A Recap of Johanna Drucker’s “Digital Humanities: A Status Report With Questions”

On Thursday, October 29th, Johanna Drucker, the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA, gave a provocative presentation, “Digital Humanities: A Status Report With Questions.” The large, diverse crowd, including majors ranging from English to computer science, along with faculty and staff from an assortment of CLAS fields, not only demonstrates the breadth of DH but also the success of collaborative ventures like this one, sponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities, EGARC, and the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities.

In her presentation, Drucker provided a detailed outline of the rise of DH, from its early origins to its current state. Put simply, this evolution includes a shift from using automated systems to reproduce content to using automation to think critically and produce content. Despite the advances in DH, Drucker argued that it has “not changed the way we think.” It has increased our capacity to do our work, but, according to Drucker, the kinds of foundational changes in our understanding of language that have been identified with deconstruction, post-colonialism, and queer theory, for example, we do not see with DH. This is not to devalue the importance of making the cultural record accessible and expanding our work with cultural artifacts.

However, the increased accessibility of the cultural record must be approached with caution. Image visualization, for examples, cannot be taken as definitive, because the processing of the data stream is so highly dependent on the inputs that may not be substantial or accurate enough to produce a faithful representation of the topic. This geospatial turn, highly popular within DH studies today, offers numerous examples of a practice that Drucker finds suspect: mass generalizations based on limited data available. Orbis does exactly this. The data does have value, however, if viewed as a set of social interactions, serving as a point of departure for research. We must see “Data,” Drucker argued, “as a cultural construct.”

Perhaps Dr. Drucker’s largest and most compelling claim is that the Digital Humanities is not, nor should it be, a field in its own right. To treat DH as a field would distance ourselves from the subject matter and focus more on the associated methodologies, undermining its epistemological function. This is equivalent to making typewriting its own field. DH, like typewriting, is a tool that should be used across various disciplines. In this way, DH offers the best opportunity for being absorbed by these various disciplines and for bringing true interdisciplinarity to our work. These kinds of healthy suspicions give us all good reason to pause in our uncritical acceptance of DH.

[by Matthew Broussard]