(Kyle and I decided that given the amount of reading and the short time frame that we would split the readings and write on each. My blog will cover the Rosenzweig and Cohen chapters, Cicire’s Theory and Virtues, Onion’s Snapshots of History, and Robertson et al. Digital History and Argument)
The Digital Tide Fluctuates
In these readings one sort of gets the sense we are witnessing a transition period in which historians are trying to get a handle on changes that are happening in the field. In our attempts to get a grip ourselves, we might first focus on what the authors were considering “traditional” approaches. Take the “digital” out of “digital history” and what do you get?
Of course there is the arduous archival research, then the publication, of whom the audience is most often other academics and the rest avid enthusiasts. It is a constrained world, a convoluted world, a world hospitable to only the most dedicated.
Put the “digital” back in, and you see a mysterious, unpredictable evolution—new techniques begin to surface, new innovations and methodologies, and a sense of the powerful potential seduces. But at the midway point, the transitional snapshot (or perhaps more appropriately, “screenshot”) embodied by the Rosenzweig and Cohen chapters, one also gets the sense of caution. There are some developments that many remain wary of, and Rosenzweig and Cohen attempt to step back and reflect, and outline what it is they are witnessing.
A Cautious Wade Into the Deep
First they list a set of strengths and weaknesses for the digital age, and the reason for the confusion becomes a little more obvious. Some of the strengths double as weaknesses. When does so much capacity become too much capacity? Who should and should not have access to the sanctity of history? In the years to come, will we turn in our theoretical edge for a commercially-viable end-product? Rosenzweig and Cohen make it clear that they were not writing a “theoretical manifesto,” but a practical handbook in the creation of genres, models and any otherwise “expectable form that materials in a given medium might take.” This sort of thinking gives rise to the collaborative, project-making mindset, turns from the monograph of old and puts a sour taste in the mouths of historians like Natalia Cecire, whose obvious aversion to digital history is that it is “undertheorized.”
Her charge is most immediately felt when she says that “digital humanities thus comes to be represented as a return to a (white, male) industrial order of… visible products, when in reality it is the sub discipline of the humanities most closely implicated in the postindustrial ‘feminization of labor,’ with all that follows upon it: the rise of contingent and modular work, interstitiality, the hegemony of immaterial labor, the monetization of affect.” Is this a fair critique of digital history?
We can see more obviously the drawbacks of a digital era in Rebecca Onion’s expose of history pic twitter feeds. These are the sorts of intrusions on history that make historians cringe; and why shouldn’t they? Misinterpretations of history can justify anything. What was it that Orwell said: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Who wouldn’t be tempted to shut down Trump’s twitter account?
Onion clearly states the violation of standard procedure: citation of sources. In this new, open-sourced world of history, most will not follow the “rules,” which is why when Stephen Robertson and Lincoln Mullen attempt to integrate the traditional rules of historical approach to the realm of digital history, their obvious omission of this fact seems painfully awkward. However they do seem to address the concerns of Cecire, by making the case that digital history can still present arguments, if not in conventional form.
So we come to the point at last: in this digital era, has the database become the theory? Should we, as Cecire seems to suggest, “discursify” this new field and flip Foucault on his head? Or is the future to embrace fully the power of the digital to create, and integrate it into historiography as Robertson and Mullen suggest? What are the implications of such steps—politically, culturally, authoritatively—given that most will not follow along or perhaps even pay attention, as in the days of the monograph? These are the questions I would like to address.