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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Defining DH and/or MA Studies

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

Enter week 2 of my thrilling life as a graduate student of Digital Humanities.

Last week we discussed the concepts of "cyberspace" and "eversion," specifically with regard to the age of the smartphone. This week we took a step back and actually discussed some various articles, declarations, manifestos, and other kooky collaborative documents that all attempt to define Digital Humanities in some way.

So? Where did we land? Well, everywhere and nowhere really.

I gave a pecha kucha presentation that revolved around a lot of the sort of metaphors people use to describe DH. Some call it a "field." I usually default to this term because, for me, it implies an open space, only partially fenced off, where a variety of heterogeneous technologies, projects, concepts, and pedagogies can grow together. In some ways, the pastoral field represents the mutually beneficial relationships formed between disciplines, much like crops in rotation.

Dr. Steven Jones commented last night that his "field" metaphor is much cooler. He actually said that. Really, he tells me all the time his ideas are cooler than mine. In some ways he was right...this time.

His field was more of an electromagnetic field, a three-dimensional, expanding, field of energy. This field is comprised of various forces, particles of different ilk swirling around one another, some colliding to form new mater, or to transduce old.

Told you it was cooler.

Another commonly used term to describe DH is "discipline." This word has fallen out of fashion for most Digital Humanists though for a variety of reasons. In the Classical sense, a discipline is any area that invites students or disciples (from the Latin discipuli for student). In this way, DH can sort of be thought of as a discipline, but not in the 20th century usage made popular by Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish) or the concept familiar to most 21st century university departments. Foucault's notion of discipline hearkens back to some of the Greco-Roman student/teacher relationships defined by education through carnal incentives/punishments. Digital Humanities does not so much train or condition students, nor does it occupy the same kind of departmental real estate that other academic subjects do.

Couldn't think of a better image for disciplinarity. Didn't try that hard either.

But, because of this fluidity, because DH can travel between English, History, Anthropology, and Fine Arts departments, because it can thrive in libraries, labs, and classrooms, it's often labeled as a "savior" for the Humanities in a time when most funding and attention goes to STEM. The converse of this opinion is also true--that is, some critics of DH suggest that it's dark side is the ease with which it fits into the neo-liberal, for-profit, educational scheme. But, in actuality, both of these descriptions operate under the assumption that DH is something fresh, young, and new. Therefore, neither of these descriptions tells the full story.

While it may not have been called "Digital Humanities" in the early 20th century, the field of Humanities Computing was alive and well in the days of IBM and punch cards. Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, is often touted as the "Father" of DH because of his early work creating a massive concordance database of St. Thomas Aquinas's writing. Father Busa was not alone in this type of pursuit--so long as there were computers, there were scholars in humanities disciplines using them for research.

What changed, according to Dr. Jones, is the imagined terrain of the "cyber." The 80's and 90's Blade Runner/Matrix style "cyberspace" as a digital frontier, a lawless, unpredictable plane reserved for only the most cunning hackers, this is the place that changed. This is the place that everted and spilled out into the physical world, inviting schlubs like you and me to participate in its remaking. Thus began DH 2.0.

Last night, in my presentation, I made the argument that metaphors for DH don't operate very successfully. Instead, I think DH is defined by what its scholars and practitioners do. One thing they do very well, perhaps out of necessity, is collaborate on large-scale projects with people across multiple disciplinary boundaries.

It is in this way, that I see a major connection between Digital Humanities and Martial Arts Studies.

Paul Bowman (2015) in his book Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries explains that one of the major themes of Martial Arts Studies is the concept of "institutions." Borrowing from Foucault, Bowman explains that an institution, like an academic department (English), or a traditional martial art (Tae Kwon Do), seeks to normalize or mold people, activities, objects of study, etc. In this way, academic departments as institutions create "disciplinary objects" simply in the ways they methodologically or theoretically approach their study (Mowitt 1992).

What this means is actually pretty simple--as someone who has been trained to look at texts for over a decade, I see most media, activities, or interactions in terms of their textual or rhetorical features. I'm not incapable of other approaches, but because of the conditioning of my academic discipline, I'm predisposed think this way. It's why I see and study the rhetorical components of Tae Kwon Do philosophy and performance.

For martial artists, this is much the same. As a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do, when I evaluate sports or other physical activity, I'm keenly aware of speed, hip rotation, and footwork. If I had been training as a boxer for a similar amount of time, perhaps I'd be much more attuned to lowering the center of gravity, smaller evasive motions, and hand speed.

The point is, we as individuals help create or remake our object of study based on our own ideologies. What this means for fields like DH or MA Studies is simple--because of their trans-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary nature, they are constantly in the process of being defined. These fields are constantly inviting new perspectives, incorporating new methodologies or technologies, and promoting new types of research questions. Despite/because of DH or MA Studies scholars mostly belonging to various institutions and having disciplinary training, the fields remain in flux, pushing and pulling against various forces to find balance in something new, something old, something true...something

In this way, these fields are dynamic, evolving, growing, and reminiscent of the Taegeuk itself.

That's probably enough rambling for today. Included below are some additional readings from our syllabus/that I mentioned here.

Thanks for reading :)


Further Reading

Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Wikipedia, “Digital humanities,”

Kirschenbaum, “What is the Digital Humanities?,” in Gold, Debates 2012:

Chun, et al., “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” in Gold and Klein, eds., Debates 2016:

Losh, et al., “Putting the Human back into the Digital Humanities,” in Gold and Klein, eds., Debates 2016:

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