Bethany Nowviskie on the stakes of the digital humanities in 2013.

Lots of keen insights into the quickly-mutating practice (field?) of digital humanities from Bethany Nowviskie’s remarks at the recent MLA (http://nowviskie.org/2013/resistance-in-the-materials/), including comments on:

  • making “tacit knowledge exchange” among practitioners more explicit.
  • bringing issues of structural inequality and exclusivity to the surface for continued recognition and discussion.
  • guarding against the “casualization of academic labor,” which Nowviskie argues “begets commodity toolsets, frictionless and uncritical engagement with content, and shallow practices of use.”

But I found most intriguing Nowviskie’s provocations, by way of William Morris, about the striking return of materiality (in all its senses) to digital humanities research:

Momentous cultural and scholarly changes will be brought about not by digitization alone, but by the development of ubiquitous digital-to-physical conversion tools and interfaces. What will humanities research and pedagogy do with consumer-accessible 3d fabrication? With embedded or wearable, responsive and tactile physical computing devices? What will we do with locative and augmented reality technologies that can bring our content off the screen and into our embodied, place-based, mobile lives? Our friends in archaeology and public history, recognizing the potential for students and new humanities audiences, are all over this. Writers and artists have begun to engage, as we can see next door in this year’s e-literature exhibit. And I believe that scholarly editors, paleographers, archivists, and book historians will be the next avid explorers of new digital materialities. But what might other literary scholars do? What new, interpretive research avenues will open up for you, in places of interesting friction and resistance, when you gain access to ?

These strike me as crucial questions, for they bring the digital back to earth, and suggest that when we interact with digital technologies, we are not departing from long-running epistemological and political questions of people, their critical thinking, and the quality of the lives they lead, but rather struggling to confront these issues anew.

Nowviskie proposes that the digital domain matters, in all senses of the word. It is not some separate la-la land, but rather as real as real can be, enfolding—and enfolded by—the very stark, sometimes beautiful, often ugly actual world we work in, with, and try to work through. In other words, as the binary between the virtual and the material gets reconfigured, the digital humanities becomes a key mode for addressing the disorientations that ensue. Thinking through the digital humanities offers a main frame for perceiving continuities and reaching toward, processing, even implementing better iterations of the past.

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