A-Z Challenge: D – Digital Humanities

Elena Zolotariov
IES PhD Candidate

What Is Digital Humanities, Exactly?

As part of our A-Z Blogging Challenge we thought we should highlight a rapidly growing area in the humanities that has become more relevant than ever: Digital Humanities. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum in his 2010 article, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing In English Departments?” defines the term thusly:

“At its core digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies …. Yet digital humanities is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years…a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility.”

Digital Humanities, how I see it, provides a set of tools that advance collaborative and transdisciplinary methods to aid you in interpreting data. The field has a long, complicated history that can be traced back to the 1950s, having received considerable backlash along the way. I am particularly thinking of Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class? (1980) and his relentless (but I found thoroughly entertaining to read) attacks on stylisticians that at the time worked with computers to isolate distinctive features of a writer’s style. He writes that putting criticism on a scientific basis is a desire “for an instant and automatic interpretive procedure based on an inventory of fixed relationships between observable data and meanings, meanings which do not vary with context and which can be read out independently of the analyst or observer …. It is a desire as new as information theory and as old as the impulse to escape from the flux and variability of the human situation to the security and stability of a timeless formalism.” 

I entered the field shyly and hesitantly — perhaps, subconsciously thinking that a computer would be doing the thinking for me in analysing certain texts. The idea smelled like curdled milk. I couldn’t fathom how Digital Humanities could help me in deciphering modernist works, which are so reliant on punctuation (or some would say lack thereof), on form, but at the same time seeped in representing subjective experience. And a bit like Stanley, I too didn’t want to “attach a fixed significance to the devices of the fingerprinting mechanism, any more than I would be willing to read from a man’s actual fingerprint to his character or personality.” Gasp! Reader, I was wrong (but also, terribly prejudiced — I’d put Elizabeth Bennet to shame). 


The cure to this prejudice was actually auditing a course on Digital Humanities which introduced me to many new ways of thinking and tools I could use in my research. My favourite one was Voyant Tools, an open-source, web-based application that assists with text analysis. I uploaded Hemingway’s in our time (1924), a short book composed of short stories and little vignettes. Voyant Tools basically revealed the most frequent words in the corpus. To no one’s surprise, the most used word was said (used 24 times). It was the second word that came a bit as a shock to me and informed my perception of the book. It was the word bull used a grand total of 21 times. You might say that is not surprising — bulls do play a big part in Hemingway’s corpus (see The Sun Also Rises [1926] and Death in the Afternoon [1932]), but among all the horror of bloody caesareans, war, and PTSD, I generally didn’t pay much attention to the bullfight vignettes. This seems a rather modest accomplishment, but it did make me look at the text in a different way. 

Another tool that has become indispensable in my historical research is HathiTrust’s bookworm. The application assists with visualizing language trends in repositories of digitized texts, so even though it might not be the entire story — it definitely tells a story. Limitations ought to be considered: for instance, the meaning of words have changed over the years. When clicking to a particular year, say 1922, the sources where the words were used pop up. Now primitivism is defined as a branch of modernist aesthetics: namely, the aestheticization of non-western peoples. Back in 1922, however, primitivism often referred to the idea (erroneously often associated with Rousseau) that man would be better off returning to a fundamental and basic state of simplicity. What interests me is not the visualization of data, but rather the many unexpected texts and other interesting finds one discovers along their way.

Last but not least, Google Ngram Viewer, is as defined by google “an online search engine that charts the frequencies of any set of search strings using a yearly count of n-grams found in sources printed between 1500 and 2019 in Google’s text corpora in English, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, or Spanish.” I normally just have a lot of fun with this as I like observing the trajectory and popularity of authors. Though Ernest Hemingway seems to have the lead on the likes of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and of course, the neglected Sherwood Anderson, he has got nothing on literary titans such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde.

What Comes Next?

A.I world domination!! Academics out of jobs, replaced by computers!! No, I am joking. Obviously, I am not the person that you should consult as far as Digital Humanities is concerned: it is an ever-expanding and essential field that helps us gain a better understanding of literature, culture, languages and history. It doesn’t have the final word on anything as Stanley Fish made it out to be; it contributes to an on-going conversation, like any other field that interacts with the humanities. It is fun and exciting and interrogative. 

There are many more resources that you can consult as you are starting your journey in the field. There are also growing reading lists (see here and here) that you can browse. 

Also check out DH@SAS, the Digital Humanities Initiative at the School of Advanced Study.

Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES PhD Candidate


Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: