A visionary scope of the digital humanities

The below ‘visionary scope’ draft was taken from a submitted article on Envisioning the Digital Humanities (submitted to the Digital Humanities Quarterly). Author: Patrik Svensson. I am posting it as I will be doing several talks on the digital humanities over the next couple of weeks, and hopefully the excerpt below will add detail to my take on the digital humanities. Comments welcome!

The digital humanities is a part of the humanities not so much in the sense of being a distinct and separate discipline, but in the sense of interrelating deeply and multifariously with the humanities disciplines. The digital humanities should have integrity and independence, but also need to consistently touch at the heart of the disciplines and engage with major contemporary research challenges and some of the most acknowledged humanities scholars. The digital humanities does not have to work with every scholar or discipline and most initiatives are specific in one way or another, but the field as a whole should be open enough to invite both data heavy projects, encoding methodology and critical theory based analyzes. We need to acknowledge that ‘big tent’ digital humanities draws on multiple epistemic traditions and that finding common ground and language is not trivial. Furthermore, the rhetoric of an expansive digital humanities comes with certain responsibilities and cannot be exclusively mapped on individual traditions in a convincing way. At the same time, inclusion in the field of digital humanities must be based on self-identification and a willingness to engage, although considerable richness comes from continuously attracting scholars who may not initially relate to the digital or the digital humanities. While there is clear value to identifying a field of digital humanities, we need to accommodate a range of organizational relations. Double affiliation is a useful way of maintaining links both to a discipline and the digital humanities. The field, however, is not reliant on departments and disciplines to make ‘things happen’. For instance, a digital humanities center may have to create new faculty positions to support a significant area not of immediate interest to the relevant departments.

The digital humanities clearly has the power to stimulate visionary and transformative thinking, and can be a site for innovation, reconfiguration and exploration. This power, which should be acknowledged and valued, comes from the broad and intersectional reach of the digital humanities, a sense of being situated at the periphery and fighting established structures, the non-disciplinary status of the field, and humanities-external interest and acknowledgement. The digital serves as a potent point of canalization for this transformative sentiment, and by proxy, the digital humanities can become a place where the digital, analogue and hybrid humanities can be discussed, negotiated and projected. Again, this will not take place everywhere, but is a significant property of the digital humanities as a project.

The digital humanities need to be materially and technologically grounded in order to facilitate the often intertwined practical, expressive and critical work associated with the field. We need to engage deeply and sensitively with digital media and technology in order to shape our own means of knowledge production. A truly humanities-based notion of research infrastructure requires humanists to carefully think through the intellectual challenges and ideational underpinnings of the humanities and individual fields as well as to critically explore technologies and methodologies. Critical work on digitally inflected representation and objects of analysis benefits from real engagement with the digital modalities in question. We need deep knowledge of underlying technologies and methodologies such as text encoding, geographical information systems, physical computing and humanities visualization, as well as expertise in sustainable data modeling and informed information aesthetics. Naturally, the digital humanities cannot and should probably not have all this in-house, but we need to be serious about our material and technological grounding.

The digital humanities can serve as a laboratory, innovation agency, portal and collaborative initiator for the humanities, and as a respectful meeting place or trading zone for the humanities, technology and culture: extending across research, education and innovation. This meeting place would normally extend far outside the humanities proper, and could include the humanities as well as other academic disciplines, industry and the art world. The digital humanities center (in whatever form) is not dead, nor probably a necessity for the field, but there is clear advantage to an independent role and to having a space. The lab or studio model is one of many, but one that has clear advantages worth considering for new digital humanities initiatives. A well-designed and conceptually grounded space, whether mainly physical, digital or necessarily hybrid, can help bring people together, instantiate technology, be clearly invitational, support collaborative and processual work practices, and allow ongoing, cross-sectional, and profound dialogue. A physical space can function as a focus of interest and as a showcase, and the digital humanities can be one of the two-three most frequent and popular spots for external high-level (and other level) guests to the university. This gives the added benefit of the provost or university president getting to hear about the current state of affairs in the digital humanities on a regular basis, and challenges us to talk freshly and intensely about the future of the field, significant scholarly challenges, and some of the most exciting trajectories of the humanities.

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