Pointing-to: On genealogies, ‘what is DH?’, and the generative encounters of stating rules

I’ve been thinking about disciplinarity, and how that maps onto the DH genealogy approach we took to the start of the class. Specifically, why is this approach novel? And why are ‘What is DH?’ articles so ubiquitous that to not include any of them on a DH course syllabus is worthy of  a tweet? And, if the backlash to this genre is in full swing, as I think it is, what are more productive ways of talking about disciplinarity in DH?

As Tom Scheinfeldt argues, focusing on the diversity of DH (rather than our connectedness) can be generative,

I believe the time has come to re-engage with what make us different. One potentially profitable step in this direction would be a continued exploration of our very different genealogies … In the end, I believe an examination of our different disciplinary histories will advance even our interdisciplinary purposes: understanding what makes us distinctive will help us better see what in our practices may be of use to our colleagues in other disciplines and to see more clearly what they have to offer us.

For Scheinfeldt, the diversity can be traced through a genealogical approach. In Alan Liu’s article “Imagining the New Media Encounter,” he describes the messy and generative encounters of new media/methods and old media/methods,

We thought we knew what “writing” means, but now “encoding” makes us wonder (and vice versa). So, too, “reading” and “browsing” (as well as related activities like searching, data-mining, and data-visualization) destabilize each other.

Can we think of this destabalization not just in encounters of new and old media, but also in encounters of the disparate disciplines and intellectual traditions colliding together in an amalgam we call DH? This is similar to the ‘productive unease’ which Flanders seeks to highlight; “productive: not of forward motion but of that same oscillating, dialectical pulsation that is the scholarly mind at work.” Flanders sees this unease also around the creation and manipulation of digital models for literary study:

The word verification stands out here, sounding very cut and dried, threateningly technical, a mental straitjacket, but in fact the key phrase there is “the rules we have stated”: it is the act of stating rules that requires the discipline of methodological self-scrutiny … [A]s our tools for manipulating digital models improve, the model stops marking loss and takes on a clearer role as a strategic representation, one which deliberately omits and exaggerates and distorts the scale so that we can work with the parts that matter to us.

I want to focus on this idea “stating rules” in a way that one can then point to them–these are the rules, this is my methodology. It seems to me that the ubiquity of “What is DH?” articles comes from an impulse to circumscribe the field in a way that one can then point to something and say, “This is DH,” and, of course, “This is not DH.” I think that the project of these articles–that is, circumscribing the field in a particular way is a way of self-consciously stating rules–is helpful in staging the encounters Scheinfeldt, Liu and Flanders imagine.

I am reminded of Stephen North’s iconic 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Controversial upon its release–and no less controversial today–North’s portrait of Composition is a legitimizing text. The groupings North enforces (with all the authority of Theuth displaying his inventions to Thamus) serve to tie together disparate intellectual traditions and especially methodologies–from the critical, historical and philosophical scholars; the experimentalists drawing from research in cognitive psychology; to the ethnographers appropriating anthropological methods–into a single field, big ‘C’ Composition. The benefit of North’s text wasn’t so much that he was right about everything, but rather he concretely circumscribed the field and opened a decades-long debate over the genealogy and geography of the field.

Unsurprisingly, North’s portrait is spatial, organized as a map, complete with bustling cities and lonely frontiers. One can imagine a similar map of DH–with the manifold genealogical threads of DH leading to countries of encoders, network theorists, archivists, media archaeologists, etc. etc. Indeed, this seems to be what the “What is DH?” And like North’s map of Composition, the spatial distinctions between the territories would elide the overlap between methods and interdisciplinarity of actually-existing DH projects. But it would also state rules, and thus self-consciously adhere to some methodology for stating those rules. It would then be open to (hopefully) generative critique.

And pointing-to is important when we think of how the field is perceived by the academy at large. This seems to be part of the impetus behind the more radical restructuring of the university imagined in Liu’s “theses” to an emerging DH center, or Hayles’s and Pressman’s Introduction to Comparative Textual Media, “Making, Critique: A Media Framework.” Any restructuring of the academy requires capital–both material and cultural/political–that requires a legitimacy and concreteness that comes from pointing-to.

As a brief aside, I’d also like to think about how we can go in the other direction–mapping a discipline with DH methods. Two interesting projects from Jim Ridolfo (assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky) come to mind. The first, his super-useful Rhetmap, which started as a simple mapping of PhD programs, but has extended to map all Rhet/Comp job listings for the year (those published in the MLA JIL). Ridolfo also uses the MLA JIL in the second mini-project I want to mention, #MLAJIL Firsts. Here, Ridolfo uses OCR to look at the history of MLA job listings to track the first instances of some disciplinary keywords: rhetoric (1965), rhetoric and composition (1971), computer (1968), computers and writing (1990), humanities computing (1995), digital rhetoric (2000), and digital humanities (2000). Ridolfo’s analysis here doesn’t extend much beyond this list, but he does make the OCR data available on his site in hopes that the data will be “useful for learning more about job market histories in English studies.” Indeed, I think there is the possibility to use this kind of concrete historical data to think more about the diverse genealogies–the trunks of the DH tree.


Thank you for your post, Kevin. I am currently working on a keywording project for the Digital Humanities Quarterly and did research on keywords used by the ADHO from their first conferences to the present. I was interested in tracing the history of DH keywords and I am very glad to see your reference to Jim Ridalfo’s project on that area of the field.

In addition, your discussion on the genealogy of the field and the intent on defining disciplinary lines made me think about Bethany Nowviskie’s post “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” when she mentions the code of conduct instituted by the ADHO at their DH conferences. She refers to the need for this code of conduct when new practitioners enter the field and give talks to all members of the field, senior or not. She does not go into depth on this in her post, but she mentions this as a way to indicate the need for easy entry into the field by constructive criticism and encouragement of collaborations. She urges current practitioners to work together to extend the DH reach beyond the academic world and reach the public. In this line of thought, I wonder about the necessity of drawing strict disciplinary lines. I understand that the debate will continue and academia will not welcome accelerated changes to the disciplinary lines already drawn, but I hope that the branches of the tree will follow Nowveski’s train of thought and reach beyond the academic scope and later look in upon it to make changes based on crowdsourced response.

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