I worry that the answer is nostalgia.
Why? Justified by the oft-repeated, but rarely substantiated claim that the humanities is undergoing a crisis, digital humanities constructs the high technology of the present moment in much the same way as proponents of the now largely-forgotten field of new media —as a shift in the means of production that is synonymous in its historical and cultural implications to the introduction of the printing press. The crucial difference, though, is that for proponents of new media, this technological determinism is almost always symptomatic of a larger positivism. Convinced that society is in the throes of a far reaching “information revolution,” they construct computers and the various innovations that computers enable as a means of remedying, and, ultimately, transcending the inherent limitations of human subjectivity.
By contrast, digital humanists imagine computers and the innovations they enable as a means of returning to and thereby recovering the types of performances that, in various formulations, they celebrate as embodying human subjectivity in the ideal. Fascinated with the potential of digital technologies to re-imagine what they construct as great or valuable works, they turn to e-editions and digital archives not as a means of remedying the limitations of human subjectivity but of perfecting it: of teaching a generation of born digital subjects how to appreciate the timeless values manifested in classic (analog) works of art and literature.
Whether imagined as a means of transcending or perfecting human subjectivity, digital technology is constructed as the catalyst for a contemporary renaissance of sorts: a renaissance that, very much like the original (and to some degree now discredited), is celebrated as both a rebirth into a new era and a recovery of the glories of one that had been lost. Implicit in this belief is a corollary belief in a middle period of sorts—not a dark ages, per say, but a set of historical circumstances that are characterized by a lack or loss, a primitivism from which we are anxious be reborn. I worry that this middle period is constructed, in part, in the image of media studies, especially the branch of media studies that is rooted in cultural studies.
Scholars working in cultural studies, after all, tend to be more interested in mass culture, even in its most pedestrian forms, than high culture. Moreover, they tend to resist the sort of hierarchical schemas that declare that one work is better or more valuable than another. It is not that they eschew literature or art, but that they recognize that such designations are always already political and particular—indications of what a particular culture values at a particular historical moment rather than transcendent human values. Worse yet, they oftentimes take a less than enthusiastic approach to technology. Rather than celebrating it as having a life of its own—a force in and of itself that exists independently of the people who produce, use, and are otherwise affected by it— they approach technology in much of the same way that they approach literature and art: as a material (and therefore political) manifestation of the struggles in which various individuals, communities, and institutions engage as they vie for power.
Concerned primarily with the present tense rather than the past or the future, cultural studies thus understands scholarship as a political and interventionist practice rather than a quasi-objective, quasi-sacred calling. As such, it represents a radical shift from the types of texts and the types of performances (academic, artistic, or otherwise) that the humanities traditionally privilege. I worry that Digital Humanities is motivated by a desire to restore the humanities, and, in particular, literary studies, to a future that is imagined to have existed before cultural studies. For it strikes me that digital humanities is interested in the past for much of the same reason that new media is interested in the future: because both imagine that high technology can provide privileged access to a sense of higher purpose, a spirituality, that has presumably been lost. Or, put another way, both imagine high technology of a means of exorcizing, once and for all, the horrors of the present tense.
Image on front page by Christiana Gasparotto and available on flickr