Definitions and Boundaries

I suppose introductions are in order. My name is Dan, and I’m a second year MA/PhD English student at Maryland. Why am I in this class? Well, I took Neil’s Technoromanticism course last year, where I got a taste of what DH is all about. For my final project, my partner and I worked with Woodchipper, a topic modeling tool. Together we compiled 100 or so science fiction texts, threw them into Woodchipper (well, Travis did that part for us), compiled the results, and each wrote a paper on our findings. I tried to locate certain commonalities between these texts, as I was interested in seeing if Woodchipper could determine subgenres and common topics. This experiment was rewarding, novel, and a lot of fun, and, well, now I’m here.

On to the readings! The biggest question has been, “What is and what isn’t DH?” Others have already interrogated this question, but to add my voice to the masses, the core of this question seems to arise from the deliberately open-ended nature of DH itself. Is it a field or a method? Is it about making or interpreting? The consensus on these questions is that there can never be a consensus. By seeking to define itself as broadly as possible—interdisciplinary, collaborative, a methodology and a field, theoretical and post-theoretical—Digital Humanities wants it all. This is a productive and ambitious outlook, perhaps utopian, and certainly tactical. After all, why should a new field set out to place limits on itself? This strategy is especially true here, as the strength and foundation of DH lies in its eschewing categories and traditional ways of thinking.

Despite this, there is a still tension surrounding the question of what is and what isn’t DH. As Ryan Cordell mentions in the Twitter Storify,

“I do actually think we need at some level to distinguish what is & isn’t DH-otherwise why call it a field at all?”

Therein lies the central conflict of this debate. How long can we consider DH both a field and a methodology? Certainly, when the dust settles, DH will have no choice but to establish itself more clearly, despite its open-ended nature. For better or worse, this will mean acknowledging its boundaries, perhaps not by deliberately setting up or establishing them, as that would conflict with its ideology, but by necessity a field must contain boundaries or it cannot be considered a field at all.

On the other end, we have the argument that DH is only a methodology. If this is the case, we can say, “To heck with restrictions!” Golumbia recognizes these two differing definitions of DH, one narrow and the other expansive, and one a field or discipline and the other a methodology and a tool. In the comments, Ted Underwood writes,

“Part of the reason why I’m not troubled by terminology is that I don’t think we’re going to come out of this with a distinct field at all. I suspect the boundaries of existing disciplines will hold, and DH will end up as a loose name for an assortment of different interdisciplinary projects.”

So which is it? It is tempting to say that DH is both a field and a methodology, and this answer might be closest to the truth, but as DH matures, it will inevitably have to define itself more clearly and recognize its boundaries. For now, the open-ended, expansive definition of DH is useful for attracting attention to the field, and it will be interesting to see how its definition grows alongside Digital Humanities itself.



One thought on “Definitions and Boundaries

  1. thank you for this article really!! just reanswer please for this “What is and what isn’t DH?” …I really like your writing so much! percentage we keep in touch extra approximately your post on AOL? I need a specialist on this space to unravel my problem. Maybe that’s you! Having a look ahead to peer you.

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