #transformDH perhaps looks too much like an attempt to turn digital humanities into another form of cultural or media studies. But that doesn’t explain why we focus on papyri, medieval charters or great authors in developing digital humanities projects. Part of the excitement of the digital humanities (as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey project has emphasized) is the way it opens up new methods of exploring the lives and achievements of non-elite groups.

The oppositional rhetoric of #transformDH is necessary and important, because there is a danger that Digital Humanities, having been proclaiming itself as the next big thing for twenty years or more, will otherwise continue to be deluded by its own rhetoric. But in the end #transformDH is fundamentally about reconnecting digital humanities with fundamental themes of current scholarship in the humanities, and avoiding it becoming a refuge for the high-minded and elitist. Alexis Lothian in her blog on the HASTAC conference commented on the keynote by the Chair of National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach: ‘I was fairly taken aback by his discussion of the humanities as a “civilizing project” that would spread from a "new digital class" based in the US out to the rest of the world. Comments on twitter and to Micha’s post suggest that this unabashedly imperial notion of civilization is what we must accept if we want to be funded for our digital projects, and discussions I had informally at the conference reminded me that anything that seems overtly ‘political’ will (after so many years of the culture wars) be unlikely to appeal to US government bodies’.

I think it is at this point – the way in which we fund and structure the digital humanities – that #transformDH has something very powerful to say. We are urged by governments to develop the digital humanities as a means of taking forward the ‘digital economy’, to develop ‘connected communities’ achieving ‘digital transformations’. Since the continued existence of many digital humanities centres depends on the ability to pull in research funding of this kind, digital humanities will dance to governmental tunes in this way. But should we? Should not the role of digital humanities be precisely to challenge these kind of assumptions? That means rethinking the way we do digital humanities, maybe moving away from the big funded research project, or at least making it less centre of stage than hitherto. We need to move away from our assumption that dh=projects, into broader intellectual activities. Certainly, we should urgently being developing more community-based activities of the types showcased in HASTAC and elsewhere. Here for example is a session at HASTAC on a Chicana feminist archive described in tweets by Alexis Lothian. This is the type of activity which will #transformDH.


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