6 March 2013

Over the past few years, I have wrestled with a low-level set of usage and style problems when publishing essays related to digital-humanities issues. These may be put in the form of the two questions: is “digital humanities” singular or plural? and should we crown the phrase with the definite article (“the digital humanities”)?

Of course, these are prosaic questions. But the issues they represent have the unsettling habit of showing up in the most prominent places, such as in the title of an essay I have forthcoming in The Changing Profession section of PMLA. Where my manuscript originally read, “The Meaning of Digital Humanities,” my copy editor has revised to,”The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” Nor is it just in prominent places that the issues appear. Usage problems of this sort are pervasive to the point that my manuscripts on [the] digital humanities tend to be sprinkled throughout with innumerable tiny problems at the low level of articles and subject-verb agreements.

The right analogy is probably not to Freudian slips of the tongue but to the telltale frequencies and patterns of seemingly trivial words (and “stop” words) of the sort that can prove so revealing in forensic textual analysis. I suspect that the low-level usage problems I indicate have more to say about [the] digital humanities than we know. In particular, they bear on the current, vigorous discussion of disciplinary identity in [the] digital humanities–the discussion, or discussions, that turn around the kernel question: is/are [the] digital humanities a “field” or fields”?

“Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe,” the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 proclaims in a wonderful piece of verbal legerdemain at once repudiating “a unified field” and affirming it through the singular verb “is.” Even more wonderful is the legerdemain of the acronymic “DH” by which many of us who are digital humanists make the usage problem vanish like abracadabra. “DH” is a seemingly confident, isolato construction needing no article and brooking no plurals. Elsewhere in the research literature, there is plenty of variety–articles and no articles, singular and plural, acronyms and full phrase. The Wikipedia article, for example, begins, “The digital humanities is an area.” Major DH publishing venues also seem permissive of variant or non-standard usages. For instance, the abstract for one of Patrik Svensson’s important essays in Digital Humanities Quarterly begins “The digital humanities is increasingly becoming a ‘buzzword,'” implying that “digital humanities” can now be used as a single portmanteau word. This phenomenon is actually encoded (in faux-code) in the title of the book recently issued by MIT Press on Digital_Humanities, where the underscore character literally joins the words as a single function name. While I have not assembled a properly comprehensive or representative corpus of relevant writings, it’s a good guess that text analysis performed on such a corpus would find a variety of usages allowing us to come to interesting conclusions about the relative percentage of each usage and how the percentages change over time.

One verbal tactic related to the legerdemain I mention above is especially worth thinking about. For both authors and copy editors, there is a strong, sometimes irresistible linguistic pressure to resolve usage problems by referring to “the digital humanities field” (or “area”). This superbly convenient tactic settles the conceptual issue in the name of stylistic felicity: the digital humanities is a grammatically well-behaved singular “field.”

I meditate on these problems because their manifestation at the tactical level so quickly escalates to the proto-conceptual level where they begin to represent, express, formulate, shape, and perhaps even constitute high-level propositions. Perhaps the language is telling us something about the digital humanities at its present stage of evolution. In particular, language may be telling us two things (stated propositionally):

1. Linguistically, the digital humanities increasingly behaves as a field. Of course, the precise scope, organization, and nature of the digital humanities as a field are yet to be determined by the normal processes of scholarly discussion and adjudication, updated with new online means–i.e., not just through explicit debate about DH but also through the professional mechanisms that determine what jobs branded “DH” people in particular areas get or that their students get, where they publish or post online, what conferences they go to, what Twitter-streams they show up in, etc. But the more digital humanists talk to each other and to others about DH, the more “digital humanities” is likely to begin behaving linguistically as a field, no matter the doubts we have about field-formation on conceptual, political, or other grounds. As the saying goes: if it walks like . . . or talks like . . . .

