The Boolean Logic of the Digital Humanities
by Jason Rhody — National Endowment for the Humanities
April 18, 2013 – 13:48
Step back in time with me, if you will, just twelve years. In April of 2001, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) was simply known as the Society for Cinema Studies; the organization did not formally adopt "and Media" into its name until 2002, a simple Boolean operation that formally institutionalized more than a decade of active interdisciplinary growth within that organization. In that same April of 2001, as we're told in a few versions of the origin story, John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens were just beginning conversations with the acquiring editor for Blackwell Publishing for what would later be entitled the Companion to Digital Humanities, chosen only after discarding — through a different Boolean operation — the alternatives: NOT humanities computing; NOT digitized humanities.
Humanities computing was the prevalent term in 2001, and it too had its own sort of logic at work, an elaborate Venn diagram of digital libraries and archives, linguistics, and other computational methods. At the University of Maryland, where I was a PhD student in the English department at the time, the two phrases at play were "humanities computing" and "digital (media) studies," with the former most often referring to the creation of archives and tools, and the latter to the study of electronic literature, videogames, and the changing face of cinema. Our colleagues over in American studies were engaged in "Constructing Cyberculture(s)." This was the title of their local 2001 conference, which I remember David Silver opening with remarks about the shape of this growing field where scholars were grappling with performance theory and Internet protocols, videogames and critical race theory. We all swapped articles and debated terms.
At that time, we were just barely into our second year of an NEH challenge grant to form the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) under the leadership of Martha Nell Smith. MITH wasn't a DH center (that phrase wasn't popularized yet, although we had plenty of good nearby examples at places like UVA, Brown, George Mason, and elsewhere), but rather a "new technology center in the university library." Scholar-fellows came from all over the College of Arts and Humanities: women's studies, American studies, ethnomusicology and comparative literature. They weren't "digital humanists" (no such thing existed either, really). They were media scholars and literary historians. Feminists and formalists. Filmmakers and textual editors. Like most, I suspect, they were looking for ways to engage technology to enhance their scholarship and teaching, sifting through possible methods and technologies, all while theorizing the shifting landscape of cultural (and academic) production.
It's within the context of these dozen or so years that I'd like to foreground the intersections of digital humanities and media studies. Boolean logic is a relatively straight-forward series of choices (AND, OR, NOT) that can generate complex results; it's also a method that can control fields and establish taxonomies. A lot of recent conversation about the digital humanities has focused on how it should be defined, how it is institutionalized, and what it excludes. To be sure, definitions can be useful, but all too often they are seen as acts of foreclosure or negation, a movement to capture a certain present, often for strategic impact, and often obscuring messy histories and generative futures.
Instead of focusing only on defining DH, as though we can come to a single result from a complex Boolean query, I'd like to suggest that we also consider the practice of DH as a recurring process of refining. Boolean logic presumes winnowing and filtering, but as any scholar who has spent a few hours in the library knows, it also presumes iteration. The value in Boolean logic is that it allows us to start with some basic principles and come to very different results of equal value. How else to explain that digital humanities can describe the use of lasers and helicopters to investigate Maya civilization, on the one hand, and the study of game software as cultural artifact, on the other? The messy histories remind us that DH is a term in its relative infancy deployed — yes, strategically, tactically, rhetorically — to encompass a broader set of traditions that themselves have complex backstories threaded through a host of disciplinary backgrounds and, importantly, institutional types: not just universities, but galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (the GLAM quartet), small historic homes and historical societies.
When people ask me now how I define DH, I answer only: "broadly." If I’ve learned anything in reviewing thousands of grant applications in the digital humanities, it’s that I could never sufficiently define the term to suit all disciplines and institutional profiles. However, many of the overlapping interests of media scholars and digital humanities practitioners tend to be those same institutional concerns that permeate our contemporary academic culture: changes in scholarly communication practices; the positive and negative effects of IT infrastructure on teaching and research; the study of computational forms and objects and their influence; the possibilities enabled for new knowledge through joined collections and increased access to data; the creation of tools to search, collect, mine, and visualize; fostering collaborations across disciplines and institutions.
Media scholars are particularly well-positioned to challenge assumptions we might make when it comes to the software and media that undergird much of this kind of DH work, which is one reason why ODH encourages grant submissions that focus on the history, criticism, and philosophy of digital culture and its impact on society. It’s worth noting that this emphasis is not new to the agency. In April 2000, NEH released a report (PDF) that not only committed “to ensuring that intellectual and cultural content in the humanities is available in digital form for our nation's citizens,“ but also emphasized that the agency has “an important role to play in supporting projects that will examine and interpret the historical and cultural impact of this technology.” This report served as one of the early documents that shaped the eventual development of the Office of Digital Humanities several years later.
Given the broad range of institutional types and disciplines, media scholars have been actively represented in the formation of digital humanities work as reflected in the Office of Digital Humanities' list of funded projects (which, I should note, is just but one of many measures of what constitutes DH). In 2008, in one of our earliest set of awards, we funded a start-up called MediaCommons to explore innovations in "peer-to-peer" review. Since then, ODH has funded platforms for film analysis; institutes for multimodal scholarship; software for cultural analytics that has been used to examine manga and computer games; investigations of how scholars can access born-digital materials in the archives; or processes for how to archive born-digital materials like computer games. This is a partial list (you can explore the full list here), and it's only a fraction of the much longer history of digital humanities at NEH (most of which happened before ODH even existed, or "digital humanities" as a phrase was in vogue).
I'm not sure how many of our grantees would self-identify (without some reservation) as primarily "digital humanists." I suspect they would identify first with their home discipline, not so different from the scholar-fellows at MITH from a dozen years ago, who looked to add to their knowledge base and their methodological approaches. In that respect, I like to think that DH, taken broadly, operates as a kind of Boolean composition — a process of invoking and refining combinations of disciplines, methods, subjects, and theories to investigate research questions of interest. Few people actually just "do DH." Rather, they topic model feminist texts, or analyze the social network of art dealers in 19th-century Europe, or visualize videogame speed runs, or use helicopters and lasers to do digital archaeology. Some code while others interpret code. Some create archives, or digital scholarly editions. Some build tools and others theorize them. Overall, however, you'll notice there are relatively few digital humanities efforts — even collaborative, interdisciplinary ones — that do not, in some way, carry forward the traditions, theories, and practices of home disciplines. In short, the humanities AND…
Image on front page by Leah Z and available on flickr.