A Big Tent Revival: Productive Problems in the Digital Humanities

To the average reader perusing part three of Debates in the Digital Humanities, things look bad. Tara McPherson’s self-proclaimed polemic problematizes the “modularity of the digital era” as it separates issues of ethnicity and gender from legitimate study. Elizabeth Losh explores the ethical, political, and institutional gray areas of hacktivism as it relates (or does not relate) to the Digital Humanities, and Mark Sample reveals through Don DeLillo a major shortcoming of the field. While George Williams uncovers the less-than-inclusive interfaces ill-equipped for universal users, Charlie Edwards tackles still other usability issues. Beyond this, William Pannapacker and Ian Bogost share similar concerns about the members of the humanities: Pannapacker fears that the Digital humanities cool kids alienate others and Bogost calls attention to stubborn humanists in general. Bethany Nowviske, on the other hand, is tired. Tired of participating in the DH “gentleman’s club,” tired of the institutional melee, and tired of being helpful and nice. It seems, in light of all of this, that there is trouble under the big tent.

While I am certainly troubled by what these readings bring to light (I am still attempting to unfurrow my brow), I must admit that this part of the debates was actually very exciting to me. As a few of the voices this week, and many over the course of the semester, have insisted, the field of the Digital Humanities is constantly battling its image as an up-and-coming field rather than one that has already arrived. As Pannapacker puts it, most view DH as the “next big thing,” to which he indignantly replies that “At this point, the digital humanities are ‘the thing’ There’s no ‘next’ about it.” To be perfectly honest, up until this week, I would have been skeptical of Pannapacker’s position. At the risk of outing myself, I was not convinced that the Digital Humanities were here. I was the dodgy old professor, squinting over the top of bifocals at this inevitable newness on the horizon. Reading through the criticism of the field, however, changed everything.

In order to explain my coming to Jockers moment, I may need to first explain my philosophy on problems. In my mind, there is nothing more productive than a problem. A problem is the first signal that something needs our attention. As such, a problem is a call to action. It provides us with the opportunity to better acquaint ourselves with its context, with our role in its production, and, of course, our role in its resolution. When we call attention to a problem, not only are we inviting others to join in on this opportunity, but we are also attributing merit to the pursuit. One of my favorite examples of this is bell hooks’ Postmodern Blackness, a text in which hooks calls attention to the problems she finds in postmodernism’s exclusion of non-whites and females. She at once critiques the field and speaks to its importance, and in doing so she brilliantly creates the opportunity for necessary change. This is the power of a problem.

The problems we read about this week are equally powerful for the Digital Humanities. First of all, they legitimize the field through critique. The very act of critiquing tells us that the object of scrutiny, in this case DH, is worth our time and energy. Critique is also one of the ways academia keeps itself alive, and these readings revealed to us that the Digital Humanities is an active participant in this tradition. Beyond this, the problems we read this week combine to provide a thorough interrogation of the field, which in its performance reveals the field’s many complexities and complications. The degree to which these problems can be explored suggests an establishment in the Digital Humanities that defies any “up-and-coming” label. These problems also indicate growth: growth that has already happened and growth that needs to happen.

This is why the readings this week excited, rather than discouraged, me. Prior to this week, the readings we have explored have certainly uncovered problems, but they were preoccupied instead with the missing definition of DH or the quest for legitimization as a field. To me, these problems were symptomatic of newbie status (although, let’s be honest, we are still trying to define literature). The problems this week, however, revealed to me the great potential that this field has to offer. I marvel at what the Digital Humanities has already done, and the implications of these criticisms are that there is so much more that it can do. Productive, meaningful questions were raised in these readings, and they were asked of a productive and meaningful field. I am not sure that there are any answers yet, but that’s why we are all here, right? We love the chase. Questions like these are what keep our fields- literary studies, cultural studies, history- and maybe even ourselves alive.

2 thoughts on “A Big Tent Revival: Productive Problems in the Digital Humanities”

  1. I really like your take on problems. I’ve been around people who have called problems “opportunities” before, and that had sort of seemed like just a nice way of saying “Your world is falling apart, so I’m going to spin this so you won’t freak out.” It makes sense, though, that discussing the problems with DH gives legitimacy to the field. People wouldn’t want to waste their time and energy on what they don’t think is a worthwhile enterprise, so DH must be important.

    This week’s readings were much more satisfying to read in that even though they discussed problems with DH, at least there appeared to be some solutions in sight. Trying to define DH has been like trying to nail Jello to the wall for me. These readings were much more concrete in my mind, and thus easier to follow.

  2. I just want to chime and and say I love the way you say that DH is legitimized through “critique.” It has never occurred to me that the need to critique something inherently suggests that that thing has merit – especially if the critique is whether or NOT that merit exists. It makes sense though: why talk about something if it’s not worth talking about? Why critique something if it isn’t worth critiquing? Really, DH gets criticized because it is different, but not necessarily because it is useless. That is definitely something to remember!

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