Monday, July 11, 2016

The Humanities? What’s That? (w/ a look at Pamela Fletcher in LARB)

I don’t know when I first heard about “the humanities,” perhaps college, but maybe before. But if before, well, the phrase wasn’t meaningful until college, and after. And ever after it’s been a burden, always in crisis and, always: Am I a humanist or not? Of course I’m not talking about the humanities as in humanism, such as “Renaissance humanism” – from the dictionary: “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” I’m talking about a group of academic disciplines (philosophy, literature, history, etc.) or perhaps – and here things begin to get murky – a way of approaching the subject matter within those disciplines.

For one can approach literature and art as a psychologist. And philosophy departments harbor experts in symbolic logic, which looks and feels an awful lot math. Come to think of it, I used a philosophy course in logic to fulfill the math requirement for my B.A.

My problem, you see, is that while I study literary texts and films, I’ve spent an awful lot of time looking at them through cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and computational linguistics. And then there’s all those diagrams I use (and love). They just break the discursive flow, yet often they carry the argument.

And speaking of diagrams, what about all those charts and graphs that turn up in computational criticism (aka “distant reading”)? They may be about literary texts, but they come out of computers and statistics and data munging. Humanities?
I think not! 
And just who, may I ask, are you?
Could it been that 19th century disciplinary categories don’t fit 21st century conceptual practices and possibilities? Just what ARE the humanities NOW?

And that brings me to Melissa Dinsman’s interview with Pamela Fletcher in her excellent series at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Fletcher casts doubt on the category, “the humanities,” though not necessarily in the way I have just been doing. Here’s some remarks from the interview.

* * * * *

What is it about a liberal arts college (or Bowdoin specifically) that makes “digital humanities” an unproductive or not very meaningful label?

Your question gives me pause, and makes me wonder if this is really a good description of liberal arts colleges, or even of Bowdoin, or if it is just my own perspective. I should say that many liberal arts colleges (Hamilton comes to mind) have used the Digital Humanities category very productively, and my own colleagues at Bowdoin have put together a course cluster on that topic. I guess what I meant is that we are such a small — and collegial — place that limiting our conversations about digital and computational work to scholars in the humanities ultimately seemed limiting. And students simply do not divide themselves into those categories: there are plenty of art history majors who double major in physics or biology. And probably even more of the students in my class — or any humanities class — are also fully immersed in work across the curriculum no matter what their major might be. So that particular way of dividing human knowledge into three broad categories — humanities, natural sciences, social sciences — just doesn’t map onto my experience of liberal arts very well.

Are there any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?

Trying to answer this question makes me wonder again about the utility — or non-utility — of the digital humanities umbrella. The term has been very strategically useful in getting funding and constituting interdisciplinary research centers. But I’m not sure it’s going to be useful for much longer. Right now, it really mostly means digital literary scholarship. Opening up this category goes in two directions. On the one hand, I think it’s probably time to investigate the specific disciplinary histories that we bring to digital work. Tom Scheinfeldt and Stephen Robertson have recently called for attending to the “disciplinary differences in digital humanities” and have begun outlining a genealogy of digital history that has its origins in oral history, folklore studies, and public history rather than the more familiar DH origin narrative of humanities computing and text analysis. I think “digital art history” might usefully trace its past through a long trajectory of technologies of reproduction and artistic experimentation. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to me any particularly compelling reason to limit our interdisciplinary connection to the humanities. Some of the best conversations I’ve had about how to reimagine digital mapping, for example, have happened with computer scientists.


First of all, how do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

I don’t know. We might start by asking if the category of “the humanities” is a useful or meaningful one outside the university. I know that for my undergraduate students it isn’t always the most relevant category. For them the “digital” pervades everything, so why are the humanities separate from the social sciences? If, for example, you are teaching tools of computational text analysis, does it matter if the text you are analyzing is Shakespeare or the content of censored blog posts in China? On the one hand, it might make a really big difference to the kind of questions you ask of the material. But to the extent that you are working on developing good tools to try to analyze, say, the emotional temperature of a piece of writing, it would probably be better to test (and train) your technology against different kinds of texts.

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