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by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
176 pp.  Paper, $24.95
ISBN:  0-262-01847-0.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


I begin with a simple directive:  Everyone in the academy should read Digital_Humanities, no matter the academic discipline or position, because the book provides a cogent and clear description of a growing area of research, one the authors call “an array of convergent practices” (122) that encompass design, computation, transdisciplinarity, qualitative and quantitative methods, statistical analysis, translation, communication, and a host of other interests and methods that, taken together, have the potential of transforming higher education and, thus, influencing contemporary culture.

Earlier this year we saw the publication of Matthew Gold et al’s seminal tome, Debates in the Digital Humanities (reviewed in LDR, August 2012), a 500 page anthology of essays by 42 authors who engage in a lively dialogue of overlapping ideas and congenial disagreements––and, so, model collegial discourse they promote––on the topic of the ontology, methods, and pedagogies of the Digital Humanities.  Digital_Humanities, conversely, is a “metalogue,” a dialogue among five scholars collaborating on a short book of 176 pages written in one collective voice (137) with a unified message and a single tone of confident authority.  Like the authors of Debates, the authors of Digital_Humanities are among some of the most respected in the Digital Humanities and who represent a wide range of training, including design, cultural criticism, media theory, and visual culture, among others.

The book is divided into four chapters, plus a “short guide.”  Chapter one, “Humanities to Digital Humanities,” lays the groundwork for understanding the qualities and characteristics that digital brings to the humanities.  The words in the title of book Digital_Humanities “yoke[d]” with the underscore encapsulates this union where these “two concepts” combine “in a productive tension, without either becoming absorbed into the other” (ix).  The addition of the digital to the humanities has been important for the humanities, a field under attack for a perceived lack of relevance to everyday life, where humanistic knowledge has become woefully undervalued.  As the authors tell us, their book takes a “different view.  For them, “the present era [is] one of exceptional promise for the renewal of humanistic scholarship and [their book] sets out to demonstrate the contributions of contemporary humanities scholarship to new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments” (7). Digital Humanities endeavors include designing; computational activities; curation, analysis, editing, and modeling; and prototyping and versioning. For scholars laboring in academic programs that do not count production as research, this chapter provides good information that can be consulted for updating one’s department’s tenure and promotions guidelines.

Chapter two, “Emerging Methods and Genres,” gets to the nuts and bolts of Digital Humanities research––specifically, the15 different methods and types that the authors recognize as within the purview of the Digital Humanities.  The information provided is, as the authors say, a “field map of the experimental forms and different kinds of ‘knowledge models’ emerging in the Digital Humanities.” These models include “enhanced critical curation;” “augmented editions and fluid textuality;” “scale;” “conjunctions of distant/close, macros/micro, surface/depth;” “cultural analytics, aggregation, and data-mining;” “visualization;” “locative investigation and thick mapping;” “animated archive;” “distributed knowledge production and performative access;” “humanities gaming;” “code, software, and platform studies;” “the database document and documentary;” “repurposable intellectual content and remix culture;” “systematic integration and pervasive infrastructure;” and “ubiquitous scholarship” (31).

Also included in Chapter two is “A Portfolio of Case Studies”––that is, five different examples of Digital Humanities projects.  The first is a “cartographic project” involving “thick mapping,” “text analysis,” “data-mining,” and “a large corpus of natural language processing” (61).  Second is an “expanded publication of a textual corpus of papyrus fragments for the Alexandria Library” (64-5).  Third is a “critical curation” project involving Jewish ritual objects (66-67).  The fourth case study utilizes technology associated with an “online multi-player game” to produce a repository of artifacts from an Afghan refugee camp aimed at preserving culture and building community (68-9).  The final project is an interpretative app created for an architectural site built by Louis Sullivan, the headquarters for the Zenon Corporation (70-71).  In each case, the authors supply a detailed description of the project, a work plan, a “dissemination and participation” plan, and a method of assessment.  Anyone in the Digital Humanities thinking about proposing a grant for the National Endowment for the Humanities needs to pay special attention to the type of projects outlined here as well as the way they are conceptualized, for they provide good models to follow.

Chapter three, “The Social Life of Digital Humanities,” describes the “roles that Digital Humanities projects are playing in contemporary society, the purposes they serve, the communities engaged by them, and the values they affirm” (viii). Twentieth century views toward authorship, collaboration, publishing, and access, according to the authors, have been shaped by the division between theory and practice. With these two foci reconnecting in the Digital Humanities, “alter[ing] modes of authorship,” “collaborat[ing],” “transforming publishing and access,” broadening “fellowships of knowledge,” “shaping new norms,” “decolonizing knowledge,” and “revitalizing the cultural record” have the potential of not just energizing the humanities but also changing contemporary culture (82-93).

The final chapter, “Provocations,” asks the question many of us working with digital media may have pondered:  What happens to the distinction between the digital and a field of study when “digital tools become naturalized?” (103).  The authors respond by saying that:

“[The] Digital Humanities is well-equipped to take on [the task of raising awareness of its potential] as it enters the mature phase of its existence.  Understood as a critical experimental practice, carried out in the public laboratory of a cultural commons that remains as much a work-in-progress as a future promise and driving digital tool and platform development with rich sets of content-driven research questions, Digital Humanities has the potential to make a genuine difference.” (120)

Anyone who remembers the rise of Communication programs in U.S. universities may see a parallel.  Just as communication is something in which all humans can potentially engage, Communication scholars are needed to study the nature of communicating in different modes, with different media, etc.  Likewise, scholars will be needed to make sense of media in whatever form they take.  So, the more critical concern seems to be building infrastructure for the Digital Humanities so it can endure and carry the core of the humanities on with it, before the humanities lose further ground in the academy.

In an effort to provide that infrastructure, the authors offer a “Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities.” This addition to the book is organized into two sections.  The first includes basic question and answers (re: FAQs) about the Digital Humanities, an in-depth discussion about Digital Humanities projects, and pragmatic information about institutional aspects of the Digital Humanities. The second provides guidance for “evaluat[ing] digital scholarship,” information about “project-based scholarship,” and suggestions for “core competencies in process and methods,” “learning outcomes,” and “creating advocacy” for the Digital Humanities.

Digital Humanities scholars will find the information presented in this book very, very handy.  Coming out in December, Digital_Humanities will make an excellent stocking stuffer to give to colleagues who do not yet see the value of digital work and, of course, those that already do.  As mentioned in the beginning of this review, all scholars, digital or otherwise, will find what the authors have to say about the potential that the Digital Humanities brings to higher education insightful, for at the heart of the argument the authors make is the idea that we are sitting at a moment in time where a new type of humanism is emerging.  Unlike the one associated with the Renaissance that harkened back to ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, this new humanism looks to the present and a future where digital technology has the power to ask new questions and provide new answers about what it means to be human.  Do we nurture this potential transcendence so that academics help to lead change, or do we squash it before it takes hold in the academy and, so, risk becoming irrelevant and unnecessary?

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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