It’s been pretty interesting to watch (from a safe distance) the little storm that has come out of a recent MLA session on the history and future of digital humanities. The eye of the storm seems to have been a post on the Chronicle‘s Brainstorm blog by William Pannapacker. Pannapacker argued that the scholars who identify themselves as digital humanists have become an even more exclusive and sometimes cliquish group over the past few years with the senior figures in the group venerated as gods. He is not entirely clear how this has occurred but he seems to suggest that this trend marks the end of the grass roots days and usher in a new, more exclusive and structured field of digital humanities.
As one can imagine, Pannapacker’s reaction to the panel has stirred up some conversation in the blogosphere and across Twitter. On some level, his argument simply places digital humanities in the specific institutional context of the modern, industrial university. As disciplines and sub-disciplines develop, they become more specialized as a means of justifying their position within the university structure which continues to privilege areas of study that produce distinct and discrete types of knowledge. In short, some of the perceived exclusivity of the digital humanities “movement” is almost certainly a produce of practitioners drinking their own kool-aid; to get recognized in the academy an area of student needs boundaries.
Digital archaeology provides an interesting contrast. While digital humanities has become a vibrant sub-field, digital archaeology remains a bit of a orphan in the discipline of archaeology. Many archaeologists use digital tools in their research, there is a conference and a journal dedicated (to some extent) to projects that make innovative use of digital tools, and there are vibrant and ongoing conversations among scholars who use digital tools, but these practices have never crystalized into the call for expanded numbers of academic positions dedicated to the approach (in fact, I can’t specifically recall ever seeing a job description for a tenure track position in digital archaeology). It also seems like the digital archaeology community is far less exclusive than Pannapacker describes the digital humanities crowd. There are certainly some individuals who stand apart in the expertise, experience, and theoretical sensitivities (you know who you are…), but as a rule, the community seems distinctly low-grid.
It may be valuable to contrast Pannapacker’s observation with the paper given by Alan Lui at the same panel. Lui argues that digital humanities has not quite made the leap from vibrant subfield to a leading field in the humanities. He seems to suggest that the commitment to technically demanding projects that involve massive quantities of data or specialized tools has perhaps cut digital humanities off from the pressing, cultural questions central to almost every discipline within the humanities. By embracing technical issues at the expense of the larger project of cultural criticism digital humanities runs the risk of isolating itself further from other areas of study in the humanities. While this would certainly contribute to maintaining digital humanities in a exclusive position in the academy (as people how know how to do things), it also runs the risk of isolating digital humanists in an area where unlimited growth is not necessarily guaranteed.
Digital archaeology, in contrast, seems to include a significant number of scholars who are approaching archaeological, historical, and methodological problems in fundamentally similar ways to non-digital archaeologists (if such people exist). Digital archaeologists might have different methodological commitments and almost certainly have more robust technical knowledge, but ultimately they seem to be working on the same project as the rest of us dirt and boot archaeologists. At least this is how things seem in my sub-field of Mediterranean archaeology.