Is critical discourse different in the “Digital Humanities” than it is in the humanities?

Can history be freed from ideology?
Can history be freed from ideology?

Alan Liu, a Californian professor of English literature, has raised the question of whether or not there is any real cultural criticism within the digital humanities. He notes that a professional motivation for the advocacy of digital humanities by academics is to compensate for the decline of government funding for the arts and humanities in general. Partly for this reason, he has raised the question of whether or not the criteria for critical discourses in the digital humanities and the humanities actually differ. For instance, does hyperlinking really constitute a transcending of traditional narrative structures or is it simply a new form of footnote? Does the growing popularity of the term “data” in humanities scholarship reflect a methodological shift or is it a purely linguistic shift in emphasis?

Responding to this debate, historian Fred Gibbs has suggested that a peer review rubric of digital humanities scholarship could evolve based on the four principles of “transparency, reusability, data, design”.  Gibbs’ idea would seem to directly mirror what is taking place in the emphasis of governments on e-government. According to this model, government records should be made “open” (transparent) and “(re)usable” for citizens through being exposed to the information (data) they contain. In this way, the public can have a greater appreciation of what role governments and citizens have, or can play, in society (design). If digital humanities scholarship has created an additional criteria to traditional humanities scholarship it may be the result of the debate upon why the communications (and, in turn, business) revolution made possible by digital technology has influenced people’s conception of what society and citizenship actually means. In this sense, the question that the digital humanities debate may be raising right now is not “what does it mean to be human in the digital age?” but “what does it mean to be a citizen in the digital age?”

How can education serve a civic purpose is an essentially political question. That is where the issue of funding for education or education-agendas arise. Beyond the field of money or politics, however, humanists will continue to champion regardless the idea that access to knowledge enhances our sense of humanity just as much as they have always done. The very fact that computer scientists, or information-management specialists, are perpetually developing tools for allowing for better access to information may have drawn the thinking of traditional humanists and computer scientists closer together, or perhaps they were never truly all that far apart?

The impact of technology on humanistic scholarship is a question that has often been raised but rarely answered. For instance, contrary to initial expectations, the development of railways in the early nineteenth century did not totally change people’s sense of what it meant to be human. Instead, it merely changed the business world and people’s capacity to travel and, in turn, to be exposed to a wider section of society. The tool of the internet may change the tools of education but there is no essential reason to expect that it can, or even could, fundamentally change its content. That is a process that will be based entirely on human endeavour. In this sense, the digital humanities would seem to be very political in its nature by virtue of the fact that it is highlighting issues of intent and social responsibility and perhaps interrogating traditional humanists’ priorities in this regard.

It seems to me that the healthiest potential development this might raise is that by placing more emphasis on the processing of information than the mere making of an argument, humanities scholarship may be liberated from perhaps its principal bugbear during the previous century, which was ideology being used as a short-hand for individual prejudice or as a substitute for critical thinking and empirical scholarship. Pioneers of “digital history”, such as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, have suggested in the past that historical thought may be “debugged” from the bug of ideology through such a process, although, to date, it seems that this is not a debate that has infused the historical community at large, whether within or beyond academia. This may indicate that such “digital humanists” still have a lot to do to get their message across!

Is the open ethos of Digital Humanities something radical?

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Miriam Posner of UCLA has recently suggested that digital humanities scholarship has an unrealised potential for radicalism by “critically investigating structures of power”. This is not necessarily a new idea. Almost a decade ago, Clay Shirky and other commentators suggested that a combination of the freedom of access to digital information and open source scholarship was bound to challenge long established practices of institutions, be they educational or even governmental. This idea may seem to be far less novel today in the light of the fact that open source scholarship has now governmental support both in the United States and the European Union. Nevertheless, Posner suggests that digital humanities scholarship still has the capacity to promote new ideas through the novel interrogation of sources and, in turn, the raising of new debates.

An example of this may be seen in the extensive responses to her own discussion piece. These responses are accessible from her own website and link one forum for debate with another, in the process  potentially bring greater vitality to each debate. For instance, Posner’s observations regarding how “profoundly ideological is the world being constructed around us with data” was linked by Angus Grieve-Smith to his own forum on the subject of “Technology and Language”. This expands upon her point that how we classify information, or even ideas, through language has tremendous power to shape how people think.

Does the digital research community reflect fully on the humanistic connotations of this reality? One might be inclined to answer this question with a simple “no”. For instance, Posner (who comes from a film-studies background) refers to the work of her UCLA colleague Anne Gilliland, who is a leading figure in the work of Library and Information Studies. Over the past decade, Gilliland has been a frequent contributor to new journals such as Archival Science on the role of Library and Information Studies specialists (such as herself) in redefining the archival profession through the development of new metadata standards in describing both records and collections. However, new metadata standards have not altered the traditional governmental objective of archives, which is to quantify information regarding both individuals and organisations in such a manner as to create records to enable more efficient governance.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this process of record creation has underpinned the concept of governance ever since the days of the Roman Empire and, in turn, shaped the very idea of civilisation itself. The existence of a logical process of recording and processing information has long been typified as the bedrock of civilisation, outside of which one may find only the chaotic world of nature where, in the absence of a logically ordered concept of society, there is only disorder, ignorance and unreformed barbarism. Nobody may like the idea of their personal identity being reduced to statistical information within a governmental record, but without this process political society would not essentially exist.

