Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
The Rhetoric of Digital Humanities

Clearly there is a great deal of interest (and consternation) over the “what is DH?” question. Personally, I have heard from a number of folks both here and on Twitter over the last twenty-four hours. Even though, as Stephen Ramsay was pointing out in a comment on my last post, this is a longstanding question, it is one that seems to be increasingly pointed, perhaps because, as others have noted, there are more and more folks interested in the term. The DH11 conference that initiated my last post is really just one, even reasonably minor, example of the issue.

I will not even attempt to account for the volume of discussion on this issue. However, I believe it is safe to say that “digital humanities” raises many more eyebrows than the term “humanities computing.” And this is a rhetorical issue to me. For example, if one looks at the Companion to Digital Humanities, the terms “digital humanities” and “humanities computing” are used interchangeably. Kirschenbaum’s ADE article (which I cited in my last post as well) begins with the question, “What is (or are) the ‘digital humanities,’ aka ‘humanities computing’?” He then traces a very specific genesis of the term “digital humanities” through an interview with John Unsworth, who he quotes:

“The real origin of that term [digital humanities] was in conversation with Andrew McNeillie, the original acquiring editor for the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities. We started talking with him about that book project in 2001, in April, and by the end of November we’d lined up contributors and were discussing the title, for the contract. Ray [Siemens] wanted “a Companion to Humanities Computing,” as that was the term commonly used at that point; the editorial and marketing folks at Blackwell wanted “Companion to Digitized Humanities.” I suggested “Companion to Digital Humanities” to shift the emphasis away from simple digitization.

So there you go. I think it is undoubtedly the case that the term digital humanities was meant to mean humanities computing. It also seems clear that the switch was a rhetorical move. From this passage it is impossible to know if the term “digitized humanities” or “digital humanities” was thought to be more accurate in some epistemological, (inter)disciplinary, sense than “humanities computing,” or if the switch was intended as a way of creating a title that might have broader appeal. The reference to “marketing folks” makes me think the latter, but one can’t be sure. Now someone who is not a rhetorician may think that is a kind of criticism, but it is not coming from me. The switch, in my view, would represent a belief on the part of the authors and editors regarding who they believe their audience should be. Digital humanities addresses that audience in a way that humanities computing does not.

Excerpt from

By Alex Reid