Julie Thompson Klein
Debates on digital humanities are sites of boundary work in a history of arguments about the nature of the field. Boundary work is a composite label for the claims, activities, and structures by which individuals and groups create, maintain, break down, and reformulate boundaries between knowledge units (Fisher 13–14; Klein, Crossing 1–2). Thomas Gieryn coined the term in 1983 in a study of demarcating science from non-science. It is an ideological style that constructs boundaries rhetorically in three ways: by expanding authority or expertise into domains claimed by other professions or occupations, by monopolizing authority and resources, and by protecting autonomy over professional activities (781, 791–92). The advent of digital technologies in humanities was the catalyst for two major forms of boundary work: protecting traditional scholarship and teaching from the encroachment of new methods that bridge the traditional separation of humanities from technology and asserting the authority of some practices over others in an emergent field.
Practices range widely, from computational linguistics and electronic text editing associated with the early label “humanities computing” to expanding connotations of “digital humanities” (DH) in new modes of data visualization, digital-born scholarship, and subfields such as code studies, software studies, and game studies, to name but a few examples. Priorities vary, in turn, depending on whether emphasis falls on technical production or the cultural impact of new information technologies and media. This chapter tracks the practice of making in arguments and activities that have reconceptualized building tools from reductive mechanical work to an intellectual endeavor in its own right. It begins by aligning making with the historical boundary between thinking and doing, then tracks refiguration of their relationship framed by Patrik Svensson’s five modes of engagement. It continues by identifying intellectual warrants in the concept of thinking-through-practice and an epistemology, aesthetics, and rhetoric of building, including work associated with critical making and the materiality of things. The status of these warrants differs across disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, and occupational professions, but making has also become a shared thematic across DH communities of practice.
Making Digital Humanities
The boundary work of making is framed historically by distinctions in Greek philosophy between epistēmē, understood as knowledge, and technē, understood as a craft, skill, or art. In The Republic and other philosophical dialogues, Plato argues that knowledge is found, not made, distinguishing discovery of true knowledge from actions producing practical knowledge. Aristotle, in turn, writing in the Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics, demarcates theoretical science for its own sake from the practical science of conduct and goodness in action and the productive science of creating beautiful or useful objects. Over the following centuries demarcation of intellectual activity from theory and practical and productive work was reinforced in parallel distinctions between liberal versus mechanical arts and fine versus useful arts. The English word “making,” which derives from the Old English “macung,” also distinguished thinking from doing by constructing something. As a result, the relationship of humanities and new technologies was confronted from the beginning by the higher status of interpretation, analysis, and abstraction over fabrication, application, and production. Introduction of the name “digital humanities” was a significant intervention in this hierarchy of valuing.
The emergence of digital humanities is dated conventionally to the search for machines capable of automating linguistic analysis of written texts. The year 1949 is enshrined in most origin stories, benchmarked by Father Roberto Busa’s efforts to create an automated index variorum of words in the works of Thomas Aquinas and related authors. Alternative histories, though, situate origin elsewhere: in, for example, early information theory and computer science, the rise of the Internet, new forms of media and communication platforms, and the expanding role of computation in culture. The names given to developments are not neutral. Names, Cathy Davidson (2010) explains, are historical reference points that mark converging energies at particular moments, demarcating what is considered tangential, intersectional, or orthogonal to a field (207). The earliest labels — “humanities computing” and “computational humanities” — grounded definition in production of concordances and thesauri, textual informatics, language processing, vocabulary studies, stylometrics, and analysis of encoded textual material (Hockey 3, 7–10). Stephen Ramsay (2011) and John Unsworth (in Fitzpatrick 2011) claim the term “digital humanities” was introduced in order to shift the perceived status of technology. Ramsay traced the origin to the late 1990s at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH). The new name countered narrow equations of “humanities computing” with low-prestige computing in favor of an intellectual endeavor with its own practices, standards, and theories (quoted in Hayles 24). Unsworth dated its introduction somewhat later, to discussions about a title for the first anthology in the field, Blackwell’s 2004 A Companion to Digital Humanities. The name moved beyond connotations of “simple digitization” in the original proposed title (Fitzpatrick). In both cases, though, the boundary work of naming was similar, establishing authority for work lacking legitimacy in the hierarchy of humanities at the time.
