Sunday, March 01, 2009


The Digital Humanities Mellon Seminar at UCLA has been asking a number of interesting questions about the Digital Humanities, including "What is (n't) the Digital Humanities." Now the group has issued a "Digital Humanities Manifesto" that lays claim to some important rhetorical ground.

It's a fabulously polemical document that has already inspired over a hundred online comments on the text. For example, the text includes this free culture call to arms to faculty members to champion digital rights:

Copyright and IP standards must, accordingly, be freed from the stranglehold of Capital. Pirate and pervert Disney materials on such a massive scale that Disney will have to sue… your entire neighborhood, school, or country. Practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright and mashing up media.

To make this seemingly subversive argument for creative nonviolent protest, the document looks to etymology to rethink the academy's traditional respect for the aura of the original in the era of so-called "big data":

This is an abundance based economy, not one based upon scarcity. It values the COPY more highly than ORIGINALS and restores to the word COPY its original meaning of abundance: COPIA = COPIOUSNESS = THE OVERFLOWING BOUNTY OF THE INFORMATION AGE.

The manifesto also attempts to do some basic definitional work, although the rhetoric tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Digital humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated.

Nonetheless, like other famous manifestos, such as the classic text by Marx and Engels, it does attempt to energize its audience by imagining and demonizing potential opponents.

The digital is the realm of the open: open source, open resources, open doors. Anything that attempts to close this space should be recognized for what it is: the enemy.

It also attempts to narrativize a history of the digital humanities, in which there are first-wave practices that are distinct from current practices in the field.

Like all media revolutions, the first wave of the digital revolution looked backwards as it moved forward. It replicated a world where print was primary and visuality was secondary, while vastly accelerating search and retrieval. Now it must look forwards into an immediate future in which the medium specific features of the digital become its core.

The first wave was quantitative, mobilizing the vertiginous search and retrieval powers of the database. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, even emotive. It immerses the digital toolkit within what represents the very core strength of the Humanities: complexity.

Of course, as a specialist in what I call "Virtualpolitik" or the Realpolitik of digital institutions, I might wonder about how well this manifesto balances an engagement with the practical challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration at the material level (by advocating for "changes in language, practice, method, and output") with its self-confessed "utopian" idealism that embraces "the open, the unfixed, the contingent, the infinite, the expansive, the no place." But manifestos are never procedural manuals, even if an understanding of what Ian Bogost calls "procedural rhetoric" might be at the heart of the digital humanities.

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