Are the (spatial/digital) humanities more than historical? (and a link to spatial.scholarslab.org)

So more on the spatial/digital humanities–

I’ll start by noting that  friend getting a degree in digital humanities recently told me the following: although her program stresses the need to bridge A) literary (English?) scholars with B) computer science/technologists–that is have an A person work with a B person on a project, she is being trained to be the B person in the literary-science pairing when her base is actually that of an A person and when she would like to continue to be the A person. I interpret this to mean that in collaborative projects, she would like to say ‘wouldn’t it be neat if literary scholars could have x’ to the B person and then have the B and A person work together on making that happen, assuming that a certain amount of unpredictable evolution would occur in the process. Sounds good–and I would venture to guess that this may not be an uncommon approach to digital humanities.

The idea or model of interdisciplinary pairings, clusters and research communities–in short, people working together on projects is certainly an interesting idea. There is something seemingly emancipatory about this–of course the humanities have been for years disciplines in which the ivory tower model of individual authorship/scholarship has held somewhat higher privilege over such communal work at least disciplinarily/institutionally speaking and perhaps also at the departmental level. Despite the Modern Language Association’s relatively recent statement on valuing co-authorship, my feeling and my experience is that very few attempt it in literary fields, and that doubts are still likely to arise institutionally during conversations on tenure and promotion within existing programs (just as they are likely to arise regarding translation, editorship, creative work and so on–also  officially valued by the MLA). People working together is not a bad thing. We routinely ask our students to work together, of course. It should be pointed out as well that if these interdisciplinary digital humanities or spatial humanities projects are public they could have (I can imagine this in theory) very far reach indeed and may (or may not) even prove emancipatory in some way for communities outside of the academy.

My question is, what exactly is happening when A people and B people work together? (for the moment/the sake of argument I am assuming that A people have little knowledge of B and vice versa, and surely that is not always true). That is, they produce an interactive map for example–a map that could have great value to humanities students/scholars to people interested in certain cultures at certain times. But what exactly is the humanities part of this process and product like? Is art or literary value transposed into historical value by this process? Is there a certain rendering of quality into quantity, complexity into a flattened plane?

My intention is not to be dismissive, I am just wondering aloud (or in print).

That is, look at the three books on the spatial/digital humanities I wrote briefly about in a previous post (I’m working on a longer project where I discuss this in greater depth). In the vast majority of the chapters of these edited volumes, the humanities means/equals history (at some universities I’m aware of the History department is in a separate school from the Literary fields, at others, the History faculty are unsure why they are lumped in with Literary scholars). That is, in basic terms, many people seem to want to combine history with GIS and make maps. I’m not against that at all–in fact many of the projects sound really interesting. It is just that I strangely assumed when I got those three books that humanities meant/equalled literature and not history. Perhaps this is my bias given ‘literary’ training (by which I mean also film, visual art, etc.; artistic form/content working together to produce meaning each inseparable from the other just as from context and history), and while I understand that history needs to be seen as narrative in a complex way similar to ‘literary narrative’, I wonder why what i’d call a loosely defined ‘literary (non-historical)’ perspective gets lost in many of these collaborative efforts.

Question:

Is what goes by the name ‘digital humanities research’ humanities research properly speaking or is it a tool to be used in subsequent humanities research?

If it is a tool, what does it look like when humanities (for the sake of argument, ‘literary’/’film’) scholars fold this tool back into what they were already doing? If it is to be a reconfigured form of humanities research itself, how does aesthetic complexity get left out of this new direction? (or maybe you feel it does not get left out? I’m anxious to hear).

Henri Lefebvre, for example, in his later 1980 work on aesthetics and representation himself asserted that there was something irreducible about art and a complexity there that could not be ignored if we are to understand how (capitalist) society works. Raymond Williams in essence asserted a similar premise in his understanding of cultural studies in his 1986 lecture reflecting on its origins (it still seems to me that outside of humanities [‘literary’] fields, ‘cultural studies’ is seen to be merely the study of culture in general–it is not, that is, anthropology is not cultural studies just because it looks at culture, cultural geography is not cultural studies just because it looks at culture, neither is cultural sociology, and so on).

Conclusion:

Ideally I’m looking to see/hear/read about how a more-than-historical understanding of aesthetics of not also close-readings of humanities texts of all kinds can be combined with digital humanities/spatial humanities projects.

I plan to continue to think this through by turning to spatial.scholarslab.org and the specific projects it describes here to see what else is out there.

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