DH201 Post #1: What is Digital Humanities (DH)?

As befitting introductory readings in a 101 class located within the an interdisciplinary field still young enough to agonize over its proper place and legitimacy in the academic pantheon  the first two readings of DH201, Kirschenbaum’s “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” and Svensson’s “The Landscape of Digital Humanities“, deal with the question, “what is digital humanities?”. How do practitioners of digital humanities characterize their field? Who are the people engaged in digital humanities scholarship? Who cares to know? What purpose does a definition serve?

Many insightful comments have been offered in class on these last two points , perhaps for the reason that they were not very well addressed in the readings. Our professor described the humanities as addressing insoluble questions, and if this is a sufficient defining characteristic, then the digital humanities is definitely humanities. For we — or at least slow, muddled I — came out of the class still not having resolved what digital humanities is.

I certainly don’t know what it is that having a single, articulatable, agreed-upon definition of the digital humanities accomplishes. In a field like mathematics, definitions are of immediate relevance and utility. One must define a prime number is (“a natural number having no divisor other than 1 and itself”) before one can propose and prove any theorem about them (e.g. “there are an infinite number of prime numbers“). Try doing the latter without the former. I dare you.

In a field like law, definitions are relevant and expensive. They’re both when litigation is brought upon a matter.  To decide whether, say, The Harry Potter Lexicon  infringes on J.K. Rowling’s copyright in her Harry Potter works, one needs to know (among other things) whether The Lexicon is a derivative work of of Rowling’s Potter works. See Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and J. K. Rowling vs. RDR Books (575 F.Supp.2d 513). In such a case, the fact the the US Copyright Act defines

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

is sine qua non.

I’d like to hear of concrete, “this actually took place” instances in which having a definition for “digital humanities” was absolutely necessary to the digital humanities project at hand. May definitions for digital humanities be like that for information? A perennial favorite for the captive audience within academia, unclear why it matters elsewhere?

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