“There’s no Next about it”: Stanley Fish, William Pannapacker, and the Digital Humanities as paradiscipline

In a posting to his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Pannapacker identified the Digital Humanities as an emerging trend at the 2009 Modern Language Association Convention.

Amid all the doom and gloom of the 2009 MLA Convention, one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities. More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first “next big thing” in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field.

I think we are now realizing that resistance is futile. One convention attendee complained that this MLA seems more like a conference on technology than one on literature. I saw the complaint on Twitter.

The following year, he was able to say the discipline had arrived.

The digital humanities are not some flashy new theory that might go out of fashion. At this point, the digital humanities are The Thing.  There’s no Next about it. And it won’t be long until the digital humanities are, quite simply, “the humanities.”

As Pannapacker noted here and in yet another posting on the topic, these observations were met with some unease in the discipline. Some resented the perceived implication that the digital humanities were new; others were concerned about his observation that the field was beginning to take on the trappings of previous trendy topics, most notoriously the cliquishness and focus on exclusivity thought to be characteristic of “Big Theory.”

But I think at least some of this unease may have its origins in a problem of definition that Pannapacker’s observations raise. If the Digital Humanities is the “next big thing,” does this mean that it is like the “things” that preceded it?

How the Digital Humanities is like a Next Big Thing

In some senses, of course, it is. Institutionally and economically, the Digital Humanities is like its “predecessors” in that becoming trendy has what deans like to describe as “resource implications.” Being trendy means that there are more jobs, more students, more publication opportunities, better pay, greater chance of promotion, and more grant money. And this improvement is both historic and comparative. Digital Humanists are now doing better than they used to… and better than their colleagues who don’t define themselves as “digital.”

The Digital Humanities is also like its “predecessors” in that success has at least threatened to go to its head. Although a very important part of Digital Humanities culture involves discussing how nice and collaborative its practitioners are, Pannapacker did initially at least notice a disturbing trend once its success became established:

The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.

So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago. There are identifiable stars who know they are stars. And some of the senior figures in the field, like Alan Liu, seem like gods among us.  And maybe most important of all: There’s money, most obviously represented by Brett Bobley from the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities—looking just a little like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.


There’s justice in this turn of events: Well-earned success for a community that has long regarded itself as facing uncomprehending resistance. At the same time, the tendency to become like Big Theory may change the attractive ethics of the field, described by one panelist “as community, collaboration, and goodwill.” The grassroots days seem to be ending.

But why it is not

But despite these institutional and perhaps even cultural similarities between the Digital Humanities and previous “Next Big Things,” there is also an important way in which the Digital Humanities is not like its “predecessors”: it is not their intellectual successor. Unlike previous trends in the humanities, Digital Humanities is at heart primarily a paradiscipline, a set of approaches, skills, interests, and beliefs that gain meaning from their association with other kinds of work. Becoming a Digital Humanist does not necessarily require abandoning previous understandings of the things that interest you, though it will almost certainly change how you approach your subject. It is entirely possible to be both a Digital Humanist and a “Big Theorist,” just as it is possible to be a Digital Humanist and a textual critic, philologist, historian, or archaeologist.

This is also, of course, a common charge levelled against the Digital Humanities: that it is a means and not an end, that it doesn’t make arguments, that it analyses but doesn’t interpret, that it doesn’t think. And while there are important counter arguments to this–and important ways in which the Digital Humanities does involve new forms of arguments and interpretations–the charge also contains a kernel of truth. A lot of work in the Digital Humanities really is about something else: representing a text, carrying out an analysis, establishing or accessing a collection, discovering connections and patterns in datasets. That many digital humanists work primarily or exclusively in the discipline–not only in coding and development tasks, but also theoretically and analytically–or that some of the approaches they use have their origins in the use of technology in the humanities doesn’t change the fact that a great deal of this work only makes sense in the context of its ultimate application: visualisation requires data to be visualised and a reason for wanting the visualisation to occur; collections require content to be collected and a rationale for its collection; new ways of and tools for reading, mapping, encoding, organising, and analysing require something to read, map, encode, and organise.

