Let Your DH Flag Fly

droh's picture


The query calls attention to divisions that are more the consequence of formalized categorizations rather than any inherently "natural" ontological differences between the Digital Humanities and Media Studies.  On one hand, I'm hesitant to make sweeping declarations enumerating stark disparities and/or intersections, as if they were immutable disciplines; on the other hand, I think the question is worth exploring as it may unmask some epistemological problem areas.

A caveat: I restrict my discussion mainly to the idea of a division between Media Studies and Digital Humanities in terms of project-oriented productivity.  There has been keystrokes aplenty on both sides on the subject of new media theory, of which there is considerable permeability.

Media studies—discerned from a grossly unscientific and irresponsibly broad survey of various departments with the name—seems to concentrate on "newer" cultural forms, which includes film, television, radio, and more recently, gaming.  Whether fair or not, the prevailing perception is that  while the content of media studies includes "serious" as well as popular culture, it has less invested in the defining (and refining) of high culture, as say, a literature department.

The question is, why isn't the Digital Humanities naturally drawn to, and enfolded within, media studies departments?  Why does it seem that DH (as the cool kids are calling it these days) largely emerged from English studies or humanities programs?  Is DH somehow more invested in "serious" culture?  To echo George Landow, is [DH] print's "revenge" on TV?

It's a deceptive question—and a false premise.  As with most things, the answer is largely circumstantial, mundane, and pragmatic.  Early computer processing power and storage was painfully finite, and when computing began to colonize our desktops, much of it was text-based.  In the late 1980s and 1990s, many personal computers simply did not have the power to remediate any cultural form other than the literary or text-based in a meaningful way.  Thus, it would take some time before Moore's law would take effect for more bandwidth-hungry cultural forms (such as TV/film/radio/gaming—i.e., media studies) to undergo the logic of computing.  So it makes some sense for electronic platforms to take early hold in English studies.

As DH lurches forward, between fits and starts, towards some kind of definition, we are obligated to recognize this history, as it seems to mirror many early and current DH projects.  Practically speaking, it's much easier and less resource-intensive (as well as quicker) to program a computer to process a few gigabytes of word strings than it is to process terabytes upon terabytes of video or audio.  However, as processing power increases, storage expands, and costs shrink, media studies will find algorithm-based queries or renders much more accessible.

In many respects, this is already happening.  Digital Humanities is no longer solely the purview of literary studies (were that ever the case); instead, scholars from across the spectrum—geography, computer science, information studies, history, as well as media studies— are letting their DH flags fly.

Image on front page by hellojenuine and available on Flickr.


Matthew Beale's picture

It seems to me that it may be

It seems to me that it may be the "humanities" aspect of DH that is keeping it out of the media studies departments. If media studies departments were set up to provide a sort of "contrast"  to the more traditional disciplines, I could see how there might be some resistance to the assimilation of DH heuristics or empirical rubrics to address concerns within the field.