As the field grew, its boundaries were redrawn multiple times in order to position an expanding array of practices. Svensson’s (2010) typology of paradigmatic modes of engagement provides a framework for gauging the relationship of humanities and technology as a tool, a study object, an expressive medium, an experimental laboratory, and an activist venue. All five modes entail making but in different ways and to different degrees. The first mode — as a tool — highlights the instrumentality of production and related processes. It has been especially strong in text analysis, text encoding, and markup systems in corpus stylistics, digitization, preservation, and curation. In the second mode — as a study object — the digital is an object of analysis, aligning the field more closely with cultural studies and critique. The third mode — as an expressive medium — benchmarks new modes of communication, including born-digital and multimodal forms of expression ranging from long-form blogging to interactive hybrids of text, image, and sound engaging authors and designers in collaborative production. The fourth mode — as an experimental laboratory — has become a major site of exploring ideas, testing tools, and modifying data sets and complex objects. In contrast, the fifth mode — as an activist venue — aligns digital humanities with change, prioritizing inclusion, accessibility, and the democratic imperative of social justice.
Although driven by differing epistemic commitments, the five categories are not airtight. Svensson describes them as both borders of difference and junctures of overlapping interest. Mode two — as a study object — aligns technology with sociopolitical change in critiques of the dominant structure of knowledge and information technologies. Mode five — as an activist venue — also blurs boundaries of genre. Sharon Daniel’s Public Secrets (2007), for instance, is an activist production in a hybrid form of scholarship on prison abolition and women in prison; designed in collaboration with Erik Loyer, it is simultaneously an artistic installation, cultural critique, and intervention (cited in Balsamo 87–88). Other examples in this category include the Electronic Disturbance Theater, b.a.n.g. lab at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, Electronic Democracy Network’s research on online practices of political participation, and acts of “political coding” and “performative hacking” by new-media dissidents (Losh 168–69, 171). The boundaries of modes one, two, and five also blur in Postcolonial Digital Humanities, #TransformDH’s explorations of DH and race, and the Fembot Collective. These initiatives, to echo David Berry (2013), build on earlier work on critical cultural studies of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in contexts of design, programming, and coding.
With its orientation to tools, mode one perpetuates the belief that digital humanities is primarily about technical production and methods, rendering it a handmaiden to humanities. Authors of The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, Jeffrey Schnapp and Todd Presner, cite common dismissals: “It’s just a tool; it’s just a repository; it’s just pedagogy” (10). These judgments perpetuate a hierarchy of value that regards resource production as less worthy than interpretation, archival work in libraries as secondary to scholarship, and teaching of lesser value than research. The underlying “knowledge jukebox” conception of humanities work, Willard McCarty (2005) lamented, renders technology makers “mere assistants or delivery boys to scholarship,” tools little more than “vending machines for knowledge,” and the machine an efficient “servant” (6). Yet, in introducing Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities, co-editors Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth contend that tools and interpretation are not oppositional: “application is as important as theory,” and tasks typically associated with “humanities computing” put digital representation of archival materials “on a par with analysis of critical inquiry and theories of analysis or critical inquiry originating in the study of those materials” (xxv). In some instances, Svensson’s fifth mode of activism also takes the form of critical thinking about design and use. Preemptive Media, for instance, is a project for discussing emerging policies and technologies through beta tests, trial runs, and impact assessments.
New practices also cross institutional boundaries by creating transactional spaces. The location of academic work is framed by two sets of metaphors in the discourse of knowledge fields. Spatial images of boundaries, borders, turf, and territory accentuate controlling practices. In contrast, organic metaphors of cross-fertilization, mutations, and intersections liken development of new practices to ecological processes and the evolution of new species. Yet, Michael Winter suggests, partial and organic metaphors may be combined to form a third type that highlights interactions between social groups and environments. The Greek word “ecology” (oikeo) means household or settlement. The root idea is to make and reinforce jurisdictional claims and exploit resources to produce new forms and settlements (343–46). In defining the dynamics of learning in a digital age, Anne Balsamo (2011) invokes a similar concept: Michael de Certeau’s (1984) distinction between place and space. A “place,” such as a school, has stable boundaries and a fixed location. Space is “a practiced place,” created through actions and practices including the learning that happens when inhabiting it (Balsamo 143; de Certeau 117).
Digital humanities labs, which host Svensson’s mode four, exemplify spatializing practices. Many, such as the Stanford Humanities Lab and the Maker Lab at the University of Victoria, are located within existing academic institutions. Yet, Jon Saklofske, Estelle Clements, and Richard Cunningham (2012) liken them to “experimental sandboxes” (325), and Bethany Nowviskie (2013) compares them to small “skunkworks” teams of research and development engineers at the Lockheed Martin aeronautics corporation in the 1940s. Nowviskie describes library-based digital humanities skunkworks as semi-independent “prototyping and makerspace labs” where librarians take on new roles as “scholar-practitioners.” The Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library, for instance, has produced not only tools but also innovative digital scholarship as well as technical and social frameworks needed for support and sustainability (Nowviskie 53, 56, 61). One of the sites Svensson visited, the ACTLab (Advanced Communication Technology) at the University of Texas, was established as a combined studio, performance, and seminar space. Svensson likens it to an art school or media production studio more than a humanities department. Moreover, Sandy Stone explains, theory flows from the act of making “stuff” in the lab. Its members believed that tinkering with tools engaged thinking as well as a means of expression and activism (quoted in Svensson 57–66).
