Does DH mean that humanism is back?

By James Bartholomeusz

As recorded for posterity in my first ever tweet, I’ve just finished reading Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and hot off the (analogue) press. The anthology was a good general introduction to the field by a variety of BNoCs and experts, all choosing or eschewing the moniker of ‘digital humanist’. Despite the obvious fact that the key descriptor here is ‘digital’, what really stood out for me was the earnest use of ‘humanist’. Humanism, humanist. I may only be an undergraduate, but this must be the first time I’ve come across the term in referring to ‘a practitioner of the humanities’, rather than ‘Oxbridge educated and militantly atheist’. Not once in the 500-odd pages of essays and blog posts was the name issue explicitly addressed. The very last essay (an excellent one, ‘Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?’ by Alan Liu) looked like it was going there, but did a handbrake turn at the last minute and avoided it.

For the latter half of the 20th Century, humanism has been horrifically out of fashion in the academy. Against what was formerly the cornerstone of modernity – running from the Italian Renaissance through the Enlightenment, liberal revolutions and age of high imperialism – the successive waves of post-war theory effected an accelerated erosion. Successively critiqued for its sexism, racism, Eurocentrism, naivety, ecological disregard, homophobia, hypocrisy, anthropocentrism, authoritarianism, complicity with both Communism and capitalism (and a multitude of other -isms too numerous to list), the general trend has been towards the humanities shedding its namesake.

Of course, as Liu points out, the ostensibly apolitical inheritors of the New Criticism didn’t just disappear. There is still a strong humanist contingent for which the intersection between culture and politics is incidental – if worth studying at all, political considerations are to be lined up in a self-contained box next to characterisation, syntax and cinematography. But these guys never really established a Zeitgeist in the same way that the postmodern ‘critical turn’ did. Whilst, since the 1960s, the wider world has seen the general triumph of capitalism, within the academy Leftism has reigned supreme. Even given the decline of 1980s and ’90s Big Theory (and, in literary studies, the supposedly concomitant ’return of criticism’) the history of humanities in our time will be painted in shades of red.

Is there anything significant in the title of ‘digital humanist’, or is this just a term of convenience? If the former, are we talking about humanism in its traditional sense, or does the ‘digital’ part qualify it? Does the rise of DH mean that humanism is back?

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that humanism might find a revival with the rise of DH. By dint of its focus on technology and artificial creations (either purely as tools or as objects of analysis in their own right), it is arguably the humanities field most removed from the study of actual humans. An issue repeatedly picked up by the anthology’s contributors was DH’s methodological proximity to the sciences – or, more specifically, to the continued dominant approach within the sciences which has its roots in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Under this paradigm, disinterested positivist enquiry and rigorous quantitative empiricism set the field beyond the fluffier realms of culture and society (if not of internal ethics committees). Rightly or wrongly, the critical battalion of which Foucault and Derrida are patron saints never significantly threatened the STEM fortress. Throughout their histories, positivism and humanism have been intertwined, and so it is perhaps no accident that the ‘militant atheist’ type of humanist typically emanates from within the natural sciences or analytic philosophy.

Critical theory has always defined itself as ‘the next big thing’: even whilst complicating notions of History and Progress, it was a movement maintaining radical momentum away from modernity and towards a better society. Yet ‘the next big thing’ is the very phrase now being used to describe DH. Despite traditionalist resistance, it is hard to see DH not establishing itself as a fully respected and accredited field within the humanities. What then happens to theory? Will DH, its philosophical progress supposedly stalled at around 1900, be forced to learn the lessons of postmodernism? Or, conversely, will an injection of positivism into the humanities help temper the more undesirable elements of theory (obscurantism, melodrama, a tendency to automatically accept the most Left-wing argument as the right one)? Or thirdly, and this is the most interesting one (something that Terry Eagleton has been driving at since at least his 1996 The Illusions of Postmodernism), could a revived humanism actually possess greater political expediency than postmodern constructivism?


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