There’s no shame in this. The Digital Humanities is not unique in being at least partially a paradiscipline, and it is also not any less important, useful, intellectually exciting, or paradigm-breaking because it is. Indeed, many of the domains with which the Digital Humanities has become closely associated are themselves more or less paradisciplinary. One of my other primary areas of interest, textual studies, for example, is one such field. While texts can be (and often are) studied in their own right, this study is also very often an important first step to other purposes–reading, analysis, historical interpretation, and so on. Other disciplines with similar paradisciplinary aspects that are also often associated with the Digital Humanities include library and archive studies, museum studies, and certain aspects of information studies.

The important thing, however, is that the Digital Humanities is largely a how and not a why. It is a discipline that allows you to do things much more than it is a reason for doing them in the first place.

Fish on Moretti and Ramsey

This is something that I think Stanley Fish misunderstands in his reading of work by Ramsey, Moretti, and others. After looking at a variety of different approaches to reading and analysis, particularly involving algorithmic criticism, distant reading, and play, Fish concludes that the Digital Humanities excludes the kind of criticism he has always practiced:

These two visions of the digital humanities project — the perfection of traditional criticism and the inauguration of something entirely new — correspond to the two attitudes digital humanists typically strike: (1) we’re doing what you’ve always been doing, only we have tools that will enable you to do it better; let us in, and (2) we are the heralds and bearers of a new truth and it is the disruptive challenge of that new truth that accounts for your recoiling from us. It is the double claim always made by an insurgent movement. We are a beleaguered minority and we are also the saving remnant.

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

In actual fact, there is nothing about Fish’s kind of criticism that could not be done by a Digital Humanist. The careful representation of text has always been an important part of the Digital Humanities, and, as somebody who has published a 110,000 word digital edition and analysis of a nine-line poem, I can also attest to the field’s willingness to look at the small as well as the large.

In other words, Fish’s complaint about Ramsey, Morretti, Wilkens, and others mentioned in his posting is actually that he thinks they are poor critics, not that he thinks they are Digital Humanists. The criticism they are doing is enabled and inspired by technology and thinking current in the Digital Humanities, but their work isn’t identical to the Digital Humanities. What Fish appears to misunderstand is that distant reading and algorithmic criticism are two ends to which the Digital Humanities can be put. But you can also do other kinds of criticism within the Digital Humanities… and things other than criticism.

Does the Digital Humanities have an ideology?

Calling the Digital Humanities a paradiscipline doesn’t mean that it has no ideology or that it is purely a technology. In fact, while it is a diverse field of endeavour, it is also field that can be delimited. Simply using a computer to do humanistic work does not make one a Digital Humanist. If it did, we’d all be Digital Humanists, since every humanist uses word processors, search engines, and the Wikipedia.

It is also difficult to define the field in terms of specific techniques, approaches, or skills. McCarty’s emphasis on modelling, Ramsey’s emphasis on coding, the Alberta school’s emphasis on prototyping, all point to important aspects of the practice of discipline. But none are sufficient to cover the whole range activity that most people would recognise as belonging to “The Digital Humanities.”

A different approach to definition is taken by the contributors to the “Defining the digital humanities” section of Mathew K. Gold’s Debates in the digital humanities. Although they differ in the details of their arguments, the authors share a general emphasis on the defining the field by culture and process rather than practice or goal:

whatever else it might be,… the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and a pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24-7 life online.

-Kirshenbaum (9)

How the digital humanities community operates–transparently, collaboratively, through online networks–distinguishes it.

-Spiro (17)

Now, if we use the term digital humanities and cannot define it, maybe we are thinking of such definitions in the wrong way. Maybe the traditional definition way of defining disciplines in the academy is all wrong. Instead of saying that physics is the study of matter and energy, or history the study of what people have done in the past, maybe we should say that physics is the work of those who read Newton and Einstein, who use various branches of mathematics, and who know how to construct experiments in a certain way. Or history is the work of people who know how to navigate archives and read old tax records and diaries and other textual remains, whereas archaeologists are those who know how to manage digs and how to retrieve, classify, and interpret shards and bones….

In this view, digital humanists are simply humanists (or interpretative social scientists) by training who have embraced digital media and who have a more or less deep conviction that digital media can play a crucial, indeed transformative, role in the work of interpretation, broadly conceived.

-Alvarado (52)

This definition works because it allows us to recognise commonality among Digital Humanists who are otherwise working towards very different (and even opposed) ends. The key terms are a belief in the importance and relevance of technology as a means of humanistic inquiry and a commitment to transparency and collaboration. The definition could encompass both the type of criticism Fish prefers to practice and the kind he wishes Ramsey and Moretti didn’t. And it also includes the completely different kinds of activities–modelling, visualisation, datamining, collection building, archiving, editing, gaming, standards definition, and the construction of communities of practice, summer schools, and scholarly societies–that are common in the field.

