Digital Humanities in the Age of Fluidity

are we building a poststructural infrastructure? what does that mean?

Are we actually “doing” the digital humanities yet or are we still building the infrastructures for being able to develop new findings? Does this question matter?

I think it does and here’s why: the digital humanities implicitly proposes a new relationship between infrastructures and what goes on inside these structures. For lack of a better term, the field of DH—amorphous, developing, multifaceted—suggests that the creation of new infrastructures and the creation of new knowledge within those structures are merging.

While this development has antecedents in both the technological past and the history of humanistic scholarship, it is, in many respects, a new arrangement: in DH we potentially have a structure that is itself part of the stuff inside it, a new kind of integration of form and content, of medium and message (or massage for that matter). In a followup post, I want to map out more specific examples of this, but first it is worth considering the theoretical implications of DH’s new relationship to infrastructure.

In response to Stanley Fish’s provocative columns (first here, second here, third on its way) on the digital humanities, literary scholar and digital humanist Ted Underwood recently proposed that the digital humanities is a “rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered—from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement—linked mainly by the fact that they are responding to related kinds of fluidity: rapid changes in representation, communication, and analysis that open up detours around some familiar institutions.” In making this comment, Underwood makes a sharp contribution to the call by Alan Liu for a critical theory of DH. And his observation also takes us to Toma Tasovac’s recent blog post on the political implications of scholarly digital infrastructure building.

Underwood’s comment is a starting point for deepening our understanding of this notion of “fluidity,” both in terms of DH scholarly practice and in terms of larger social contexts. It seems at first glance that DH scholars are not yet quite doing the digital humanities; we are merely building the infrastructure for the digital humanities. If you build it, they will come. But I wonder if what is new about the field, what is fundamentally different about it compared to recent decades of humanities scholarship (though not necessarily new to the long durée of humanistic investigation) is that infrastructure building and the work done within that infrastructure are assuming a new, more intertwined relationship. The construction of the digital humanities infrastructure and the production of new understandings in various humanities disciplines are occurring together in DH. They take place in tandem. They are synced.

So, to produce a database of one’s evidence for all to use (a kind of infrastructural creation) and to develop individual interpretations and findings out of that database (the stuff that flows through an infrastructure) are now more related than ever. To keep a blog of one’s discoveries along the way to final publication (a sort of exposed infrastucture) and the final publication have new potential relationships through digital communication. And so on. Walls are collapsing. That can be a good thing, but it also will have its dangers (like having one of those walls fall on you or on someone else).

As Liu and Tasovac argue, we need to consider more critically the infrastructural moves we are making (in all their good and bad ways) even as we continue with the hands-on development of DH. As infrastructure and what the scholarship it enables get hyperlinked in new ways, we have the opportunity to learn from critical meta-conversations about infrastructure. These might themselves be understood as “structuring structures” that should be brought into the light of rigorous DH analysis.


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