Reticent Enthusiasm: Responding the Digital Humanities Manifestos and Defining DH

Perhaps, even in a theoretical context, “what is Digital Humanities?” is the wrong question. Most of the answers are too vague to be of any use to either resistant or enthusiastic parties, and the inexactness is necessary to describe the field/methodology/toolset … etc. I am not sure I have the right question to ask, but maybe “what can Digital humanities do for me” or “what can Digital Humanities do for a given community?” would be a good place to start. Both versions of the Digital Humanities Manifesto rest on the idea of community which include a mix of collaborators and consumers (gasp). Overall, the idea of community in these texts is ambiguous. It is supposed to be united in some utopian digital humanist future, but not all rhetorical communities function in identical ways. I am enthused at rarefying the distinction between academic and public audiences, but I am unsure that distinction would disappear altogether. One of the deepest concerns in Freshman Composition is getting students to identify and adapt to particular audiences, yet I cannot help but wonder whether the universalism expressed in the manifestos is compatible with this skill. Basically, I am concerned that the rhetoric in the manifestos determines both object (DH project content) and subjects (the participants in DH projects).

The main underlying difference between the questions I mentioned earlier is a prescriptive versus a descriptive approach to DH. Based on the theoretical discourse from the Digital Humanities Manifesto 1.0 and 2.0 and Helle Porsdam’s “Too much ‘digital’, too little ‘humanities’?,” a prescriptive approach must retreat into ambiguity because much of the potential of DH remains unexplored. Rapidly advancing technology forces any definition of DH to speculate and predict—generating a definition that would determine the parameters of DH going into the future, and making the answer prescriptive, even if it does so unconsciously. Perhaps this temporal paradox could be avoided, but I want to put forward the possibility that even after a larger sample of DH projects and tools are available, alongside a stable predictive model for advancing technologies, the law of accelerating returns [1]potentially puts a satisfying definition out of reach.

While the lofty rhetoric of the manifestos gave me pause (particularly the claim that DH is the key to some utopian future), I agree that the democratization of information and its effect on social and economic systems is powerful and has great potential for positive change. Melding academic research and entertainment has the potential to rehabilitate enthusiasm and passion as identity markers—getting them a seat at the cool table in the cafeteria. Combing research and entertainment also achieves the value-shift that the manifesto calls for since it has the potential to encourage valuing knowledge for its own sake, rather than as a commodity to exchange. I do not think edutainment will be the downfall of capitalism, or give rise to anarchy, but it can be a force for positive change.

[1] The exponential growth of advancing technology