Five years ago it was easy to check on new digital subfields of the humanities. Just open Twitter. If a new blog post had dropped or a magazine had published a fresh denunciation of “digital humanities,” academics would be buzzing.
In 2017, Stanley Fish and Leon Wieseltier are no longer attacking digital humanities—and if they did, people might not care. Twitter, unfortunately, has bigger problems to worry about, because the Anglo-American political world has seen some changes for the worse.
But the world of digital humanities, I think, has seen changes for the better. It seems increasingly taken for granted that digital media and computational methods can play a role in the humanities. Perhaps a small role, and a controversial one, and one without much curricular support—but still!
In place of journalistic controversies and flame wars, we are finally getting a broad scholarly conversation about new ideas. Conversations of this kind take time to develop. Many of us will recall Twitter threads from 2013 anxiously wondering whether digital scholarship would ever have an impact on more mainstream disciplinary venues (Posner). The answer, “It just takes time” was not, in 2013, very convincing. But, in fact, it just took time. Quantitative methods and large scales of analysis, for instance, are now a central subject of debate in literary studies.
To illustrate their centrality, we might point to a recent special issue of Genre that engages the theme of “data” in relation to the Victorian novel; this follows a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly on “scale and value” (Rosenthal; English and Underwood). “Scale” is the theme of the English Institute in 2017, and PMLA has announced a call for papers on “Varieties of Digital Humanities.” Meanwhile, of course, the new journal Cultural Analytics is providing an open-access home for essays that make computational methods central to their interpretive practice (Piper).
The participants in this conversation do not all identify as digital humanists or distant readers. But they are generally open-minded scholars willing to engage ideas as ideas, whatever their disciplinary origin. Some are still deeply suspicious of numbers, but they are willing to consider both sides of the debate about quantitative methods. Many recent essays are refreshingly aware that quantitative analysis is itself a mode of interpretation, guided by explicit reflection on interpretive theory. Instead of reifying computation as a “tool” or “skill,” for instance, Robert Mitchell engages the intellectual history of Bayesian statistics in Genre.
Recent essays also seem aware that the history of large-scale quantitative approaches to the literary past did not begin and end with Franco Moretti. References to book history and the Annales School mix with citations of Tanya Clement and Andrew Piper (Levine, 70–71). This expansion of the conversation is welcome and overdue.
If “data” were a theme—like thing theory or the Anthropocene—this play might now have reached its happy ending. Getting literary scholars to talk about a theme is normally enough. But in fact, the play could proceed for several more acts, because “data” is just shorthand for a range of interpretive practices that are not yet naturalized in the humanities. At most universities, grad students still cannot learn how to do distant reading. So there is no chance at all that distant reading will become the “next big thing”—one of those fashions that sweeps departments of English, changing everyone’s writing in a way soon taken for granted. We can stop worrying about that. Adding citations to Geertz and Foucault can be done in a month. But a method that requires years of retraining is not going to sweep rapidly over anything. Maybe, ten years from now, the fraction of humanities faculty who actually use quantitative methods may have risen to 3 percent or, optimistically, 5 percent. No amount of persuasion could make that process move faster: its progress is not limited by the conscious opinions of scholars, but by their training.
So we might as well enjoy the current situation. The initial wave of utopian promises and enraged jeremiads about digital humanities seems to have receded. Scholars have realized that new objects and methods of study can make a real difference, but that they are in no danger of taking over. Now it is just a matter of doing the work and teaching others how to do it. That also takes time.
English, James F., and Ted Underwood, eds. “Scale and Value: New and Digital Approaches to Literary History.” Special issue, MLQ 77, no. 1 (2016).
Levine, Caroline. “The Enormity Effect: Realist Fiction, Literary Studies, and the Refusal to Count.” Special issue, Genre 50, no. 1 (2017): 77–95.
Mitchell, Robert. “Response.” Special issue, Genre 50, no. 1 (2017): 139–52.
Piper, Andrew. “There Will Be Numbers.” Cultural Analytics, May 23, 2016, http://culturalanalytics.org/2016/05/there-will-be-numbers/.
Posner, Miriam. “At the moment, says Drucker, our work isn’t really changing or contributing to disciplines outside of DH. #dhbootcamp.” Twitter, August 29, 2013, 6:18 p.m.
Rosenthal, Jesse. “Narrative against Data in the Victorian Novel.” Special issue, Genre 50, no. 1 (2017).