On Monday night, I attended the latest in a series of thought-provoking events taking place within the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU. As part of their Annual Research Programme, Dr David M. Berry (currently based at the University of Swansea and author of several books on digital cultures, software and code) had been invited to give a talk on the fundamental nature of Digital Humanities scholarship. Given the current changes taking place within MMU and many other universities as a result of educational technologies arriving on campus, a naturally large audience was secured.
Berry took a rather critical approach in his lecture, raising a number of issues and problems around Digital Humanities as both an academic discipline, and as a brand. Given how enthusiastic he is about DH his criticism is highly informed and cannot be said to be of the reactionary sort. And really that was his whole point: as academics we must continue to raise difficult, challenging questions about the subject areas within which we are embedded. It was refreshing to have the all-too tangible tensions between scholarly and business imperatives recognised in relation to DH. In terms of my own research, such debates are vital to understanding how academics in different fields relate to, understand, and use digital and new media.
Key philosophical questions about the nature(s) of digital environments and techniques are often overlooked by proponents of DH (although not, it must be said, by Cultural and Media theorists). Many nascent Digital Humanists are unsure what the term means – or what the core epistemic assumptions and problematics underlying their discipline are. Partly this is because Digital Humanities is an emerging and multi-disciplinary field, without clear historical traditions or organisational roots. Partly also it is because, for many Universities, “Digital Humanities” is something of a buzzword, with a surface level appeal considered enough in itself to attract new students and academics.
The danger is that Digital Humanists will become lost in computational formalisms, technologically-determinist methodologies, and the quantitative structural logic of engineers. They may lose sight of both the wider and more detailed perspectives brought about by traditional methods for illuminating truths about discourse and humanity. There is also the risk – in a target focused managerial culture – of being dazzled to the point of critical amnesia by the large public audiences that digital projects can garner when compared with audiences available for “gold standard” outputs like monographs.
Yet so long as we are careful not to sell or neglect our fundamental principles, Digital Humanities have much to offer. The Understanding Shakespeare project that Dr Berry showed to us during his afternoon workshop was one such example. Multiple German translations of Shakespeare have been scanned, OCRd and marked up, ready to be represented and queried digitally and visually. Analysing text and metadata computationally can reveal known and previously unknown correspondences and differences between editions, whether in terms of structure or content. As with many other semantic-web based tools (e.g. Gephi, Google Ngram and IBM’s Many Eyes), parameters can be set by researchers in a few easy steps and huge corpora can be explored – something almost impossible to do manually.
For me, the take home message was that the Digital Humanities – regardless of specific instantiations within individual institutions – must “extend their critique to include society, politics, the economic and the cultural.” Many researchers are already doing this and I certainly aim to do so in my own work. At the same time, Humanities scholars must not forget the “traditional” core concerns of their fields – i.e. the human subject, speculative knowledge, interpretation, and the value of focused, close readings – even as they rearticulate those concerns in exciting ways via computational methods.
Organised by “artsmethods@manchester” – a newly formed group for academics and practitioners in the Arts and Humanities – tonight’s event for this emerging network took place in the modest but historic “Engine House” of Chorlton Mill which is now the home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
(Why) do the Arts matter to society?
This was the provocative question posed by the “Arts Ambassadors” who set up artsmethods. Their intention is to bring together an informal cross-institution and (potentially) cross-sector community of academics and others interested in the future and value of A&H research and practise. Value means the kind made tangible both inside and – perhaps more importantly – outside the walls of Manchester’s Universities. Staff and researchers at the event came from Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Manchester, and Salford University. At least one part-time documentary maker was in attendance, as well as the manager of a local radio station optimistic that she would find more exciting programming ideas here than the ubiquitous “antiques and cookery shows”.
After everyone introduced themselves, the discussion centred mostly on modes of public “engagement”, communication, and what might be called “community outreach”. One woman pointed out that this really shouldn’t be construed as a one-way process. At the same time as thinking about how academia and scholarship “impact upon” the public, we should listen to what the public have to say to us: establishing a dialogue or a conversation with them and allowing for a flow of ideas which isn’t in thrall to outmoded boundaries and hierarchies. In other words: equality of access and participation.
It’s strange – perplexing even – that we should have to worry about what exactly Arts, Histories, Languages, Linguistics, Humanities, and Cultural Studies bring to society that is valuable enough to justify their continued funding. Would even the most “rational” minded and stereotypical “hard” Scientist ask if the Arts have relevance? My best guess is a resounding no! In many ways these disciplinary lines are increasingly showing themselves to be somewhat artificial. An idea which Professor Sharon Ruston, who I met at the event, could tell us something about in relation to literature and medicine. The trouble is, of course, that many people in a position to influence government policy don’t want to acknowledge this right now. Arts are considered an easy target – they can be sidelined then revived in happier times. A cactus, in the desert, that will always flower, proudly. Maybe this tells us about a (rightly) perceived resistance and durability – and one of the true strengths of the Arts and Humanities within society and culture? A positive property becomes, sadly, the justification for deprivation.
Visual anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Amanda Ravetz pointed out that it can be hard to articulate exactly how A&H makes a contribution to the greater good when so much of these subjects’ understandings are based on legacy, intuition, and a tacit (but no less real) knowledge, rather than on simple demonstrable facts. Regardless of whatever new goals, targets, and systems of assessment are put in place, A&H has always and will always make an “impact” on and enrich society. But how do we measure that? Can we? Is the right response to these pressures to demonstrate the value of the academic an identification of and reliance on memorable “personalities” popular with mainstream broadcast and print media? Is there a risk that complex arguments and theories not suitable for a general audience will become “invisible” – or will be repackaged, simplified, and categorised under some basic label like “grand ideas”? A&H may need to reach a “wider audience” but it shouldn’t have to compromise its values or its methods. Isn’t knowledge any longer an end in itself?
Across the board there is a tension between the uninspired presentation of “dry” facts in opposition to the glamour, subliminality, and inter-textuality of other (perhaps digital) forms of communication. There were some very interesting (though not uncontroversial) presentations about how to address that. As well as continuing to explore how learning, technology, entertainment, and play can combine, is there a way to take A&H research out onto the streets? To locate it in engaging ways within public spaces? Maintaining visibility is easier (in theory) for those whose subjects have a place on the floors, walls and screens of the cultural heritage sector. What about philosophers, or linguists? Is there some way they can position their work within the wider environment to say “Look! This is why we’re relevant! Come and take part” ? Somebody pointed out that a certain amount of opportunism might be involved in doing that – as well as clever and timely strategising – but it could also encourage A&H scholars to explore innovative and engaging approaches.
Art, creativity, metaphor, imagination and expression – these will survive regardless of conditions of government. The reason for Café Arts posing its questions right now may in part be a backdrop of worry, frustration and fear; still, people with a passion for ideas and the exploration of truth are generally galvanised by a challenge. Something I was reminded of on my way to the IABF “Water Closet” – before which sits a modest little display case housing a collection of Anthony Burgess’s old typewriters.