"The Meaning of the Digital Humanities"

First page

Citation: “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” PMLA 128 (2013): 409-23.

Excerpt (from near beginning)

Yet even if we were to complete our hypothetical ethnographer’s chart [of the digital humanities], it would not adequately explain the digital humanities. This is because we would leave unexplained the relation of the digital humanities to the humanities generally. My thesis is that an understanding of the digital humanities can only rise to the level of an explanation if we see that the underlying issue is the disciplinary identity not of the digital humanities but of the humanities themselves. For the humanities, the digital humanities exceed (though they include) the functional role of instrument or service, the pioneer role of innovator, the ensemble role of an “additional field,” and even such faux-political roles assigned to new fields as challenger, reformer, and (less positively) fifth column.

Meaning is clearly a metavalue and also metaproblem for the digital humanities. To unpack this meaning problem, I will spotlight a recent work of digital literary scholarship by two beginning scholars that is state-of-the-art and representative of major trends in the digital humanities . . . .

This is because the digital humanities also have a symbolic role. In both their promise and their threat, the digital humanities serve as a shadow play for a future form of the humanities that wishes to include what people value about the digital without losing its soul to other domains of knowledge work that have gone digital to stake their claim to contemporary society. Or, precisely because the digital humanities are both functional and symbolic, a better metaphor would be something like the register in a computer’s central processor unit, where values stored in deep memory are loaded for rapid shuffling, manipulation, and testing–in this case, to try out new humanistic disciplinary identities evolved for today’s broader contention of knowledges and knowledge workers.

The question of the meaning of the digital humanities best opens such an argument to view because it registers both a specific problem in the digital humanities and the larger crisis of the meaningfulness of today’s humanities.