Author Archives: Cassandra Nelson

Thoughts on Fish’s Theology

“The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” Stanley Fish presents his reader with an examination and criticism of the digital humanities that reveals some interesting difference and similarities between DH and traditional scholarship in the humanities. Of particular interest is the fact that Fish apparently fails to realize that he lauds the same characteristics in traditional scholarship that he criticizes in the digital humanities. In his blog in the New York Times, Fish refers to digital humanists’ vision for their field as being theological in the sense that it “promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated…and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in full and immediate presence.” In other words, DH seeks to lead us to a sort of nirvana, an enlightenment of mind and spirit in which the “would-be knower” is no longer separated from any knowledge source. In addition, DH also promises to remove the obstacle of mortality by creating a “steady yet dynamic state where there is…no beginning and end, just all middle,” a state in which knowledge and existence would presumably continue in perpetuity. Based on this description, it would appear that Fish considers digital humanists as tech-hippies in pursuit of everlasting nirvana, eternal enlightenment; they want all knowledge made available to them, and they want it now and always.

In opposition to this vision of DH is Fish’s depiction of traditional humanities scholarship: “a hitherto linear experience – a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he control.” My issue with this description of traditional humanities scholarship is how is it any less theological than DH? Could the traditional humanities scholar not be seen as a god figure who decides what knowledge the readers (his subjects) should receive and in what order/structure they should receive it? And how is this more strictly delineated and hierarchical form of scholarship and knowledge-sharing really any different or better than DH? Are both scholarships not seeking the same thing: knowledge, or enlightenment? Are they not both forced to work within the limitations of their given field? And yes, both do have limitations. As Martin Mueller points out in “Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities,” just because an algorithm only takes “seconds or minutes to execute” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely on “data that it took weeks to prepare” or that it might “spit out results that it takes days to analyze.” Digital humanities may offer new possibilities, but it still functions within a set of limitations. So, it would appear that DH and traditional humanities scholarship have more in common than Fish would care to acknowledge. Perhaps, then, instead of pitting these two forms of scholarship against each other as stark opposites of which only one can prevail, we should more appropriately focus on the similarities of the two and the ways in which they can work together and complement each other. Perhaps Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore have it right when they suggest that the “job of digital tools [in the humanities] is to draw our attention to evidence impossible or hard to see during normal reading” and to serve as a complement to “the skills of close textual analysis that are the staple of literary training” (“What did Stanley Fish count, and when did he start counting it?”).

Response to Pannapacker

I’m not 100% positive that this is how we’re supposed to do this, but I figured I would give it a try. Here are my thoughts on our assigned readings for this week:

William Pannapacker’s blogs on The Chronicle of Higher Education in regards to the digital humanities accurately capture the major concerns, or at least my major concerns, about this rapidly developing field. Pannapacker captures one such concern in his observation that “the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table” (“Pannapacker at MLA”). This statement effectively highlights my fear that instead of making the humanities and humanities education more accessible and diverse, as is their intent, the digital humanities, like the universities of the past, is actually just forming a closed social club that accepts only those who are “coding” and “making”. My fear is that digital humanities is the future, but because I am neither “coding” nor “making,” it is a future in which I will have no place. It is a fear that I am sure others who are equally as technologically unsavvy as myself share.

In addition to this concern of the true accessibility of the digital humanities, the concerns of others that Pannapacker notes in his blog “On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’” reveal other glitches that need to be worked out before the field is likely to find the acceptance it needs to be taken seriously. For example, Pannapacker admits that in order to sell what they do to administrators and the like, digital humanists have a tendency to “talk about DH in ways that might trouble [their] colleagues in the humanities.” Likewise, there is an abundance of criticism against the digital humanities – it’s too diverse, it requires coding and gamification, it’s affiliated with MOOCs, etc. – as “a construct, something imagined—rather than the actual practices of individual digital humanists” (“Dark Side”). Pannapacker’s rebuttal to this type of criticism also points to its cause: “The digital humanities is not a monolithic movement: it’s a “big tent.” One of the major issues with the digital humanities seems to be that they are distinctly lacking a set definition of exactly who they are and what they do. Until such a definition has been reached, it seems only logical that people will continue to misunderstand the digital humanities and to express uncertainty and apprehension towards them and their endeavors.

Finally, in “Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities” Pannapacker’s questions about how the digital humanities will fit into the current graduate education system – “How would students’ work be assessed, and how would credit be allocated, particularly when projects involve many people of different ranks and develop over a period of years? How would projects be financed, given that graduate students in the humanities are usually supported for teaching rather than research?” – and his ultimate conclusion that “graduate education, as it is currently constituted, would have to change” speak to scholar’s concerns that their entire structure will have to be replaced. This is a concern for many not only because it means that the style of education used by generations will become obsolete (as we discussed in class last week, nobody really likes change) but also because it will mean a difficult, lengthy, and probably painful process of completely overhauling our education system. The lack of traditional tenure-track positions available makes it obvious that we need to reconsider how and for what jobs we train our graduate students, I feel like a complete overhaul of the education system is unnecessary and deterring. I can’t help that if the digital humanities could find a better way to work with the system already in play, it would be more readily accepted. Also, going back to my previous paragraph, if the digital humanities did a better job of defining itself and its practices, people probably wouldn’t be so uncertain about how to fit it into the education system in the first place.