Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Humanities Identity Crisis and it's 'Pharmakon'

Image taken from digitalmilieu.net

It has occurred to me that the Humanities discipline has undergone somewhat of an identity crisis in the past years. This post will discuss the mid-life crisis of the Humanities which has driven the movement in Digital Humanities forward.

Some, if not all, of the reading which I have been doing has reflected upon this crisis of identity and image which has swept over the Humanities as I.T. has taken over the world. Many have turned to I.T. in this crisis of progression to create an image based on trend rather than functionality and understanding. I would like to propose that Digital Humanities forgoes style for substance in the application of I.T. to its mission.

Alan Liu deals with this issue in his work The State of the Digital Humanities- A report and a critique, of which there is also a video available of him delivering this paper. In this report, he satirises the obsession with the image of I.T., which he refers to as an "institutional desiring engine" (2). There is a domineering strand of cultural I.T. in which image is everything. These people are building their I.T. identity based upon trends, rather than acknowledging the impact of technology upon Modern research and innovation. These type of users can be referred to as mindless participators in I.T., whereas those who have entered into their work using digital means can be identified as mindful participators. Arguably, digital humanists fall into this category. They recognise the character and adaptability of the uses of I.T. in their work, unlike those mindless users who are mainly concerned with the appearance that they will gain from these 'cool' gadgets. It is my opinion that the digital world cannot reach its full potential if it remains obsessed with its own cultural image.

An example of a mindless user of I.T.

Now, you may ask, what does this theory have to do with the crisis of identity in the Humanities? The answer to this is everything. Humanities is also in danger of falling into the mindless participator role, if old conventions on the uses of I.T. cannot be forgotten. The Humanities in general have been at a cross-roads for some time in terms of its image. William Pannapacker has discussed this attempt to re-define the Humanities in his work: Big Tent Digital Humanities: A view from the edge, part 2, starting with its problems: 

"Some are related to the traditions of academic culture—the apparent disinclination of some humanists to work with digital technologies, the academic tendency to value individual achievement over teamwork, and the continuing emphasis on the use of scholarly monographs to certify tenure and promotion. Other challenges seem more structural, such as declining financial support for the humanities in general" (Pannapacker).

 Pannapacker hits the nail on the head with this article, traditions within the Humanities are proving hard to shake. Conceivably, many humanists understand the idea of integrating I.T. with research, but do not understand its importance and essentiality for the future of the identity of the Humanities. Susan Schriebman categorises this as a lack of knowledge within the humanities of the depth of the digital. Humanities has mainly perceived the surface of technology, yet there seems to be this fear of learning about the operating functions 'beneath the hood' of today's computer, in order to attain its full potential. Her work, Digital Humanities: Centres and Peripheries, argues that "it was felt it was not enough for our peers to come to terms with surface technologies, they also needed to understand the inside of the beast" (6).

While reading Suzanne Guerlac's article "Humanities 2.0: E-Learning in the Digital world", I was struck by her closing arguments regarding all things digital:

"As Bernard Stiegler suggests, technology is a kind of pharmakon, by which he means (via Plato and Derrida) that it is both a remedy and a poison.To know the difference, however, it is essential that we become computer literate and that universities support what Drucker calls “humanistic approaches” to manipulations of information, its visualization and its modeling" (120).
This, for me, symbolises the fears and rewards which cross the minds of many a humanist when they debate the entry into the world of Digital Humanities. There is a fine line between these two types of I.T. identities, which can be beneficial or detrimental to the cause of preserving the Humanities.

Works Cited

Guerlac, Suzanne. "Humanities 2.0: E-Learning in the Digital World". Representations, 116.1 (2011): 102-127. Jstor,  Web. 23 Oct. 2012. 

Liu Alan, "The State of The Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique". Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11.1 (2012): 1-34. 

Pannapacker, William. "Big-Tent Digital Humanities: A View from the Edge, Part 2". Chronicle of Higher Education, 58.5 (2011): A32-A32. Web. 

Schriebman, Susanne. "Digital Humanities: Centres and Peripheries". TCD: May, 2012. Web.


  1. DH definitely seems to shine as an active discipline and can make some groups within humanities (namely those who are slow at embracing the digital world) seem like a passive bunch when, in other unrelated areas, they generally are quite involved or even revolutionary.

    Social media is trying to face the lone scholar/individual success inclination head on but it is definitely having to push its way into places where it is not always fondly welcomed. I have encountered so many digital humanists and great articles via Twitter and blogs over this past week or so - I can only imagine how useful these tools would have been during an arts degree and so on. I definitely agree with the collective and global thought process that we have been learning about. If the humanities and academic circles as a whole accepted a more digital-friendly format of teaching, learning and thinking, I think they would see the positive changes in student engagement and wouldn't turn back. In fact, they probably would wonder why they ever doubted it in the first place!

    1. I agree with you Roisin, especially with regards to your comments on social media. If I had realised the benefits of Twitter, instead of viewing it as quite tacky (I'm clearly not a fan of people broadcasting their every mundane move for all of the world to read!), I would have benefited hugely. I am really enjoying the sense of community amongst scholars on sites like this, and the feeling of actively participating in discussion everyday.