I’m not thrilled with the term “digital humanities.” When people refer to the “humanities,” I think I know what they mean: those disciplines that are concerned with human activity and everything it produces, and take as their task both to preserve and transmit that culture on the one hand, and to understand and interpret it on the other. But what is the sense of qualifying that noun with the adjective “digital”?
In the twenty-first century, the phrase can’t really stand in opposition to an implied “analog humanities”: no such thing exists. (When was the last time anyone submitted a hand-written or manually typed manuscript to be edited with grease pencil before being manually typeset with hot lead?) “Digital humanities” refers instead to scholarship in the humanities that consciously takes account of the fact that we all work digitally now.
What troubles me is that our use of the marked term “digital humanities” implies that the unmarked term, “humanities,” is being used to refer to scholarship that does not reflect on the media we all work in (a usage that is sadly accurate in the academy today). I am particularly disturbed because I would like to imagine that an education in the humanities encourages the kind of critical self-awareness that would enable us to think more meaningfully about our relation to the environment we live and work in, including our technological environment and the ways it is interwoven with our institutions and values.
By using “digital humanities,” we’re allowing the term “humanities” to stand for an uncritical scholarly practice that is at odds with the goals of a humanistic education.
I can understand why there is not a spontaneous groundswell of support in academic departments around the world for a term meaning “work that unthinkingly perpetuates obsolete forms of scholarly practice,” or “scholarship that is oblivious to the media we use today,” but rather than accept without reservation the marginalizing label “digital humanities,” I’ll offer my own suggestion. We could extend Richard Feynman’s “cargo-cult science” to “cargo-cult scholarship” more generally, and refer to the “cargo-cult humanities.”