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What Is Digital Humanities?

This is a bad question.

Think of digital humanities as a mode of inquiry, as a thing you do rather than something you are. It means that the term resists clear definition: a mode of inquiry is always subject to change and continuous experimentation, which fits well with what it is we’re studying. If we are indeed at the cutting, bleeding edge, how are we to tell you the final shape of the field as we are creating it? Digital humanities are in a stage where its foundational principle is potential. Our questions should never be “what is” something in digital humanities, but rather “what could it be?” As above, in retrospect we may be able to make some statements about what digital humanities is (as a question of the historical record), but right now it isn’t at the stage where we can make concrete proclamations about it.

Think of it like this: we’re academic trailblazers, but trailblazers aren’t in it to establish a giant clearing and raise little academic villages with nice fences to wall off the inside from the outside. You wander around this space, and ask: Can I connect this point to that point? Can I go from here to this outpost someone left behind, a long time ago? And you share your paths and trails with others, and they take your techniques to connect other points, and vice versa. Over time, all those overlapping trails clear out space, create that ground and the foundations for a discipline to emerge. In retrospect, you can spot when the critical path was laid to give this clearing the shape it has, and you no longer see the unviable routes because they’ve been re-obscured, and then you’ll say, “Of course it took this form. There was never another way.”



How Does Digital Humanities Function?

There are two categories in which DH is used.


Computing, algorithms, visualization, and other ways of using the digital to work with the humanities. Often, what is done here can conceivably done without the tools, but slower, more imperfectly, worse (see topic modeling or imaging Herculaneum scrolls). This does not invalidate tools! They are very important for DH research and pedagogy. This section is very interdisciplinary. Work done with DH tools often “belong” to a scientific or artistic discipline.


Born-digital creations that synthesize humanistic and digital methods and further the discipline. This manifesto is a DH work. Its ideas are DH. It takes digital innovation and weighs it against historical humanities texts and theory. It uses digital formatting, such as hyperlinks, markdown, collaborative cloud-based documents, THE INTERNET. It is a creation of the web, and it cannot be printed out and flipped through (ok, right now it can, but our endgame is a wayfinding, autoupdating, static website that presents information visually and non-linearly).