Really, Though, What Is Digital Humanities?

Though we seem to have settled on a name for Digital Humanities, we do not seem to have a consensus on what it is.

When I joined the Digital Humanities Work Group here at GMU in the spring of 2016, I did so without knowing anything about the controversy surrounding the… discipline? theory? practice? of DH. I joined because I had worked in the digital space for a decade before entering grad school, and thought “digital humanities” sounded promising, like it might combine my love of teaching, writing, and reading literature with the digital innovations that excited me about my jobs in media.

A group of fifteen or so scholars and grad students met in an upstairs room at the library. We went around in a circle, introducing ourselves by discipline—mostly librarians and history folks, but also some stragglers from art history, comp/rhet, and a few other fields (I was the sole creative writer in the room). I didn’t have a clear sense of how all this work cohered under the umbrella of DH, so I asked: “This may be a dumb question, but what exactly is digital humanities?” Everyone laughed, though I hadn’t realized I’d been making a joke. No one answered my question.

Is digital humanities a theory, or a practice? A trend, or a movement? Is it good for scholarship, or bad? As DH scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, there is an entire genre of “What is digital humanities?” essays. Here are a few of the ones I came across in my research for this project:

In the decade or so since the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities was published in 2004, DH has been codified and institutionalized in all the traditional academic ways—through peer-reviewed articles; through a dedicated office within the National Endowment for the Humanities; through journals dedicated to the topic, including Digital Humanities Now and its sister publication, Journal of Digital Humanities (currently on hiatus); through MLA panels; through discipline-specific organizations and annual conferences, such as the one organized by the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organizations; through several shiny new Digital Humanities research centers at large universities (including the RRCHNM here at GMU). Yet, the term continues to defy definition. As Kirschenbaum wrote as recently as 2014, “if you follow the right Twitter accounts, then, if you read the right blogs, if you’re on the right lists, and if you’re included in the right backchannels . . . if you do these things, you’ll be within your rights to wonder (all over again) what digital humanities is anyway.”

There is no shortage of definitions (there is even a website,, that will offer you a unique definition every time you refresh the page). Here are a few attempts to define the term from the articles listed above:

  1. Unsworth, in 2002, identifies DH (under its former appellation of humanities computing) as a practice: “Humanities computing is a practice of representation, a form of modeling or, as Wallace Stevens has it, mimicry. It is also (as Davis and his co-authors put it) a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and its representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other.”
  2. Kirschenbaum, in 2010, identifies it as a methodology: “At its core, then, digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies…Yet digital humanities is also a social undertaking.”
  3. Liu, in 2013, defines it by what it is not: “[DHers] are not the tribe of “new media studies”….Similarly, despite significant trends toward networked and multimodal work…, much of the digital humanities focuses on documents and texts in a  way that distinguishes the field’s work from digital research…. The digital humanities are [emphasis mine] exploring new repertoires of interpretive of expressive “algorithmic criticism.”
  4. And Kirschenbaum, reprising his earlier question about identify, writes in 2014 that DH is actually a construct, arguing that “the agon par excellence of the construct is of course the question of definition: what is digital humanities? The insistence on the question is what allows the construct to do its work, to function as a space of contest for competing agendas.”

Even the reliably succinct Wikipedia is reluctant to nail down the definition, focusing instead on what DH includes rather than what it is: “Digital humanities (DH) is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. The nature of this activity ranges broadly, from the practical, such as digitizing historical texts, to the philosophical, such as reflection on the nature of representation itself. This spectrum of activities is reflected in definitions of the field that range from it being a collection of methods to being a distinct epistemology and a kind of science” (link accessed 10/13/16).

The vagueness of this definition gives, I think, credence to Kirschenbaum’s suggestion that both the imperative of the question (WTF is digital humanities?!), as well as its unanswerability, are necessary. Because DH is a living thing, growing and changing even as I write this post, we all need to be constantly asking what it is, revising our understanding of its possibilities and limitations. And because our definition keeps changing, because it will continue to change until the practices it describes are either perfected or outdated, we can ask that question knowing that we can’t yet answer it (and also that DH’s momentum, the excitement that surrounds it, lays in exactly that paradox).

So, as someone interested in DH, I accept that there is no broadly accepted definition for the term. For the purposes of my paper, however, I still need to explain this thing, which in my next post I attempt to do by looking at what digital humanities does, rather than what it is, specifically within the field of literary study. Meet me over there.

This post is part of a four-part series (links below) that seeks to explain the role of Digital Humanities in literary study, written as an alternative to a traditional paper in my Lit Theory class. I welcome (encourage!) feedback on my work, including corrections to my research and/or interpretations. I hope you will consider commenting if you have something to add to the the ideas presented here. —KF



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