Review of Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 | Leonardo

Review of Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016

Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016
edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016
600 pp., illus. 39 b/w. Trade, $122.00; paper, $35.00
ISBN 978–0–8166–9953–7; ISBN: 978–0–8166–9954–4

Reviewed by
Jonathan Zilberg
April 2017

This book launches a new annual series that will follow future debates in Digital Humanities (henceforth DH). It builds upon an earlier publication with the same title in 2012. And as the editors Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein note, while that latter volume marked the emergence of the field, "the digital humanities moment," this volume marks its "arrival." Providing a historical context for DH, Gold and Klein's extremely useful introduction draws perceptively on the canonical art historical essay "Sculpture in an Expanded Field" by Rosalind Krauss (1979) so as to extend upon the "Big Tent" DH metaphor that governed the 2012 volume. [1]

The collection is composed of six sections respectively about DH histories, methods, practices, disciplines, critiques and finally, a forum on digital text analysis and scale. Brevity is the hallmark of the majority of the 50 chapters. Many of them express a marked and uneasy concern regarding disciplinarity, not only of the relevance of each contributor's DH work to their own discipline but to other disciplines as well. Thus this wide ranging collection might be of particular interest to those working in transdisciplinary and inter–disciplinary studies. For instance, in Ryan Cordell's emblematic essay "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities" in Part V, Digital Humanities and Its Critics, he writes that the power of DH will lie in transferring information and lessons from one discipline to another, that "DH will only be a revolutionary interdisciplinary movement if its various practitioners bring to it the methods of distinct disciplines and take insights from it back to those disciplines" (p. 463). As this is however the formal definition of transdisciplinarity—not interdisciplinarity—this volume might be of special interest to the Leonardo community especially considering the shared topical concerns.]

The introduction and many of the essays present highly readable accounts of key moments and publications that mark and constitute the emergence and evolution of DH. From the MLA 2009 announcement of DH as the "Next Big Thing" to the recalibration of DH in the context of Alan Liu's long view of technology and cultural convergence in "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?" (2012), from William Pannapacker's essay "Stop Calling it the Digital Humanities" (2013) to the sheer scale of issues considered in these chapters, this book indeed signals that DH has indeed come of age. [2] Two essays in particular provide critical self-reflexive insider accounts of DH history, namely Bethany Nowviskie's "On the Origin of 'Hack' and 'Yack'" and the multi-authored essay on hashtag activism "Reflections on a Movement: #transformDH, Growing Up."]

In the opening essay Steven Jones describes how between 2004 and 2008 the network "everted" at the same time that DH achieved critical mass. What is this term "eversion" and what is its significance? The term comes from William Gibson's 2007 observation that cyberspace has turned inside out and is "flowing out into the world", that the mobility of data and its use value in the physical world is now an integral part of our reality. [3] For the DH community one important task then is to make sense of this eversion by engaging it as Ryan Cordell suggests in his chapter "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities." He emphasizes that DH students should be able to push technology beyond its expected uses and to "imagine what might be created in its stead." However, the kind of work Cordell holds up as models for the future already exist on a significant scale. For instance, amongst the many other platforms that come to mind such as the British Library's Endangered Archives Project, I can think of few more illustrative cases of applied experimental work already achieved than in the media arts project at Cambridge in 2011 and 2012, particularly as regards mapping. [4]]

Despite DH "having arrived," most of the chapters reveal a pervasive sense of anxiety and precarity. What then is DH's future promise considering the backlash from graduate students and disinterest on the part of undergrads? While some authors conclude that the dark side of DH is actually the bright side, Cordell, in hoping for a better engagement with the humanities concludes that DH is simply "a useful banner for gathering a community of scholars doing weird humanities work with computers" (p. 473). In that expanding context, Domenico Fiormonte in her essay "Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities" (a republished version of her earlier "infamous" article given in 2012 at the "Cologne Controversies around the Digital Humanities") argues that DH practitioners should abandon the obsession with archive fever and large-scale digitalization projects.]

To return to the issue of disciplinarity, Ethan Watrall's "Archaeology, the Digital Humanities and the 'Big Tent'" is particularly telling. Watrall points out that archaeological research projects provide solid models for DH projects. However he highlights a manifest disconnect between archaeology and the digital humanities and concludes that the archaeologists "will be forever outside the 'big tent'" unless there is a "hello, nice to meet you" moment (p. 355). Might one not logically then ask the question—Why does archaeology, especially public archaeology, need DH at all? And what then are the consequences to the future of DH considering the mantra of interdisciplinary salvation?]

Having been at the University of North Texas DH conference in September 2014 where Miriam Posner presented her chapter published in this volume as "Here and There: Creating DH Community," I was particularly struck by the vitality of the local public history projects presented in that context and of the THAT camp phenomenon. In that established context, Sheila Brennan's chapter "Public, First" and Cameron Blevins' essay "Digital History's Perpetual Future" will be essential resources for the public DH community. So keeping in mind such applied projects, quo vadis then for DH as a revolutionary interdisciplinary movement?]

Whatever developments take place which will constitute the content and character of the next editions of Debates in the Digital Humanities, one would hope that the editors will do one thing—include that elementally important predigital search function—an index. In either event, the preponderance of the citation of digital sources in this book and those that will follow provides effective entry points into the evolving networked DH archive.]


  1. See Rosalind Krauss. "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," October 8 (Spring 1979): 30–44.
  2. See William Pannapacker, "Stop Calling it 'Digital Humanities'." Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2013, and Alan Liu "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?", in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, pp. 490–509. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012,
  3. See Steven E. Jones, "The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (as the Network is Everting)", pp. 3–15 and William Gibson, Spook Country, New York: Putnam, 2007, p. 20.
  4. See Bronac Ferran, ed., Visualise: Making Art in Context, Cambridge: Anglia Ruskin University, 2013. For an extended version of the Leonardo review, see Caldaria