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Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Digital Humanities
If you’ve hung out with a group of mainstream English professors in the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard mention of the rising academic field known as “digital humanities.” Like so many of the ivy tower’s developments, the “digital humanities” (DH) are hard to pin-down and describe. With that said, the more I learn about DH, the more I think the field is surprisingly conservative (“small-c”) in nature—a real rarity in academia. Those of us who care about time-honored knowledge ought to read DH as a positive development for organizing, canonizing, and sharing literary information.
In a nutshell, DH is a way of thinking about interdisciplinary research and teaching, specifically as traditional disciplines–like history, philosophy, literature and art–take on a larger and more cohesive online presence. Through technology, professional curators can organize vast digital archives of famous and not-so-famous historical materials. And because these archives are searchable, curators also “data-mine” the contemporary ways in which people search, read and interact with classic texts. To learn more, one of my DH-enthusiast classmates recommends the Cuny Digital Humanities Resource Guide as the go-to source.
Now, when I tell conservatives that I’m an English major at Swarthmore, I occasionally get quizzical looks. I sometimes suspect that my classically-minded friends are picturing that hilariously tragic scene from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when Audrey confesses a love of Jane Austen only to have Tom scoff at her opinion: “Mansfield Park!? You’ve got to be kidding. It’s a notoriously bad book…even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirers thought that.”
It turns out Tom hasn’t even read Austen–just the critics’ theory.
It’s true, Swarthmore English students are still awash in theory, but the great thing about DH is that, though it is theoretical about the way we interact with physical and virtual books and streamline information, it is also profoundly textual. Perhaps we’ve finally replaced the notorious 1980’s and 90’s heyday of highbrow postructuralist and postmodern theory (whose dangers are humorously recounted in Jefferey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot) with a return to the actual text.
Because of copyright restrictions, the texts that DH tends to highlight are older, more canonical works that predate strict intellectual property regimes. That means that these archival works also predate some of the more corrosive academic trends that plowed through America’s college campuses after the 1960’s. Take, for instance, the Walt Whitman archive or Stanford University’s attempt to map the 18th century’s “Republic of Letters,” which explores the papers of English and American intellectual figures like Ben Franklin, John Locke, and Voltaire. Rather than approaching texts with an aggressive critical theory in mind (Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism, feminism, queer studies, etc.) the DH-ers can once again see literature afresh. Or at least DH archives offer their readers that potential.
For example, the creators of the Henry David Thoreau archive call upon students to “think of Digital Thoreau as a set of tools for reading Thoreau deliberately and deliberating about his writing.” Seeking out major literary figures with a sense of deliberation and commitment to history is, for me, an essentially conservative way of reading. DH is respectful of the author, the historical era, and the words on the page. Moreover, DH insists on context, or what Gerard Genett calls “pretext,” referring to the way the main text appears on the page in relation to introductions, prefaces, epigraphs, etc.
Finally, DH is an intellectual endeavor that focuses on opening up dusty old academic libraries to the broader public. This access is critically important as we think about reframing higher education and access to knowledge in society. At the same time, DH scholars make clear how much they revere historical artifacts and texts–enough to preserve, collate, and rigorously debate how those texts ought to appear digitally. At its most ideal, DH attempts to preserve the past while infusing artifacts with new lives and audiences in their original format.
If I’m not guilty of already doing so, I don’t want to overly-politicize the humanities. The counterweight to the ideologically-laden 80’s and 90’s college classroom is probably not a different, more conservative ideology. Conservatism at its best, Russell Kirk reminds us, is not an ideology but, rather, a principled resistance to ideology. I’ve started thinking of DH as means for that resistance. In literature, freedom from ideology begins with a careful dedication to the text. And prudently using technology as a method for preserving and reviving historic academic texts seems like as good a project as any.
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