Am I a Digital Humanist (Yet)?

Jason Mittell's picture

I’ve been asking myself this question quite frequently lately. My scholarly and pedagogical work is firmly anchored in media studies, centered on television but expanding tendrils into film, radio, videogames, wikis, blogs, and other digital media. But I find myself drawn to digital humanities as a new site of exploration and growth. The Manifesto for the Digital Humanities called DH “a community of practice,” but I must admit that thus far I have been drawn more to the community than the practices—as I’ve come to know self-identified DHers (and see some longtime colleagues start wearing that label more frequently), I’ve been impressed by their openness to new ideas (and people), their sense of playful experimentation, their belief in sharing and openness, and their commitment to making things happen. As I’ve found myself in dialogue members of the DH community, I’ve found myself wondering what practices I might bring to the community from my background as a media scholar.

Miriam Posner and I organized a workshop focused on this very question at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and as is typical of most academic collective endeavors, we came away less with firm answers than invigorating conversations (which you can watch in the archived livestream). My own sense is that to feel ownership of the DH label, I need to do more than embracing online, open access publishing, which I have done for years via my blog and work here with MediaCommons. It’s also not enough to study digital media (which I often do) or critique DH projects for not considering how digital forms of scholarly practice “mediate” our knowledge (which I’ve occasionally been tempted to do). Instead, I feel like I need to find a project where scholarly insights emerge through digital practice, while framed by my contextual, interdisciplinary lens of media studies. This might be by applying computational methods to understanding media, or by using digital modes of expression that truly transform knowledge (like some video essays). But this changes my typical model of scholarly inquiry—I normally find a compelling research question and then devise the appropriate method to answer it, but now my question is “how might DH tools answer questions I don’t even know to ask?” This has led to some preliminary investigations like creating a database of television scene lengths to compare narrative structures, or “caption mining” from DVDs to explore textual features of dialogue, but these projects are still in the “hmmm… maybe?” stage. Yet through the open community of DHers and media scholars assembled here at MediaCommons and elsewhere, I can share such ideas and hope they may lead to unforeseen insights and intersections—and someday feel more comfortable wearing the moniker of practicing Digital Humanist.

Image on front page by svanstraten and available on Flickr


Avi Santo's picture

looking longingly at the digital humanities

Thanks for a great post kicking off this new survey, Jason. I have often felt like a clumsy interloper or an undercover agent (maybe both, kind of like Maxwell Smart) hanging out/on in the realm of the digital humanities. As a media studies scholar, I bristle a bit at the sometimes unreflexive worship at the alter of technology or the fuzzy evaluative terrain (where "cool,""brave," "honest" or "smart" becomes indistinguishable from "scholarly") that the worst kinds of digital humanities work produces. But then I try to remind myself about what many scholars coming from more "established" disciplines say about media studies and I wonder if some of my uneasiness comes from my need to produce an "other" against which I might demonstrate my "normalcy;" an "other" in typical postcolonial parlance that I am simultaneously repelled by and fascinated with, onto whom I project both my fears about the future of digital scholarship as well as my unrealistic fantasies about this fetish category known as the "digital humanities." And in all honesty, despite my occasional self-serving sneer, for the most part, I tend to bestow a tremendous amount of reverence upon the digital humanities (even as I am too easily dismissive of many of the folks who claim membership within it), seeing its transformative potential as key to creating not only new forms of scholarship, but new types of scholars (is it any wonder I am often disappointed?).

I am writing all of this because your post expressing your curiosity about the digital humanities reminded me about my own, but also because I think you capture what is at the heart of what I find so intriguing about it: a community of "thinkerers" (not a misspelling), interested in praxis, play, openness, experimentation, and a prescriptive spirit that doesn't seek to provide solutions, but rather, opportunities to participate in mind-fucking the conventions of reading and writing, creating and consuming; categories laden with power disguised as mundane, self-evident and distinct processes. Is this more fantasy projection than reality? Probably. Does a lot of digital humanities work fall short of achieving these objectives. I think so. Would the imposition of more rigidly defined modes of evaluation diminish this "revolutionary" spirit? Most certainly. But like any philosophical movement, it is the spirit of the ideas that inspire, not necessarily their execution.