I want to try a quick experiment.
The digital humanities community must . . .
If that sounds like a plausible beginning to a sentence, what about this one?
The literary studies community must . . .
Does that sound as odd to you as it does to me? No one pretends literary studies is a community. In North America, the discipline becomes visible to itself mainly at the famously alienating yearly ritual of the Modern Language Association convention. A hotel that contains disputatious full professors and underemployed job-seekers may be many interesting things, but “community” is not the first word that comes to mind.
“Digital humanities,” on the other hand, frequently invokes itself as a “community.” The reasons may stretch back into the 1990s and to the early beleaguered history of humanities computing. But the contemporary logic of the term is probably captured by Matt Kirschenbaum, who stresses that the intellectually disparate projects now characterized as DH are unified above all by reliance on social media,1 especially Twitter.
In many ways that’s a wonderful thing. Twitter is not a perfectly open form, and it’s certainly not an egalitarian one; it has a one-to-many logic. But you don’t have to be a digital utopian to recognize that academic fields benefit from frequent informal contact among their members—what Dan Cohen has described as “the sidewalk life of successful communities.”2 Twitter is especially useful for establishing networks that cross disciplinary (and professional) boundaries; I’ve learned a lot from those connections.
On the other hand, the illusion of a perfectly open, intimate community created by Twitter has some downsides. The sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft may be useful here as a set of ideal types. A Gemeinschaft (community) is bound together by personal contact among members and by shared values. It may lack formal institutions, so its members have to be restrained by moral suasion and peer pressure. A Gesellschaft (society) doesn’t expect all its members to share the same values; it expects them to be guided mostly by individual aims, restrained and organized by formal institutions.
Given that choice, wouldn’t everyone prefer to live in cozy Gemeinschaft? Well, sure, except . . . remember, you’re going to have to agree on a set of values! Digital humanists have spent a lot of time discussing values, but it’s always been a difficult conversation. “Digital humanities” is after all a broad phrase; Matt Kirschenbaum is probably right that it took shape less as a description of a specific research program than as a “tactical term.”3 I would add that the term was tactically successful precisely because it lumped together a diverse group of projects that might individually have been seen as outliers. Humanities computing and the study of new media appeared, separately, marginal to most humanities disciplines. But together, and allied with distant reading and with the open-access movement (among other things), they began to add up to a trend.
I don’t mean to imply that the notion of a digital humanities “community” was purely a tactical ruse. There were of course real human connections involved, emerging in some cases from specific physical campuses. Social media has also fostered networking practices that are more expansive and informal than would have been typical for academics even ten or fifteen years ago. And those networks, also, are real.
But none of these things add up to a movement or community in the strong Gemeinschaft-y sense that would imply shared aims and values. Instead we have an expansive social network that feels like community, since it’s bound together by personal connections through social media—but that in fact has always covered different projects, in different disciplines and professions, with different intellectual goals.
That, at any rate, is the short history of “digital humanities” I would offer, in an effort to explain why the phrase seems to evoke, and then immediately disappoint, expectations of intellectual community. Looking at the history of the term, I see little reason to expect digital humanists to be unified by shared aims and values at all (at least, not by values that are meaningfully different from the values held by intellectuals more generally).
That may sound like a melancholy admission, since “community” is generally held to be a good thing, and since many of us would like to affirm shared values—at least of the kind that Lisa Spiro affirms in her 2012 essay “This Is Why We Fight,”4 broad ideals like “connection” or “openness.” But here’s where I circle back to the song in my title. If you’re organizing an intellectual endeavor where debate about values is part of the point, there’s a lot to be said for Gesellschaft. Academic communication doesn’t have to be impersonal, but in the words of 38 Special, we need to give each other “a whole lot of space to breathe in.”
For instance, “connection” is good. But there is probably such a thing as too much connection. Attempting to resolve academic debates through moral suasion on Twitter is not just a bad idea because it produces flame wars. It would be an even worse idea if it worked—because we don’t really want intellectual projects to have that kind of consensus, enforced by personal ties and displays of collective solidarity. The value of “openness” may be equally problematic on the Web, which facilitates it all too well. In principle, one wants to engage all points of view, but no one can engage them all at one-hour intervals. Filter bubbles have their uses.
The original (2013) version of this piece closed with foreboding reflections on the future of academic Twitter, which I worried might lure “humanists into attempting a more cohesive, coercive kind of Gemeinschaft than academic social networks can (or should) sustain.” But here I think the passage of time is tending to support a more optimistic view. At any rate, in my experience, Twitter is still a useful place for scholars to share links and leads.
Perhaps my anxieties were misplaced because the simulacrum of Gemeinschaft produced by social media simply doesn’t run deep enough, in the end, to exert a problematically coercive power. Social media certainly tempt us to imagine loose academic networks as normative communities, but that may be an illusion even for networks within a single discipline, let alone for networks linked by a term as broad and abstract as “digital humanities.”
Cohen, Dan. “The Sidewalk Life of Successful Communities,” Media Commons, January 30, 2013. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/how-do-we-build-digital-cohorts-and-academic-communities/response/sidewalk-life-successfu-0.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, 415–28. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/48.
Spiro, Lisa. “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, 16–37. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13.
38 Special. “Hold on Loosely.” Wild-Eyed Southern Boys. A&M, 1981.
Tönnies, Ferdinand. Community and Society (1887). Translated by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan University Press, 1957.