The importance of “Radical Openness”

But it also works because it isolates something profound about the Digital Humanities that distinguishes it from other types of activities. By far the most important part of these definitions is the commitment to transparency and collaboration. Using computers in humanistic research is not enough to make you a Digital Humanist; being radically committed to openness and collaboration in humanistic scholarship probably is.

The extent to which it is this commitment to radical openness that defines the Digital Humanities was driven home to me a few years ago, when I was chair of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and active on the boards of a number of traditional scholarly societies in one of my “other” fields, medieval studies. As chair of the TEI, I was pressed constantly by members of the Board, Council, and community, to ensure openness in as many of our activities as possible. In the more traditional societies, on the other hand, there was rarely if ever any pressure to function in a fully transparent fashion: while the societies were scrupulous about the accurate reporting of their accounts and activities, they were not radically open in the sense that they felt an obligation to conduct all their business in public.

The distinction was clearest on one memorable day when I chaired meetings of both the TEI and a technology committee at one of the more traditional scholarly societies within a couple of hours of each other. The TEI was meeting to appoint a new head of its Technical Council, the body responsible for the development and maintenance of the TEI Guidelines, the organisation’s primary output and raison d’etre. The other group was newly chartered and was meeting to decide on the infrastructure it would need to carry out its duties. At one point in the TEI meeting, while we were discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates for head of the Technical Council, all of whom were very prominent people in our community, I asked the secretary to stop taking notes for our (public) minutes–only to be asked quite firmly by other members of the Board what arguments I could bring forward to justify such a step. When the committee of the more traditional group met later that afternoon and I proposed establishing a private area on our website in order to hold minutes, accounts, and documents in case we should we ever have material we didn’t want to make public, the head of the society interrupted and asked what kind of documents I imagined should be made public: “Nothing we do is public, until we fill in our annual reports.”

The choice of the TEI as an example of radical openness might come as something of a surprise to some Digital Humanists. The TEI was founded in 1989 and, as a result, is one of the older Digital Humanities organisations. Like all established organisations, it has a number of investments it needs to protect: its income, its reputation, its centrality to the discipline, its history, and of course in the TEI’s case the generation of work that has gone into the establishment of its Guidelines. Rightly or (in my opinion for the most part) wrongly, it is sometimes accused of being cliquish and opaque in its operations.

What is important about this comparison, however, is the centrality of the commitment to radical openness. At the Digital Humanities organisation, the core assumption is that the organisation operates in public: all decisions, all activity is assumed (and intended) to be public unless there are very strong reasons for suppressing public access. When this is not possible, it is perceived as a failure. In the more traditional organisation, on the other hand, the commitment to openness is far less radical: while there is an assumption that nothing should be hidden, there is also no expectation that all operations and activities are to be carried out under the gaze of anybody who wants to watch.

This distinction is partially an artefact of technology: the culture of radical openness that is characteristic of Digital Humanities organisations has its origins in the ease with which information can be shared in the internet age; the less radical commitment to openness on the part of older and more traditional organisations, on the other hand, has its origins in an age where complete transparency was simply not economically or technologically conceivable. As technological developments improve our ability to be open in real time, we can expect the emphasis on radical openness to become ever stronger.

The next Next Big Thing?

What is going to be interesting is seeing how this emphasis on radical openness permeates throughout the academy as the Digital Humanities becomes more deeply entrenched in our daily activities. Because it is (intellectually speaking) a paradiscipline, rather than a discipline in its own right, the Digital Humanities is not itself a threat to the next “Next Big Thing.” At a certain point departments will become interested in hiring people who define themselves as specialists in some other domain and the Digital Humanities will no longer be seen as the “must have” specialisation. Perhaps the “Next Big Thing” will be Algorithmic Criticism, perhaps it will be Distant Reading, perhaps it will be the Geohumanities, or perhaps, and perhaps more likely, it will be some other approach to understanding culture and history we haven’t yet realised is important. But whatever it is, we can almost certainly depend on it having two main features: it will involve computation, and it will involve a commitment to openness and collaboration unheard of in previous generations of scholarship. Because as Pannapacker suggests, by then Digital Humanities will no longer be a special kind of humanities. It will be the humanities.