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Digital Humanities vs Humanities? – Elizabeth Grab

Digital Humanities vs Humanities?

This week our readings covered the digital humanities (and humanities generally) debate on instrumentalism vs criticism.  This idea that digital humanities is solely product-oriented, neglecting the traditional humanities’ concern with criticism is a divide with which I struggle.  Since JJ does display a critical approach, perhaps this is an artefact of her take on digital humanities.  But I’m inclined to think that this divide is an artificial wall we’ve constructed, rather than anything inherent in either DH or humanities.

Digital humanities, as I understand it, is really just an extension of traditional humanities. Without humanities, digital humanities wouldn’t exist.  Digital humanities largely represents a new humanist method that helps the discipline to contribute to cross-disciplinary conversation and public relevance by meeting the audience on its native information ground.  Without the critical aspect, the digital humanities wouldn’t be able to perform that work.  From the projects we have examined in JJ’s course, it seems to me that both internal and outwardly-looking criticism are built in to DH. For example, the GIS project Transatlantic Encounters, conducted by Beth Shook on the presence of Latin American artists contributing to and interacting with the Parisian art scene during the interwar period. Shook used the tools provided by DH to critically examine the canon of history and art history with its focus on Western Europeans and white Americans. Or Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen” from Adeline Koh.  She also used DH’s production and criticism features to produce a blog that strives for a decolonized archive (click here for another fascinating assessment of decolonizing the archive).  Both of these projects tie instrumentality with the critical foundation of the humanities.  As does Medieval People of Color, or Barnard’s Reacting to the Past game Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 188-89, or University of Sydney’s Digital Harlem, or Dan Cohen’s Searching for the Victorians.  For more projects that display the interplay inherent in critical product for critical scholarship, see Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips article in E-Media Studies.  A rough list of critical DH projects alone could fulfill the required word count for this post.

Perhaps these projects are atypical in the way that they internally critique the humanities or pedagogy while also contending with outward critique regarding under-acknowledged sections of scholarship.  But just looking at the syllabus JJ created and the resources she compiled strikes me as a pretty broad practice of criticism already built into the instrumentalist nature of DH.

When I asked broadly about the division between product vs criticism in class, we landed on the comparison between a welder and a philosopher, thanks to Marco Rubios’ fictitious statement that welders make more than philosophers.  To which anther reference was made about how philosophy helps welders operate in the market economy ethically (those of you versed in the conversation around the presidential debates can supply the exact reference in the comments?).  I would take a slightly different tack, though, one sparked by a comment in Scott Samuelson’s Atlantic article.

those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values.

Historically, this is true.  But isn’t the point of modern education in the United States to ensure that no matter one’s profession—plumber or a scholar—that each individual can think critically, that one can think for oneself?  Samuelson starts to tease out this idea, but remains on a loftier level.  My inclination is to examine the minute practicalities.  For others who also revel in home improvement shows like This Old House, you’ll immediately grasp why critical thinking is so essential to any manual labor at both the minute and holistic levels.  Skilled workers have to respond to the demands and quirks of each particular environment, analyzing that they are using the right work-arounds to ensure a project’s long term success and that those actions won’t interfere with other, unrelated projects (eg plumbing and electric).  Otherwise, next week, two years, or ten years down the line, a homeowner ends up with a massive plumbing, roofing or other nightmare that negatively impacts the house.  Thus any uncritical work proves not just useless, but damaging.

If the driving force behind the humanities is criticism, then isn’t it equally important for those receiving a technical education to learn independent thought as those with a liberal education?  It’s this foundational assumption that makes it so challenging for me to understand how criticism could possibly be divided from the DH, making it into pure product creation.  If not even a  plumber or welder’s everyday actions can be divided from criticism, then how can a direct derivation of the humanities be, at its core, uncritical?

This week’s readings:

If you’re at all interested in developing (digital) humanities projects or writing grants, check out these resources, as well:

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