Formulating an Epistemology, Aesthetics, and Rhetoric of Building
Crossing the boundaries of thinking and doing has also resulted in new theorizations of what Anne Burdick (2012) and colleagues call “thinking-through-practice.” It brings the creative practice of design to the center of research, favoring process over product as well as versioning and extensibility over definitive editions and research silos. It also underscores the iterative and incremental contours of making activated in new contexts, openness to new contributions and extensions, and dialogue and debate (vii, 13, 22, 132). In a parallel distinction, Geoffrey Rockwell and Andrew Mactavish (2004) differentiate “thinking about” from “thinking with” technology. Thinking about produces definitions, histories, examples, and theoretical problems disseminated in textbooks, articles, and lectures. Thinking with is a craft with its own tradition of discourse, forms of organization, tools, and outcomes (117). It goes beyond a narrow conception of tools to epistemological reflection and critical thinking about their capacities and limits. Working with technology, Ramsay and Rockwell (2012) further contend, has a hermeneutic power that generates an “epistemology of building.” Prototypes may be considered theories, not in the standard sense of observations capable of predicting future observations but a humanities connotation of deeper understanding and a form of argumentation with explanatory power. Viewing digital artifacts as hermeneutic instruments also opens the possibility of a “materialist epistemology” for interpreting phenomena through technologies (77–79).
Balsamo’s integration of hermeneutics and reverse engineering demonstrates what a materialist epistemology looks like. “Reverse engineering” is a process of working backwards from construction of an existing technology to gain information for a new instance. The concept of “hermeneutic reverse engineering” couples insights from interpretive theory with practices of engineers, computer scientists, and creative tinkerers. Its iterative nature erases boundaries between stages of design through rapid prototyping, user testing, and assessment in situ. It also factors in social and cultural contexts of innovations, as well as reflection and critique. And, it reaches beyond narrow ranges of collaboration among computer scientists and engineers to broad interdisciplinary bridging of science and humanities, technology and arts. Technical expertise and skills are combined with methods of understanding meaning, including parsing linguistics and grammar, decoding visual symbols or representation, and analyzing dynamics of artistic performance. Social scientists also contribute understanding of social impacts, and physical scientists offer new theoretical possibilities and methods of evaluation. For example, Women of the World Talk Back, Balsamo’s multimedia project with Mary Hocks, combined communicative, graphic, and transactional practices to produce an interactive application for an NGO Forum in China in 1995. Designers built layers of meaning from people, devices, objects, and events, including relationships between women and digital technologies cast as feminist cultural activism.
Thinking-through-practice also entails an aesthetics of making at the heart of Johanna Drucker’s (2009) distinction between “speculative computing” and “digital humanities.” Many who call themselves digital humanists would argue they are doing speculative computing. Yet, Drucker’s distinction highlights a shift from conceptions of materiality as mechanistic readings of formal properties to generative provocations. Drucker associates digital humanities with a philosophy of Mathesis that privileges objectivity, formal logic, and instrumental applications. In contrast, she aligns speculative computing with a philosophy of Aesthesis that privileges subjectivity, aesthetics, interpretation, and emergent phenomena. Aesthesis also recognizes cultural and historical characteristics of visual forms and their rhetorical assumptions. Drucker based her distinction on projects in the Speculative Computing Laboratory (SpecLab) at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, including temporal modeling and a game based on Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. The game was a flexible space for engaging with characters and generating alternative versions, experimenting with digital media as a means of facilitating critical modes of reading in literary studies. As a thinking process, Drucker adds, making things is both formative and transformative.
The shift from “things” as technical mechanics to arguments based on processes, flows, and signals has also generated a rhetoric of building that is especially strong in new subfields such as critical code studies, software studies, and platform studies. Computational procedures, James J. Brown, Jr. (2015) explains, are not just tools. They can be deployed as an expressive and rhetorical medium (27, 29). Ian Bogost’s (2012) concept of “procedural rhetoric” propelled new studies of how computational rules in software and game design make arguments, and the concept of a “carpentry” of building asks “how things make their world” (85). Recalling the foundational work of Matthew Kirschenbaum (2008), Steven E. Jones (2014) identifies two strands of definition: a forensic materiality of silicon, wire, and magnetic impulses inscribed on hard drives; and a formal materiality of symbols, code, and logical and procedural structures (Jones 81; Kirschenbaum 9-15). The “New Materialism,” David Gruber (2015) sums up, elevates materialist analysis of environments and local practices over the older paradigm of discursivity grounded in text and past conceptualizations of the material environment as a passive entity (296–97, 301, 304). Yet, as Karen Barad (2007) shows, matter is still entangled with meaning and materiality with discourse.
