Day of DH, eh? That’s nice. But what’s DH again?

Upon registering for Day of DH, one is faced with the following humdinger of a question: “How do you define DH?” (it’s worth your while to check out the range of answers provided by new members each year, from 2009 to 2014) Perhaps because I was not expecting the question, I gave my standard off the cuff answer:

“Digital humanities is defined by the use of digital technologies to facilitate and/or inform work in the humanities.”

I’m not unhappy with this definition, for it seems inclusive of a variety of different kinds of DH projects:  “Big Data” computational projects such as the Indiana Philosophy Ontology Project; collaborative research projects such as An Inquiry into Modes of Existence; manuscript digitization and TEI encoding projects such as Transcribe Bentham and DM2E; open access resources such as Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and TΦ101; digital installations such as 88 Constellations, and so on. Yet, as any philosopher of art knows too well, the problem with such broad definitions is that they risk including too much

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about the kind of work I’m doing for the Public Philosophy Journal, and how excited I am to have this gateway into the Digital Humanities, when this friend asked me to just explain to him what DH was, since the whole thing seemed like a gimmick to him.  “I mean,” he said, “I’m a philosopher, and I write all of my articles and lectures on my computer. Does that make me a digital humanist?”  At the time I was at a loss for an answer; it was late on a Friday night, and this seemed like damning criticism. If everyone is a digital humanist, is the term “Digital Humanities” meaningless?

This continued to nag me until earlier this morning, when I read a post by Chris Long where he offers the following definition:

My definition of digital humanities is brief and expansive: the digitally mediated practice of the Humanities.
This articulation advocates for the humanities itself as a practice. More than a set of disciplines, the humanities is an endeavor: the ongoing attempt to act and think in ways that do justice to the complexity of humanity so as to enrich human culture and community.

It was then that it hit me: the problem with my definition is not that it is too broad; rather, it isn’t broad enough!  Somehow, regardless of how many times I’ve read and taught the various attempts on the part of philosophers to define “art,” I failed to make the connection between the those efforts and the efforts to define DH, and thus I failed to see that the solutions would also apply (with a few caveats).

Just as with “Digital Humanities”, narrow definitions of “art” fall flat as they will inevitably fail to account for some new art-form (which might be created simply out of spite) which somehow does not meet the criteria of the definition in question while at the same time making anyone who refuses to call it art seem like a fool. For instance, any definition of art that lists its representational character as a formal requirement will struggle to account for non-representational (as opposed to abstract) art.  Yet if broad representations risk including too much (“so if I splatter ketchup on the wall by accident, that’s art?“),  what is one to do?

My preferred solution is based on Monroe Beardsley’s “Aesthetic Definition of Art”: anything created with the intention of satisfying an aesthetic interest is art. Just don’t think of this as a value judgment.  It may be art (whatever it is), but it may very well be bad art.  Most art is mediocre at best, and bad art is often created by those who are held up by their community as great artists.  But given the human impulse to adorn and create, it is by no means a stretch to say that everyone is an artist, even if a lot of the art created fails to engage and affect us the same way that good art does.

So, how does this help us deal with the conundrum of defining “Digital Humanities”? If we transfer the insights of the philosophy of art to DH, it no longer seems problematic to say that every humanist is a digital humanist (except for the most devoted of Luddites, who write no e-mails and don’t use Google).  Yes, the fact that one writes one’s articles on a computer, or the fact that one looks up articles on online databases (such as JSTOR) qualifies one as a digital humanist.

But just as there is a qualitative difference between most aesthetic endeavors and the finished works of someone like David Bates, there is also a qualitative difference between the digitally mediation of a humanist whose digital work consists of using a computer for e-mails, web-browsing, and writing articles, and the digital mediation of a humanist who is actively engaged in a project like Modern Source or Project Agora´s Semantic Linking Experiment.

But what is the nature of that difference? Now, this seems like a much better, and tougher question — as it is in aesthetics, where the more interesting question is not What is art? but rather What makes art good, or great?

It is important to emphasize that while in art we already have a short hand for the qualitative distinction (good vs bad art), that shorthand does not seem to apply to DH.  The difference between my friend and someone working in one of the projects listed above is not that my friend is a bad digital humanist.  The qualitative distinction must be understood differently here.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is a difference in the level of engagement with digital technologies. Perhaps it is a matter one’s focus on the technology itself, although that risks devolving into a distinction between end-users and creators (i.e. those who create and maintain the digital tools).

I don’t yet have an answer to this, but I feel that it is enough to move away from the “What is DH” question and towards a more productive “What distinguishes DH projects from other humanities work?”

EDIT: Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between DH in a weak sense (i.e. blogging, using a word-processor, searching for articles online) and DH in a strong sense (using digital tools to facilitate collaboration, or digitizing manuscripts, etc), while acknowledging that these are poles of a spectrum, and not a simple binary distinction.