This raises an interesting concept, which is if an individual or organisation wishes to champion a particular cause (for instance, a campaign for social justice) then how they categorise that cause may, in itself, be the touchstone of its chances for success. Posner’s interest in feminist critiques of film studies prompts her to focus on ideas of gender and even race. Someone interested in archival science or history might focus more specifically on the concept of citizenship, for few words carry more consequential connotations than that term. If one can view classical civilisation as a root of civilisation, this was not only due to its preoccupation with the exercise of logic but also because it introduced the legal concept of citizenship. More often than not, this was defined against an idea of slavery. “Citizens” were protected by the law, while those who were not citizens had no legal rights at all and were generally classified as “slaves” or “barbarians” (hence the idea that society was a question of championing “civilisation” against “barbarism”). When people conceive of miscarriages of justice, or unwarranted subjugations of people, in our own day the first concept that generally springs into people’s minds (or, indeed, onto their lips) is still the question of “civic rights”.  Is Posner, therefore, essentially focusing on the idea of a “digital citizen”?

This term “digital citizen” has recently been invented to promote the idea of responsible use of the internet. It is based on a moral code of respecting and protecting both oneself and others through the use of the internet and an essentially legal code, based on the idea of respecting intellectual property. But can a “digital citizen” be more than this? Can the advent of the information highway allow non-governmental organisations to play a part in refining or, indeed, improving whatever ideas of citizenship may exist within those societies that they inhabit? Evidence may suggest that this process is already underway, in which case one may argue from Posner’s perspective that digital humanities scholars may actually have a key role to play in creating a meaningful concept of “digital citizenship” in the years ahead. In this, they may benefit from participating in debates with archivists regarding the relationship between human rights and recordkeeping. This has been a regular theme of archival conferences in recent years and a debate that was encouraged not least by the south African archivist Verne Harris.  Professor Anne Gilliland of UCLA will be speaking on this broad theme at the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies on 28 November 2016.

“Public History” and Cinema

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The Internet has become a forum for scholarship since the 2000s. Since that time, there has been a growing emphasis upon the idea of “public history”. This means historians are encouraged to engage with society as much as possible through non-academic means, principally the media. Scholars are expected to engage in “outreach” activities in much the same way as libraries, archives and museums are expected to increase their number of visitors by enhancing their visibility and profile in the business world. Everyone, as well as everything, is now expected to have a saleable public profile, even if it is just a ‘facebook selfie’. This would seem to be a good idea in that it seems to emphasise that all individuals should seek to contribute to and serve society as much as possible. But does it represent a more longstanding historical trend?

It has often been suggested that a reaction against “ivory tower” thinking has been a prevalent feature of European life ever since an emphasis on the idea of ‘globalisation’ developed in the wake of the Second World War. One might say that a visual representation of this trend was Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s A World History of Art (1981), which had an equal emphasis upon every corner of the globe and no distinctions made between supposedly primitive and more sophisticated means of expression. A literary representation might be Australian author John Carey’s The intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia 1880-1939 (1992). As the book’s blurb noted, Carey saw himself as ‘exposing the revulsion from common humanity’ that had been a feature of the thinking of most ‘canonized writers’ of the early twentieth-century, most of whom were European rather than Americans or, indeed, Australians, and despised popular means of expression such as journalism or cinema. A desire to emphasis the equality of different mediums for human expression has evidently led to a re-evaluation of the written word. For instance, if film as a medium has more popular appeal than a book one could argue that this does mean that film is of any less value as a medium for communication. If anything, it may have a more direct and powerful impact upon its audience. If this is also the purpose of the “outreach” activities of “public history”, however, then one might wonder whether or not some mediums for communication have indirectly become undervalued.

Shortly before I first embarked on nineteenth-century historical research during the late 1990s, it seemed like many historians overreacted to Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins (1996). Conferences and publications were suddenly launched that seemed to revolve around that film, rather than historical research being done. Twenty years later, it seems that many Irish historians are still fascinated with this film as well as Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) as if cinematic representations are a very important manner indeed. As a determined young researcher, I judged that it was better not to see these films at all, or else to forget them as soon as they were seen, as they were not works of historical research. But was this a fair assessment?

During the 1990s, various films seem to have made an impact upon historical thinking in their host countries as much as some films did within Ireland. For instance, The Lady and The Duke (1994), a French film by Eric Rohmer (perhaps the most notable Catholic cinematic artist of the last century, who initially studied to be a historian), apparently stimulated a big controversy in France after it was denounced in some quarters as ‘royalist propaganda’ that sought to undermine the ideals of the (two centuries old) French Revolution. Around the same time, the internationally released Russian film Burnt by the Sun (1994) was interpreted by many in Russia as having shown how the ideals of the Russian Revolution became misrepresented and undermined over time, as the old aristocratic and internationalist ‘white’ element gradually clawed its way back into the army, leading to purge of the ‘red’ republican element, as a result of Stalin’s regime. This film, with its patriotic overtones, was also well received in America and it is, I believe, still considered in Russia as an equally persuasive account of how the fates of chance can affect the Russian nation as Soviet films such as The Mother (1926) had been considered in their own day.

If there is no more persuasive media than cinema, what does this mean for the outreach activities of the historian? Can a lifetime of scholarship compete with a persuasive five-minute long cinematic dramatisation within a film? The answer to this question would seem to be ‘no’. Does this mean that “public historians” should aspire to be filmmakers rather than teachers? Should youtube videos be considered a new form of online colleges?

If the fate of scholarship is that it is to be largely ignored, this could be considered as nothing particularly new. During the nineteenth century, many considered that the communal singing of a political ballad was a more potent and persuasive means of communication than the publication of a book. This is hardly surprising, as book reading and writing is a solitary pursuit while communal singing is the opposite. As such, the growing emphasis on “public history” may not actually be particularly novel at all. Perhaps it is simply a question of “the more things seem to change, the more they actually stay the same”.