The Digital Humanities”Revolution”

The first chapter in Matthew Jockers’s book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History is “Revolution.” Being born in the so called “digital age,” it’s hard to think of “humanities computing” as revolutionary, as I was educated in an atmosphere where such tools were always on the periphery of my studies (emphasis on the periphery, which is why I’m in this class). Jockers begins the chapter with a quote from Douglas Carl Engelbart: “The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.” An interesting choice, and if he was going for the shock factor he got me there. But one thing that worried me about Jocker’s grand introduction into this revolution is his lack of emphasis on the continuing importance of physical, written evidence which requires a close reading as being a viable tool of research. While he does eventually come to the conclusion that digital methods of research will still need to be coupled with more traditional methods, I fear his emphasis on macroanalysis will lead to laziness on account of asking a computer program or algorithm to do the bulk of the work in place of getting “down and dirty” in an actual archive (yes, I understand the book is in fact called “Macroanalysis” but bear with me). Perhaps I am just old fashioned?

I was also troubled by his statement that just about “everything” is available digitally. While it is true that more things are available in digital format now than they ever were before, and this this number will only continue to grow, I think by making this statement he ignores many of the small cultural heritage organizations who would love to digitize their collections, but unable to do so. Perhaps this is because he is looking at it through a literary research lens rather than a historical one, but digital history in itself, while making resources more accessible, can also alienate smaller organizations who lack the funding, know-how, and man power to digitize their collection. Therefore, if we rely solely on digital representation of a subject, we most certainly not getting a full pictures. Especially of marginalized and underrepresented groups–I’m sure there is a large presence of historical documentation pertaining to white men digitally, but what of Native communities?

I also think it is important to note that he is a literary scholar, not a historian (or at least not in the traditional context) as I mentioned above. Therefore, I think some of his statements about humanities scholars being slow to act on digital research methods are somewhat inaccurate within the world of historical research. While it is true that digital libraries and databases are a relatively new tool in the historian’s toolkit (as well as all the other tools he discusses), I think he has overlooked some notable early trailblazers who complied the sort of quantitative data he ascribes to scientists in conjunction with the qualitative data that comes out of traditional close reading methods. The first text which came to when reading his history of digital humanities was Mark E. Neely’s The Fate of Liberty which was published in 1992 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history the same year. This book was somewhat ground breaking in that Neely used quantitative data to find patterns in court cases around the United States during the Civil War regarding jailing during Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. This, coupled with close readings of those documents led him to groundbreaking results and subsequent notoriety. Therefore despite his inclusion of the quote from Mark Olsen who in 1993 said “computerized textual research has not had significant influence on research in the humanistic disciples,” Neely’s 1992 work disproves this timeline. And although this is only one example, I still feel like credit should be given where credit is due.

Despite my three paragraphs of complaint (forgive my growing pains as I become accustomed to this new, digital, approach–change is hard) I think one of the most important things Jockers introduces as part of the digital “revolution” is the revolution in approach and thought process. To remain relevant in an increasingly paperless world (queue the Office reference), historians need to think outside the box, or perhaps in this case, outside the physical archive and appeal to a larger audience though keen manipulation of the digital tools which are available to them. That being said, I think we also ought not to forget our foundations in the non-digital world. I wonder what conclusions Herodotus would have drawn had he used Wordle when he wrote The Histories.  

One Reply to “The Digital Humanities”Revolution””

  1. Hi Amanda! Thank you for the thoughtful post- I think you raise some good points. Firstly, I appreciate you making the observation that Jokers is a literary scholar, not a historian, because it is important to understand when reading his interpretation of the humanities and digital research methods. With that in mind, I also appreciate that you identify the obstacles smaller institutions face when it comes to digitizing their collections. While a digitized collection is a great resource to a broad audience, we can’t push places with less-funding or other heritage organizations.

    Additionally, I agree with your point that the growing value placed on digital resources alienates these institutions. I wonder how institutions with more funding and resources can collaborate with smaller organizations to try and help them.

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