Reinventing the Wheel

on developing critical and methodological frameworks for the digital humanities, or the digital humanities is the humanities.


To be an equal partner—rather than, again, just a servant—at the table, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world. — Alan Liu

Fred Gibbs has a typically perceptive new post continuing his thinking about developing a more defined critical discourse for digital humanities as a field. Drawing his inspiration from Alan Liu’s question, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”, Gibbs argues that digital humanists should aim for three main goals: 1) more effective critical discourse around DH work; 2) better rubrics for evaluating projects; and 3) a different kind of peer review.

These are good starting points chock full of provocative possibilities. However, I think it’s worth returning to one of Liu’s key ideas: that digital humanities is not a “servant” to the humanities, it is the humanities.

What I have been discovering in my own DH work on folk music and archival study is that the digital takes us back to core disciplinary questions (in my case these are long-running methodological and interpretive concerns in cultural history, folklore, pop music studies, cultural studies).

Too often, DH gets framed as something new, as a breakthrough, as a reinvention of the wheel. Witness Patricia Cohen’s breathless “Humanities 2.0” articles in the New York Times. It seems to me that this is because of an unwise conflation between Digital Humanities as an intellectual and scholarly endeavor and the narrative we use in contemporary society for innovations in the private technology sector.

This conflation has everything to do with the contemporary moment, which finds academicians jockeying for money in an increasingly corporatized and neoliberal university setting. The danger here is that we are not thinking carefully about the framework in which Digital Humanities might thrive and contribute to society beyond assumptions about technology solving all problems and creating financial wealth. This, it seems to me, is where Digital Humanities needs to continue to develop greater critical self-reflection built upon well-tested humanistic models. In what larger systems of power are the digital humanities complicit? What is producing this moment in which digital humanities is making such an impact? How does the cultural context shape everything from the code we are creating to the findings we are producing to the jobs that are available in the field?

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being critically self-reflective an intersection between private sector work and more public intellectual and scholarly concerns; the problem is a total conflation between the two. And there’s nothing wrong with being excited about the fresh, unprecedented, and surprising places that the digital takes us, so long as those are not placed in direct opposition to the rich past of humanities scholarship that we can draw upon (critically of course, since those traditions come with their own troubling problems and historical contexts).

I am not trying to stop DH in its tracks. We can be critically self-reflective and move forward. But perhaps we can only do so if we also move backwards too, recovering and remembering all that the analog humanities has to offer.

In sum, there’s a whole lot of new in the Digital Humanities, including what I think is already an extremely sophisticated intellectual move to cut through stale assumptions about old disciplinary boundaries, approaches to evidence, understandings of authorship, and more. The bits and bytes of the critical theory that Gibbs calls for is already happening, in my opinion, on numerous Twitter feeds, countless blogs, and at various conferences and un-conferences.

But even as we find ourselves experiencing the new, it’s just as worthwhile to locate Digital Humanities in relation to the old. For there is a return, a circling back, to pursue if we so choose. DH takes us back—in deeply illuminating ways—to age-old issues in various fields across the arts and sciences. It is not a revolution away from the humanities, but a turn more fully into the humanities.

It is in this sense that the digital humanities should reinvent the wheel.


3 thoughts on “Reinventing the Wheel

  1. Dear Mr. Kramer,

    My name is Dane Thibeault, and I am a student at the University of Calgary, currently enrolled in a first year English course(English 203) geared towards understanding and using the digital humanities in responding to a text. I would like to use your post to support an argument for a final annalytical blog post, which may be found at the website provided above. Information about the course and the work that we have been with the digital humanities may also be viewed here: I am greatly intrigued by the limitations and potentials of the digital humanities described here in your blog post.

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