Towards a DH Definition: Where Meeting Spaces meet Situations

Given that I’m still mapping the terrain of DH—a task I may not achieve given its shifting topography—it would be premature for me to propose my own definition. Whatever contribution I might add has, certainly, been explored in an existing essay, book, or dare I say Twitter feed. That said, perhaps there are advantages in (relative) ignorance. Unencumbered with knowledge of or participation in previous debates, I am free to wander those narratives most enticing and see where they might lead and coalesce.

But where to begin from the dozen or so contributions I have read thus far? I’m inclined to follow the funding: Brett Bobley, Director of the Office of the Digital Humanities for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In his interview with Michael Gavin and Kathleen Marie Smith, Bobley call DH an “umbrella term for a number of different activities that surround technology and humanities scholarship (Gold 61). In relation to the other readings, I’m less interested in the expansiveness (the umbrella) or eclecticism (different activities) of DH that I am the relationship of the term to the humanities. That these different activities “surround” technology and scholarship means two things: First, that the emphasis of DH lies in activity rather than technology; second, that the relationship of DH to the humanities is both separate and distinct.

Such a characterization is compatible with Patrik Svensson’s “Beyond the Big Tent” in which he argues that rather than staking out a tent—big or small—DH functions as a sort of “trading zone” or “meeting place” (36). DH is not positioned in disciplines or departments, but rather intersects with the humanities by means of engagement (Gold 45-46). While Kathleen Fitzpatrick focuses on that intersection—“a nexus of fields” (Gold 12) —I’m more interested in how intersection occurs: DH meets the humanities in the act of practice.

Here I propose a point of convergence. In “The Digital Humanities Situation,” Rafael Alvarado substitutes Svensson’s “meeting place” for a “situation…a stable but always-in-flux event space” (Gold 54). Alvarado’s recalibration is useful because it shifts DH from a place to an activity, one that exceeds temporal (ongoing) and spatial (always-in-flux) boundaries. That DH is in a constant state of change derives from its sociability. Matthew Kirschenbaum, in “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” calls DH a “social undertaking” under which boundaries are drawn and redrawn through the “aggregates of affinities” of various social media (Gold 8). It is, in the words of the Lisa Spiro, “how the community operates that distinguishes it” (Gold 17). Because DH exists outside the humanities, intersects with the disciplines through practice, and adapts via sociability, there are plenty of reasons to ally with Spiro: DH will “reconfigure humanities for the Internet age” (Gold 21).

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