More digital than thou

[16 December 2013]

An odd thing has started happening in reviews for the Digital Humanities conference: reviewers are objecting to papers if the reviewer thinks it has relevance beyond the field of DH, more about apparently on the grounds that the topic is then insufficiently digital. It doesn’t matter how relevant the topic is to work in DH, look or how deeply embedded the topic is in a core DH topic like text encoding — if some reviewers don’t see a computer in the proposal, this site they want to exclude it from the conference.

[“You’re making this up,” said my evil twin Enrique. “That’s absurd; I don’t believe it.” Absurd, yes, but made up? no. The reviewing period for DH 2014 just ended. One paper proposal I reviewed addressed the conceptual analysis of … I’ll call the topic X, to preserve some fig leaf of anonymity here; X in turn is a core practice of many DH projects and an essential part of any account of the meaning of tag sets like that of the Text Encoding Initiative. I thought the paper constituted a useful contribution to an ongoing discussion within the framework of DH. Another reviewer found the paper interesting and thoughtful but found nothing specifically digital in the proposal [after all, X can arise in a pen and paper world, too, computers are not essential], graded it 0 for relevance to DH theory and practice, and voted to reject it. It should be submitted, this reviewer said, to a conference in [another field where X is a concern] and not in a DH conference. I showed this to Enrique. For once, he was speechless. Thank you, Reviewer 2!]

At some level, the question is what counts as work in the field of digital humanities. Is it only work in which computers figure in an essential role? Or is digital humanities concerned with the application of computers to the humanities and all the problems that arise in that effort? I think the latter. Some reviewers appear to think the former. If solving an essential problem turns out to involve considerations that are not peculiar to work with computing machines, however, what do we do? I believe that the problem remains relevant to DH because it’s rooted in DH and because those interested in doing good work in DH need the answer. The other reviewer seems to take the view that once the question becomes more general, and applicable to work that doesn’t use computers, the question is no longer peculiarly digital, and thus not sufficiently digital; they would like to exclude it from the DH conference on the grounds that it addresses a question of interest not only to DH but also to other fields.

[“Wait a second,” said Enrique. “You’re saying there’s a pattern here. Isn’t it just this one reviewer?” “No,” I said. “This line of thought also came up in at least one other review (possibly in a more benign form), and it has also been seen in past years’ reviews.” “Is that why you’re so touchy about this?” laughed Enrique. “Did they reject one of your papers on this account?” “Oh, hush.”]

The notion that there must be something about a topic that is peculiar to the digital humanities, as opposed to the broader humanities disciplines, makes sense perhaps if one believes that the digital humanities are intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. On that view, any DH topic is necessarily distinct from any non-DH humanities topic, and once a topic is relevant to the broader humanistic fields (e.g. “what is the nature of X?”), it is ipso facto no longer a DH topic.

This is like arguing that papers about the concept of literary genre don’t belong at a conference about English literary history, because there is nothing peculiarly English about the notion of genre and any general discussion will (if it’s worth anything at all) also be relevant to non-English literatures. Or like trying to exclude work on the theory of computation from computer science conferences because it applies to all computation, not only to computation carried out by electronic stored-program binary digital computers.

[“I notice that leaders in the field of computer science occasionally feel obliged to remark that the name computer science is a misnomer,” said Enrique, “because computers are in no sense an essential element in the field.“ ”Perhaps they have the same problem, in their way,” I said. “My sympathy,” said Enrique.]

Another problem I see with the view my co-reviewer seems to hold is that some people believe that DH is not intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. I didn’t get involved with computers in order to stop doing traditional philology; I got involved to do it better. Computers allow a much broader basis for our literary and linguistic argumentation, and they demand a higher degree of precision than philologists typically achieved in past decades or centuries, but I believe that digital philology is recognizably the same discipline as pre-digital philology. If the DH conference were to start refusing papers on the grounds that they are describing work that might be relevant to scholars working with pen and paper, then it would be presupposing an answer to the important question of how computers change and don’t change the world, instead of encouraging discussion of that question. (And it would be excluding people like me from the conference, or trying to.)

[“Trying in vain, I bet,” said Enrique. “Well, yeah. I’m here, and I’m not leaving.”]

These exclusionary impulses are ironic, in their way, because one of the motive forces behind the formation of scholarly organizations like the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (now the European Association for Digital Humanities) and behind their journals and conferences was that early practitioners in the field were often made to feel unwelcome in the conferences and journals of their home disciplines. The late Paul Fortier was eloquent on the subject of the difficulties he had trying to publish his computer-assisted work on Céline in conventional journals for Romance languages and literatures; he often spoke of Computers and the Humanities as having made it possible for him and others like him to have an academic career.

It will be a sad thing if the recent growth in degree programs devoted to digital humanities turns out to result in the field of DH setting up signs at all boundaries reading “Outsiders not wanted.”