The “Make or Break” Mentality of DH: An Outsider’s Perspective

A few years ago, while attending one of three symposia centred on discussions of the “digital and the human(ities)”[1] among a self-identified “digital humanist” crowd, I learned that the chasm between my own work (on the discourses of social media from a cultural/new media studies perspective) and the so-called “digital humanities” is apparently considerable.[2] At this particular conference, the order of the day very quickly became what Neil Fraistat referred to—quoting Steve Ramsay—as the “making imperative”[3] of digital humanities’ scholarship (Fraistat). What separates “new media” studies from the “digital humanities”? According to Fraistat, Ramsay and the majority of the attendees at TILTS, at stake in the “digital humanities” is this question of “making:” producing, building, coding, programming, engineering—in other words, practical interaction with technology as opposed to theoretical analysis of it. Especially oppositional, according to Diane Davis, are those “young” scholars “prioritizing social media,” whose theoretical analyses apparently come off as “a wee bit snot-nosed” (Davis). If the disciplinary anxieties of DHers are not yet evident, consider the rallying cry of Laura Mandell’s keynote on “Forms of Attention:” “[D]ata crunchers are not passive” (Mandell). It seems that within this failed meeting of new media and digital humanities one finds both a renewal and new iteration of a tension similar in kind to that oft-noted between the sciences and the humanities, with digital humanists legitimizing their work, in part, by way of claims to the science of building, making, doing. The possibilities of DH “making” are indeed exciting, but my question is: does theory not involve “making,” too?

Works Cited

Davis, Diane. “What is Digital Humanities?” TILTS Symposium: The Digital and the Human(ities). University of Texas, Austin. 4 Feb. 2011. Address.

Fraistat, Neil. “What is Digital Humanities?” TILTS Symposium: The Digital and the Human(ities). University of Texas, Austin. 4 Feb. 2011. Address.

Mandell, Laura. “Forms of Attention (II): Distant Reading & Discipline.” TILTS Symposium: The Digital and the Human(ities). University of Texas, Austin. 3 Feb. 2011. Keynote.

Mcgann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Print.

[1] The Digital and Human(ities) symposia were hosted by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) at the University of Texas at Austin. I attended the first symposium in February on “access, authority and identity” with, among others, Laura Mandell, Neil Fraistat, Lisa Gitelman, Kenneth Price and Siva Vaidhyanathan. The latter two symposia included keynotes from Alan Liu and Johanna Drucker, as well as papers from N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Matthew Kirschenbaum and others.

[2] We find further evidence of this ongoing discussion in one of the CFPs for the 2012 MLA conference in Seattle. Victoria E. Szabo’s proposed panel, “Digital Humanities v. New Media,” queries,How do ‘digital humanities’ and ‘new media’ relate? Do they complement or compete as academic memes and methods? Does one take text and the other the rest?”

[3] Jerome Mcgann echoes this sentiment in his representation of the “The Ivanhoe Game”—essentially consisting of email correspondence between him and fellow digital humanist, Johanna Druckeras new-media theory: “The next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing text” (Mcgann 19).


I think you bring up some great points as far as the lines between digital humanities and new media studies. I have felt a conflation of two in the past and that your observations here point to places where differentiation exists. Being a new media scholar does not automatically make one a digital humanist. I think that production is key in this conversation. How does theory as knowledge production play a part in criticizing and contextualizing digital projects? How does rhetoric play into these productions? I have never been to TILTS, but it does seem to be at one end of the spectrum where production is key. Many digital humanists do seem to be approaching the field with a more centered approach. 

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