Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 1

This summer I’m participating in an “academic think tank” organized by our Provost’s Office at The New School. We participants are charged with investigating possible areas for pedagogical innovation or the development of new academic initiatives. I’m looking at how we could make a space for the digital humanities — or digital, or “multimodal,” scholarship, or whatever you want to call it (I’d prefer that we call it something other than “digital humanities,” for a bunch of reasons) — at The New School. There’s already plenty of work going on here that approximates the digital humanities, and I think that if we simply recognized it for what it is, and pushed it a little father to claim it as a new form of scholarship, we’d be in a much better position to tap into communities of like-minded researchers and designers and into the DH grant pool.

Plus, over the past couple of years I’ve come to the realization that my current research exceeds the limitations of print-based presentation. I’m focusing on the historical layering of media infrastructures and material media systems in various global cities. Edward Soja acknowledges the limitations of print in representing geographic complexity:

What one sees when one looks at geographies is stubbornly simultaneous, but language dictates a sequential succession, a linear flow of sentential statements bound by that most spatial of earthly constraints, the impossibility of two objects (or words) occupying the same precise place (as on a page). All that we can do is re-collect and creatively juxtapose, experimenting with assertions and insertions of the spatial against the prevailing grain of time. In the end, the interpretation of postmodern geographies can be no more than a beginning (Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989): 2).

I’m still writing a book, of course, for tenure purposes (I hope Minnesota will have me again!) — but I hope to supplement it with some interactive components, maybe even an entirely-online chapter. I’ve had the extremely good fortune to discover several like-minded colleagues with whom I’m now collaborating on the creation of an online platform that will support not only my research, but also the work for my new fall class and their fall classes — and, eventually, the research and coursework of any “urban” faculty at The New School.

For the purposes of our summer think tank, I’m trying to explain this new mapping project within the context of the digital humanities. I’ve been watching these DH people for quite some time now, trying to deal with my slight annoyance with their boosterism and seeming technofetishism. What eventually won me over was Tara McPherson’s thoughtful, temperate intro to the special “digital humanities” section in the Winter 2009 issue of Cinema Journal. I figured I should figure out what this enterprise is all about. So, what follows is the alpha version of a lit review; I have yet to integrate more of my own critical perspective.


Defining the New Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanities are not new; they’ve been around for almost a half-century.[1] In the early days, the term “digital humanities” was often used interchangeably with “humanities computing,” in which practitioners were “mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays.”[2] Much of the work was quantitative and focused on building “large-scale digitization projects (typically of literary corpuses) an the establishment of technological infrastructure.”[3] At the same time, scholars began incorporating new media technologies into their publications; “Writing in the Digital 1.0,” as media scholar Anne Friedberg calls it, involved the addition of digital concordances – in the form of packaged CDs or links to online supplementary materials – to conventional print books; “the digital material was largely illustrative and served as a supplement.”[4]

The second wave of the Digital Humanities (DH) are emerging, proponents say, amidst ever more rapid technological, social, cultural, and economic changes – changes for which “digital scholars” are beginning to develop appropriate “intellectual tools, methodologies, disciplinary practices, and institutional structures” to interpret an respond to these transformations.[5] These tools and methodologies must go beyond conceiving of new technologies as mere illustrations for, or processors of, traditional printed texts. As German scholar and “digital humanist” Todd Presner explains, Digital Humanities 2.0 is…

deeply generative, creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is “born digital” and lives in various digital contexts. While the first wave of Digital Humanities concentrated, perhaps somewhat narrowly, on text analysis…within established disciplines, Digital Humanities 2.0 introduces entirely new disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies, and even new publication models that are often not derived from or limited to print culture.[6]

Architectural historian Diane Favro and Christopher Johnson, Associate Director of UCLA’s Experimental Technology Center, for instance, use digital models of ancient funeral processions in the Roman forum not simply as “post-research presentations of their work, but [as] integral research tools.”[7] Their models allow for the “consideration of (funeral) events in situ,” which helps them better understand “how the Romans choreographed their processions to exploit the scale, orientation, sequencing, and symbolic associations of structures and places.” Similarly, media scholar Tara McPherson notes that, in some projects, databases allow for new ways of organizing data:

Our carefully collected evidence can now be animated in new ways, allowing us to present multiple lines of thought in relation to the materials at hand and to invite others to join us in this process in extended collaboration and conversation. Working with databases allows us both to present our arguments differently and to understand our materials differently.[8]

Rather than fetishizing the database, as some “first wave” scholars seemed to do, however, Digital Humanities 2.0 scholars consider other modes of “processing” a research project. They consider how particular questions or problems might lend themselves to investigation or representation through aural, visual, or interactive media; through maps, audio archives, documentaries – even video games. In some cases, a book – designed so that its material form reinforces its argument – might be the most appropriate means of giving form to an argument. This media-minded scholar, whom McPherson calls “multimodal” (I prefer her terminology because it does not privilege the digital at the expense of other, non-digital, yet equally appropriate and effective, media forms), “thinks carefully about the relationship of form to content, expression to idea.” She examines “what happens when scholarship looks and feels differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user.”[9] “How do you ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ an argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space?” “Can scholarship show as well as tell?” “Will representing data differently change the ways we understand, collect, or interpret it?”


[1] Willard McCarty, “A Brief History of Humanities Computing, 1964-70” [Blog Pos]
Humanist Discussion Group (May 7, 2004):

[2] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” n.d.: 2.

[3] Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge,” May 13, 2010, Module m34246, Connexions.

[4] Anne Friedberg, “On Digital Scholarship,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 151.

[5] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[6] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[7] Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 69, no. 1 (March 2010): 31-2.

[8] Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 121.

[9] McPherson, 120-1.

Part 2 comin’ up…

2 replies on “Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 1”

“Can scholarship show as well as tell?” “Will representing data differently change the ways we understand, collect, or interpret it?”

I pondered these questions today! I believe that the answer is yes to both questions. I am in Awe of the potential of this “Multmodal” approach. Do you think that we have the technological resources at this time to launch this approach? Do you think that one could acquire and understand knowledge more quickly than traditional means?

Keep in mind that you’re conversing with a relatively recent convert here, Joseph. I’m no expert. That said, I think it’s important that we develop the technological resources in concert with the scholarship they’ll support. Rather than simply adopting Google Earth or, to take an old example, PowerPoint, we can tweak existing tools or develop new ones so that their embodied ideologies reflect the ideologies of our work. I think this this kind of work requires a much more complex, holistic, critical understanding of the interrelationship of the form and content of research — and I think this understanding would probably take longer to cultivate than, say, assigning students to write via wiki without helping them understand why, or uncritically adopting existing technology. “Quick” processing of information, “quick” distillations of data (as in many data visualization projects) seem to me precisely what we don’t want to promote.

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