Digital Humanities and Craft

I’ve been fascinated by the recent debates centering on the nature of digital humanities. While the debate has gone on for years, the most recent round of posts (some of which are summarized by Geoffrey Rockwell here) were spurred by an MLA panel on the history and future of digital humanities.

One of the most interesting (although unsurprising) developments from this discussion is that several scholars have argued that digital humanities has a strong connection with craft. In some ways, this attitude is a response to the critique that Digital Humanities lacks theoretical development and, by implicit extension, the sophistication associated with other areas of the “pure humanities”.  In a recent response to this attitude Geoffrey Rockwell has gone so far to suggest that digital humanities is “under theorized the way carpentry and computer science are”.  It is unfair to reduce his entire critique to this simple observation, but others (like Alan Liu) have developed this observation in a more critical direction.

Part of the impulse behind the association of digital humanities with craft derives from the long-standing perspective that associated being a digital humanist with coding or, more broadly, building things.  This is consistent with larger directions in the digital discourse which emphasize the making of things, and has overlap with the larger DIY movement through such projects as the DIY book scanner and other more intentionally subversive gestures toward industrialized, manufactured, commodified reality.

The notion of craft and DIY has a strange relationship with the institutional expectations of the modern university. Universities developed to accommodate the needs of an industrializing world and disciplinary boundaries and academic professionalism emerged hand-in-hand with an interest in creating a specialized educational process that paralleled industrialized production.  In short, the modern, western university as an institution  stood in contrast to older models of learning rooted in apprenticeship and craft production. On the one hand, this availed the modern university to the mantle of progress which held the industry represented a far more democratic approach to society. Goods would be more freely available, and the dignity of work accessible to even the least skilled in the labor pool.  Craft production in contrast was understood to be more socially constrained and, in general, to represent a less efficient, fair means of organizing labor.  Of course, all parties did not agree on this dichotomy.

So arguments that have focused on the craft nature of digital humanities not only share something with more radical conceptions of higher education that emphasize craft, but also, ironically, allude to more conservative traditions of knowledge production.  While craft can claim for itself an anti-modern mantle of authenticity, it is also a form of productive organization that depends heavily upon access to informal social networks.  These networks tend to have less institutional structure and rely less heavily on expertise and and more on personal relationships. So, ironically, the rhetoric of craft alludes to exactly the kind of exclusivity that William Pannapacker decried in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post.

There is another angle to the rhetoric of craft, however. Archaeology has interestingly enough occasionally seen craft as a way to articulate its peculiar approach to knowledge production; anthropology has also made use of this metaphor.  Movements like Punk Archaeology embrace the DIY movement’s efforts to resist the commodification of both knowledge itself and experience or process of knowledge production.  In contrast to claims that these perspectives are “under theorized” DIY, punk, craft, and other subversive anti-industrial, anti-institutional, and anti-establishment perspectives tend to derive from the most highly theorized corners of the discipline.  There is, of course, an element of dissimulation here. By embracing craft, punk, “doing” and “making” scholars intentionally create a dichotomy between those who produce things and those who, for lack of a better word, “think”.  The former becomes the mantle for active resistance to institutional expectations; the latter, passive, quiet acquiescence.

The willingness to structure the debate in this way, demonstrates a certain sophistication in how a certain group of digital humanists (or at least their caricatures) are willing to articulate their craft theoretically.  Moreover, it provides a useful case study for how our efforts to articulate assumptions about knowledge production implies attitudes toward social organization, access to expertise, and ultimately the structure of the academy, the classroom, and the lab.


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