In this regard, the historical analogy of the word “media” is quite interesting. In Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) “the medium is the message” but “Arnold Toynbee is innocent of any understanding of media as they have shaped history.” (This is uniform in the book. One wonders whether copy editors intervened to standardize McLuhan’s singular versus plural usage.) But after McLuhan, “media” acquired sufficient high-level generality as a unitary concept (no longer just a variety of different mediums) and also enough non-standard usage among pundits that it drifted into the land of the singular (like “data” more recently). Thus the following, telling usage note about “media” in the OED:

The use of media with singular concord and as a singular form with a plural in -s have both been regarded by some as non-standard and objectionable. Compare:1966 K. Amis in New Statesman 14 Jan. 51/3 The treatment of media as a singular noun..is spreading into the upper cultural strata.

2. However, no one community of speakers gets to standardize the usage of “the digital humanities” or similar field designations. Consider, for example, that my essay on “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” was commissioned by PMLA for its Changing Profession section for the express purpose (as stated in the invitation letter I received) of helping the “broad audience of PMLA understand this exciting–but, to many, daunting–new direction [digital humanities].” From the point of view of this larger community (for whom my copy editor serves as the proxy agent), “DH” is still too much an insider’s acronym to employ consistently as a solution. That would be daunting. And there are good arguments why I should be adding the article and maintaining plural verb agreement. “The digital humanities are” is just more standard–meaning that such usage signals that I am fully willing to communicate across fields without hedging myself in even minimal “leet”-speak. Similarly, consider that–as has been brought to my attention–it seems normative to say “American studies is” (singular); yet it is still not wholly normative to say “digital humanities is” for the reason (among others) that we also don’t say “the humanities is.” “Digital humanities” is swayed in usage by its relation to cognate usages in proximate areas and fields like “the humanities” or “the arts.” The phrase “digital humanities” is thus still prevented from crossing over the grammatical Jordan (where McLuhan in his Mosaic persona himself stopped) to become “media” or “American studies” in the singular. In this light, the internal debates that digital humanists are having about whether DH is or is not, and should or should not be, a field can only be one part of a larger conversation bristling with other agendas, urgencies, precedents, and politics. Digital humanists are unlikely to come to clarity about their naming or usage conventions, and about the concepts these express, until they engage in much fuller conversation with their affiliated or enveloping disciplinary fields (e.g., literary studies, history, writing programs, library studies, etc.), cousin fields (e.g., new media studies), and the wider public about where they fit in, which is to say, how they contribute to a larger, shared agenda expressed in the conjunction and collision of many fields.

Neither of the two propositions above dismisses the seriousness of the questions, doubts, and objections that digital humanists have about whether and how their work will be constituted as a field. Taken in tandem, the propositions just mean that the values at the foundation of such questions and doubts—the values of pluralism, inclusiveness, informality, and others–are a function of the total socio-intellectual field, one that is more like a solar gravitational field than a planetary field that can be discussed in its own orbit. Whether DH ends up being spoken of, behaving like, and organizing itself as a “field,” I think, is less important than the inclusiveness and collaboration of the exogamous discussion digital humanists should be having about the issue.

As a coda, I add that I have not yet worked through the copy editing of “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” (The deadline for reviewing the copy editing is next week.) Are any of the issues I raise important enough to spend much time on or to do battle over with a diligent, sensitive, and highly professional copy editor? Probably not. But this is one of the few times I have found the rigorous process of being examined, and examining oneself, represented by the catechism of copy editing to be a rewarding intellectual challenge.

Note: Some of what I suggest above is testable, and I would welcome corrections or revisions on that basis (as well as other corrections). Also, I would welcome hearing from any journal or book editors who have deliberated on such issues or created house styles. I will revise or add to this little meditation of mine as I, and others, change my mind.

Thanks to those who contributed responses when I first broached these issues on Twitter on 5 March 2013–especially David M. Berry (@berrydm), Francesca Giannetti (@jo_frankie), Josh Honn (@joshhonn), Shawna Ross (@ShawnaRoss), Susan Garfinkel (@footnotesrising), and Anno Ici (@Annoici).
Related Writings (updated 20 April 2013):