Disciplining the Digital?

For those of you who weren’t able to attend the DH Benelux Conference in June, you can get a good flavour of the coffee-break discussions from the excellent video clips organized by the folks here at the ehumanities group. Many of the participants gave their impressions of what digital humanities means to them and, although wonderfully diverse, they all naturally shared a focus on digital tools and digital data.

The great benefit of events like these are that they encourage cross-fertilization in tool building, helping researchers to iron out troublesome technical glitches, or think more widely about how the tools can be used. But the risk of organising conferences, research agendas, publications or even research funding around methods is that it distances them from their disciplinary contexts, making their use less meaningful and ultimately ghettoizing them into their own small academic niche.

A common vision of the future of digital humanities is that some of the techniques will become so widely used as to be practically absorbed into mainstream humanities methods. They will become so unremarkable as to not even deserve their special classification as digital. But there are also indications of an opposite trend, where the methods become part of a wider “discipline of the digital.”

In his recent inaugural lecture at the University of Aarhus, Niels Brügger argued for the humanities, digital humanities, media studies and internet studies to coalesce around the digital object into a more unified field. Setting out the ways that media theory can inform the development of digitally supported tools, or the study of the internet can draw from basic principles within the humanities, he makes the case for a more expansive definition of the digital humanities to include these fields – a digital humanities 2.0.

Perhaps what Brügger is really describing is a digital social sciences rather than a digital humanities, and there are some institutes or departments that already take such an approach. Embedding digital tools into an explicitly digital discipline can help to ground them a bit more, moving away from fetishizing their ability to solve seemingly intractable human problems – as if solutions could be found if only we could discover the right algorithm.

When the digital is treated as just another object of study, taking its place alongside all the other extraordinary constructions of the human mind, then the tools used to interrogate them can be treated a bit more realistically. They can still prove extremely useful, even if they don’t represent the major “paradigm shift” that researchers in the field often feel under pressure to claim in order to secure funding.