Digital Humanities: An Undefined Term

Now and then a (to some extent rhetorical) question is raised in classes, meetings and conferences: “What is Digital Humanities?” Its rhetorical nature lies on the fact that DH, whether as a method, a system or an end on itself, is a plural, interdisciplinary and nonstop evolutionary entity.

Beginning the discussion about the definition of DH the first day of class, the readings for this week has included a lecture by Unsworth, an article by McCarty, the second version of DH Manifesto, a short guide by Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, and Presner, and two debates by Kirschenbaum and Alvarado, all framed on the term Manifestos. What all of them have in common is an effort to describe Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities and its implications towards the Humanities discipline. Besides, all of them seem to argue in favour of the need of using technologies in humanistic projects in our era, arguing against those who think that using computers would be detrimental in a field such a literary analysis. Furthermore, they try to persuade humanists  to have computational knowledge in order to create more useful projects.

Regarding this last note, Unsworth, in his “What is Humanities Computing and what is not?” tries to separate real digital practices from charlatans. For if HC is “a practice of representation […] a way of reason and a set of ontological commitment,” there has to be a clear cut consensus on how to make everyone participate on projects with tools such as search engines. These have to allow interaction between scholars, creators, and users, in order to meet one of the main goals of DH: easy access to sources of the human record, opening up investigations to collaboration between different scholars or anyone interested in the subject. In his opinion, human communication is the basis of DH, especially now that it is so easy to communicate via the Internet.

It is McCarty who addresses the evolution of computing in the humanities and its advantages nowadays by writing an attempted historiography of the field and creating a conceptual map. I say attempted for he points out, again, the difficulty of closing the boundaries of “the role of calculating machines” in humanities since they are “also symbol-manipulation devices.”  His revision through history serves as a good example of the transformation on DH and, hence, its need for a continuos exploration of the question “what is humanities computing?.” It is important to note that the first attempt to leave the traditional annotation of texts was Roberto Busa‘s work on the Index Thomisticus by Thomas Aquinas – as early as 1940s the Jesuit scholar wrote a concordance using computers. Museologists were the next to join the new method, and by 1966 the Computers and the Humanities journal was founded. Thanks to ALLC in 1972 and ACH in 1987, a sense of community began to emerge. The problem of communication was vanquished soon with the World Wide Web and the Internet, email systems, and hypermedia. In his conclusion he addresses the need of focusing analysis on the data rather than the subject itself, creating a brand new laboratory that is inclusive to humanities, and making the specialist take part in conversations about the nature of their research – addressing Unsworth notion.

I believe that the Manifesto 2.0 shows the idea of communication and collaboration quite clearly:

Digital Humanities have a utopian core […] it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship […] Digital Humanities = Co-creation  […] teamwork […] actively engaged in the task of creating an audience –even a mass audience– for humanistic learning (3-5)

It is interesting how in the introduction to the chapter “Provocations,” Burdick addresses the need of a real shape of DH, with criticism and experimentation in the field, rather than just using digital tools within the Humanities, for the fact that technology is now naturalized on our lives, has made implications about its use “invisible” (102). Also, this text is aware of the danger of leading DH to its fall, if they don’t serve the same models of knowledge as Humanities do: questioning of the world. It also explores the difference between printed and digital texts because DH allows a manipulation of the item that was not possible before. Hand in hand with that manipulation comes the flourishing of a more “fluid, iterative, and distributive” (109) notion of information, changing the way departments or disciplines treat their subjects.

Kirschenbaum’s work is a representative case of what Digital Humanities can offer if they are inclusive of all the notions discussed by the authors already mentioned. First of all, the digital edition of the Debates has a nice visual interface that allows the user to interact with the text easily. But its contribution consists on his overview about the social, networking, shared research, and collaborative essence of the field. He writes about the project of the Companion to Digital Humanities, the consolidation of the ACH, ALLC, and ADHO, or events such as the Day of Digital Humanities. Most importantly, he pays attention to the success of DH during the MLA Convention in 2009. Thanks to Twitter, real-time commentaries on the panels through the tag #mla09 allowed many people to engage in a simultaneous conversation and build networks od DHers. To conclude, he points out the significance of using the words “digital humanities” in debates around open-access, since DH is about having research divulged in a public manner, with explicit infrastructures and depending upon online social networks.

Finally, “The Digital Humanities Situation” by Alvarado serves as a conclusion to the discussed articles. His view of DH is that of a social category that is on constant movement since the community encloses traditional and new humanists. This prevents a sole definition since it involves “as many methods and tools as there are intersections between texts and technologies.” Nonetheless, there is a clear awareness of the possibilities that DH offers towards crossing disciplines and the creation of new discourses.

To a student that wants to learn how to use digital tools to analyse literature in the future these Manifests can be both enlightening and subversive. The sustained notion of the third culture (humanism+science) can provide vehicles that are rather convenient as it enables a cross-examination on unstudied objects, even change the way we thought about the familiar ones; or else, it can make a muck of your perception about humanities and their methodologies. In any case, these readings show that Digital Humanities is not going to overtake printed material or traditional criticism of literature. Rather, they are to help in the circulation of information, contributing to, and at the same time changing, the learning of the humanistic disciplines thanks to the many new possibilities they can offer. In sum, is there really a need of a single definition?


Alvarado, Rafael. “The Digital Humanities Situation,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Burdick, Anne, et al., “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” in Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Lunenfeld, Peter, et al. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto Version 2.0.” Accessed August 26, 2013.

McCarthy, Willard. “Humanities Computing,” in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2003.

Unsworth, John. “What Is Humanities Computing and What Is Not?.” University of Munich, 2002. Lecture. Accessed August 27, 2013.


2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities: An Undefined Term

  1. I think that we are just undergoing a period of transition in which we still make a difference between the regular humanities and the digital humanities. There can exists individuals who may not like the computer manners, although most of the times, the rejection is paired to the lack of proficiency in computing (besides advanced searching, digital publication or presence). From here, I stand for a progressive transition in which we’ll need to embrace the implementation of the digital media in our methods, and probably we’ll see their influence in our results.
    Nowadays, people from our generation can look back and remember those introductions to the digital medium (courses which described blogging and social media from a really modern point of view) that we all looked with reticence, those which now are part of our most beloved ethereal properties.

    • I couldn’t agree more with you. We have to check the results of the integration of digital media in the study of, in our case, literature, and see how beneficial it can be – for I have no doubt there is a positive attribute on using computers to read literature.

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