The concept of “critical making” has also gained traction in digital humanities discourse. It is associated with developments in the public and private sectors, especially the maker movement, DIY culture, prosumer markets, and the resurgence of handicraft and tinkering (Balsamo 177). Ratto and Boler (2014) link the term “DIY,” in particular, with the counterculture of the late 1960s, and subsequent practices, such as zines and communities of “critical makers” spanning fandom, tactical media, and collective indie radio activism as well as community gardens and other civic engagements, challenge conventional authority and power. At the same time, Ratto and Boler add, “critical” has another connotation linking making things with “critically-infused reflection” on process and practice (3). Despite the case for making as a scholarly practice, though, gatekeeping mechanisms continue to reinforce the boundary of what “counts” as legitimate professional activity — and what does not. The fine arts offer a model of outcomes beyond traditional publication, yet humanities practitioners still encounter resistance in the tenure and promotion process when their work does not resemble conventional forms of scholarship. Moreover, as Stone observed from the ACTLab experience, experimental spaces confront the tension of being “outside” rather than “inside” boundaries of traditional academic structure.
Coda: Moving beyond Dichotomy
More than sixty-five years of research, design, and education have established, fortified, interrogated, and refigured the boundaries of digital humanities. The historical shift from “humanities computing” to “digital humanities” is not the only benchmark. Interventions asserting greater priority for media studies, cultural critique, activism, public engagement, and making have heightened the contest of definition and control of the field. The emergence of making, in particular, has several implications. It dismantles the dichotomies of doing versus thinking, production versus interpretation, and application versus theory. The evolving community of practice centered on shared questions and problems also builds authority for a new understanding of the complexity of making both within digital humanities and beyond, anchored by a growing body of literature and projects. And warrants for epistemology, aesthetics, and rhetoric of building establish intellectual legitimacy on humanities ground, without the need for imported methods and concepts premised on technical or scientific validity. Older pragmatics of digitizing and archiving are not jettisoned, however. They are resituated. The pragmatics of digitizing, archiving, designing, coding, analyzing, and publishing digital objects, Jones argues, are more than narrow utility. They embody investigation and creativity. Indicative of the growing visibility of the discourse of making in current conceptions of the field, Claire Warwick’s chapter on the relationship of theory and making is the closing statement in A New Companion to Digital Humanities (2016). Mindful of binary opposition reinforced by the slogan, “more hack, less yack,” Warwick asks whether such tensions are part of the evolution of a new field. The history of interdisciplinary fields provides ample evidence of ongoing differences in their construction in response to both ongoing and new imperatives.
Jones also notes that newer forms of practical and instrumental digital humanities were produced by younger scholars, some of whom worked as programmers or designers in technology industries and “alt-ac” positions (31). When bringing their experience into academic centers and projects, they legitimated a turn to hands-on practice. This development, he suggests, may be seen as a countermove to the idealism associated with cyberculture studies in the 1990s. New activities did not avoid theory or strive for scientific instrumentalism; they embodied critiques of the ideology of cyberspace as it manifested through reductive conceptions such as screen essentialism and the immateriality of digital texts. New work, Jones adds, has fostered more complex understanding of the materialities of digital platforms and physical objects, exemplified by digital forensics, critical code studies, platform studies, and game studies, as well as work with linguistic data and large corpora of texts, data visualization, and new content management systems. In his classic study of boundary work, Thomas Gieryn acknowledges the power of monopoly, but he also concludes that boundaries are “ambiguous, flexible, historically changing, contextually variable, internally inconsistent, and sometimes disputed” (792). Digital humanities is no exception. It calls into question how boundaries of disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, occupational professions, and institutional structures have been drawn, prompting us to rethink, in Brown’s words, the “state lines” they fix, protect, and sustain (29).
I thank three internal reviewers of an earlier draft for helpful suggestions: the volume editor Jentery Sayers and CommentPress reviewers, William J. Turkel and David Wright. Kim Lacey of Saginaw Valley State University also read the draft and raised excellent questions for revision.
1. Oxford English Dictionary, “making,” n.1.
2. See also Drucker and Nowviskie.
3. For more on screen essentialism and the ostensible immateriality of digital texts, see Kirschenbaum.
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